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Foundations of an African Civilisation

Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum and the northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 304
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    Foundations of an African Civilisation
    Book Description:

    Focuses on the Aksumite state of the first millennium AD in northern Ethiopia and southern Eritrea, its development, florescence and eventual transformation into the so-called medieval civilisation of Christian Ethiopia. This book seeks to apply a common methodology, utilising archaeology, art-history, written documents and oral tradition from a wide variety of sources; the result is a far greater emphasis on continuity than previous studies have revealed. It is thus a major re-interpretation of a key development in Ethiopia's past, while raising and discussing methodological issues of the relationship between archaeology and other historical disciplines; these issues, which have theoretical significance extending far beyond Ethiopia, are discussed in full. The last millennium BC is seen as a time when northern Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea were inhabited by farming peoples whose ancestry may be traced far back into the local 'Late Stone Age'. Colonisation from southern Arabia, to which defining importance has been attached by earlier researchers, is now seen to have been brief in duration and small in scale, its effects largely restricted to élite sections of the community. Re-consideration of inscriptions shows the need to abandon the established belief in a single 'Pre-Aksumite' state. New evidence for the rise of Aksum during the last centuries BC is critically evaluated. Finally, new chronological precision is provided for the decline of Aksum and the transfer of centralised political authority to more southerly regions. A new study of the ancient churches - both built and rock-hewn - which survive from this poorly-understood period emphasises once again a strong degree of continuity across periods that were previously regarded as distinct. David W. Phillipson is currently an Emeritus Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and an Hon. Professor, University College, London. Published in association with the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-873-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Map of the northern Horn
    (pp. x-x)
  5. 1 General Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The aim of this book is to present a critical outline of current knowledge about the peoples who inhabited the highlands of what is now northern Ethiopia and adjacent parts of Eritrea¹ during the period between about 3000 and 700 years ago (Fig. 1). It devotes most detailed attention to the Aksumite civilisation that flourished during the first seven centuries AD but, in order to provide context, it also provides overviews of earlier and later periods within the same general region. The cut-off point at which the book’s treatment ends is c. AD 1270, when major changes accompanied the establishment...

  6. Part One BEFORE AKSUM

    • 2 The Northern Horn 3000 Years Ago
      (pp. 9-18)

      This chapter surveys the lamentably incomplete evidence that is available about the inhabitants of the northern Horn during the period immediately preceding the appearance of literate complex societies early in the first millennium BC. There are indications that at least some sections of the region’s population may have practised a farming lifestyle, but much of the evidence is secondary, comprising inferences from later trends. It was not until the 1970s that archaeologists working in the northern Horn began to take an interest in ancient domestic economies, and not until the 1990s that concerted efforts were made to recover materials on...

    • 3 The First Millennium BC
      (pp. 19-44)

      It is against the background outlined in the previous chapter that we must now view the highly significant developments which took place in the northern Horn during the first half of the first millennium BC. A major reassessment is required as to the degree of local continuity associated with these developments, and of the extent to which they were stimulated by external factors. A recurring theme of this chapter is the need critically to evaluate the view that cultural and political trends in the northern Horn were dominated by contacts with southern Arabia and, more specifically, that colonisation from the...


    • 4 Aksumite Civilisation: An introductory summary
      (pp. 47-50)

      The arrangement of the following twelve chapters is thematic. While Chapter 7, on emergence, and Chapter 16, on decline and transformation, are principally concerned with the earlier and later stages of the period during which Aksumite civilisation flourished, the others follow their themes throughout that time – which inevitably requires much cross-referencing in order to avoid repetition. Sources of written evidence that are relevant to several different chapters are, for convenience, evaluated in Chapter 6. As with many chapters in this book, a high proportion of the relevant data is from Aksum itself, other Tigray areas and much of southern...

    • 5 Aksumite Languages and Literacy
      (pp. 51-56)

      Elucidating the linguistic history of the Aksumite kingdom during the first seven centuries AD is fraught with difficulty. Two very distinct written languages are represented: Ge‘ez and Greek, belonging respectively to the Semitic and Indo-European families. The texts that were demonstrably produced during this period were largely limited to inscriptions on stone, less than a score of which have significant length, to those on coins, and to graffiti, including very short texts – often only a single word, name or abbreviation – on rocks and also on pottery or other portable objects.¹ Only the last of these – the graffiti...

    • 6 Some Written Sources relating to Aksumite Civilisation
      (pp. 57-68)

      To avoid repetition and encumbrance, basic information is here provided about a number of important written sources for the history of Aksumite civilisation to which frequent reference is made later in this book. Inclusion here is limited to those sources that are further considered in more than one of the thematic Chapters 7–16. Stone inscriptions are considered first, followed by manuscript material. Interpretations based on the content of these sources are discussed in these later chapters; here we are concerned primarily with such matters as their dating, provenance and integrity.

      In reconstructions of Aksumite political and religious history, the...

    • 7 The Emergence and Expansion of the Aksumite State
      (pp. 69-78)

      The emergence of Aksumite civilisation was a gradual process, not necessarily concomitant with the extension of Aksum’s political hegemony. As was shown in Chapter 3, many of its characteristics can be traced back into the period between the fourth and the second/first centuries BC at Beta Giyorgis. However, even there, no sharply deining initial stage may be recognised. Based primarily on artefact typology revealed in their important excavations, Rodolfo Fattovich and Kathryn Bard¹ placed the onset of Aksumite civilisation c. 400–350 BC, at the start of their ‘Proto-Aksumite’ period. That interpretation is not followed in this book, partly because...

    • 8 Aksumite Kingship and Politics
      (pp. 79-90)

      Since much of our information about Aksumite politics is derived from what was essentially royal propaganda, it is not surprising – although nonetheless unfortunate – that we know very little about the lower levels of administration.

      There can be no reasonable doubt that the prime authority in the Aksumite state was that of the king. For reasons set out in Chapter 7, the hypothesis that the Zoscales mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was a first-century king of Aksum is not accepted here. The earliest incontrovertible and dateable mention of an Aksumite king dates about 150 years later...

    • 9 Aksumite Religion
      (pp. 91-106)

      Most text-based studies of Aksumite history place considerable emphasis on religion, particularly on the king’s adoption of Christianity. The account offered here lays stress on those aspects of religious development that are reflected in ancient Ethiopian sources and in the archaeological record, paying less attention to purely doctrinal or theological matters which are more rarely illustrated by contemporaneous local materials.

      For hundreds of years prior to the local advent of Christianity, it seems that a form or forms of polytheistic belief-system analogous – but by no means identical – to that known to have been established in southern Arabia prevailed...

    • 10 Cultivation and Herding, Food and Drink
      (pp. 107-118)

      The territory controlled by the kingdom of Aksum was exceedingly diverse, with major topographic impediments to communication combining with highly varied productivity and carrying capacity, as discussed in Chapter 2 with reference to earlier times. When these factors are taken into account, the dominant impression given by current research is one of cultural continuity from at least the opening centuries of the first millennium BC (cf. Chapters 2 and 3) into Aksumite times and – with comparatively minor changes – subsequently. It is tempting to base reconstructions on circumstances and practices that have prevailed even more recently but – while...

    • 11 Urbanism, Architecture and Non-Funerary Monuments
      (pp. 119-138)

      Several concentrations of Aksumite archaeological remains have been designated sites of ‘cities’ or ‘towns’, often solely on the basis of their extent.¹ Such classification of settlements can, however, be misleading. Unlike many of their contemporaries elsewhere,² no Aksumite settlements are known to have been surrounded by walls or other defensible means of demarcation.³ Furthermore, the use-pattern of space and buildings within major Aksumite settlements seems to have been less formally differentiated than that commonly encountered elsewhere: our admittedly incomplete knowledge of Aksum itself suggests a loosely packed mixture of buildings and other features that were highly variable in scale, function...

    • 12 Aksumite Burials
      (pp. 139-158)

      In the study of Aksumite civilisation, a disproportionate emphasis has been placed by archaeologists on the burials of the élite. This is not hard to explain: such interments were marked by the most impressive of Aksum’s surviving monuments, and their investigation has – despite the frequency with which such prominent tombs have long ago been robbed – yielded artefacts and information of great significance. Until recently, however, the position that the élite and their monuments occupied in ancient Aksumite society was poorly contextualised, since little attention had been paid to their less prosperous contemporaries and to the basic economic underpinning...

    • 13 Aksumite Technology and Material Culture
      (pp. 159-180)

      This chapter does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of Aksumite material culture. It concentrates on technology and a affinities rather than on typology. For detailed descriptions and illustrations of artefacts, the reader is referred to the principal excavation reports included in the bibliography.

      Aksumite material culture displays many remarkable features due to its blending of indigenous elements with those derived from external contacts, notably with the Nile Valley, southern Arabia and the circum-Mediterranean region. In the past, there has been a tendency for the external to be emphasised at the expense of the local (cf. Chapter 1). Correction...

    • 14 Aksumite Coinage
      (pp. 181-194)

      Study of Aksumite coinage has proved highly informative both to numismatists and to historians more generally. Although its issue did not begin until the late-third century AD, it is important to recognise that small quantities of coins were already reaching northern Ethiopia from elsewhere during earlier periods, including examples struck in the Roman Empire, southern Arabia, and the Kushan kingdom in the region now comprising northeastern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and parts of northwestern India. With the exception of very occasional specimens from excavated contexts in the Aksum area, most examples of southern Arabian coins – including one hoard – are...

    • 15 Foreign Contacts of the Aksumite State
      (pp. 195-208)

      Throughout its history, the Aksumite kingdom maintained varying degrees of contact with external populations both adjacent and far-distant. These relationships have often received undue emphasis in reconstructions of Aksumite history, while being largely ignored in studies whose primary focus lay elsewhere.¹ Archaeological evidence for these contacts is derived mainly from artefacts and materials recognised as having originated far from their place of recovery. Care is, of course, needed to distinguish between transport of artefacts and that of the materials used in their production, and from the movement of people responsible for their manufacture. Likewise, extended areas of distribution may be...

    • 16 Decline and Transformation of the Aksumite State
      (pp. 209-224)

      By the middle decades of the sixth century, economic decline was becoming apparent in the northern Horn, most noticeably in the area around Aksum itself. The overall population of the capital area diminished sharply.¹ Several of Aksum’s grand buildings fell into disrepair and were apparently occupied by squatters.² Use of the Gobedra quarries to provide the materials for massive masonry came to an abrupt end, to judge from the number of blocks that were abandoned after extraction had begun.³ The coinage suffered a marked reduction both in technical quality and in metallurgical fineness, accompanied by a proliferation of tiny base-metal...

  8. Part Three AFTER AKSUM

    • 17 The Zagwe Dynasty
      (pp. 227-244)

      Following the decline of Aksum’s successor kingdom in eastern Tigray, or its rulers’ loss of authority, a period of fluidity is indicated. It is not possible to estimate with any confidence when or for how long this situation prevailed, but it would be plausible to place it in or around the eleventh century when (as argued in Chapter 16) major changes seem to have taken place. Eventually, a new centralised authority was established; it was based, not in Tigray, but further to the south in what is now Amhara Region – more precisely, in the mountains of Lasta east and...

    • 18 Epilogue: The Future of the Past in the Northern Horn
      (pp. 245-248)

      Writing this book has emphasised not only what we know but what we do not. In this epilogue I shall attempt to offer some guidelines that future researchers and administrators may find useful. I hope that these suggestions may be of particular interest to the increasing numbers of Ethiopian and Eritrean scholars who are embarking on careers involving the study of their countries’ past and the preservation of its remains. Of course, what cannot be taken into account is the chance unanticipated discovery such as the Almaqah temple at Maqaber Ga‘ewa near Wukro, described in Chapter 3. Situations such as...

  9. Bibliographic References
    (pp. 249-282)
  10. Index
    (pp. 283-293)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 294-295)