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Antiquity Vol 78 No 302 December 2004

Combating the destruction of Ethiopia's archaeological heritage... continued

Jacke Phillips & Tekle Hagos with Asfaw Arefaine, Sheila Boardman, Chester Cain, Mark Dover & Michael Harlow

The Shire District Archaeological Survey Project returned to the Indasellassie region, north-western administrative zone of Tigray, northern Ethiopia in December 2003. Its second season, under the co-direction of Jacke Phillips and Tekle Hagos, continued work begun in 2001. Another 95 sites were added to the 'Sites and Monuments Record' (SMR) we initiated then (see Finneran 2003), ranging from the Early Stone Age through to recent soldiers' graves.

Our remit included further work at the Mai Adrasha site, in light of recent activities reported in 2002 (Asamerew et al. 2002). We also assisted the provincial Tigray Bureau of Information and Culture (TBIC), Indasellassie office, in planning and building an infrastructure for managing the region's cultural heritage, and increasing local public awareness. This article reports our further efforts since 2002 to combat further destruction at Mai Adrasha and more generally in the Indasellassie region.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Mai Adrasha (SMR 19), exposed fragment of élite stepped wall. Click to enlarge.
Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2. Mai Adrasha (SMR 19), views of the protective fencing around the immediate tell area. Click to enlarge.

Site Documentation
Mai Adrasha was planned in detail using a Total Station. Time limitations, and the heavily pockmarked surface due to illicit digging, allowed only the tell surface to be recorded, but a visibly distinct 'satellite' area was noted. The result is a series of computer-generated topographical relief and contour maps and isometric views. The map will be enhanced next season by plotting walls now visible on the surface, aided by two permanent 'stations' as an initial cross-reference.

Visible walls are both the élite 'stepped' type with ashlar corners (Figure 1), and rubble-infilled walls having more regular facing stones, suggesting the possibility that the site may have been palatial initially, with later rooms inserted in courtyard spaces (as at Aksum, Matara and elsewhere). They appear to be an extensive rectilinear grid, but only widespread excavation would reveal a coherent plan. Three deep holes previously dug by 'gold-panners' were cut back to record stratigraphy without actual excavation. All have at least three levels, one with over two metres of vertical exposure.

Pottery and occasional other surface finds were collected within a 20m radius of nine temporary 'stations' to assess the possibility of chronological differentiation across the site. Although initial results indicate some periods are represented only in certain areas, there is an uninterrupted chronological range from Pre-Aksumite through Late Aksumite - an indication of the site's importance both as a long-lived habitation in Shire, and as the westernmost known example of this chronological range (c. 800 BC - AD 700) for the complex societies in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Site Protection
The Indasellassie woreda (town council) hired a security guard to patrol the Mai Adrasha site in 2001 until better protection measures could be arranged, and very little illicit digging was attempted after the informal announcement of its importance. The federal Authority for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) in Addis Ababa and the TBIC agreed on the need for a protective fence, allocated available funds and announced a contract tender that was duly awarded to a Tigray construction firm. However, they were unable to provide all the necessary funding, so the Project contributed more in 2003 so construction could begin; it was completed by June 2004. In retrospect, the delay proved a boon, as the fence plan was altered to incorporate the 'satellite' site that the original line had bisected, because of the extra funds and the 2003 survey.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Mai Adrasha (SMR 19), view of obliterated circular structure, findspot of several clay mother-and-child figurines.

The fence, nearly a kilometre long, encloses only the immediate tell area, although the actual site in toto extends far beyond it (Figure 2). It considers the normal agricultural use of surrounding fields, minimising fencing of cropland and providing farmers access via several gates to the small field area unavoidably enclosed. Compensation arrangements also are in process.

Site 'Restoration'
We interviewed some former 'gold-panners' about the site's condition and appearance before their activities. Their evidence, taken in separate interviews, provides very similar accounts of the site before excavation. It also proved possible, with their help, to record the findspots of some important artefacts they had 'found' and handed over to the Indasellassie authorities.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Display cabinets ready for installation in the new administration building, Indasellassie.

Until about a decade ago, the entire site was covered with grass and stones, with no walls visible. The 'panners' uncovered a network of walls and cross-walls over the entire site that, when revealed, were straight and high, some stepped, and many aligned at right angles. Areas enclosed within this network were square to rectangular. Gaps and 'corridors' between groups of rooms also were apparent, all without paving. All walls are about 70cm thick, and the earth between the stones was found to contain natural gold - hence many upper walls have been dismantled. Three types of structure were reported: 1) circular, 2) long rows of rectangles, and 3) networks with multiple rows of adjoining rectangles on a similar alignment.

The circular structures are exemplified by a building now almost entirely obliterated on the surface (Figure 3), with no apparent door but a central flight of seven stone steps descending into its centre. A dressed stone block was identified as one of these steps. The informants reported they found several clay mother-and-child figurines on a raised flat stone opposite the bottom of the steps, together with some cu/alloy coins and gold discs punched with two concentric circles, which they handed over to the TBIC in 2001.

They also identified the findspot of an extremely large beaker containing numerous small incense burners and other miniature vessels, also handed over to the TBIC in 2001, as well as the location of two 'urn' burials containing skeletal remains, cu-alloy bracelets and beads, and the hollow on a mound across the gully where some small gold nails were unearthed. One nail was given to the TBIC. Little droplets of copper, a crescent-shaped copper earring and iron knife fragments were discovered at the edges of waterpools, washed out and rejected when deposits were panned during the wet season.

Whilst their information clearly must be treated with caution, cross-checked and as far as possible investigated, it is credible, consistent and of considerable interest to understanding the site.

Public awareness
A local firm constructed three display cabinets in 2004, and a selection of the artefacts recovered by the TBIC and the Project, and others handed over to the TBIC - all previously locked away in their Indasellassie office - were installed, including ceramics, beads, jewellery, lithics, and stone, clay and metal objects (Figure 4). They are now on public view in the town's new administration building, as the genesis of a regional museum. Labels in Tigrigna and English have been prepared on paper in Indasellassie, and several wall-mounted posters are being produced in the UK for display enhancement. The Project also purchased a large photograph album to house its 2001 photographs and those of TBIC activities, annotated in English and Tigrigna for staff and public viewing.

Project members and ARCCH/TBIC authorities met with the Head of the Indasellassie Bureau of Information and Culture, and with a local high school history teacher to develop a public education programme emphasising the importance of the past and of preserving/recording archaeological sites and artefacts. As a beginning, we gave an illustrated lecture to about 2000 Indasellassie High School students, by arrangement with the local education authorities (Figure 5). Further TBIC lectures to area school classes of all ages and to local tabia (village administrative unit) officials have since been given, using artefacts not on display, and duplicate slides sent by the Project, as teaching aids.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Ato Tekle Hagos lecturing to the students at Indasellassie High School.
Figure 6

Figure 6. Mai Liham (SMR 138), tumulus of c. 13.6m diameter in foreground, entirely levelled by a crew 'quarrying' for construction stone. The stones are in the background, in small heaps ready to be picked up by the collection crew.

Finally, Project members and TBIC authorities together repeatedly talked to rural inhabitants to raise awareness of archaeological interest and the consequences of site destruction, whilst surveying for new sites throughout the permit area. The current destruction rate is alarming, and the teams repeatedly observed a range of human activities that have visibly disturbed and even destroyed sites and artefacts. As examples: Stelae in ancient cemeteries have been removed from their original position for terracing and construction by landowners. Ceramic vessels also have been found accidentally and put to use in several rural households. Tumuli have been reduced or entirely levelled (Figure 6) for commercial purposes, especially for extensive building work as Indasellassie town is in the midst of a great construction boom as expatriates return and new businesses open now that the recent war is over. Whilst understandable in the context of post-war development, we hope that, through our direct word-of-mouth discussion with the rural population, lecture programme, and public display of artefacts in town, we can help to minimise site destruction and stimulate the reporting and recording of artefacts in context through public awareness of their importance for the community.

Project fieldwork was supported by grants from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (University of Cambridge), the British Institute in Eastern Africa, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the University of Bournemouth Staff Development Fund, and the National Research Foundation (South Africa). The University of Bournemouth also loaned us much of our equipment, without which many of our results would have been impossible. Our survey permit was granted by the Authority for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage (ARCCH), Addis Ababa, and accepted by the Tigray Bureau of Information and Culture (TBIC), Mekelle and its North-Western Zone office at Indasellassie. The Project team is grateful to all concerned for their assistance and camaraderie in our endeavours.


  • ASAMEREW DESIE, C. CAIN, N. FINNERAN, M. HARLOW & J. PHILLIPS. 2002. Combating the destruction of Ethiopia's archaeological heritage, Antiquity 76: 955-956.
  • FINNERAN, N. 2003. Defining the Shire Archaeological Landscape, Northern Ethiopia: Towards a Strategy of Cultural Resource Management and a Workable Sites and Monuments Record, in P.J. Mitchell, A. Haour & J.H. Hobart (eds.) Researching Africa's Past: New Contributions from British Archaeologists. Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology Monograph 57, 139-144.

JACKE PHILLIPS: MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3ER, UK.
TEKLE HAGOS: Authority for the Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage, P.O. Box 30795, Addis Ababa, ETHIOPIA.
ASFAW AREFAINE: North-West Administrative Zone, Tigray Bureau of Information and Culture, P.O. Box 223, Indasellassie-Shire, Tigray, ETHIOPIA
SHEILA BOARDMAN: School of Conservation Sciences, Bournemouth University, Fern Barrow, Poole, BH12 5BB, UK
CHESTER CAIN: Department of Archaeology, ACACIA Programme, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, Wits 2050, Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA
MARK DOVER: Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton, Highfield,Southampton, SO17 1BJ, UK
MICHAEL HARLOW: 35 Linwood Rd, Bournemouth, BH9 1DP, UK.

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