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Michael Harrower and Cinzia Perlingieri mapping architecture at the Aksumite town of Beta Samati. (Credit: Nicole Harrower) A Christian stone pendant and a gold and carnelian intaglio ring found in the basilica. (Credit: I. Dumitru)   Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Lost Aksumite Town Reveals Secrets of Enigmatic Kingdom

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Despite their prominent place in the ancient world, much of the story of the Aksumite civilization is still a mystery to archaeologists today. This partly explains why the discovery of the town of Beta Samati is so important. The vestiges of the Kingdom of Aksum are coming to light in the Yeha region of northern Ethiopia.

Michael Harrower, lead author of the study and Associate Professor of Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, stated in a press release, “The excavations of Beta Samati help fill important gaps in our understanding of ancient Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite civilisations .” Harrower and his team’s report on the discovery and excavations of the ancient town has been published for the first time in Antiquity.

Discovering the Aksumite Town of Beta Samati

Harrower has told the press, “The ancient town of Beta Samati was discovered in 2009 following research with local residents and archaeological survey of an underexplored area of northern Ethiopia.” He informed Ancient Origins that while Beta Samati had not been excavated before, it wasn’t completely unknown because “Local village elders have long recognized Beta Samati as an important historical place but many of the specific details of the site's history seem to have been lost over time and that's where archaeology can help clarify the area's history.”

Cinzia Perlingieri reading pottery at Beta Samati. (Credit: Ioana Dumitru via Antiquity)

Harrower told Ancient Origins that the local Tigrinya people named the site Beta Samati, which, “means 'house of audience' in the Tigrinya language. This seems to suggest that the site was a place of local administration where political authorities were situated, perhaps in association with the basilica.” It was local residents who tipped the archaeologists off to exploring “the hill,” which is actually a tell (an artificial mound created by debris accumulated over years of occupation of the site), of Beta Samati.

Researchers have found that Beta Samati was first occupied by the Pre-Aksumites around 750 BC. From there it was a regional center as the Aksumites took hold. It remained important after they converted to Christianity, and it was eventually abandoned, hundreds of years later, in 650 AD. Signs of all of these stages appear in the archaeological record – archaeologists have found commercial buildings and homes, and even one of the oldest Aksumite Christian basilicas, a structure dated to the 4th century AD.

A Christian stone pendant found in the basilica with a cross on the left and, on the right, the word “venerable” in Ge’ez – an ancient Ethiopian language, which remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. (Credit: I. Dumitru via Antiquity)

A Christian stone pendant found in the basilica with a cross on the left and, on the right, the word “venerable” in Ge’ez – an ancient Ethiopian language, which remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. (Credit: I. Dumitru via Antiquity)

The team discovered evidence of glass and metal production as well as signs of food processing and consumption in the complex of rectangular stone buildings, which appear to have served a combination of both domestic and commercial purposes.

Before the Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories (SRSAH) project began in 2009, it was believed that the Yeha region had lost significance when Aksum ( Axum) was made the Aksumite kingdom’s capital city. The impressive discoveries made at Beta Samati challenge this idea. Dr. Ioana A. Dumitru, from Johns Hopkins and a co-writer of the paper told the press, “Beta Samati is a very densely populated ancient settlement with both residential and religious structures” and it “reveals important details about daily life in ancient Ethiopia” through its buildings and artifacts.

Excavations at Beta Samati in 2016. (Credit: I. Dumitru via Antiquity)

Excavations at Beta Samati in 2016. (Credit: I. Dumitru via Antiquity)

Amazing Artifacts Unearthed

The investigators have also found indications of cross-cultural interaction in some of the artifacts unearthed at the site. It appears there were Roman and pagan influences at Beta Samati. In and around the basilica researchers found animal figurines, crosses, stamp seals , and artifacts they have labelled as ‘tokens,’ which were probably used in trade and administration.

Harrower told Ancient Origins that the discovery of a gold and carnelian intaglio ring was especially significant for him for a couple of reasons:

“After decades of being asked, 'Did you find any gold?' We could finally say yes.  Interestingly, the gold bezel, carnelian intaglio centerpiece of the ring resembles Roman rings, but the bull's head iconography is uniquely African showing a fascinating mixture of European and African traditions that illustrates the vast cultural interconnections of Aksumite civilization.”

The gold and carnelian intaglio ring from the basilica that shows Roman influences. (credit: I. Dumitru via Antiquity)

The gold and carnelian intaglio ring from the basilica that shows Roman influences. (credit: I. Dumitru via Antiquity)

Harrower also noted that there was one big challenge in excavations - the rain.

“Summer monsoon rainstorms in the region can be very intense so during some excavations seasons keeping everything dry was a huge challenge,” he told Ancient Origins.

The Kingdom of Aksum

The Kingdom of Aksum existed between the 1st and the 8th centuries AD in the region of what is today northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Previous research has shown that the empire traded with the Roman Empire and ancient India. Outsider influences may explain why Judaism and Christianity both had a role in Aksumite life.

But little is known about the kingdom apart from this and legendary tales of its connection with the Queen of Sheba . Harrower stressed that this general lack of knowledge about the Aksumites and their empire is part of why the discoveries at Beta Samati are so important. He summarized this significance to the press as follows:

“The Empire of Aksum was one of the world’s most influential ancient civilizations, but it remains one of the least widely known. Politics and religion are indisputably important factors in shaping human histories, yet they are also among the most difficult elements of the past to examine archaeologically. Beta Samati spans Aksum’s official conversion from polytheism to Christianity and the arrival of Islam in northern Ethiopia. It also clarifies the nature of political and religious authority at an important administrative center located on the trade route that connected the capital of Aksum to the Red Sea and beyond. Our findings are not only important to understanding ancient African civilizations , but are also important to understanding political and religious change among ancient civilizations more broadly.”

What’s Next for Beta Samati?

Harrower told Ancient Origins that there are future plans for the Aksumite town of Beta Samati, stating:

“We are currently publishing the results of our excavations and archaeological survey (exploration) of the surrounding area. We are also fund raising for future research and have been working a long-term plan to develop the site for tourism to boost the local economy. Ethiopia is a fantastic place to visit and there are many heritage sites that are incredibly fascinating to visit.”

It will be exciting to see what emerges next in the story of Beta Samati.

Top Image: Michael Harrower and Cinzia Perlingieri mapping architecture at the Aksumite town of Beta Samati. (Credit: Nicole Harrower) A Christian stone pendant and a gold and carnelian intaglio ring found in the basilica. (Credit: I. Dumitru)   Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd.

References

Harrower, M., Dumitru, I., Perlingieri, C., Nathan, S., Zerue, K., Lamont, J., . . . Peterson, E. (2019). Beta Samati: Discovery and excavation of an Aksumite town.  Antiquity, 93(372), 1534-1552. doi:10.15184/aqy.2019.84

By Alicia McDermott

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