by Debora Moretti

The area covering Ethiopia and Somalia, considered most of the time the land of famine and war, is indeed after Egypt the richest country of archaeological remains.

Since early times, especially since the XVI century Ethiopian prehistoric and protostoric remains caught the attention of travellers, scholars and religious men.
In the XVI century, a Portuguese embassy arrived in Ethiopia at the court of the King Lebna Denagel (1520) offering to help in the fight against the Muslim expansion (Ethiopia has been a Christian country since the IV century).
Even if the Portuguese embassy didn’t help against the Muslims it led the attention of the rest of Europe towards that “exotic” country called Ethiopia. To this period belong the travel reports of this part of Africa, like Francisco Alvarezs’. In his report he mentioned the historic remains still standing in the ancient city of Aksum. He mentioned the cathedral of Maryam Sion and the Ark of the Covenant. The legend of the ark tells us that this was stolen from the temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem by Menelik I son of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. MenelikI brought the ark in Ethiopia and it should be still there in today. Francisco Alvarez mentioned also the famous churches of Lalibela. They have been built in the natural stone hills by the Zague’, a dynasty that ruled the area between the 1150 and the 1270. In the XVII century, after the Muslim expansion, we see intensive activity of Portuguese missionaries that again left many records about the archaeology of the country. At the end of the century finally the interest for Ethiopia became more scientific than religious.
In 1661 the German scholar J. Ludolf published Historia Aethiopica, the first organized book about the history of the country. This is one of the first attempts to identify the origins of the “Abyssians”.
Ludolf wrote that they were coming from South Arabia, considering the similarities of the languages, pagan religions and legends. His idea about the origins of the Abyssinians was accepted until 1950 and because of this Ludolf is considered the father of Ethiopian Studies.

The XVIII century was characterized by many travels in that part of the African continent, and this was the century of the real explorers.
The most important one regarding Ethiopia was James Bruce. In 1790 he published Travels to discover the source of the Nile, the reason of this journey was to discover the origin of the Nile crossing Ethiopia. In His book he writes about the stelae of Aksum, the base of the throne with a Greek inscription about the King Ptolemy Evergete and the Horus Cippo, an Egyptian stele with an Egyptian inscription of the Ptolemaic period.
Because of all these elements Bruce assumed that the origins of the aksumite culture were to be considered Egyptians of the Ptolemaic period.
Even if his idea of the origins of the aksumite culture were wrong his book is still important today from a cultural point of view.

A new period for the Ethiopia archaeology starts with the Napoleonic expeditions. The first European researcher to arrive in Ethiopia after James Bruce was H. Salt. Salt published in 1809 Voyages and travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt. In 1814 he published Voyages to Abyssinia and travel into the interior of the country. Salt also studied the IV century inscriptions of King Ezana and the monuments of Aksum and Yeha. He identified the aksumite port of Adulis. About the origins of the Abyssinians; Salt said that it is an autochthon origin with strong Egyptian influences. About the similarities between the ancient Ethiopian language called Ge’ez and the ancient south Arabic language Salt said that they probably descended from a common language: Hebrew.
From a scientific point of view his work is really important. His chronology of the ancient monuments is not far from the real chronology.

After Salt we have another scholar that increased the evolution of the research in Ethiopian history. He was the geographer E.Ruppel. Between 1830 and 1834 Ruppel published Reyse in Abyssinien, in which he reproduced monuments and coins from Aksum. His work is still good to this day.
Also in this period France had many expeditions to the Horn of Africa. T. Lefebvre between 1839 and 1943 published Voyage en Abyssinie, in which he reports many sites he studied during that period: Fine Fine, Agoba and a few churches at Debra Libanos and Dongalla.
The D’Abbadie brothers explored the Lasta region in West Ethiopia and Tigre’ in the North between 1838 and 1848. D’Abbadie created the first geographical map of Ethiopia in Scale 1:500.000 and they collected many Ethiopian manuscripts. Their collection is still today fundamental for the study of Ge’ez literature.

Between 1870 and 1890 the Italians arrived in East Africa. In 1869 the maritime company Rubattino bought the port of Assab opening Somalia and Ethiopia to the Italian expeditions.
It’s only from 1905 that we have good Italian scientific expeditions with R. Paribeni and F. Gallina. They excavated the port of Adulis, the ancient port of the Aksumite Kingdom.
In the same period, 1905-1910, the German mission headed by E. Littman arrived in Aksum. He published many ancient inscriptions.
After the 1st World War we had more Italian studies with E. Cerulli (1926-1929) and his interest for Ethiopian literature and Carlo Conti Rossini that in 1929 published Storia d’Etiopia, the history of Ethiopia between the I millennium BC and the I millennium AD. Very original is his theory about the origins of the Abyssinians:
[…] The Habasat were immigrant from the Yemen, ruled by the Kingdom of Sheba. In time they became independent and created their own Kingdom called Aksum. Therefore the Ethiopian civilization is a mere reflection of the South Arabic one. […]

Of course today his theory is not approved anymore and somehow considered racist.

In the 1930s’ the Ethiopian Studies evolved considerably with J. Desmond Clark, one of the biggest scholars of African Prehistory. Clark identified seven different prehistoric cultures in Ethiopia and he identified the archaeological sequence from the Early Stone Age to the Food Production Age in Somalia. It is thanks to Clark that we know so much about African prehistory.

In 1952 we have the confirmation of Ethiopian Archaeology as a discipline. In that year in fact, the Ethiopian Emperor Heile’ Sellassie’, in collaboration with French scholars, created the Institute of Ethiopian Archaeology in Addis Abeba. The Institute had two specialized department: the archaeological one headed by Anfray and the philological one headed by Schnaider and Drewes.
Between 1960 and 1975 the Institute identified the subdivision of the different periods of the Ethiopian history between the I millennium BC and the I millennium AD. The Institute started also a periodic publication called Annales d’Ethiopie, still in existence today.
If Anfray was the first to use the term “Ethiopian Archaeology” in one of his article in 1968; L. Ricci created the university course of “Ethiopian Archaeology and Antiquities” at the Oriental Institute of Naples in 1974 giving to the Ethiopian archaeology an official position in the academic world.

Even if Ethiopia has been the central part of the attention in the last 200 years, the most ancient phases of its history are still not well known.
The past research had some limits:

  • Geographically because just a few regions of Ethiopia have been chosen for studies, especially the north and central regions and Eritrea. The south, the west and the lowlands on the border with Sudan need more studies
  • Archaeologically because most of the time in the past, the material found and collected have not been recorded in the right context or with the right relationship to the place where they have been found. This leaves us without proper archaeological data and information. For example the first excavations of Yeha or Aksum go back to the beginning of the century. In those excavations lots of information was either lost, misunderstood or never recorded properly leaving us with misleading data;
  • Historically because in the past the attention of the researchers only covered a few historic periods. For Example the pre-aksumite phases were not studied properly until the recent work of R. Fattovich..

It took more than 200 years to get to such a composite discipline like Ethiopian archaeology, composite because it stretches from prehistoric time to the medieval without interruption and dynamic because it covers the most important cultures of the past that somehow met and mixed in the highlands and lowland of this fantastic country, and yet it is still growing and improving and still needs a lot of research and studies in the future.