Aksum’s true glory kept under wraps by fearful bureaucracy

It is incomprehensible that for so long, insinuation took precedence over facts by those who should have been safeguarding Ethiopia’s priceless heritage

As an archaeologist setting up the Master’s program for Archaeology and Heritage at Aksum University around five years ago, no day was ever routine.

Surveying the old town and its immediate surroundings daily tantalized me with just enough secrets to keep me coming back for more. With every footfall, the very ground seemed to reverberate and writhe under the labor pains of this heritage’s sheer will to be re-born.

Sadly, that was not to be. As with so many past efforts here in Ethiopia, fear dictated the narrative and stopped any positive change.

Most visitors to Aksum, the ancient Ethiopian capital, glimpse little of its past grandeur. So much of this city’s wonders still lie buried beneath the desolation of centuries or hidden behind the pressing demands of an emerging nation. Additionally, most guides simply repeat the tired, fabricated myths that have little grounding within historical, archaeological, or geographical contexts.

Subsequently, tourist regularly leave, disappointed, perplexed, feeling cheated as they were promised one of the largest and longest-lived empires in Africa, and were instead shown a few stelae, some secondary-use tombs, and the small 7th century AD Dungur villa purporting to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba.

Aksum could be so much more than this.

Unfortunately, so little archaeology has been permitted in Aksum that we still rely upon reports from the 1906 Deutsche Aksum-Expedition as the definitive work, and all four volumes, printed in German, are still not available in English or Amharic. Aksum has seen two other more modern excavations in 1972-74 by Dr. Chittick and in 1994-97 with Prof. David Phillipson, along with a few smatterings related more to salvage excavations than modern scientific inquiry. As a result, a tremendous amount of research and work remains, both as amazing opportunity and obstacle.

In terms of tourism, this means that anyone who visited Aksum four decades back, would see relatively the same sites today, virtually unchanged. Outside of the chance discovery of a new Ezana inscription in 1982, little new is presentable to tourists. Compare that to similarly archaeologically-rich countries like Greece, Italy, Egypt, Israel and Jordan, where every year there is something new for tourists to visit.

Frantic call

Part of heritage management in any region relates to chance finds dug up during construction, road building, agriculture, etc. While living in Aksum for a year and a half, I was shown many items that had made their way into the back of curio shops, basic items like ceramic vessels or figurines, coins, small metal objects. In general, these finds were mere curiosities with little real archaeological value. One shop owner in particular, with a passion for heritage, occasionally invited me to identify specific artifacts to “keep back” to prevent them from being lost to international tourist and the illicit trade in antiquities.

One evening, I received a somewhat frantic call saying some farmers had brought in something special. Intrigued, I went, where he displayed a series of cast bronze plaques, and other cultural materials the likes of which were not even found in the museum. These included large cast-bronze Ethio-Sabaean inscriptions, images of lions, humans, and winged sphinx in cast bronze, ceramic figurines and vessels, along with various small finds such as name stamps and inscribed amulets.

Excited, I immediately took pictures and sent off an e-mail to the various Ethiopian authorities at the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the previous director of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Mekele, asking them the best way for them to take possession of these items.

A newly discovered Early-Aksumite religious or administrative site; March, 2014; Samuel C. Walker

Of particular note among the finds were two thin, hammered-copper plaques containing complete inscriptions of four to five lines each. Initial assessment by a German epigrapher indicated these may be some of the earliest known-long Ethiopic or non-vocalized Ge’ez inscriptions containing the names of some of the earliest, and perhaps even unknown Aksumite kings.

Further analysis is needed, but all of these cultural artifacts appeared to be some of the most significant chance-finds in decades, if not a century. And they were discovered in a field and brought to a shopkeeper who respected his heritage, and, thankfully recognized their heritage value.

On the advice of others, I asked the merchant if I could take the two smaller early Ge’ez inscriptions out of the shop and, in the presence of a respected visiting archaeologist, brought them to the Culture and Tourism office in Aksum. There I implored their office to take possession of them. For reasons unknown, we were told to return them to the dealer, since their source was unknown and therefore knowledge related to their context was lost. As such, they were perceived to have no value. Stunned, I complied.

Later, another archaeologist, hearing of these artifacts, requested to photograph the inscriptions. So as not to implicate the shopkeeper, I naively had them brought to my home for the photo shoot as we were hosting the archaeological team there that same evening. Subsequently, I returned all the artifacts to the safekeeping of the shop owner. I then informed the authorities they had been returned and left it at that. During this time, no one from either the ARCCH or the Mekele Bureau of Culture and Tourism (BoCT) adequately replied to my e-mails or phone calls about what they wished to do about the artifacts.

Reported accusations

Oddly, six months later, I was falsely accused of looting the very objects I had brought to the attention of the authorities at the BoCT office and the ARCCH. Ironically, without inquiring of me, the Italian archaeologist who asked to photograph them in my home, falsely reported that I still had them in my possession. The Reporter Amharic newspaper then picked-up on this false story and, using the photographs I had sent to the authorities, printed an article in June 2015, without verification of the facts, without any proof or having anyone even ask me about the facts.

When this story broke, the farmers and others with whom my university colleagues, including the Dean, had painstakingly been negotiating to transfer the materials to the museum, shied away and much of the cultural material was lost, destroyed, or reburied. When I requested the Reporter print my rebuttal, my phone calls and e-mails went unanswered.

In spite of this, through immeasurable effort, a few trusted colleagues (whom I must refrain from mentioning by name at this point to protect them) and I were eventually able to ask the merchant to safeguard many of the more valuable objects and had them placed in the local Aksum Museum, with a city representative, and the BoCT officer as witness, where, I believe, they remain in storage.

Six months later, I was falsely accused of looting

This politically motivated fiasco, with its subsequent loss of significant cultural materials, is unfortunately an all-too-common outcome for inadvertently discovered artifacts, and illustrates the need for new and clear protocols for addressing preservation of heritage with more open and directed communication between the respective authorities.

Had these accusations truly been about the artifacts, and not about limiting opportunities for my Ethiopian colleagues to be properly trained in field management skills, those finds could easily have been safeguarded by my accusers when I initially had informed them. The fact they cared so little for the artifacts is evident in that four years on, not one of them has even asked about the finds, let alone researched or displayed them.

As for so many of my Ethiopian colleagues, incompetent political appointees have created obstacles to the greater success of Ethiopian scholarship. If indeed there was a theft or an accusation of looting, it should be leveled at these officials who have stolen five years of capacity and archaeological research from true Ethiopian scholars and Ethiopia’s future.

Like so many scholars and intellectuals, I find the current political climate a refreshing shift from the demagoguery and browbeating we have so long received from those whose responsibility it was to serve the interests of the country as a whole, not petty political ambitions. I am now emboldened to relate this unfortunate story with the hopes that those who peddled so many falsehoods and obstructed so many of my colleagues, will be brought to account. And those priceless, not-looted artifacts can actually be displayed and researched by a competent cohort of academics.

Irreplaceable antiquities

I find it incomprehensible that for so long, insinuation took precedence over facts by those who should have safe guarded Ethiopia’s priceless heritage. Imagine, I came to Ethiopia to train archaeologists in the essential skills of archaeological field management skills and excavations, receiving one fifth of my former salary.

Would I then photograph the very items I was accused of looting and then send those photographs and letters to the ARCCH and the former director of the BoCT in Mekele to inform them of the fact? Would I then have repeatedly tried to have those very artifacts placed in the museum for safe-keeping, only to be blocked by the very people whose job it was to preserve that heritage?

This deserves a thorough investigation. I have retained the correspondence and names of those officials who failed, falsely accused, and lied to cover their incompetence.

This deserves a thorough investigation

Ethiopia’s ongoing challenge regarding heritage management at this level relates to how the law concerning found-artifacts is written. Does there currently exist no legal means for people in government to take possession of found items, even if freely given? Lessons can be learned from the experience of other countries. In the UK and many Scandinavian countries, a legal clause exists, stating that all historical and cultural items are the possession of the State.

As such, found-items discovered in farming, building, road construction, etc. are compensated for by the state who therefore can legally take possession. This provides a very good model for ensuring items, especially valuable items, remain in-country. It might serve Ethiopia’s long-term heritage interests to consider changing its current, but outdated law.

Today, many valuable, irreplaceable antiquities and artifacts inadvertently excavated by farmers, builders, people digging a new latrine, etc. are sold to the local antiquities dealer for a paltry sum. If instead, such found-items could be taken by their finders to the local museum or culture and tourism office for not only payment but even an honorable mention in the newspaper, these items would more likely remain in-country. This would not only secure many valuable cultural materials, but actually cut down on the deliberate looting of sites in that artifacts that are not immediately turned into the proper authorities can be confiscated without pay.

Monumental structures

Additionally, a higher sum should be offered as compensation for the report of items found in situ which would incentivize preservation of the context and discourage illegal looters “digging for treasures.” I encourage this be submitted as a proposal and set before the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Another major challenge Ethiopia faces in positively presenting its own heritage is, that despite the growing body of skilled, committed, honest Ethiopian scholars, many projects at the university level, unfortunately, continue to be curtailed by the all-too-common mismanagement or wrangling of a few inept, politically appointed authorities, or department heads afraid of losing their authority or prestige.

Whether it stems from extreme risk-aversion or a lack of clear procedures in working toward proper management or preservation of heritage, every delay sees further destruction of irreplaceable cultural material, and lessens Ethiopia╒s footing in launching a reputable and world-class tourism and heritage experience.

Early-Aksumite site; March 2014; Samuel C. Walker

As a result, our inability to properly train this generation’s top scholars in the foundations of archaeological excavation and cultural resource management skills simply means we are that much more behind in tying heritage to tourism and thereby creating a growing sector for foreign revenue and investment. Archaeological excavation is one of the most critical avenues for presenting and preserving the unique richness and beauty Ethiopia has to offer the world.

Despite such challenges, I remain optimistic. During my time in Aksum, through walking field survey with my Ethiopian colleagues, we discovered, identified and documented two new monumental elite structures, several new pre-Christian religious sites, along with the initial layout of the elite city. We were able to thus expand the core area for UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Further afield, we identified and/or recorded new sites from the Neolithic, Da’mat, Early and Classic Aksumite periods, a necropolis, and Portuguese fortifications, along with an encampment of Emperor Yohannes IV. Sadly, the very little that has been published of these finds remains obscured in the Aksum University’s research archives, again testament to the fact that heritage held little priority in this charade.

Next generation

All these and many other remarkable finds remain concealed, awaiting research. Fortunately, even as many of my colleagues have moved on, we continue to plan and work toward obtaining official permits for opening up the ground for proper archaeological excavation and training in excavation management.

Even if we were unable to train field-technicians in archaeological field management and excavation skills, we were successful in designing curriculum and teaching field survey. For this, and many other reasons, I remain hopeful that eventually, with more properly trained, competent public servants in the emerging heritage and tourism sector, Ethiopia’s cadre of new archaeologists and heritage and cultural resource management specialists will be successful in preserving and presenting Ethiopia’s rich and deep heritage. I envision the next wave of exploration, discovery, and excavation under the skillful hands and careful eyes of these trustworthy Ethiopian archaeologists and technicians.

Ethiopia will sing of her own ancient glories

Meanwhile, along with my colleagues, a veritable panoply of scholars wait. And so does a young girl sitting in the shade of the returned ancient stela in the Stelae Park, beginning to learn what it means that she is offspring of the most powerful empires sub-Saharan Africa has ever known. And herein remains the dream. This child and so many others like her, resting in the shadow of her heritage, may soon learn more and apprehend her heritage in true ways.

She will continue to visualize her emerging story of identity, as we carefully excavate and reveal this hidden, neglected jewel of ancient splendor. We will continue our research, hopeful, where our goal remains to transmit that specialized knowledge, expertise and experience of excavation and heritage management, and so Ethiopia will sing of her own ancient glories to the rest of the world.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: Newly identified prehistoric sites around Aksum tell of the region’s enduring significance; March 2014; Samuel C. Walker

The opinions are the author’s and are no reflection of the views of the website. However, Ethiopia Insight is responsible for factual errors.

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About the author

Samuel C. Walker

Samuel, an archaeologist raised in East Africa, seeks to create an Afrocentric historical narrative. His 27 years of research in the Middle East, Western Pacific and Ethiopia inform his worldview.

  • Thank you for your work. I have more information to provide people like you who are deducating their efforts to the history of our culture Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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