Recent Archaeological Findings from South Ethiopia


Recent Archaeological Findings from South Ethiopia

Par / by Yonas Beyene, Metassebia Bekele & Alemseged Beldados

Yonas Beyene (chercheur associé au CFEE), Metassebia Bekele et Alemseged Beldados, membres de l’Association for Research and Conservation of Culture de Hawassa (ARCC-Hawassa), ont mené pendant trois ans des recherches archéologiques, ethnobotaniques et historiques sur plusieurs sites de la région SNNPRS (Éthiopie). Ils ont présenté le 28 octobre 2014 un bilan inédit de leurs recherches au CFEE, avant la parution d’une monographie, Recent Archaeological Findings from South Ethiopia, Hawassa, ARCC (2014), une remarquable contribution à l’histoire et à l’archéologie historique du Sud éthiopien. Ils présentent ici un aperçu de leurs recherches.

Yonas Beyene (CFEE affiliate researcher), Metassebia Bekele and Alemseged Beldados, members of the Association for Research and Conservation of Culture of Hawassa, have lead during three years archaeological, ethnobotanical and historical research on various sites in the SNNPRS region (Ethiopia). They have presented an unpublished statement of their research at CFEE on October 28th 2014, before the publication of a monograph, Recent Archaeological Findings from South Ethiopia, Hawassa, ARCC (2014), a remarkable contribution to the history and historical archaeology of Southern Ethiopia. They present here an overview of their research.

(English version only)

Archaeological, ethnobotanical and historical research at Nagassa, Gamo-Gofa

Nagassa is located in Chencha district of the Gamo-Gofa Zone within the South Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State. The name “Nagassa’’ refers to the sacred forest in the area. The landscape is characterized by rugged mountain chains, high plateaus, undulating terrains, steep slopes, valleys and gorges. Nagassa occupies the highest point in the immediate vicinity of Ezo. Its highest point is a conical volcanic plug which outcrops large blocks and boulders of basalt rocks, some of which are pulled down the slope because of gravity.

Nagassa is covered by a rich and primary forest of indigenous origin. Just below it is a site that attests an ancient space management and use represented by ruins of homestead walls, well defined path ways delimited and demarcated with walls of dry stone. The terrain drops sharply in all directions from the Nagassa high point. Immediately below the ancient site, to the north, in the low lying area of the landscape, local people have settled in clustered homesteads surrounded by their farms and enset cultivations.


The map shows the Negassa area and the east/ west section of the site, just to the north of the top of the cone (credits: ARCC)
The map shows the Negassa area and the east/ west section of the site, just to the north of the top of the cone. Credits: ARCC

The slope shows traces of an ancient dry stone terrace system. The terrace rows have saddles which incline slightly to the north. The slope to the East of the main site shows old terraces constructed for cultivation indicating that there was a thriving agriculture. It is observed that old dry stone terraces are present in Nagassa forest and all around it.

Small portions of spaces are prepared and stabilized using dry stone terraces (credits: ARCC).
Small portions of spaces are prepared and stabilized using dry stone terraces. Credits: ARCC

Surface findings made in the general terraced area include: broken mortars used for grinding, smaller placket like stone implements, some picks with trihedral and quadrilateral cross sections. These picks might have been used as agricultural implements in the fields. The Nagassa sacred forest and archaeological site is also characterized by a network of path ways built using basalt boulders on both sides of the paths. These ancient pathways still serve as part of the trail connecting the Negassa sacred site with the adjacent areas to its north.

To the west of here just below the immediate slope and  the gently sloping (15 degree to the North) field, 10 columnar basalt blocs are found lined up in erect position. These erected stones are placed at 3 meters distance away from each other and in three rows in an open area which is 15x 20 meters wide.  It is noted that these blocks were erected to commemorate local heroes. Three loci were identified to test excavate the site and to retrieve archaeological data. Findings from these excavations include several pot shards, many obsidian and chert artifacts, animal bones, charcoal, a bead and charred barley.

Image of the bead. Credits: ARCC
Image of the bead. Credits: ARCC
Image of carbonized barley grain. Credits: ARCC
Image of carbonized barley grain. Credits: ARCC

In a very generalized comparison of  findings, it is possible to see a strong parallel between Nagassa and the Boreda highlands. Nine open-air settlement sites dated to between the 13th and  19th centuries in the Boreda highlands of Southern Ethiopia were described in studies by Weedman et al., 2009. Ethno-historic and ethnographic sources indicate that in the earlier periods high ranking men and women visited forest areas to pay tributes in barley and small animal sacrifices for the spirits of their ancestors.

It seems that the site of Nagassa has provided  evidence absent at the nine sites of the Boreda highland. Visible structures are not present in the latter case. Negassa, however, preserved complex structures at the top of the mountain and subsequent terraces at the shoulders and escarpments. The sacrificial grain which is missing at the sites of Boreda was available at Negassa. Carbonized grain of barly, Hordeum vulgare, and chaffs and glooms belonging to the same species were recovered from flotation of excavated soil. As  in the case of the sites at Boreda, a sacred forest is present in a mountain adjoining the site of Nagassa.

Beads recovered from the East African Swahili-speaking coastal areas and Madagascar demonstrated trade contacts from at least the 1st millennium AD. (Robertshaw et al., 2006, Kimura and Dinote 2009).

In the Konso society of Southern Ethiopia, older beads may have arrived from traders from  Kenya as in the case of  salt and iron. The Borena might have been responsible for bringing some of the beads overland from Kenya or Somalia, which in turn were acquired  from the Swahili coast (ibid). The Swahili coast is one of the probable trade routes for the glass beads of Konso. Inland in the Southern part of Ethiopia, Konso was probably one of the trading centres connecting the coast with the surrounding Gamo highlands.

Obsidian is a precious raw material for the inhabitants of Nagassa and its environs as can be discerned from the size of the stone tools they produce.  The source area or the out-crop of this raw material might have been very far. Most of the tools are less than 2 cms in length and the technology of making the tools is quite  refined. Microlithic tools, which are abundant at this site, are indicators of the Neolithic Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution. This does not mean that Nagassa belongs to the distant past. The inhabitants at the study area were probably settled agriculturalists of the recent  historic period (17th to 19th century) with advanced and complex manifestations.

Crop production mainly focusing on barley cultivation could only be reconstructed at this stage. According to the archaeological evidence, though small in sample size, meat eating was also an important means of gaining protein. The identification of a piece of bone with canine piercings on both sides from an occupational sequence is an indicator of carnivore activity. Milk was also a crucial part of the subsistence  base of the society as can be reconstructed from the semi-circular pottery used in the processing of milk.

The archaeological data gathered and interpreted here is perhaps a good beginning in approaching the medieval and post medieval history of the site and the surrounding Gamo highlands

Zala agricultural terraces

Zala is located in Gofa and consists of a plateau which extends about 72 kilo-meters from north to south and 24 kilo-meters from east to west.The Zala people are typically Ometo and their language belongs to the central Omotic language group. The two main subgroups are divided on the basis of presumed derivation from proto south Omotic (PSOM) and proto North Omotic (PROM) respectively. Ometic is a term for the languages groups included genetically in the north Omotic. The term Ometo refers to a language cluster that contains many dialect clusters.

All settled regions are separated from each other by the valleys which are not inhabited. In the past, the valleys used to be boundary lines between the kingdoms. The general settlement pattern was dispersed in less fertile area (especially lowland areas) and concentrated in villages in more fertile areas. The village centers are located along the two ridges sequentially, mostly confined to the sloping sides of ridges, and in some areas at the top of the mountains. The valley bottoms are used for cultivation, grazing and collection of wood and thatch. Agriculture is the basis of Zala’s economy. As the society used rudimentary or primitive agricultural tools, it could not produce a surplus; so production is subsistence based.

In former times, most of the agricultural activity was carried out by short-handled hoe, though the plough was used to some extent. Traditionally, people were unwilling to use plough agriculture much because they considered cattle as sacred and cattle had always been used for sacrifices. The people engaged in agricultural activities were mainly men. Those who were active could till land while the role of older women and men and children was to keep animals, to carry out less strenuous tasks and to participate in other social activities in their respective villages.

The Zala people have a long history of terrace making. They have intensive terrace agricultural farms like the Konso. In order to prevent soil from erosion, they build terraces from stone and wood. This terrace agricultural system was not properly documented until the preliminary maps were made through this research program. The preparation of land for sowing takes place twice annually.  The traditional calendar is based on four seasons. On this basis, there are two seasons of agricultural production.  Boree is a dry season and considered to be a season of good fortune; season of the first production period (from planting to harvesting). Balago, is the second production season. In addition, there are people believed to have astrological knowledge that allows them to predict periods of either success or failure in harvesting and to therefore advise about the proper time for planting. Zala has two climates zones; barego (corresponding to tropical) and gara (lowland). Major agricultural products include: badalla (Maize), Maledos (sorghum) and the cash crop fotto (cotton), pepper, teff, wheat, utsa (false banana), Tukia (coffee) roots, and vegetables. Weather conditions have often been unstable and can cause reductions in the agricultural productivity of Zala.

Dry stone terrace distribution map of Zala. Credits: ARCC
Dry stone terrace distribution map of Zala. Credits: ARCC
Terraces from Zela. Credits: ARCC
Terraces from Zela. Credits: ARCC

Tending cattle and other domestic animals is also important in the economic activity of Zala. Cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, mules and horses are the main domestic animals but the most important of these are cattle and goats. In addition, weaving, tannery, pottery and black smith are part of the economy of the traditional Zala.

Archaeological Research at Azga-Bodo Rock Art site in Kambata Tambaro Zone

The rock art site of Azga Bodo is found at Angacha district in Kambata Tambaro Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPRS). The site is located 357 kilometres from Addis Ababa, and 27 kilometres from Hosana.

Adjacent to the site, there is a seasonal river called Azga, which carries its maximum water level in June, July and August, the main rainy season in Ethiopia.

Location of the Azga site in Kambata. Credits: ARCC
Location of the Azga site in Kambata. Credits: ARCC
The excavation site. Credits: ARCC
The excavation site. Credits: ARCC

Several Artefacts identified as having been used for making the petroglyphic art are retrieved from insitu positions through excavation. The panel on which the rock art is engraved is ignimbrite and measures 460 cms in width and 300 cms in length. The orientation of the panel is 50 North-South and the panel is facing west wards. There are 23 cattle motifs engraved on the panel. Out of the 23 only one is decorated in dotted patterns.

Credits: ARCC
The rock art. Credits: ARCC

From the excavated site a total of 1398 materials were collected. Out of these 1258 are debitages, 119 flake, 5 scrapers, 8 engraving tools, 1 blade and 7 pottery fragments. In terms of raw material composition, all of the  debitages are on obsidian, 4 scrapers and 102 flakes are made on obsidian, 17 flakes are on chert, a blade and a scraper are on chert. In addition, 8 of the engraving tools are on ignimbrite.

The rock art at Azga Bodo is understood and interpreted in the context of both regional specific approach of the ‘Chabbe-Galma school’ as suggested by le Quellec (2003), and the wider Ethiopian-Arabian style (Graziosi 1964, Cervicek 1971; 1979). Both approaches helped to define the art at Azga Bodo. The stone tools from the site with the exception of the engraving tools were compared with Moche Borago rock shelter obsidian lithic industry, which Xavier Gutherz and colleagues (2000) explained as  neolithic without pottery, but with obsidian lithic industry (geometric segments).

Whether we follow the wider stylistic approach, Ethiopian-Arabian, to interpret the rock art at Ambaricho Wassara or the region specific approach of the ‘Chabbe- Galma School’, the basic motifs represented in both are similar. The basic motifs are the long horned cattle depictions with the fore and hind limbs pulled together, magnified udder and the cow and the calf theme. Except the absence of deep engravings, the style at Azga Bodo, can be interpreted in the context of the two schools. The flag-like extensions from the horns at Azga Bodo, which we perceive as decorations, have parallels at Chabbe and Galma.

Archaeological Investigations at Aroresa Rock Art Site in Sidama Zone, Ethiopia

Aroresa is located in Eastern Sidama, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS). It is situated at 37 UTM zone, 0487126 North, 0703281 East and at an altitude of 1546 meters, a relatively low-lying area in comparison to other rock art sites investigated by the team. Less than 50 meters from the site, there is a perennial river called Gambeltu.

The local inhabitants grow enset (Enset ventricusum), coffee (Coffea arabica), Finger millet (Eleusine coracana), wheat (Triticum monoccocum), maize (Zea maiz) sweat potato, potato and other root crops. Coffee is a cash crop for Sidama farmers and almost every household possesses a coffee plant in their home gardens and agricultural plots. As in most other places of the Southern part of Ethiopia, enset is a staple crop for the inhabitants of the study area. The local vegetation near the study area is composed of Ecalyptus, hygenia abyssinica, alex mits, Anitha bachiesa, Vernonia, Deslopedium peninervivum, Solancio gigas, Euphorbia, Nugia congesta.

Location of Aroresa. Credits: ARCC
Location of Aroresa. Credits: ARCC

There has not been any systematic survey or archaeological work conducted in the region except for the brief visit to Aroresa by Metasebia Bekele in 1996. No archaeological survey was undertaken in the area to locate other similar archaeological sites.

The Aroresa zoo-morph and geometric petroglyphs are made on a rock surface which might have been used as a shelter. Still, the cliff harboring the rock panel hangs over and protects the sediment (which is found below the panel and the engravings) from rain. The panel containing the rock art is 4.5 meters long and 1.5 meters high. The rock panel depicts several forms of zoo-morph and geometric figures. Some of the larger and elaborated enigmatic petroglyphs (individual forms) measure 50cms (in length) by 32 cms (in breadth).

Sediment found near and below the panel of engravings is in-situ.  At a depth of 45 and 52 centimeters below surface two stone tools (Choppers) made on basalt cobble was uncovered. They both show use mark along their cutting edges. In addition to the above two artifacts, an elephant semi fossilized molar, smaller and larger bones belonging to bovid were discovered. The rock used is fine grained basalt. Similar fine grained basalt cobbles of various shapes are abundantly found in the Gambeltu River, near the site (20metres away).

Artefact. Credits: ARCC
Artefact. Credits: ARCC
Artefact. Credits: ARCC
Artefact. Credits: ARCC
The rock art panel of Aroresa. Credits: ARCC

The rock art site of Aroressa provided further evidence of engraving tools in addition to the ones discoveries at Azga Bodo, Kambata, south Ethiopia. The enigmatic themes at the rock art panel are basically three (?). These themes are temporarily attributed to, as “vulva” (female reproductive organ), “penis” (male reproductive organ) and “snake”. These symbols are depicted several times. It is assumed that the petroglyphs at Aroressa represent ritual during a rite of passage. The argument is based on comparison and analogy with other enigmatic rock art and megalithic sites in southern Ethiopia and with the support of ethnographic observations of ethnic groups and nationalities in the region.

The “vulva” is assumed to be one of the themes represented on a boulder in an open air site at a rock art site in Gamo, near Chencha town. The petroglyph at this site is in a bad state of conservation. It is, however, possible to observe that a female reproductive organ is depicted on a boulder. Anthropomorphic and phallic steles are also common in Sintaro-Haranfama, Tuto-Fela and Tututi in Sidama zone. A sketch of decorated Sidama stele at Sintaro-Haranfama exhibits two vulva depictions. In line with the same argument, Abiyot (2007) argued that the stelae at Tuto-Fela represent carved symbolic circumcised male organs. According to him, the stelae represent the importance of fertility among the society.

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