PhD thesis: Alebachew Belay


Megaliths, Landscapes, and Society in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia:

An Archaeological Research

par/by Alebachew Belay

On September 25, 2020, Alebachew Belay defended his PhD thesis prepared at the Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès (UMR 5608 TRACES) under the supervision of François-Xavier Fauvelle. Alebachew Belay presents here the main results of his doctoral research on the megalithism of the central highlands of Ethiopia.


Megalithism is a wide-reaching subject with diverse temporal and typological frameworks. Meanwhile, it is one of the enigmatic research themes in archaeology, mostly characterized by controversies among scholars and collective memories in society. Major megalithic sites, particularly in Europe and Africa, continued to attract researchers from various disciplines. On the other hand, new megalithic sites are coming to light accidentally. Hence, it is among the fascinating areas of research that engage archaeologists across the world.

In Ethiopia, the archaeological study of megaliths was started by the beginning of the 20th century in the North and decades later in the South. Since then, several megalithic sites and monuments were noted and published. However, megalithic sites in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia were left unidentified for long. Their presence was first reported in the 1980s (Anfray 1983). Since then, archaeological surveys and excavations were taken-up. This effort of an Ethio-French team brought to light a previously unknown culture, later called the “Shay Culture” (Fauvelle & Poissonnier, 2012). The team conducted archaeological campaigns in a multi-disciplinary approach and documented nearly ninety tumuli in five districts of North Shewa. On this basis, excavations of three tumuli and stelae in Menz, and a hypogeum in South Wollo were conducted. Of these, the chronological establishments that place the Shay Culture between the 9th and 14th centuries and the findings from grave goods including ceramics throw light on the forgotten but magnificent megalithic culture that existed in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia.

After almost a decade of pause, the present PhD research commenced in 2016. It was targeted to broaden the scope and address major questions left in our understanding of Shay culture. In this case, major findings of the previous studies were drawn, and target priorities of the present study were set.

The primary focus of the present study is to determine the spatial context and typological framework of megalithic culture in the Central Highlands. Indeed, the study of the spatial distribution of monuments is as important as the study of their chronological transformations (Trigger, 2007: 281). Unless the extent of megalithic landscapes in the region is defined, it is impossible to be sure of the typological and temporal scopes of the culture with a limited area survey alone. Upon framing the geographic scope, the next focus is to look at the discrepancies in the monumental features of the megaliths as seen on the surface that led to the establishment of typo-morphological orders.

Meanwhile, the quest for settlement traces of the megalithic builders and ethnographic evidence was among the pressing issues awaiting an immediate response to magnify the scope of the Shay Culture. The study also strived to illustrate this newly discovered megalithic culture in the Central Highlands, in comparison with the northern and southern regions of megalithism in Ethiopia. Consequently, the findings of the present thesis yield stepping-stones towards further sub-surface investigations.

Accordingly, surveys were conducted in three fieldwork seasons that encompass South Wollo, North Shewa, and Oromo Special Zones in the Amhara Regional State. The campaigns enabled the collection of voluminous archaeological data on the megalithic monuments and landscapes to addressing the stated research questions. To this end, the post-fieldwork engagements in both Ethiopia and France led to sort and analyze field data and synthesize findings.

Figure 1. Location of the study area

Spatial and Typo-Morphological Features of the Megaliths

The spatial expanse of megalithic culture in the Central Highlands is defined by locating landscapes marked by megalithic structures. In this regard, the extensive fieldworks conducted in the region include fourteen districts in three administrative zones of the Amhara Regional State. As compared to the three districts already prospected by an Ethio-French team two decades back, eleven new districts are added under this project. Not only the number of districts but also the number of monuments within the already prospected districts in Menz area augmented from about ninety in the previous documentation to nearly a hundred and sixty including most of the previously prospected sites.

The north-south stretch of megalithic sites in the present study lies between the towns of Dessie and Debre Berhan. It is, however, difficult to be conclusive on the number of monuments as well as districts and even zones since there are possibilities to locate other megalithic structures, particularly stelae out of the present delineation. Based on quantitative and qualitative measurements, the area of Menz is identified as the core of megalithic monumentality in the Central Highlands. Save the disparities that may occur in chronology after sub-surface investigations, monuments to be identified out of the reach of the present researcher can be included in the other two spatial classifications, namely, periphery-core and periphery zones.

Figure 2. Spatial classification of the megalithic sites in the Central Highlands

The other important aspect of the spatial distribution analysis is the connection between megalithic sites and specific geographic features, particularly rivers. Most of the megalithic sites are positioned alongside rivers. This contextual assessment permits comparative studies with megalithic sites elsewhere in Ethiopia, and it is counted among the peculiar characters of the region for megalithic sites in northern and southern Ethiopia are not mostly based nearby rivers. This may also have a reflection on the religious dimension and question of resource accessibility for rituals and buildings.

Based on disparities in the spatial distribution and relative density of monuments from one place to the other, two alternative routes are proposed to track the origin and advancement as well as the final demise of megalithic building tradition in the region. These are West-East and Out of Core hypotheses. In this case, two areas are identified as the alternative points of start-ups, namely Mida Woremo District and Menz area, respectively. In both cases, areas of advancement and termination are the same, i.e. Menz and Efrata-Gedem respectively, because there are observable advancements in megalithic monumentality and divergence in typo-morphology eastward from Menz to Efrata-Gedem. Thus, apart from the number of monuments in different parts of the study area, typological and morphological frameworks are also taken into consideration to establish these hypotheses.

Typologically, over three hundred megalithic structures identified during this research are grouped into six. Comprising nearly 85% of the megalithic monuments, tumulus is a dominant type, which is the other typical character of megalithic culture in the region, in contrast to the stelae dominated north and southern megalithic regions of Ethiopia. This would not be attributed to geological factors alone for there are stelae mainly on the eastern side. Moreover, as seen from the previously excavated and partly exposed monuments, the internal structures of the tumuli comprise gigantic stone blocks. Hence, it rather assures their funerary function and the tradition of continuous disposal of the dead executed probably for generations. As seen on the surface, the form of these hundreds of tumuli is also diverse ranging from simple earthen ones and loosely piled cairns to gigantic built monuments. The disparities in morphology and composition further indicate the genesis of tumulus building practices.

Figure 3. Distribution of different types of megaliths in the Central Highlands

In this regard, the two extraordinary megalithic sites in Menz, both called Sayǝṭān Gur are the best examples of the prevalence of an advanced megalithic building tradition in the region. The monumental organization witnesses that the sites possibly served dual functions as the seat of politico-religious elites and centres for elaborated rituals.

Figure 4. Sayǝṭān Gur, Menz Lalo

Although one can expect the presence of local rituals in most of the sites, these two sites must have served for annual feasts. This is noticed from the arrangement of stelae, tumuli as well as the platforms. One of these two, namely, Sayǝṭān Gur of Menz Mama has extraordinary architectural features that led the present researcher to regard it as a “temple mound”. The chamber built over a pre-existing tumulus accessed by a tunnel with an arch-like open field in front infers the religious importance of the deceased buried beneath this chamber. This also suggests the prevalence of ancestral cult in the area during the megalithic age.

Figure 5. Sayǝṭān Gur, Menz Mama

Concerning the stelae, it is found that what is more important in the Central Highlands is not the quantity but the presence of monoliths with indicators of the genesis of stelae making in the region. Morphologically, they are grouped into two, viz. crude and dressed-decorated. Moreover, the symbolic representations, including phallic, anthropomorphic as well as phallico-anthropomorphic characters that corroborate the dressed stelae, in particular, are essential for two reasons. The first is the presence of stelae combining both phallic and anthropomorphic characters, which I called phallico-anthropomorphic, and shared attributes with those in the southernmost parts of the country such as Tuto Fela.

It is also noted from the previously excavated stelae of Neb Gedel that there are monoliths with no human remains beneath. Apart from Neb Gedel, five other stelae fields are found adjacent to the tumuli, and the co-relation between these two types of megaliths requires further effort. In addition to the presumption of commemorative intentions, these sites must be checked for astronomical inferences as well.

The stelae fields in Efrata-Gedem also possess corresponding elements to the megalithic Islamic graves found in adjacent regions that are roughly dated from the 13th to 16th centuries. Some of the symbols over the recently identified stelae are found to resemble symbols on the monoliths of the graveyards. Similarly, the earliest post-megalithic megachurches were built using massive monoliths. This hints the northward and eastward transformation of megalithism along with the religious alteration following the introduction of Christianity and Islam.

The other three types, i.e. dolmen, hypogeum, and monolithic lion statue, are limited in quantity and positioned in the periphery zone. These monuments are grouped among megalithic monuments of the region on account of their structural features and shared material composition, such as ceramics with the tumuli for instance in the case of hypogea. Meanwhile, these structures can be seen as signals in the northward spread of megalithism with a change in morphology and perhaps suggests the gradual shift in the religious orientation from Paganism to Christianity. For example, the cross symbols on the ceramics from Ketetiya and over the lion statue can be taken as references. On this basis, I contend that there were structural and symbolic transferences in the region from megalithic pagan culture to the subsequent Islamic and Christian art and architecture.

On the other hand, the presence of gigantic tumuli in greater quantity could also mean that the culture prevailed in the region for centuries and there and there existed organized socio-political and religious establishments. In this case, I agree with the suggestion that François-Xavier Fauvelle made recently on the existence of structured political units, such as kingdoms that commissioned the megalithic building projects, even though it is hardly possible to specify (Fauvelle, 2020).

Settlement Landscapes

The attention paid to uncover typological disparities also paved the way to a quest for settlement traces of the megalithic builders. The magnitude of drystone walls positioned in the vicinity of (sometimes enclosing) other megalithic monuments is evident. This approach yields double benefit, viz., encompassing all drystone structures under megalithic category and a sideways consideration of manifold variables, settlement in this case, towards a multi-dimensional understanding of the megalithic society in the region. The diverse organization and dimension of over thirty drystone walls recorded in the study area hints on the then socio-religious milieu. At this juncture, the present researcher argues that the megalithic society paid more attention to the dead than the living. That may be why we are unable to come across well-defined settlement structures, while the tumuli and stelae, which are the abodes and markers of the dead, were built well to transcend the ravage of time.

The material traces, particularly ceramics that found in both enclosures and tumuli areas, informed the craftsmanship of the makers, and in some cases, inter- and intra-regional exchanges. The ceramic objects and potsherds collected under the present project shared several elements with the previous ceramic collection. The comparative study employed to get an overview of the ceramic culture yields a range of information to understand these diverse materials. For instance, Potsherds with diagnostic elements showed a variety of marks from simple grooves and incisions to overlaid zigzag and fingerprint symbols. Crude potsherds in varied forms also imply their local origin. Therefore, the evolution of ceramic technology probably parallels the genesis of megalithism in the area.

Figure 6. Ceramic samples collected from the megalithic sites

On the other hand, some sherds resemble in form and decoration to the previously discovered Shay Culture ceramics. Furthermore, there is similar ceramic evidence identified further north as far as Matara in Eritrea. And so, ceramic production and use had an obvious connection with the presence of organized craftsmen within the region and strong trading network northward. Besides, different types of grinding stone tools were collected and analyzed in detail as supplementary settlement markers.

In sum, including settlement archaeology as one of the issues in the present study provides hints not only on the megalithic buildings but also on the lives of the builders, because the other megalithic monuments, such as tumuli were mainly attributed to mortuary functions.


The other outcome of the present thesis is the relative chronology established based on the typo-morphological analysis of megalithic monuments. In this case, the monumental appearance of the tumuli in size, form, and style of building, as well as the evolution of stelae from undressed to well-dressed and decorated ones with respective traces of geographic routes, are the bases. Meanwhile, the sporadic appearance of other forms of megaliths further north in the periphery areas attributed to the gradual change in type that corresponds to the previous 14C dates (9th to 14th centuries AD) obtained from a tumulus and a hypogeum. On this basis, it is possible to postulate that tumuli mainly small and earthen types ante-date the stelae for there was a gradual eastward advance with a steady change in typology from the former to the latter, i.e. the proportion of stelae and tumuli reduce gradually towards the east and culminated by dressed and decorated monoliths.

Figure 7. Typological chronology of megaliths in the central highlands

Despite the earliest 14C date (9th century AD) that we have, it is impossible to take it as a period of origin because it still requires to dating more representative samples from different corners of the region and types. However, it is possible to suggest that the megalithic culture started to demise with the introduction of Christianity and Islam in the area. The Christianization and Islamization process prevailed in the region from the 10th to 14th centuries AD. This period also implies the parallel existence of local religions with the newly introduced Monotheistic cults. Besides, historical sources indicate that up to the 16th century, the major victims of slavery for both Christian and Muslim kings were pagans of the region.

However, there is no direct historical reference so far discovered about this culture, except traditions that attribute some of the monuments to the sometimes unidentified political figures (both men and women). This historical obscurity could also lead to presume that it was a pre-literate civilization, at least in the region. That is why Roger Joussaume and his team seldom regarded megalithic culture in the south as “protohistoric” culture, though C-14 dates informed their medieval root. In this respect, the undeciphered symbolic impressions on some of the stelae, ceramics, and a lion statue reflect the artistic consciousness of the society that may qualify it to be a proto-historic culture as well.

Furthermore, cross-dating with the megaliths of southern Ethiopia (10th to 16th centuries) provided a result which is almost contemporary to the aforementioned chronometric dates. Thus, it is possible to hypothesize that the megalithic societies in the Central Highlands were in connection and communication with their counterparts in southern Ethiopia. To this end, they shared symbolic and morphological representations; chronologically, they belong to the medieval period (between 9th and 16th centuries AD) and possess similar material compositions such as beads.

Megaliths and Local Memory

The last topic addressed in the thesis is on local memory exemplified in the forms of legend and ritual performance. The myths have reflections on the monuments, their builders, internal compositions, etc. Most of these local opinions are not issues to take for granted. Nevertheless, there are ideas with impacts on the wellbeing of the monuments positively or otherwise across periods. The on-going rituals at over five sites are all based on annual Christian feasts and performed in direct and indirect connections to the megaliths. In some of these feasts, particularly at Sayǝṭān Gur in Menz Lalo, there is a practice of placing foodstuff atop the stelae with the belief that the spirits would come and enjoy it. This faith is odd when performed by the Christian community as part of a Christian feast. The implications are two, viz. the desire to appease the spirits presumed to dwell in these monuments and inheritance or reinvention of pre-existing megalithic traditions.

This syncretic religious activity clues the existing network between the society and megalithic sites on the one hand, and the manner that the people perceive the megaliths on the other. Meanwhile, there are cases of misperceptions reflected in the form of rituals performed by robbers before they start to open the tumuli, which were mostly unsuccessful and aborted for ferocious nightmares.

Looking at the different and sometimes contradictory mythologies that surround the megaliths it is possible to deduce that lack of knowledge on the why and when about of these monuments forced the society to fabricate myths that could content their knowledge pursuit. This seems to have occurred after the introduction of Christianity in the case of the plateau, where there are testimonies of competitions.

The names of monuments, particularly those with astonishing architectural complex, are related to Satan that clearly shows the attempts to devilize the local or pagan religious icons. The competition was further demonstrated by the magnificent churches built within the megalithic area. The use of gigantic stones for the church building also proves the efforts to outshine pagan monuments. This process perhaps played a role to accelerate Christianization in the region. Despite the sporadic presence of megalithic structures, I assume that the north and eastward spread of megalithic culture to the then Amhara and Ifat provinces was challenged by the early introduction of Christianity and Islam in the areas.

Indeed, the official introduction of Christianity marked by the building of royally commissioned churches in Menz (core zone) was somehow late compared to the adjacent areas of Amhara. This can be attributed to the geographic remoteness as well as the presence of strong pagan establishments in the former. Generally, the demonization of the pre-existing pagan heritage was realized through the building of megachurches that surpass megalithic monuments, and the identification of megalithic monuments with Satan and devilish figures.

In the latter case, for instance, there are several megaliths associated with Grañ, a 16th-century Muslim leader. This was apparently among the techniques hired to keep people away from these pagan monuments and associated practices because the image that this political figure has had among Christian Ethiopians is all negative for he caused the incalculable loss of Christian heritage in the region.

The other fascinating aspect of local memory in the central highlands is the prevalence of shared elements with megaliths elsewhere in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Two of these cases are the legends related to giants and petrification.

In general, the present study rectifies the issues related to the spatial and typological frameworks of the shay culture, that in-turn led to determine the synergy of megaliths, landscapes, and society in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia. The findings also imply the ways to the up-coming sub-surface investigations and comparative studies.


The next focus would be on three major issues, viz., research, conservation, and valorization requirements that will pave the way to understand the Shay culture further and contribute to the preservation of the megaliths. The research part will have two parts, i.e., excavation and comparative study.

The excavation campaign requires employing rescue and deliberate approaches. In the former case, the remaining archaeological evidence in the monuments, which are in a destroyed and poor preservation condition need to be recovered soon. Meanwhile, excavation of sample sites from the less disturbed and those in a good preservation state is also important, which will be carried out progressively following predefined archaeological procedures. And this requires building a multi-disciplinary team, including geologists and biological anthropologists, among others. Moreover, the use of geophysical survey equipment, such as drones, resistivity surveys, is equally important.

Comparative religious and cross-regional studies should also be another strategy employed to some extent in the present study as well as in the preceding Shay culture research. The hints acquired in these two projects proved that this approach should continue in all directions from the Central Highlands. Apart from understanding the network, this will ultimately enable us to map the complete picture of megalithism in Ethiopia. In the meantime, conservation interventions and associated valorization activities on selected sites will contribute a lot to the successful implementation of the above strategies.


Anfray F., 1983, Tumulus, pierres levées et autres vestiges dans le Manz en Éthiopie, in Segert J. & Bodrogligeti J.E. (eds.), Ethiopian studies dedicated to Wolf Leslau on the occasion his seventy-fifth birthday, November 14th 1981, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, pp. 508-518.

Fauvelle F.-X., 2020, Of Conversion and Conversation: Followers of Local Religions in Medieval Ethiopia, in Kelly S. (ed.), A companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea, Leiden, Brill, pp. 113-141.

Fauvelle-Aymar F.-X., & Poissonnier B. (eds.), 2012, La culture Shay d’Ethiopie (Xe-XIVe siècles). Recherches archéologiques et historiques sur une élite païenne, Annales d’Éthiopie hors-série 3, Paris, De Boccard/CFEE.

Trigger B., 2007, A History of Archaeological Thought, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


I am an Assistant Professor in Archaeology at Debre Berhan University. I am Specially interested in Megalithic and Medieval Archaeology.

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