Kwiha (Ethiopia, Tigray): An aksumite settlement (2nd-7th cent. AD).

Introduction

From the second century AD, inside the expanded Aksumite kingdom, a number of flourishing urban communities appeared. Although not very much is known yet about the settlement pattern of the kingdom, it has been possible to identify a number of well-populated areas. Most of the cities and villages are located along the main roads north and east of Aksum towards Adulis, like Matarâ, Qohayto, Tekondo-Maryam (fig. 1). They must have developed along the main trade and supply route and at cross-roads leading into the interior. Most of these settlements lay in areas forfarming, nearby permanent or seasonal rivers and traces of land-use have been widely recorded. Some groups of mansions with dependencies are known in the country, but little is known about the chronological development of these so-called “villas”.

Fig. 1: Map of the main aksumite sites in Tigray (Northern Ethiopia)

While the settlements to the east of Aksum are relatively well documented, at the beginning of the first century AD most of the pre-aksumite sites east of Aksum (Mezber, Ona Adi, usw) appear to have been abandoned (D’Andrea, Welton: 20-21). It is much less the case for the Aksumite sites to the south-east, like Wakarida. Only the Aksumite sites of Hawzien, Gud Baḥri, Agulla Ĉerkos, Nāzāre (Māryām Nāzrēt) and Mifsas Baḥri (Gaudiello-Yule, 2017) have been studied and excavated, notably the recent excavations of Gud Baḥri by Hiluf Berhe. As the cities of Agulla Ĉerkos and Māryām Nâzrēt are almost 130km apart, it is likely that there was an intermediate settlement. From the 1930s onwards, research focused on the villages of Hegre Hariba – a site known for its medieval occupation – and Ĉerkos Kwiha that we’ll describe below.

The site of Čerkos Kwiḥa

The site of Čerkos Kwiḥa is located on the northern rim of Kwiḥa, some ten kilometres east of Mekelle, the capital of the regional state of Tigray. The toponym Enda Čerkos, which applies to the hill dominating the road to Wuqro culminating at an altitude of 2,150 metres, derives its name from the modern church that crowns it. The site is well irrigated by several rivers, with the Dolo/Gembela to the north and May Bandera to the east, joining to create a particularly fertile area to the north-east of Čerkos Kwiḥa.

Because Kwiha is situated on the route leading to the Afar Depression, along the Red Sea, with its salt mines, it was probably a trading centre from ancient times and throughout the medieval period. There were Muslim trading communities living side by side with the Christian community. Travelers and scholars have found a number of inscriptions in Arabic in Kwiha, more precisely in the settlement of Wegre Hariba, dating back to the 10th-13th centuries.

The ancient site of Kwiha occupies a rocky spur dominating wide areas to the North, and May Bandéra River to the East (Breton-Aytenew, 2019).This permanent water resource emphasizes the central position of the site, and gardens are still cultivated in its narrow valley. In the northern corner stands the compound of the church of de Čerkos Kwiḥa with its cemetery. The modern church, built directly over the ancient mud-brick one, is a landmark visible from afar. All around the church there are remains of the ancient settlement of Kwiha.

About 300m south of the Enda Ĉerkos Church lie the ruins of a monumental building (Building 1) some 13.70m long by 7.5m wide (fig. 2). The plan was drawn in October 2014 after the cleaning of the whole eastern part. These remains consist of large limestone blocks lying on the ground, which are readily identified as stone bases, pillars with capitals and roofing slabs. From this plan, one can hypothetically reconstruct a three-aisles church orientated east to west.

Fig. 2: The southern building (1) with pillars and roof slabs (photo. J.-F. Breton)
Surveys and excavations

The site has been the subject of several studies and reports had remained unexcavated  until December 2018, when an initial survey was carried out by a Franco-Ethiopian team in parallel with the excavation of the medieval Muslim cemetery of Bilet located a few hundred metres further east. The two excavation campaigns carried out in 2018 and 2019 were part of the HornEast ERC project. This project aims to document the relationships between Christian societies in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Nubia) and their Islamic environment at local and regional levels during the medieval millennium. The excavation of the buildings was conducted by Simon Dorso, Hiluf Berhe and Elise Mercier (Dorso, Breton, Berhe et alii, forthcoming). Within this project two missions to study the pottery collected in 2018 were carried out in 2022 and one in October 2023 by Jean-François Breton in Addis Ababa’ Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH).

Only the structures and archaeological levels currently attributable to the Aksumite period, here between the 2nd and 9th centuries, are described here. In sector 2, the Aksumite occupation is represented by two buildings, reoccupied and redeveloped on several occasions but dismantled and abandoned before the middle of the 11th century.

The buildings

The eastern building, partially excavated in 2019, is located in the south-east corner of the sector (fig. 3). It consists of three perimeter walls running south-east/north-west and four internal walls running perpendicular or parallel to the former (fig. 4). The building as a whole is of a uniform construction style, part-worked rubble bonded with earth and displaying the characteristics of Aksumite architecture. It is most probably the podium of an Aksumite-type building whose superstructures have disappeared.Two metres to the west of the building described above, a second building, with a divergent orientation, can be distinguished from the previous one by the use of irregular ashlar masonry.

Fig. 3: Plan of the excavated zone (plan. D. Ollivier and S. Dorso)
Fig. 4: The eastern building, the southern part of the uncovered in Area 2 in 2018-2019 and pottery preserved on the floor (photo. Simon Dorso).

Three radiocarbon dates from charcoal samples sealed in sedimentary levels were obtained for US 2118, 2111 and 210 (Dorso, Breton, et alii forthcoming).They reveal the following sequence. During phase I, the construction of the west building and its first occupation in its primitive state probably took place between the second quarter of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 4th century. The building then had between 6 and 9 rooms, with an aksumite layout.

The pottery, preliminary results

From 2019 to 2023, we studied some of the pottery from aksumite levels (about 500 pieces). The pottery comes from the stratigraphic unit  BIL. 2003, US BIL. 2004, US BIL.2006, US BIL. 2012, 2045, 2096, 2103 (fig. 5).

The pottery from Kwiḥa Čerkos shows some similarities with material from Wakarida and Mifsas Bahri. The sherds of “Purple Painted Aksumite ware” (fig.6) type are nevertheless reminiscent of the Aksumite pieces presented with their painted and then incised cross decorations.

Fig. 5: The pottery: some vases (drawing J.-F. Breton/ R. Douaud)

No luxury ware has been found so farand for the moment and we should note the small proportion of imports consisting of a few rare fragments of amphorae of the so-called Ayla/Aksum or Aqaba type, generally dated to the 3rd-6th centuries and found in the sites of Matarâ, Adulis, Axum, Mifsas Baḥri (Gaudiello, Yule, 2017: 128-30, fig. 7.13.35-36; 144-5) as well as in South Arabia, notably in the royal palace of Shabwa (between the 4th and 6th centuries).

A clay female statuette was found on the surface of the tell (height 5cm, width: 5cm, diam.: 3.5cm (fig. 6). The chest is decorated, between the breasts, with a central cross surmounted by a line of six small circular hollows. The back also features a line of eight circular cavities completing this “necklace”. As the cross on the chest was made after it was fired, the statuette therefore predates the spread of Christianity in Tigray around the 4th cent. AD.

Fig. 6: Painted ware and the female statuette (drawing J.-F. Breton/ R. Douaud)

Kwiha enjoys a favorable position on the north-south road linking the main Aksumite towns. First of all, the town’s agricultural land is well watered by perennial rivers (May Hawy, Bandéra, Dollo and Gambela rivers). Secondly, its topographical position atop a rocky spur (2150m.) gave it control over vast areas.

The excavation, albeit partial, revealed an Aksumite occupation consisting of a large building (east building) and a later one (west building), demonstrating the longevity of the site until well after the disappearance of the Aksumite occupation. Although only some of the ceramic finds have been processed (the rest having been deposited at Mekelle), it is possible to draw some provisional conclusions. The pots and storage vessels clearly demonstrate the existence of a rural population, while luxury ceramics are extremely rare. Further excavation should help to clarify how the economic situation evolved in the Kwiha region throughout the Aksumite period.

References

D’Andrea A., Welton, L., Manzo A., Woldekiros H. S., Brandt S. A. and alii. 2023. The Pre-Aksumite Period: indigenous origin and development in the Horn of Africa, Aizana, 329-392. 

Breton, J.-F., Aytenew Y. .2019. Kwiha (Tigray, Ethiopia): the Aksumite city, Afrique : Archéologie & Arts (15), 53-66.

Dorso, S., Breton J.-F., Berhe, H., Mercier, E. (forthcoming)  L’occupation aksoumite du site de Čärqos Kwiḥa (Enderta, Tigray, Ethiopie) : chronologie, architecture et culture matérielle à l’issue de deux campagnes de fouilles (2018-2019) », Annales d’Ethiopie, n° 36, 2025.

Loiseau J., Dorso S., Gleize Y., Ollivier D., Deresse Ayenachew, Hiluf Berhe, Chekroun A., Hirsch B. 2021. Bilet and the wider world: new insights into the archaeology of Islam in Tigray, Antiquity (95- 380), 508-529.

Gaudiello M. & Yule P. A. (dir.) .2017. Mifsas Bahri: a Late Aksumite Frontier Community in the Mountains of Southern Tigray, Oxford, BAR Publishing.

Website: https:// archeologie.culture.fr/axoum

Les auteurs

Jean-François Breton est Directeur honoraire de recherche au CNRS, ancien directeur des fouilles franco-yéménites de Shabwa, Dura’ et Jawf (Yémen), ancien directeur du Centre français des Etudes éthiopiennes.  Il est membre de l’UMR 7041, ARSCAN. Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Monde, Nanterre.

Simon Dorso est Chercheur post-doctorant au sein du projet ANR-ECOMED. Les économies méditerranéennes à la fin du Moyen-Age (ca 1350- ca 1500) : crises, reconstructions, restructurations. ERC HornEast, Institut de Recherche sur les Mondes Arabes et Musulmans (IREMAM), Aix-en-Provence.

Hiluf Berhe est archéologue, Department of Archaeology, Mekelle University, Ethiopia.



Citer ce billet
Jean-François Breton, Simon Dorso et Hiluf Berhe (2024, 24 mai). Kwiha (Ethiopia, Tigray): An aksumite settlement (2nd-7th cent. AD). ArchéOrient - Le Blog. Consulté le 16 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11pvb

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