So this summer I ended up traveling to Ethiopia to participate in a pilot archaeological study spearheaded by Dr. Michael Harrower, an assistant professor currently working at Johns Hopkins University. The overall goal of the project was to begin excavating a large, very important site known as Baita Semati, situated on a hill in the Mezbir Valley (located in the northern province of Tigray) that stands about 7 km from the Yeha Temple, the largest standing structure in Africa south of Egypt (built between 8th-5th century B.C.). British, German, and American teams led archaeological expeditions in this valley during the early to mid-20th century that largely focused on the major Yeha Temple site. Preliminary surveys limited in terms of scope, data collecting were literally conducted by archaeologists on mules in the Mezbir Valley. Small sites around the Yeha Temple were indeed recorded, but the majority of archaeological work has historically been concentrated on the Yeha Temple. Baita Semati represents the largest recorded site (approximately 20 ha) in relatively close proximity to the Yeha Temple (approximately 7 km). The site contains a high concentration of diagnostic pottery sherds as well as rectangular cut-stones, of which a few had apparently been dug out and used to fashion houses in a nearby village. Of important note, it is this type of cut-stone that was used to construct the Yeha Temple Could this site be the residential sector associated with the Yeha Temple? What is this site’s relationship to the other smaller sites recorded in the Mezbir Valley that are within line of sight? What is the chronology of the site? These are the salient questions that members of Dr. Harrower’s SRSAH (Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories) team sought to gain insight into.
We spent the majority of our time excavating a 2×6 trench on Baita Semati. Our approach to excavation was primarily digital-with an R4 base station and a GeoXH GPS device we were able to not only map out find spots, new layers, and new features but also record the majority our observations. Paper forms were indeed used (i.e. C-14 forms, photo logs, and bag logs) but they played a refreshingly nontraditional and minimal role in recording observations. Our GPS set-up allowed us to record archaeological data to within 2 cm. New layers were photographed with a photo-chit system-we distributed photo chits (small, laminated squares containing an I.D. number) across a layer, recorded their coordinates, and georeferenced and rectified the photos within arcGIS. These images can then be laid over the layers (which we recorded as outlines but will be post-processed as 3D polygons). We discovered large numbers of Aksumite (the prominent African empire that ruled from the 1st century A.D.-6th century A.D.) and Pre-Aksumite pottery, 5 coins that bear crosses and a sun-atop-crescent moon symbol of the southwestern Arabian god of Almaqah, glass slag, metal slag, beads, and a possible arrowhead. Since I plan to utilize arcGIS extensively in my future archaeological endeavors, I had a wonderful time learning about the integration between arcGIS/GPS tech and excavation. I particularly loved this streamlined approach to excavation as it is efficient, highly accurate, and more importantly, well-integrated within the arcGIS environment. This approach grants us with the possibility to utilize the analytical tools of arcGIS to frame our excavation in new exciting way in order to derive new insights. Overall, the excavation was incredibly productive and the site itself is quite promising!
Aside from the field experience, I had a great time learning about the Ethiopian culture. I was mistaken to be Ethiopian several times as numerous Ethiopians customarily spoke to me in their native language of Amharic (in the capital of Addis Ababa) or Tigrina (spoken in the northern province of Tigray, where we worked on our site). I’m not a huge fan of the country’s food, but I must say that it does offer a unique taste. Their staple food is injera, a spongy bread made of a crop called tef. Ethiopians wrap literally every other food that they cook (i.e. goat meat, fried chick peas, chicken, etc.) with injera, thereby obviating the need for eating utensils. Notable events of awesomeness included crashing an Ethiopian wedding with one of my supervisors in Aksum, finding an arrowhead on-site, and witnessing a few of Ethiopia’s most fascinating archaeological sites. I visited a tripartite sanctuary in Wuqro, Ethiopia that contains a remarkably preserved sacrificial altar complete with Sabean script, a bull spout, and a drain (presumably for blood or water) that leads into a round basin. I witnessed the towering stelae and underground internment chambers of Aksum (the capital of the Aksumite empire). I stood in front of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the rumored location of the Ark of the Covenant. I also marveled at the aforementioned Yeha Temple, made from cut stone that is so precisely fit together that one wouldn’t even be able to slide a thin piece of paper through the construction.
The extent of the poverty in the country was shocking and humbling at the same time (I’m used to seeing poverty, but not at this scale). While working at the site, we stayed in a very modestly outfitted field house with no hot water, limited electricity (a generator was turned on for around 2 hrs a day), and no internet. A beautiful view of the Ethiopian countryside and a quaint, peaceful atmosphere propelled us through our most difficult days of lab work. The living experience was quite refreshing because it led me to better appreciate the comfortable lifestyle I live back home and not take it for granted.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience both culturally and archaeologically. I hope everyone else had a wonderful time this past summer conducting fieldwork and I wish STARC, ArcSmart, and everyone else affiliated with USC archaeology the best this year. I hope to finish my grad school apps as soon as possible so I can fully enjoy my year off. Notable plans include interning at a Roman museum in Tongeren, Belgium and spending time with my Dutch relatives in Holland, annnnd doing more traveling of course!