The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 19th June 2008

Lalibela: towards an archaeological context

Given by - Dr Niall Finneran

Reviewed by - Suzie Grant

In June Dr Niall Finneran (lecturer in Medieval Archaeology at the University of Winchester) talked to the Society about his recent archaeological research at Lalibela. Although it has been the focus of extensive art-historical and architectural-historical study this Unesco World Heritage Site effectively exists in limbo, archaeologically, geographically and chronologically. With this landscape archaeology project Niall set about turning around methodological ideas and giving Lalibela a context, thereby gaining insight into the people of Ethiopia during the medieval period.

The work he described was undertaken in January 2008 as part of a collaborative five-year research programme, hosted by the University of Winchester and supported financially by the British Academy and French Institute of Ethiopian Studies (CFEE). This was the first phase of a project combining a walk-over survey, digital terrain mapping and remote sensing focusing upon the development of the town of Lalibela from the post-Axumite period.

The lecture began with the decline of the Axumite civilisation. We learnt that archaeologically speaking things get more interesting when societies start going wrong. Drawing on several archaeological models Niall discussed the effect of events such as the demise of international and domestic trading, the collapse of a centralised economy and the end of coinage. Although the Axumite empire began to collapse around the end of the 7th century, many of the features of Axumite culture (especially in terms of religious material culture) survived the collapse of the state, and a successor ‘chiefdom’ may have been centred on Degum in the Gheralta. Niall suggested that, in a sense, the development of Lalibela should be viewed as part of a continuum rather than rupture, a sort of southward migration from north to midlands to the southern highlands of the kingdom. Importantly the Agaw peoples, who later became rulers of the Zagwe dynasty, had been fully integrated into the Axumite polity and lived on the fringes of the Axumite empire.

The second part of the lecture introduced us to the landscape of Lalibela and a discussion of the findings by the French archaeologist Andre Miquel in the 1950s, and latterly by Francis Anfray. We saw slides of possibly significant Axumite material within the wider Lasta region, including the tombs of Chmet and the lion carving at Tchika-Beret. They perhaps suggest an Axumite period settlement in the Lalibela region. However, neither can be dated with certainty and no conclusions may be drawn by the attribution of Axumite-period royal dedications to churches such as those at Bilbala.

Next we looked at the findings of the January 2008 work. These included the identification of a possible hypogaean structure contemporary with the Beta Gabriel-Rufael excavations at Wa-Sha, almost opposite the site of Giyorgis church. Nearby there is what looks like a huge unfinished trench possibly built to link Lalibela with Wa-Sha, where perhaps work was stopped due to hitting poor quality material. At Lalibela a seam of very good quality volcanic tuff, the result of eruptions of Abuna Yosef, is surrounded by weaker material. It is the spoil heaps that give perhaps the best chance of dating Lalibela and it was hypothesised that the structures in the eastern group of churches could be dated if buried land surfaces beneath the main spoil heaps could be analysed.

Additional features of archaeological interest in the central area were pointed out and pottery finds suggested that possibly archaeological remains from an earlier settlement were disturbed when the churches were built. There is evidence of a pre-church settlement and some late Roman amphorae were found suggesting international trade. Few people think that King Lalibela built all the churches in one lifetime – Lalibela evolved. Although Lalibela was unified by the Zagwe kings it was thought unlikely that they lived there. What was likely is the Kings responded to local problems and came to settle disputes around Lalibela maybe for periods of around 18 months before moving on. Significant amounts of surface archaeological material were noted at localities which historically have played a strong role in the traditional accounts of the foundation of Lalibela and the political landscape of the Zagwe. These sites include the royal camp at Mekalt (Mekalalit) on an amba to the north-west of the town where, according to local people, Lalibela had a palace. Enlisting the help of children and local people in this area to walk the fields produced huge amounts of pottery finds. Of course much of this may be contemporary. Furthermore major archaeological deposits have been found in the valley of Adefa to the north of the town. According to oral tradition and local information Lalibela had a royal orphanage here. These are areas which it is hoped will be investigated using geophysical prospection techniques in the near future.

Following on from a preliminary set of observations in 2001 with Tania Tribe (SOAS), major archaeological sites were identified in the vicinity of the monasteries of Naakweto La’ab and Ganneta Maryam. The latter may represent the remains of one of the peripatetic camps of King Yekunno Amlak which are reported by contemporary chroniclers. High phosphate levels found in such areas, the result of manure from the many cattle which formed part of the camp, back up this proposal. A well found at Ganneta Maryam may be an elite construction with both secular and ecclesiastical functions; similar constructions are found at Naakweto La’ab and Yemrehanna Kristos.

Local people were involved at all stages of the work. Fortuitously the team encountered Gerald Gotzen on the terrace of the Seven Olives Hotel during one of his periodic visits to Lalibela, and with him they were able to discuss some interesting ideas concerning the status and history of the buda artisans who live to this day at Adefa, and who might represent the descendents of the original craftsmen who constructed the churches.

This is all work in progress and although little can definitely be dated so far, the work of developing an archaeological story as well as an art historical story will continue with the help of French and Ethiopian colleagues and input from SOAS. Hopefully this means there are several more lectures to come on this fascinating subject.

First Published in News File Winter 2008

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