The country of the standing stones: stela in Southern Ethiopia

Ethiopia is home to some of the most impressive archaeological remains in Africa, such as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the Axumite kingdom monoliths or the Gondar palaces. Most of these sites are located in northern Ethiopia, but to the south of the country there are also some remarkable archaeological remains, less well-known but which deserve attention. One of them is the dozens of graveyards located along the Rift valley and marked by hundreds of stone stelae of different types, usually decorated. Ethiopia holds the biggest concentration of steale in all Africa, a testimony of the complexity of the societies which inhabited the Horn of Africa at the beginning of the second millennium AD.

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Figure 1: engraved stela from Silté (now in the Addis Ababa National Museum), probably of a historic period, completely covered by symbols and human figure. Not yet uploaded (ETHTBU0090003)

Although some of the most impressive stelae are located to the north-east of Ethiopia, in the region where the Axumite Kingdom flourished between the 1st and the 10th centuries AD, the area with the highest concentration of stelae is to the south-west of the country, from the Manz region to the north of Addis Ababa to the border with Kenya. It is a extensive area which approximately follows the Rift Valley and the series of lakes that occupy its floor, and which roughly covers the Soddo, Wolayta and Sidamo regions. The region has a tropical climate and is fertile, with warm conditions being predominant and rainfall being quite abundant, with annual rates of 1200-1500 mm in the lower areas while in the highlands the rainfall reaches 2.000 mm per year.

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Figure 2: two stelae on which are carved human figures. The faces have carved stripes, sometimes interpreted as masks. Ambet, Soddo. Not yet uploaded (ETHTBU0080002)

Ethiopian stelae have been known to western scholars since the end of the 19th century, with the first examples documented in 1885 to the north of Addis Ababa and the news about the main group to the south arriving in 1905. The first archaeological works in the southern area took place in the 1920’s carried on by French and German researchers. The work of Père Azaïs was especially remarkable, with four expeditions undertaken between 1922 and 1926 which were partially published in 1931. Along with Azaïs, a German team from the Frobénius Institute started to study the site of Tuto Fela, a huge cemetery with hundreds of phallic and anthropomorphic stelae located in the Sidamo region. Since these early studies the archaeological remains were left unattended until the 1970’s, when Francis Anfray excavated the site of Gattira-Demma and organized a far more systematic survey in the area which documented dozens of stelae of different sizes and types. In the 1980’s, another French team started to study first Tiya and then Tuto Fela and another important site, Chelba-Tutitti, in a long-term project which has been going on for thirty years and has been paramount to understand the types, chronologies and distribution of these archaeological remains. The historical importance of these stelae was universally recognized in 1980, when Tiya was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Figure 3: view of the Tuto Fela site, showing some of the stelae standing over the burials. The stelae are anthropomorphic, corresponding to the second phase of the cemetery. Not yet uploaded (ETHSID0010002)

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Figure 4: Back of the Tiya stelae, showing the graves attached to them. Not yet uploaded (ETHTBU0050002)

The Ethiopian stelae show a great variability in shapes and decorations, but at least three main groups could be defined. The first corresponds to the so-called phallic stelae, long cylindrical stones with a hemispherical top delimited by a groove or ring (Jossaume 2012: 97). The body of the stela is sometimes decorated with simple geometric patterns. A second type is known as anthropomorphic, with the top of the piece carved to represent a face and the rest of the piece decorated with crossed patterns. These two types are common to the east of the Rift Valley lakes, while to the south of Addis Ababa and to the west of these lakes several other types are present, most of them representing anthropomorphs but sometimes plain instead of cylindrical. These figures are usually classified depending on the shape and especially the features engraved on them –masks, pendants, swords- with the most lavishly carved considered the most recent. Probably the best known group is that with swords represented, such as those of Tiya, characterized by plain stones in which groups of swords (up to nineteen) are depicted along with dots and other unidentified symbols. Not all the stelae have these weapons, although those that don’t are otherwise identical in shape and have other common signs engraved on them. Regarding their chronology the Ethiopian stela seem to be relatively new, dated from the 10th to the 13th centuries, sometimes with one type of stela superimposed on another and in other cases with old types being reused in later tombs.

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Examples of stelae. phallic cylindrical stela (Gido Wamba) Not yet uploaded (ETHSOD0050002)

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Examples of stelae. Plain stela with swords (Tiya). Not yet uploaded (ETHTBU0050025)

Regardless of their chronology and shape, most of the stela seem to have a funerary function, marking the tombs of deceased which were buried in cemeteries sometimes reaching hundreds of graves. The information collected from sites of such as Tuto Fela show that not all the burials had an attached stela, and considering the amount of work necessary to prepare them those which had could be interpreted as belonging to high status people. In some cases, such as in Tiya, it seems evident that the stela marked the graves of important personalities within their communities. It is difficult to determine who the groups that carved these stelae were, but given their chronology it seems that they could have been Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist communities absorbed by the Oromo expansion that took place in the sixteenth century. A lot of research has still to be done about these graveyards and their associated living spaces, and undoubtedly many groups of stelae are yet to be discovered. Those studied show, however, the potential interest of ancient communities still poorly known but which were able to develop complex societies and these material expressions of authority and power.

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Figure 6: stela graveyard in Meskem. Not yet uploaded (ETHTBU0010003)