Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Sabaean Temple of Almaqah in Addi Akaweh (Tigray), Ethiopia

Dr Pawel Wolf gave the MBI Al Jaber Public Lecture at the British Museum this year as part of the annual Seminar for Arabia Studies. The lecture was entitled 'Colonisation or Culture Transfer? The Almaqah temple of Wuqro (Tigray) sheds new light on Ethio-Sabaean culture contacts in the Northern Horn of Africa' and gave an insight into the fascinating work of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) over the past few seasons.

Addi Akaweh, 2000 m above sea level, is in a region of Tigray which has not yet been explored for archaeological material.  In the north of the Abyssinian highlands, the region is about 50 km north of the provincial capital of Mekelle, and seems to have been of importance due to its proximity to the ancient trade routes southeast of the main ancient centres of Axum and Yeha.

The temple of the Sabaean God Almaqah  is one of the main archaeological discoveries of the area, though there are signs of an ancient settlement nearby and some building believed to have a sacred use at nearby Ziban Adi. They belong to a settlement area of the 1st millennium BC, a period of crucial social development in the Abyssinian highlands.

Since the Neolithic period, the Abyssinian highlands were part of a far-flung network of exchange relationships between North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and both African and South Arabian cultural components can be seen in its development. South Arabian inscriptions, temples and sculptures from the early 1st millennium BC, have been found at Yeha and Hawlti.

Various models of social development have been applied to explain the strong South Arabian presence such as colonization or economic and cultural relations. More research and work needs to be carried out before the contacts can be properly understood.  

The primary objective of the work of the DAI in Addi Akaweh is to comprehensively record and explore the archaeological material to shed light on the local cultural transformation in the context of regional contacts. Intercultural contacts and external relations with neighbouring cultural areas such as South Arabia, the Nile Valley and the south are still unexplored, and need to be investigated cross-regionally.

The Almaqah temple offers the ideal opportunity for the study of specific religious cultural components. The reconstruction of spatial concepts, ritual procedures and votive practices sheds light on the sacral-political space of the regional elite.  The temple was built in the 8th to 6th centuries BC on the ruins of an earlier building and continued in use with several modifications to probably the 3rd century BC.  It resembles the early South Arabian religious buildings in form and is built from local stone. Some of its most important features are a betyl made from naturally rounded boulders and perfectly preserved and libation altar donated by a hitherto unknown king named W'RN. His dedicatory inscription proves the ancient name of Yeha for the first time and demonstrates its importance as a national religious and political centre.  It also shows that elements of royal elite cultural and ideological traditions of South Arabia and the African region are used together. C14 dating confirmed the Ethiopian Sabaean inscriptions to date to the 7th century BC.
Photo: DAI, Pawel Wolf 
Votive offerings such as incense burners and the statue of a seated woman shed light on the cult practices of the elite and the "non-elite" are represented by various votive offerings. Archaeometry studies show that some of the come from other geographic areas of the Abyssinian highlands. Ceramics and miniature vessels have parallels in northern Tigray and Eritrea (for example the Ancient Ona culture). Individual vessel shapes and objects are also known from the elite tombs at Yeha and South Arabia.

So the contacts and cultural interchange are well-evidenced, but the social model to explain the contact is still unclear. Masons’ marks on the beautiful and well preserved libation altar show the local stone to have been worked by a South Arabian craftsman. What role did the Sabaeans play in the Abyssinian highlands at the beginning of the first millennium BC?  Surely this was connected to the incense trade and the all-important trade routes across the desert. It is to be hoped that new research and the continuing efforts of the joint Ethiopian-German team will shed light on this fascinating ‘cultural transfer’.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

New research on the Hellenistic Theatre in Apollonia

The German Archaeological Institute is working at Apollonia in Albania to try and understand the original form of the theatre there and to attempt at least a partial reconstruction. Their goal is to reconstruct the theatre in a basic form and record changes over time, dating individual phases and fitting them into the history of the city.

The theatre at Apollonia poses several important questions including about local variations in theatre plans (in terms of Greek theatres it is an unusual plan, but it may have counterparts in other Illyrian cities) and the date of the introduction of formal theatres (a sequence of phases under the stage and orchestra may suggest that there was some kind of theatre in the pre-Hellenistic period).

At work on the orchestra area 
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 
Apollonia’s theatre is located in the centre of the town on the western slope of the hill and provides a connection between the upper and lower town. Theatres are a key element of cities in the Hellenistic period. Archaic and classical period towns had buildings and facilities used for the staging of performances and the Assembly of citizens, and also a central area for gatherings and speeches, but the conventional form of theatre construction, being a monumental structure with a large area for spectators including places for notables and a structured stage dates mainly to the second half of the 4th and the 3rd centuries BC. Since then, all cities possessed some type of theatre.

In the Hellenistic period in addition to the traditional function, theatres were used for the performance of games, a place where citizens were honoured by their polis, and were sometimes the physical manifestation of benefaction by wealthy citizens who wished to conspicuously display their wealth. They may also have been used for cultic practices.  Thus, the theatre was an important place for the cultural tradition and social hierarchy of a town.

Since the 3rd century BC monumental theatres were a key part of towns situated at the edge of the Greek world, for example in Babylon (Mesopotamia) and Ai Khanoum (Bactria).  The theatre may have held the role of a signifier of Hellenistic culture. However, in the Greek cities of the Hellenistic period, there is a huge variety of size, type, features and location of the theatre on the Greek mainland and in Asia Minor and in some cities of central importance theatres have not yet been discovered (for example Alexandria, Antioch, Pella).

The Germans are examining several theatres in Albania in order to shed light on the questions posed above.  The theatres are all currently dated to the second half of the 3rd century BC and are in three cities with very different characteristics.

Excavations in the theatre of Apollonia started in the seventies (1971) and in the orchestra, the stage and at the bottom of the cavea.  The orchestra was circa. 18 m in diameter and individual sectors of the cavea were marked with letters that have been associated with individual tribes on the front of the lowest level. It is calculated that the capacity of the theatre was between 6,000 - 8,000. The stage had a proscenium with the Ionic order and places for paintings. Less certain is that there may have been a second Ionic order with a scroll and a richly decorated Doric frieze. The decoration may give some clue to dating, though of course there may have been alterations over time. In Late Antiquity a basilica was built, with the apse covering part of the original backstage buildings.

Drainage under the orchestra 
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 
A programme of documentation and stone removal is now underway. A donor’s inscription has been discovered (YΛOY YIOΣ TAPANTINOΣ ANA), and a graphic reconstruction made of the parodos. This investigation has shown that the parodos of the theatre at Byllis has been wrongly reconstructed. The orchestra channel has been exposed and documented and a greater understanding reached of the transformations in Roman times. It will at some point be possible to know when the orchestra was remodelled for gladiatorial shows with the front seats being removed for the construction of a parapet.
The foundations of the Hellenistic proscenium have been uncovered and traces of wooden fixtures in the orchestra found which may have either been to do with the original construction or wooden structures in their own right.

A great number of the stones are no longer in position, having been robbed or moved to other structures.  However, the north wall of the Hellenistic building can now be assigned and geomagnetic surveys showed that 3rd century BC residential buildings close to the top of the cavea were removed to create an open space at a time when the theatre was expanded. The main entrance was probably in the centre of the auditorium, and there were probably superstructures which gave more seating. The space to the west was fairly open and designed to be highly visible from afar, similar to the situation of the theatre at Byllis.

Work on the project continues, but it is clear that a huge amount of new information is being revealed that will shed light not only on the theatres in Albania but on the development of theatres throughout the Greek world.

Image from geophysical survey  Deutsches Archäologisches Institut 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Monumental Roman road discovered in Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki's metro system is four years behind schedule, but that is not really surprising given that each stage of excavation for the metro has revealed more of the ancient town that lies beneath Greece's second city.
Founded by Alexander the Great's general and successor Kassander in 315BC on the Thermaic Gulf, the city has enjoyed continuous occupation, testament to the importance of its strategic position in terms of access to the hinterland and trade.
The city was named for Thessalonike, Alexander's half sister who was born following a famous victory in Thessaly. Alexander's father Philip liked to name or even rename his wives and daughters after events.
The city has been continuously occupied since the fourth century BC and so any kind of excavation for new buildings or works in its historic centre are likely to encounter layer upon layer of evidence of the city's fortunes over the centuries.
Of the ancient city, it is possible to see parts of the city walls built by Kassander, the Forum with its Hellenistic baths, the remains of the palace complex of the Emperor Galerius and the currently under threat temple of Aphrodite. The artefacts in the museum bear witness to the importance and wealth of the city in Hellenistic and Roman times, and rescue excavations continue to reveal important public buildings.

AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis
This time it is a monumental Roman road that has been discovered: archaeologists have uncovered more than 80 metres of an ancient road built by the Romans in the third century AD. The ancient road is only a few meters away from the modern street known as the Via Egnatia and was found when the workers were excavating the metro station 'Aghia Sophia'.
The marble paved street was laid around the third century AD and maintained for at least three centuries. Games and other graffiti, indicating some of the activities of the people who passed along the road, have been uncovered scratched into the surface and ruts from horse-drawn cart of chariot wheels also mark the road. Viki Tzanakouli, an archaeologist working on the project, told The Associated Press the marble surfaced road was about 1,800 years old, but remains of an older road built by the ancient Greeks 500 years earlier were found underneath it.
"We have found roads on top of each other, revealing the city's history over the centuries," Tzanakouli said. "The ancient road, and side roads perpendicular to it appear to closely follow modern roads in the city today."
The monumental Roman road seems to be the Decumanus Maximus of the city. The Decumanus was the main road of a Roman town, oriented east to west and crossing the most important part of the city. At the points where the Decumanus entered and left the Fora or main squares of the town they were paved with marble, just as in this case.

AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis
The excavated stretch of road is 82.5 metres long and 10 meters wide. On the south side of the road the base of a huge colonnade can be seen, and this seems to suggest that this might have been a section of a 'via colonnata' or colonnaded street of the type so famous in some of Rome's eastern cities such as Palmyra and Apamea. Seven column bases are still preserved in situ in Thessaloniki, giving an idea of the grandeur of the original structure.
The south side of the road was connected to a series of public buildings that seem to be of mixed use, but indicating commercial and manufacturing activity.  The ancient road climbed gradually uphill towards the east and passed beneath the Arch of Galerius and the related palatial buildings which in themselves are an illustration of the importance and wealth of the city.
The excavation has also revealed a huge number of small finds, including jewellery, sacred utensils, and tools, and hundreds of gold and bronze coins in addition to a large amount of pottery.
The intention is that the marble paved road will be raised so that it is on permanent display for passengers when the metro opens.

AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis