Forgotten kingdom: Searching for lost royalty from the days of the Aksumite Empire

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In 2015, CWA reported on the discovery by Louise Schofield of the remarkable grave of a young woman she nicknamed ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Now further excavation in in Ethiopia’s Tigray Province has revealed that ‘Beauty’ was not alone – and nearby remains, assumed to be a fort, are looking suspiciously like those of a royal residence.

The Gheralta Plateau in Tigray Province (Photo: Tigray Trust).

It was the search for a monumental toppled stele – carved on its upper side with a disc and crescent moon and on its underside with an inscription – that first drew us in 2008 to the rugged and picturesque Gheralta Plateau in Ethiopia’s northeastern region of Tigray (see CWA 72). It was the beginning of a great archaeological adventure that has now seen three seasons of excavation at Maryam Anza, some 5km from the small town of Hawzien.

The stele was commemorative rather than funerary. It is dated by its inscription to the late 2nd/early 3rd century AD, and is written in Ge’ez, the language of the Aksumites. It was erected by a king, named as Bazat of Agabo, at the heart of an ancient battlefield known locally as Hawnehaw, which translates as ‘brother against brother’, and is presumably in celebration of his victory in that battle.

Lying embedded next to the Bazat stele are three large stone blocks that we excavated in 2016, determining them to be three pieces of a broken stele – perhaps the first attempt to erect a victory stele. It appears that it toppled as it was being erected, falling backwards and breaking into three pieces, just as happened with one of the great funerary stele at Aksum.

Bazat is a king new to the historical record. We can determine from the inscription that he lived in the late 2nd/ early 3rd century AD, and that he was victorious in the Hawnehaw battle. We also know that he was king of Agabo. But is Agabo the name of this region in Aksumite times? If so, was he defending it against an enemy, or was he the aggressor from a land further afield?

And if we have a king – might we also have a palace? In 2015, we undertook excavations on a high terrace where an imposing building once stood. However, the scanty ceramic evidence was mostly medieval, and the ancient remains had largely been robbed out in the recent past to build the modern church of Maryam Anza some 25 years previously.

The substantial and well-constructed walls suggested at first a fort, but then the possibility that this was a rather grander building. A palace, perhaps? (Photo: Tigray Trust).

Fort or palace?

Then, in 2016, we began excavations at a large mound identified as interesting by our Ethiopian colleague, archaeologist Hailay Teklay. The mound is known locally as KelKel – which is Tigrinya (the local language) for ‘lookout’ or ‘viewpoint’. The archaeology is very shallow on KelKel, with the tops of walls clearly visible in several places.

In addition, local inhabitants had opened up small quarrying areas and were availing themselves of the ancient building materials, exposing rooms with intact Aksumite pots. The centre of the mound is much higher and is, happily, protected under vast prickly pear cacti. Given its local name and the topography of the landscape, our initial interpretation was that it might be a fort, established there with views across the surrounding territory – with the surrounding rooms perhaps living quarters for those manning the fortifications.

Seven different families live on KelKel. We investigated the quarried areas and negotiated with one of those living there – Kahassa – to begin excavations on her land. On the north-west edge of the mound, we opened up three large adjacent trenches between Kahassa’s house and the aloe vera plant that marks the boundary of her land. As we dug, we made the astonishing discovery that what we were excavating was not a fort at all – but rather a large and elaborately constructed palace. Pottery finds give us a date of late 2nd/early 3rd century AD, which is contemporary with Bazat of Agabo and his victory stele.

The finely constructed walls, stone pillars, and podium all were instantly identifiable as elements of the most elite of Aksumite buildings – such as palaces and the large 4th- to 6th-century AD building known as the ‘Queen of Sheba’s palace’ at Dungur, just west of Aksum. Total station theodolite mapping of KelKel has shown it to be vast – at 6,580m², twice the size of Dungur. Our three trenches have thus far merely scratched the surface of this extremely exciting building, which is a real gamechanger – both for us as an archaeological team and for the local inhabitants.

So, if we now have the palace, where were the royal dead buried?

This is an excerpt from an article published in CWA 83.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

The shaft grave: a view taken from inside the burial chamber, looking along the ledges to the niche and basin (Tigray Trust).

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