Africa's belief and beyond

Ancient Ethiopia
December 3, 1999

The exhibition "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia" (The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland, 1993-94) and its accompanying catalogue - with essays edited by Marilyn Heldman and Stuart C. Munro-Hay - did much to attract wider public attention to Ethiopia's history and art, yet it is fair to say that the subject remains largely unknown outside the narrow circle of academic specialists. A welcome addition to the literature, David Phillipson's book summarises current understanding of ancient Ethiopia, particularly the area in and around the ancient northern centre of Aksum, in the light of the most recent archaeological field research.

The volume is organised into seven chapters. The first contextualises the region's physical and human geography, reviewing outside knowledge of ancient Ethiopia and assessing the contribution of previous historical and archaeological studies, while chapter two discusses Ethiopian culture before Christian Aksum. Chapters three, four and five concentrate on Christian Aksum.

The importance of the Aksumite contribution to the development of the Christian culture of imperial Ethiopia from the 10th century onwards is explored in chapter six, and chapter seven details Ethiopia's oral traditions.

Phillipson demonstrates the richness of the archaeological data, complementing the material discussed in other works designed to introduce Aksumite and later Christian Ethiopian culture and art, in particular Munro-Hay's Aksum, An African Civilization of Late Antiquity .

Phillipson questions the reliability of the Ge'ez inscriptions found on the Aksumite sites, arguing that they may record the exceptional rather than the everyday. He bases his account primarily on his empirical understanding of the archaeological evidence, establishing a regional (ecological) approach to our understanding of settlement systems and environments.

He favours an analysis of primary archaeological materials - firmly dated and identified remains of crops, animals and artefacts - applying a rigorous inductive method to his extended analysis of Aksumite trade and society.

By seeking evidence for everyday living conditions in Aksum, Phillipson's narrative construction of Ancient Ethiopia implicitly addresses questions of power. Gender, however, is not discussed. He also avoids dealing with questions of representation, symbolism and meaning, on the grounds that religious belief and practice are unknown variables. He concentrates rather on a careful assessment of the material evidence for local beliefs and for the emergence of Christianity. A concern, however, that echoes archaeology's openness to alternative epistemological perspectives, is addressed in chapter seven, where Phillipson discusses the role of Ethiopian oral tradition in the interpretation of ancient Ethiopian culture, blurring rigid distinctions between "scientific" and "popular" culture.

Another significant contemporary aspect of the author's concerns is his preoccupation with the role of local communities in archaeological practice: he acknowledges the need for closer integration and mutual understanding between archaeologists and the local population, insisting on the need for the former to provide Ethiopians with specialised training and to feed resources into the local economy.

Clearly written, the book includes a detailed bibliography, 12 colour plates and 60 black-and-white illustrations. It provides a valuable, well-balanced synthesis of current knowledge on the subject, and it will be particularly useful for undergraduate teaching.

Tania C. Tribe is lecturer in art and archaeology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Ancient Ethiopia

Author - David W. Phillipson
ISBN - 0 7141 2539 3
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 176

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