By Stuart Munro-Hay
From the very uneven choice of excavation areas at Aksum and other Aksumite cities, we have inevitably a view of Aksumite everyday life which favors the upper echelons of urban society. Palaces, mansions, large and important tombs, and churches contain the remains of objects from these élite groups, whilst the living equipment of their lesser urban contemporaries (not to mention country-dwellers) has not often been found. Exceptions are possibly Adulis, where the excavators seem to have found smaller houses, though it is possible that these too belong to the outer buildings of a mansion and at the sites E2 and F (the latter near a church) at Matara. As yet, the results of these excavations are only known through the brief preliminary report of Francis Anfray (1974). The series of rooms found by Paribeni (1907: plan, fig. 37) at Adulis contained so many gold coins that they hardly seem to have been occupied by the humbler echelons of Adulite society.
However, in spite of this emphasis on the richer groups, certain elements of material culture across the social boundaries to some extent. Pottery (excluding luxury types) is a good example of this, whilst glass and much of the decorative metalwork can be expected mainly from the élite contexts. To some extent, coinage may have been universally used, though obviously gold would have been unlikely to reach the peasant or ordinary artisan in much quantity. By analogy with better-known ancient civilizations, it seems that the copper coinage would have been the common market-exchange medium where barter was not practiced, and thus could move freely on many levels, whilst the more valuable coins moved less and were perhaps chiefly employed for major long-distance trade or storage of wealth.
Both fine and coarser ceramic wares have been found in very large numbers (see the various excavation reports in the Annales d’Ethiopie; Anfray 1966; Wilding in MunroHay 1989). These were made in a pottery tradition which seems to be particularly Aksumite and to owe relatively little to either the pre-Aksumite period or to foreign influences (but see below). The commonest types are fired to colors between orange and almost brick red, and there are also black or grey wares from different periods. Some less usual wares are brown, or red-brown. Chronologically, it seems that the red wares are typical of earlier Aksumite times, the brown coming later in perhaps the fifth century, while the black wares typify the post-Aksumite period (except for the black pottery with incised decoration which was found in the earliest excavated levels at Adulis, which seems to belong to an earlier tradition — Paribeni 1907: 448, 547). Aksumite grey wares vary in date, the finer specimens in earlier shapes being perhaps examples of the prevalent red wares which had not been correctly fired in the kiln, and the coarse large grey pots with rough geometric decoration being of late or post-Aksumite date.
A much rarer type is called purple-painted ware, since areas of the surface are decorated with paint of an almost brownish-purple color, and a mat-impressed ware has also been found which may owe its origin to influences from the Nile Valley, where such decoration was common. These various wares were often burnished, painted, incised or otherwise decorated. A very common and characteristic decorative style has been called the `Classical Aksumite’ style. This employs lightly impressed designs, mainly vertical corrugations, combined with small ovoid impressions arranged in a staggered fashion like footprints, sometimes filling diamond-shaped panels. The corrugations and certain of the shapes of the vessels may owe something to metalwork originals. Other decorative motifs included all sorts of appliqué designs; crosses, crescents, small ridges and the like, as well as more ambitious ones consisting of little pottery hands clinging to the rim of a bowl and linked by swags, or depicting modelled birds perched on frilled rims (de Contenson 1959: pl. XVIII; Wilding in Munro-Hay 1989). Some pots and bowls received stamped impressions on the bases or inside, often of very elaborate forms based on the cross and other motifs. Particularly common on the red-brown bowls were little incised or stamped crosses or palmettes (see for example Paribeni 1907; fig. 60). Other incised decoration was also common, lines and panels predominating, but including many different styles of the cross and even sometimes roughly incised inscriptions.
It may be suggested that some of the shapes, mainly hole-mouth bowls and round-bodied flasks or jars, owe their origin to the `African’ side of Aksum, while the ledge-rimmed or ring-based bowls owe more to the pottery styles of the Roman world. Such a range of influences affecting Aksumite pottery is to be expected considering Aksum’s particular position, but should not be over-emphasized; the overall style of decoration seems certain to have been a local inspiration. Differences in the pottery found at such sites as Adulis, Matara, and Aksum, typifying three different regions of the country subject to different influences and developments, are not well understood, but for the time being a western and eastern `provincial’ style seem to be recognised (Anfray 1973i; Michels, in Kobishchanov 1979: 26).
Some tomb vessels, largely in the red wares, seem to have been created with some very specialized use in mind. Bowls containing modeled images of two oxen yoked together, `foot-washer’ bowls, with, in the centre, a kind of platform (occasionally two), sometimes with a runnel for water, conceivably for painting henna on to the feet, stem bowls, bird-shaped vessels, tripod jars, and strainer jars are among these (Chittick 1974: fig. 19k, pl. XIIIb, pl. XIIa, pl. XIIc, pl. XIIb and fig. 19c, and pl. Xiib illustrates all these types). Another unusual pottery type is the human-headed ointment (?) jar. The necks of these round-bodied jars (Chittick 1974: pls. XIIb-c, XIVb; Leclant 1959: pl. III-IV bis; de Contenson 1959: pls. XV-XVII), accessible from the top through a narrow opening, depict women with a hairstyle in which the hair turns out sharply at about chin level. There are several differences in detail, some with zigzags representing the strands of (plaited?) hair, others with a sort of cap on the top of the head. Earrings are sometimes shown, and on the whole, one gains the general impression of a coiffure somewhat like that of the women of Tigray even today.
Plaited hair, lying close to the head at the top, but allowed at the base to frizz out freely, is a style which can still be seen in preparation by the hairdressers during market days in Aksum nowadays. On one example from the Tomb of the Brick Arches at Aksum, part of the globular body of the pot survived and bore an arm painted in yellow paint on one side. Interestingly, pots of the same general type, though with different hairstyles, were collected relatively recently in the Azande country of south-western Sudan by Sir Harold MacMichael (Horniman Museum, London; 30.12.50/1-2).
Illustration 59. Profile view of a painted head from a jar from the Tomb of the Brick Arches at Aksum.
Painted decoration on pottery might consist of crosses in various colors, plant motifs, or panels filled in in different ways. Red, black, and white were popular colors, and there was a purplish paint in use in later Aksumite times (Chittick 1974: pl. XIVc). The ordinary shapes included, very frequently, globular-bodied jars with more or less long and thin necks, sometimes very close to the typical coffee-pot used even now in Ethiopia and the Sudan, where their round bases rest on rings of plaited straw or other fibers. Bowls, either round or ring-based, were also very much used, together with beakers, and many types of handled jars, cauldrons, storage vessels and the like.
Imported amphorae are also not uncommon, and were employed for various purposes after their original contents had disappeared. Some were cleverly used to form a sort of water supply-pipe to a baptismal pool near a basilica at Matara (Anfray 1974: 757-8, and pl. IV, 2); others served as coffins for the burial of babies at both Adulis and Matara (Anfray 1974: pl. II, 1; Paribeni 1907: 452, 480); and a third use was as furnaces or ovens. At Adulis several examples of the latter were found, and also other types of vessel employed as ovens or for industrial purposes; Paribeni suggested that some examples from Adulis were employed in liquefying tar and in gold-working. His excavations at Adulis revealed what was apparently a gold-workshop, with amphorae and ashes in association with a collection of gold rods, earrings, and two elaborate bejeweled crosses with chains; in a different place a stone mold for making jewelry was found (Paribeni 1907: 453, 483-6 and figs. 20-21, 461, fig. 7). Many of the amphorae may have come from Alexandria (Paribeni 1907: 455). Some bore incised or painted identification marks at shoulder level, and they were sometimes sealed with terracotta discs, plastered over, with an identification mark stamped or painted on top (Paribeni 1907: 456, 520, 522, 524, figs. 4, 39, 41, 43, 59).
Illustration 60. the human-headed jars found in the Tomb of the Brick Arches was still almost intact, and traces of one painted arm could still be seen.
One very specialized imported vessel found at Adulis was a flask stamped with a design showing the Egyptian St. Menas between two kneeling camels; such vessels are supposed to have held water from a spring near the saint’s tomb in Egypt (Paribeni 1907: 538, fig. 54), and this one may have been brought to Adulis by a pilgrim. Among imported pottery types were a number of lamps. While at Aksum lamps tended to be of a very simple open type, probably local, Adulis produced a wider variety including some closed lamps with molded decoration which certainly came from the Roman empire, probably Egypt (Paribeni 1907: 499, fig. 28; 518, fig. 38). Others, perhaps local, consisted of small double or single spouted jars (Paribeni 1907: 460-1, fig. 5; 522-3, fig. 42; 526, fig. 45).
Most of the pottery shapes were evidently designed for eating, drinking, storage and cooking, but the more unusual ones perhaps served for special purposes like personal hygiene, cosmetics, or ceremonial occasions. Some may have been for ritual use or made as specifically funerary goods to serve the dead in some way. This might account for the apparently long use of certain types; they could have been fossilized designs essential to some funerary purpose, though not in general outlasting the fourth/fifth-century change to Christianity.
One spherical pot from Adulis was closed completely except for a rectangular opening around which were impressed four crosses; it evidently served as a money box, since when found it contained thirty-three gold coins of king Israel of Aksum (Paribeni 1907: 501).
A row of very large `pithoi’, presumably for grain storage, was found in a building of Aksumite date whose ruins were found during excavation between the old and new cathedrals of Maryam Tseyon (de Contenson 1963: pls. VII, XII, XIIIa). Other pithoi came from Adulis, and one example was pierced with holes around the neck to attach it to the body; evidently, these were unlikely to have carried liquids (Paribeni 1907: 462). Aksumite pottery, with the exception of such imported categories as the amphorae for wine and other commodities, was mostly locally made, without the use of the potters’ wheel — though Paribeni (1907: 548) thought that the rough locally-made pottery of Adulis was made on the wheel. The style and decoration evolved, although, as we have said, some basic outlines of shape can be paralleled from both Nubia and the Roman empire, was unique to the Aksumite region.
The coarser wares included two types of stoves (Chittick 1974: fig. 21), presumably for cooking with charcoal obtained from the local woodlands, now vanished. The remains of ovens or kilns have also been found at Aksum (Anfray 1968: fig. 22) and Matara, in the latter place together with pottery on a habitation floor (Anfray 1974: pl. V 2-3; 1963: 99 and pl. LXXX). Pottery groups left in place were not infrequent at Matara, and these and collections of pottery from tomb-groups should eventually allow us to date the different styles more precisely (Anfray 1963: pls. LXXV, LXXVIIa).
The Aksumites seem to have imported certain blue or green-glazed wares, which have been found at Aksum, Adulis and Matara, perhaps from the Persian Gulf region. At Aksum and Adulis only sherds were found, but at Matara, a complete pot was preserved (Anfray 1965: 6; 1974: 759, fig. 6). The Aksumites also used faience vessels apparently of local manufacture, their friable sandy bodies covered with a turquoise-blue glaze. One example found was an exact imitation of the fluted pottery bowls with little handles, and this product in typical Aksumite style seems to confirm that the faience was from a local workshop (Chittick 1974: pl. XIVe).
Miscellaneous pottery objects have also been found. A few animal figures (aside from those which stood in the animal-figure bowls already mentioned) are known, and the figure of a dove impressed with a cross came from Adulis (Paribeni 1907: 528, fig. 48). Pottery discs, plain or pierced, which may be gaming pieces or loom-weights for weaving, are commonly found. Numbers of little-pierced crosses and cones in pottery were excavated, most commonly at the Enda Sem`on-site at Aksum, but also at Matara (Anfray and Annequin 1965: pls. LXV, 3; LXVI, 1). Their use is unknown. A few dice of pottery, marked with dots to indicate the numbers, came from Matara (Anfray and Annequin 1965: pl. LXVI, 4; Anfray 1968: pl. 5). From Matara also came the steatopygous figure of a woman, of seemingly prehistoric type, but found in an Aksumite level (Anfray 1968: fig. 13); another example came from Adulis (Paribeni 1907; 486).