Ioana Dumitru

A team of archeologists with Yale researchers uncovered a buried ancient town called Beta Samati, which has shed light on trade routes and the origins of Christianity in Ethiopia.

Beta Samati was a part of the Empire of Askum, which peaked between 80 B.C. to 825 A.D. and was a powerful trading empire that controlled parts of eastern Africa and western Arabia. The archeologists’ findings were published in Dec. 2019. Beta Samati was located between the empire’s capital, Aksum, and the Red Sea.

“Our finds are important for documenting the origins of complex societies in sub-Saharan Africa, the international trade routes and contacts of the Empire of Aksum, as well as early Christianity in Africa,” said Michael Harrower, the lead author of the research. Harrower is an assistant professor of archaeology at John Hopkins University and the director of the Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories.

Jessica Lamont, assistant professor of Classics at Yale and a member of the research team, said the scholars initially began looking at the Red Sea as an “artery.” They wanted to examine the trade connections between cities along the Red Sea, across Aksum, the Roman Empire, the eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire.

Lamont said that the team began with a non-invasive archeological survey of the area. In 2009, local residents suggested the archaeologists investigate a hill near the modern village of Edaga Rabu. Residents knew it was significant due to oral tradition, but did not know why.

The team conducted excavations in 2011–12 and 2015–16. According to Ioana Dumitru, field director for excavations at Beta Samati, they discovered an ancient settlement with both residential and religious architecture. She said the site reveals important details about daily life in ancient Ethiopia. While residential areas indicate evidence of architectural planning, food preparation and workshop activities such as small-scale metal and glass production, an early basilica is evidence of ancient religious practices and engagement in long-distance trade with the Mediterranean.

The excavators’ biggest discovery was a building about 60 feet long and 40 feet wide resembling an ancient Roman basilica. Lamont said that this basilica, one of the earliest pieces of physical evidence for Christianity’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa, sheds light on the religion’s spread via trading networks that linked the Mediterranean with Africa and South Asia with the Red Sea. Additional findings such as tokens, rings and figurines indicate a mixture of pagan and early Christian traditions.

“It is a fascinating historical moment where you see pre-Christian beliefs and religious practices, and how they change with the advent of Christianity,” Lamont said. “We had always been able to do that in Rome and cities in the eastern Mediterranean, but now we can see how far south and far east this was happening concurrently.”

Lamont noted that she was involved in the project because of the Aksumite empire’s “globalized nature.” The empire was in dialogue with the classical eastern Mediterranean and used Greco-Roman goods and objects as status symbols.

Lamont said that Yale’s ancient history program is “pushing the field in exciting new ways.” Yale’s program, and the Beta Samati project, both seek to expand the study of Greek and Roman history to the “fringes and outskirts of the Mediterranean world.”

“Trade networks and the early conversion to Christianity is a great example of how we’re not just looking at beads, pottery, jewelry and luxury import; we’re talking about the exchange of technology, religion and religious institutions,” Lamont said.

She added that scholars see influences traveling in exciting ways, with Aksumite kings converting to Christianity at the same time Constantine was converting the Roman Empire.

Since the excavations, Lamont said that the team has been interpreting material and writing about their discoveries. The first iteration of their discoveries appeared in an academic journal called Antiquity last year. Yet Dumitru said the team plans to continue excavations at the Beta Samati site and survey its surrounding region.

Lamont said that the team seeks to engage residents who live in the site’s vicinity to fund a museum displaying the team’s findings. She said she hopes this will draw tourists to north-eastern Ethiopia.

The team’s research was funded by NASA, the National Geographic Society and the Archaeological Institute of America.

Freya Savla | freya.savla@yale.edu

Correction, Feb. 20: A previous version of this article said the Empire of Askum peaked from 80 B.C. to 825 B.C.E. In fact, it peaked from 80 B.C. to 825 A.D.