Changing Settlement Patterns in the Aksum-Yeha Region of Ethiopia: 700 BC-AD 850

By Curtis, Matthew C. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Changing Settlement Patterns in the Aksum-Yeha Region of Ethiopia: 700 BC-AD 850


Curtis, Matthew C., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Changing Settlement Patterns in the Aksum-Yeha Region of Ethiopia: 700 BC-AD 850. By Joseph W. Michels. British Archaeological Reports S1446. Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology 64. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005. Pp. xvii, 256; 55 tables, 59 figures, maps, drawings, plans, and photographs, 6 appendices of data. £36.00 paper.

Joseph W. Michels' Changing Settlement Patterns in the Aksum-Yeha Region of Ethiopia: 700 BC-AD 850, published by Archaeopress in the BAR Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology series, is an important addition to the literature on the archaeology of the Horn of Africa. Michels' monograph provides the fullest published report to date of the 1974 Penn State Aksum-Yeha Archaeological Survey research project in Tigray, Ethiopia. The 1974 research project was the first truly large-scale, systematic regional archaeological investigation to be conducted in the northern Horn of Africa and remained the only major regional survey until the 1990s. The increasing political instability in Tigray and Eritrea that occurred after 1974 resulted in a nearly two-decade suspension of international archaeological research in the northern Horn. During this time Joseph Michels published several short reports and articles concerning the Penn State archaeological survey research, but no full report was published for a wider audience.1 Thus, the BAR monograph reviewed here represents the first comprehensive published account of the 1974 research. This is a specialist monograph, as are many in the BAR series, that seems intended primarily for researchers concerned with the archaeology of the Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite culture periods of the first millennium BC and first millennium AD in the northern Horn of Africa (Tigray, Ethiopia, and Eritrea). However, the work reported in this volume also presents a pioneering attempt at ceramic seriation and obsidian hydration studies in the Horn of Africa, and is a major contribution to the development of surface survey and settlement analysis in African archaeology.

The monograph opens with a foreword by archaeologist Michael DiBlasi that provides a very useful overview of central issues in the archaeology of the northern Horn, including an overarching discussion of the chronological framework and culture history of the region. The foreword is particularly valuable, as none of the subsequent chapters provides a synthesis of the current state of archaeological research in the northern Horn. The monograph is divided into two parts. The first part, titled "Framework for Archaeological Interpretation," includes chapters covering archaeological survey methods used in the Penn State survey project and a basic overview of the Aksum-Yeha region (Chapter 1); ceramic seriation and obsidian hydration procedures and general results (Chapter 2); an overview of ethnoarchaeological methods used in the research and a summary of the physiographic and soil zone data for the region (Chapter 3); and procedures for estimating population sizes of documented archaeological sites (Chapter 4). The second part, "Political Implications of Changing Settlement Patterns," contains seven chapters focusing on individual culture historical periods identified by the Penn State survey research and relating observed settlement patterns to discussions of sociopolitical change for the following: the Early Pre-Aksumite Period (Chapter 5), Middle PreAksumite Period (Chapter 6), Late Pre-Aksumite Period (Chapter 7), Early Aksumite Period (Chapter 8), Late Aksumite Period (Chapter 9), Early Post-Aksumite Period (Chapter 10), and the Late Post-Aksumite Period (Chapter 11).

The core of the research reported in the monograph relates to the 1974 Penn State archaeological survey of a 714 square kilometer portion of the Shire Plateau (of which 201 square kilometers were systematically surveyed using a stratified random sample); documentation of 267 period-specific archaeological sites; and analysis of artifacts from 253 sample collection units, revealing substantial differences in site patterning evident in variations in spatial and temporal distributions of ancient settlements in the Aksum-Yeha region.

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