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Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum and the northern Horn, 1000 BC-1300 AD

Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum and the northern Horn,
1000 BC1300 AD, by David W. Phillipson. Woodbridge and Rochester, NY:
James Currey, an imprint of Boydell and Brewer, 2012. vii + 293 pp. £40.00
(hardback). ISBN 978 1 84701 041 4.
The northern Horn ts few categories. So does this new wide-ranging synthesis
of the history and archaeology of a unique, African civilization that ourished in nor-
thern Ethiopia and Eritrea during the rst millennium AD, with important reso-
nances for the Classical and medieval worlds as well as for today.
Over a decade after the publication of his seminal study Ancient Ethiopia (1998),
David Phillipson offers this compelling read. Ethiopians and Eritreans are a particu-
lar concern for an author who has persevered to extend archaeologys breadth and
accessibility, asserting that its full potential for illuminating the past can only be
achieved in conjunction with all other available sources of information(p. 2).
Foundations of an African Civilisation is a meticulous survey that engages with several
branches of archaeology and history as well as art history, epigraphy, and linguistics.
It does so through a readable narrative punctuated by peremptory, sometimes pro-
vocative, but always entertaining comments.
The book opens with aims and sources followed by a concise explanation of
developments that preceded the appearance of complex societies in the region. An
integrated picture then emerges by reconciling local components and external inu-
ences that formed a mosaic of indigenous cultures in northern Horn during the the
rst millennium BC. The core chapters (416) deal with the kingdom of Aksum, re-
framing its characteristic developments: a level of basic literacy that reached beyond
elite circles and contributed to kingship, the early adoption of Christianity, and the
development of coinage. Supported by useful correlation tables on multi-graphic
inscriptions and sliding chronologies, the reader follows the scripts of ancient
Aksum into the remarkable manuscript production in Geʿez the mother language
of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea that has survived in the Orthodox liturgy.
Research conducted in the last decade allows only a rehearsal of topics such as
cultivation and herding. But the authors analysis of technology (pp. 16980) illus-
trates how the working of pottery, glass, metals, ivory, wood, and stone was rooted
in local tradition and innovation(p. 180). More reference might have been made to
water and fuel resources necessary for such diversied craftsmanship. Even so,
copious data and new insights shed light on areas in which information is otherwise
limited. On Aksums contacts with external cultures and polities, for example, the
perspective is refocused since information comes primarily from oral and written
sources [with] remarkably little overlap with the archaeology( p. 195) pace
much received wisdom about imported objectsfound in Aksumite contexts. The
layered critique also underlies issues of modern politics and diplomacy, drawing
attention to the largely ignored inuence that Aksum exerted on distant territories
and potentates, although the extent to which they were recognised by the recipients
African Affairs, 0/0, 12 © The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University
Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
African Affairs Advance Access published August 28, 2014
by guest on August 28, 2014 from
is tantalisingly unclear a situation that is or should be familiar to twenty-rst-
century politicians(p. 207).
The regions history has long been hampered by uncertainties about the decline of
Aksum in the late rst millennium AD and the subsequent appearance of a Christian
authority further south in central Ethiopia at Lalibela, famous for its monolithic
churches. Phillipson bridges this temporal-geographic gap in the light of new ndings
from his own research on early Ethiopian churches, in particular religious and other
buildings to the east of Aksum that had remained largely unstudied until now. By
elaborating a new development and chronological sequence, Phillipson is able to
present these monuments as expressions of a more localised focus of Christian
civilisation(p. 223) following Aksums abandonment. He skilfully reconstructs this
important transition by connecting settlement records, architectural developments,
oral traditions, and subsequent cultural-religious transformations. Furthermore, the
perspective affords a wider angle to capture the rise of Lalibela where, as elaborated in
the last chapter, the earliest rock-hewn monuments did not begin as churches at all,
but as defensive features.
While several whysremain unanswered, Phillipson shows the value of under-
standing how things develop from writing to architecture demonstrating the diver-
sity of knowledge that can be acquired from available, but often overlooked sources.
This book lifts knowledge of Ethiopia and Eritreas past to another level, offering a
much-needed resource for training locally based archaeologists and heritage person-
nel, and for developing conservation through research. But it also presents telling
conclusions for the challenges that face regions worldwide where international politics
reshufes regional identities, often by toying with heritages of global signicance.
Such is the reward of a multifaceted scholarship rooted in Phillipsons extensive eld
research, museum directorship, and university teaching in Africa and Europe, as well
as his travellers eye for the rediscovery of forgotten African routes to distant places
such as Armenia. These experiences have shaped a uid and clear writing style, where
textured references, composite explanations, and sharp comments convey the micro-
history. Available sources and the information they provide are dened before intro-
ducing each topic. A bibliography of over 800 entries includes several non-English
sources, no matter how obscure.
This authoritative and challenging book is essential for experts of Ethiopian and
Eritrean archaeology and history, but it is also an accessible and engaging read for a
wider audience beyond its geographical and temporal scope.
ISEM-CNR, Italy and University of Pretoria, South Africa FEDERICA SULAS
doi: 10.1093/afraf/adu055
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