Behind the Discovery and Publication of Beta Samati

One of the places where I conduct archaeological research is Ethiopia. Recently, my team, the Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories (SRSAH pronounced sir-sah) Project (PI: Dr. Michael Harrower, Johns Hopkins University), published an exciting discovery. This post gives you a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the discovery and publication of Beta Samati.

In case you want to read or skim the paper before reading the rest of the post, you can access it directly from the journal Antiquity (it’s open access so you can download it for free).

What’s the discovery?

We discovered the ancient town of Beta Samati in Ethiopia. It was a significant trade, religious, and administrative center in the Aksumite world and excavations have revealed important finds.

Images of the 3D-modelling and excavation of the basilica at Beta Samati.
Photo Credit: Image taken from Harrower et al. 2019 and originally created by C.Hickman, M.J. Harrower, and J. Mazzariello
One of the roles of Beta Samati was as an administrative center that trades and produced luxury goods as evidenced by items like glass and a gold and carnelian intaglio ring.
Photo Credit: Image taken from Harrower et al. 2019 and originally photographed by I.A. Dumitru

Who were the Aksumites?

The Aksumite Empire was a powerful kingdom occupying northeastern Ethiopia and Eritrea from around 80 BCE to 825 CE. They were internationally known as they controlled a good deal of Red Sea trade.

To learn more about the Aksumites and the Aksumite Empire, check out the post, ‘An Inside Look into Studying Aksumite Archaeology in Ethiopia

Though the Aksumite Empire was important and well-known in antiquity, we still have a lot to learn about them. The Yeha region (within the bounds of the Empire and located in present-day northeast Ethiopia) is of particular importance. The region’s eponymous site (i.e., Yeha) yields evidence of the earliest complex polities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Archaeological research has focused on the site of Yeha and its major Pre-Aksumite temple. Limited research has been conducted throughout the rest of the region and there seemed to be a lack of Aksumite sites. This led scholars to surmise that this area was abandoned after the Pre-Aksumite period.

However, the SRSAH team’s recent survey results (publication coming soon) demonstrated that the region was not abandoned and Beta Samati was one of the sites that our project documented.

An array of Aksumite coins found at Beta Samati.
Photo Credit: Image taken from Harrower et al. 2019 and originally photographed by I.A. Dumitru

Why is this discovery significant?

There is a multitude of reasons why Beta Semati’s discovery is important. Perhaps one of the most important is that excavations have helped clarify the intermixed nature of Aksumite political and religious authority.

The discovery of a basilica and artifacts like crosses demonstrates early Christian religious traditions at Beta Samati. Certain figurines and bucrania evidence a mix of pagan traditions at the site too. The chronology of political and religious activity at Beta Samati spans time periods that include polytheism, conversion to Christianity, and the arrival of Islam.

Objects demonstrating the mix of religious activity at Beta Samati.
Photo Credit: Image taken from Harrower et al. 2019 and originally photographed by I.A. Dumitru

How did you discover the site?

Similar to our work at Aqir al-Shamoos in Oman, the discovery of Beta Samati was a team effort amongst members of our team and local residents. In 2009, the SRSAH team spoke with the local residents of the modern village of Edaga Rabu and were pointed in the direction of a large hill near the village.

Upon conducting an initial archaeological survey of the hill, the area yielded finds that warranted excavation. In 2011, the first excavations of Beta Samati began. Subsequent research and analyses still continue.

The site revealed a range of finds. It was important to collaborate with a variety of specialists. They helped us understand both the individual finds and their contextual significance to the site.

While the initial discovery of the site occurred in 2009, the significance of the Beta Samati came to light years later after multi-disciplinary analysis and investigation.

Mapping the site and excavations of Beta Samati.
Photo Credit: Image taken from Harrower et al. 2019 and originally created by M.J. Harrower

What was your role?

For this project, I had two main roles:

  • Designing and coordinating SRSAH’s archaeobotanical investigations and analysis. Some of the finds have helped date certain parts of the site.
  • Contributing to writing and revising the publication

I have also done a lot of work on SRSAH’s regional archaeological survey, which has helped put the findings of Beta Samati in a regional context. Furthermore, as a long-standing member of SRSAH’s team, it has been really cool to see the development of the interpretation of the site over the years.

SRSAH’s 2015 Team
Photo Credit: Photographed by M.J. Harrower and processed by S. Nathan

What’s next?

Publishing our open access article in Antiquity was a crucial first step in introducing Beta Samati to the world. We hoped to give the public an overview of the significance of the site and our findings. This publication will also serve as a foundation and key reference for future publications on the site. More articles and analyses are in the works so stay tuned!

Have a burning question about the discovery and publication of Beta Samati? Let me know in the comments below!

*The header image is of excavations at Beta Samati in 2016. Photo Credit: I.A. Dumitru

2 comments

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  • So pleased to read that Ethiopan sites are researched more, as the history of that region has been overlooked a great deal. It is so near Egypt and other such places that there must be so much more to be discovered. Looking forward to reading more publications of further research efforts!

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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