Classical Sources and Archaeological Research

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The use of written or pictorial descriptions of life in the past should be a key source of evidence for any archaeological study of populations or societies from historic time periods.

Trying to interpret the archaeology of a past society without also consulting their written records not only makes research unnecessarily challenging, it also increases the likelihood that interpretations will be incorrect. Knowledge about technologies, sea-faring commerce, and manufacturing from antiquity is based on written sources from the period and on scientific analyses of archaeological findings. None of the sources provides full information about the aforementioned issues in antiquity. Instead, a combination of philological and textual analyses, as well as multi-analytical scientific methods, can provide a better understanding of ancient technology. The elaboration of each of these analyses and information from written sources is thus a significant component of archaeological research. Much closer to our topic are the works on natural history, philology, travelers’ accounts and chronicles, manuscripts, and epigraphic references because they describe a number of geographical, natural, and socio-cultural dimensions of the past.

It is clear that texts written by people who lived during the past can illuminate our understanding of past societies. They can give us information about the local culture to supplement the multitude of scientific analyses conducted. Such texts can also act as a direct source of information on the past if clear descriptions were recorded. A broad range of textual evidence has been found across the world. It is crucial to understand who wrote them, when they were written, and why they were written. These three elements are significant to an informed use of written sources from past societies.

Even though contemporary research on Eritrean archaeology is based on fieldwork and scientific analysis, as well as oral traditions, to some extent, a vast amount of knowledge about Eritrea´s past is contained in written sources and various sorts of texts. Some of these texts trace back to remote times and were written down in ancient scripts. Others are more recent and include accounts written in European languages by various authors, such as diplomats, officers, travelers, and missionaries. The study of these written sources, which is not yet fully recognized, requires a multi-disciplinary approach which brings together epigraphers, philologists, scholars working on Geéz and Arabic paleography and philology, historians from various areas (e.g. religion and linguists), and archaeologists. Textual analysis of written sources and critical investigations of them, as well as in-depth understanding of the context in which they were produced, is significant. Having discussed the importance of classical sources in archaeological research of the Horn of Africa and the need to develop a critical understanding of them, the following are some examples which may help one make sense of these premises.

In recent years, Red Sea archaeology has been the subject of renewed interest by archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists. The Erythraean (Red Sea) trade represents long distance maritime trade between Roman Egypt, Africa, Arabia, and India. Numerous classical accounts of this trade, such as Indicopleustes, Periplus Maris Erythraei; Strabo, and Pliny the Elder, have motivated many to focus on the ancient economy. The first mentions of Adulis date back to the 1st century AD. Pliny the Elder, when describing the eastern coast of Africa, mentions an oppidum Aduliton (Natural History, 6.34). He also offers an etymological explanation for the name of the settlement, mistakenly relating the name “Adulis” to the Greek word for slave (doulos), and therefore assuming the city to have been founded by escaped Egyptian slaves (“Aegyptiorum hoc servi profugi adominis condidere”). The importance of the site in international trade is also clearly attested to by Pliny the Elder when he defines Adulis as the most important emporium for the people of Trogodytica and Aethiopia (“maximum hic emporium Trogodytarum, etiam Aethiopum”). Not surprisingly, the Periplus of the Red Sea also refers to the settlement as an emporium, mainly for the ivory, obsidian, and turtle shells (PME, 4-5). Cosmas Indicopleustes, whose Topographia Christiana is dated to the 6th century AD was another author from late antiquity who recorded two inscriptions he observed in Adulis during his days. The first one, dated to the age of Ptolemy III the Euergetes (247 - 222 BC), states that the Hellenistic ruler used to capture wild elephants in the region of Adulis to supply his army. The second is better known as the Monumentum Adulitanum. According to Cosmas, it was inscribed in the 27th year of an unnamed king, reporting his victories. Unfortunately, since the name of the ruler is not provided by Cosmas, one cannot date the inscription, not even approximately. Similarly, Byzantine sources dating from the 4th to 8th century AD provide some useful accounts of how political changes influenced trade routes over the 3rd century AD and the emergence of certain groups as major political units in the Red Sea world.

Early modern travelers in the Indian Ocean knew about important classical sources, such as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which was the 1st century Greek guide to travel and navigation in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Notably, it still remains important in modern historiography. Colonial administrators were also well-versed in classical sources describing the Red Sea world and Indian Ocean and they meticulously recorded finds of Roman coins from an early date. 19th century Western travelers and soldiers in Arabia and East Africa started connecting the ancient remains they encountered on their travels with toponyms (the study of the name of places) familiar from the classical accounts. Also, European historians of the classical world were well aware of the literary and numismatic evidence of contacts.

While the link to textual sources and the massive evidence of trade in bulk commodities and luxury items have attracted well-deserved attention, these sources have to be critically investigated to link them to archaeological evidence. Many of the available sources preserve a range of (mainly fragmentary) geographies, histories, and poetry of Greco- Roman accounts of the Red Sea region and its peoples. This classical literature includes few primary accounts, with most relying on the heavy and uncritical borrowing of earlier secondary sources or hearsay. This means that these sources were often out of date by the time they were written. It should also be noted that all carry the cultural biases of their authors.

Therefore, there is substantial historical, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence for the involvement of various ethnic groups at the Red Sea ports during the early 1st millennium CE. This potential has been recognized by archaeologist and an in-depth analysis of these, often conflicting, sources is needed to understand which types of information are most reliable and to explain what contradictions exist and why. A similar challenge is also faced in terms of the medieval history of the Horn, where a number of written sources provide dubious and conflicting accounts that need to be substantiated via archaeological finds.

Classical sources constitute an important source of evidence for archaeologists interested in the antiquity of the Horn. However, a systematic and critical scrutiny of the available documents is required to fully comprehend the structure and making of various communities and societies in antiquity that have left their imprints on the current Eritrean landscape.