Materiality and Meaning of Archaeological Record: With reference to Understanding of Space in Antiquity

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The development of the complex societies that flourished in the Horn in general and the Eritrean landscape in antiquity involved new ways of organizing and conceiving of space.

The full-brown socio-cultural, economic and political processes that gave rise to the developments we saw in this epoch (roughly between mid- 3rd millennium BCE- last half of the 1st millennium CE) are particularly worth of attention as regards to understanding the complexity involved in the organization of space over much of the Eritrean landscape. Archaeology in conjunction with other disciplines such as historical linguistics, molecular biology and the like is crucial in charting the trajectory of changing spatial practice during the mid- 3rd millennium BCE- last half of the 1st millennium CE. The respective data sets from these studies need to be correlated to fully comprehend various aspects of the dynamisms that range from shifts in subsistence economy to organization of labor and from scales in population migration to the full-fledged urbanism that indicated the hallmark of the epochs. The changing contexts and meanings attesting to patterns of the spatial practice involving various cultural groups and communities is yet to be fully understood.

The use of space (landscape) is at the heart of reconstructions of the Eritrea´s past, whether conceived as the spatial movement of different cultural groups along the different geographical zones namely the western lowlands, coastal corridor, highlands and the Denakil depression or the organization of the landscape in towns, urban centers or peripheral villages, or the social uses of space within individual settlements themselves. In fact, it is quite plausible to argue that the development of complex societies during the mid- 3rd millennium BCE- last half of the 1st millennium CE itself was based on new ways of organizing and conceiving of space. Such transformations include increasing participation of different cultural groups in the commercial networks of the Nile Valley and the Red Sea and Indian Ocean world; the changing nature of settlements from small-scale, agricultural and pastoral communities during the 3rd millennium BCE- beginning of 1st millennium BCE to densely settled urban centers by the middle of the 1st millennium BCE and 1st millennium CE. The increasingly divided and segregated personal spaces that made up coastal towns and urban centers in the form of ceremonial sites and commercial activities and their relationships with nearby agricultural settlements and peripheral villages during these epochs is furthermore an intriguing feature of the need to understand the meaning of archaeological imprints in the Eritrean landscape. In historical and archaeological renderings of the Eritrean past, spatial understandings cab serve as a backdrop to historical changes or as reflections of social structures and patterns which are significant to understand various dynamisms of our antiquity. Archaeological studies seek to understand meanings attached to archaeological objects and features among the functional meanings of objects and the meanings of symbolic representation and iconography become a reference to understand spatial concerns in the past. Having said that, let´s see how archaeological materials and features found in the Eritrean landscape can shed light on various aspects of the organization of space in antiquity.

Pottery artifacts constitute the majority of finds in the Eritrean landscape. The distribution of different pottery assemblages over much of the Eritrean territory has often been the basis for drawing chronologies and the extent of contacts and exchange between different cultural groups and civilizations that flourished in the course of the mid-3rd millennium BCE- the 1st millennium CE. To the wider community of researchers interested in the development of complex societies in the northern Horn of Africa and on the Eritrean landscape for that matter, pottery typological and stylistic classification, pottery manufacturing technologies, patterns of distribution and exchange are significant proxies to define specific cultural phases and the axis of exchange and trade that involved coastal and in-land corridors that enabled cultural contacts between different groups. The mere classification of local versus imported pottery signifies patterns of production and distribution and the concomitant reconstruction of sources provides information on space organization from systematic studies of pottery remains. A reader of the antiquity of Eritrea and the Horn would always encounter in the literature a wide description of cultural-phases based on the classification of pottery traditions and the specific meanings attached to these assemblages indirectly are informative of the conception and organization of space in terms of exchange networks, caravan routes and trade circuits. The entire scope of defining regional and inter-regional trade involving the northern Horn of Africa and the adjacent geographical areas is for the large part understood from a variety of pottery traditions and assemblages pertinent to different time-periods and cultural groups. The space conception from a limited sphere of exchange towards the elaboration of wider circuits of inter-regional networks are seen in line with a wider chronological framework of over a millennia and thus archaeological pottery and the meaning attached to it should be seen in light of these than merely considering them as fragments from antiquity. As far as trade and exchange are concerned different archaeological materials can shed light into the ways how space was organized and conceived in antiquity. The network of obsidian trade in the Horn in antiquity for instance is another interesting aspect to explore. Obsidian trade is believed to have involved the Horn of Africa since the 7th millennium BCE and its elaboration by the mid- 3rd millennium BCE enabled the connection of the northern Horn of to the wider Nile Valley and Arabian Thiama. The way we attach meaning to obsidian artifacts today is thus entirely linked to this understanding and attests to spatial practice in the past.

Similarly, symbolic behaviours, monumentality, patterns of vernacular architecture and their distribution as well as iconographic representations equally become significant when we tend to understand the conception and organization of space in antiquity in the Eritrean landscape. The worship of deities which had regional implications and significance and materials associated with them is paramount for the subject in as much as the distribution and elaboration of monumentality over the landscape. These elements together with other archaeological finds are likely to provide explanations on population dynamisms and diffusion of cultural influences that were likely to influence the organization of space. As far as iconographic features are concerned rock art and epigraphies provide the platform to understand spatial practice. Rock art is distributed over much of Eritrea and the Horn and based on the similarities of styles and motifs in the art, the tempo and distribution of subsistence patterns, ritual attributes and symbolic behaviours can be discerned. Moreover, the representation of literate cultures in epigraphic forms is quite informative as the development of letterforms and ancient scripts are related to cultural contacts and influences. Such a phenomenon is often connected to reconstruction of linguistic forms and population movements which can in turn provide explanations to the conception of space, its elaboration and eventually its organization.

In conclusion, when we often talk about the meaning attached to archaeological materials and features, we have to explore how these meanings can shed light on the organization and conception of space over time. Space and tempo are always intertwined to provide archaeological explanations. The complexity that we saw in the antiquity of Eritrea is subject to such levels of analysis and future trends of research pinpoint these features to fully understand our past. It is therefore quite helpful to consider the meaning attached to every piece in our archaeological record with this frame of mind in order to make sense of its significance.