The Intersection of Archaeology, Oral Tradition and History in Eritrea’s Past

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The study of the past, particularly in the African continent, constitutes a multi-source, comparative approach across a number of frontiers -- archaeology, oral history and written accounts.

The intersection of archaeology, oral history and written documents has always been sought, particularly in African societies, in order to draw upon the reconstruction of the past. The complementarity of each of the disciplines mentioned is a concern of this article and is highlighted by presenting the pros and cons of each approach to make sense of how their connection best serves the representation of Eritrea’s past.

The eminence of oral history and oral traditions in our society indicates that much of what is stored in the memory of generations serves as a library of the past. Oral histories and traditions constitute a major part of the cultural heritage of many African countries and the same is true in the case of Eritrea. Oral traditions extend back beyond living memory. Oral histories are defined as “memories and recollections of experiences individuals lived or witnessed in their own lives.” Oral tradition is the oldest source of historical writing in Africa. ‘Oral’ signifies merely the transmission of the system by word of mouth while tradition implies the essence of the system. Their universal nature has not only created multiple junctions of social and cultural interaction but also has become a repository of interconnected material, oral and written records.

Oral tradition is not only a historical source. It is the philosophy of social life which includes within itself the rules and regulations of a society’s order and security. Only through tradition could the numerous communities of Eritrea, or any other country for that matter, survive throughout the centuries. Recorded oral traditions can play a fundamental role in historicising different events in the past and in ascribing a historical identity to countless sites. Oral accounts, through which certain events can be connected with specific archaeological sites, provide historical contexts that can be explored and tested by the methods and discoveries of archaeology. In this respect, these accounts of cultural heritage could serve as a bridge between archaeology and text-based history, thereby enabling written references to be connected to archaeological record. More importantly, where the documentary record of Eritrea’s past becomes sparse, oral traditions offer an alternative and an insider’s perspective on underrepresented or marginalised segments of history.

The historical reliability of oral traditions as a source of information decreases the further back in time one goes. Such inherent weakness needs to be overcome in order to utilize oral tradition as historical source. When viewed from the perspective of space, oral traditions and oral histories often transcend geographical barriers and frontiers. This is particularly true, where geographical interfaces provided corridors of contacts between different cultural groups. It is, therefore, important to cross-check oral traditions within a given society or across societies that have been in contact with one another to enable draw comparative parallels in terms of time and space. The reliability of a particular tradition corresponds to how widely known and accepted it is in a particular society. Oral memories that do not provide such a context are considered as mere oral testimonies and as not carrying the same evidential weight as archaeological evidence and written accounts. Oral accounts, therefore, have to be subjected to rigorous evaluation, both in terms of their production and collection, and with reference to independent verification and falsification. These aspects also need to be compounded by archaeological evidence and/or written documents.

The power of written evidence, on the other hand, lies in the fact that it is direct and immediate, and sheds light on well-defined events in which mostly known personalities were involved. Texts in their various forms often provide access to the thought processes of major figures and enable us to gain unparalleled insight into human agency in the past. Neither archaeology nor oral tradition can produce the same detailed and coherent construction of the recent past as history. Yet, it is clear that documentary evidence should be subjected to thorough source and textual analysis to uncover intended or unintended misrepresentations and misinformation.

The construction of myths and fallacies in the historiography of the Horn of Africa over much of the colonial era represents an ideal instance of how written accounts produced on the basis of biased narratives can create misrepresentation of the past. The nemesis of such an enterprise of the colonial period still resonates and archaeologists interested in the Horn’s past, in particular, have to be prudent against the use of written documents without due regard to context and intent.

The pitfalls of written documents can, however, be tackled by archaeology which provides us with a repository of material culture adequate to reconstruct everyday life. Archaeology’s principal significance lies in the fact that it can shed light on people and places that are often not mentioned in the written record. Viewed from this perspective, archaeology has been widely identified as a useful interdisciplinary framework for integrating the different data sets in order to produce a more coherent and inclusive account of a complex recent past.

In summary, archaeological evidence, written documents and oral traditions provide available records to reconstruct Eritrea’s ancient past. The complexity of the reconstruction of our past calls for the critical insights of existing oral traditions and histories as well as available written sources. Moreover, the accurate and authentic representation of Eritrean historiography requires the complementary use of archaeological methods and data as a methodological virtue. A balanced methodological impetus of available archaeological data, oral traditions and histories as well as written records can, therefore, help tackle existing gaps, myths or fallacies in our historiography.