2,700-Year-Old Town From One of Ancient World's Major Powers Revealed by Archaeologists

Researchers have revealed an ancient town in Ethiopia belonging to one of the ancient world's major powers.

The settlement, known as Beta Samati, once formed part of the Aksumite Empire—one of Africa's most influential ancient civilizations, which ruled over what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia between 80 B.C. and 825 A.D. The empire is notable in the region for its conversion Christianity, which occurred during the fourth century.

A team led by Michael Harrower from Johns Hopkins University has now described scientifically for the first time in a study published in the journal Antiquity, which estimates—according to radiocarbon dating—that it was first occupied by the pre-Aksumites around 750 B.C. and persisted for nearly a thousand years before finally being abandoned in 650 A.D.

Little is known about the Aksumite Empire or the people who came before it, making this an important find, the researchers say.

To date, most archaeological fieldwork regarding the empire has focused on the capital city of Aksum in northern Ethiopia. However, the research at Beta Samati has revealed that this site was an important regional hub along the trade route which connected the capital to the Red Sea and beyond.

"The Empire of Aksum was one of the world's most influential ancient civilisations, but it remains one of the least widely known," Harrower said in a statement. "The excavations of Beta Samati help fill important gaps in our understanding of ancient Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite civilisations."

Excavations at Beta Samati have uncovered evidence of a densely populated ancient settlement, rich in both residential and religious architecture.

"Residential areas revealed evidence of architectural planning, food preparation and workshop activities, including small-scale metal and glass production," another author of the study, Ioana Dumitru, said in a statement.

Among the most notable finds, the team found one of the oldest Aksumite basilicas—key sites of Christian worship after the religion spread to the empire. The team found both religious and secular artefacts in and around the basilica, indicating that it may also have served an administrative or commercial function.

Beta Samati
The landscape surrounding Beta Samati (looking southwest from the site.) Michael Harrower/Antiquity Publications Ltd

Some of these artefacts display influences from the Roman Empire and ancient polytheistic traditions, casting light on the cultural diversity of the empire.

"Beta Samati spans Aksum's official conversion from polytheism to Christianity and the arrival of Islam in northern Ethiopia," Harrower said. "It also clarifies the nature of political and religious authority at an important administrative center located on the trade route that connected the capital of Aksum to the Red Sea and beyond."

"Our findings are not only important to understanding ancient African civilizations, but are also important to understanding political and religious change among ancient civilizations more broadly," he said.

The Empire of Aksum was one of the ancient world's most powerful and influential civilizations, according to Harrower.

"The Kingdom of Aksum developed in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea during the 1st century BC from a complex combination of local and international influences," he told Newsweek. "Over the next few hundred years, Aksum gained control of a vast territory that included parts of what is today southern Sudan and western Yemen. The Aksumites were important in Red Sea trade networks that connected, for example, the Indian Ocean world with the Roman Empire."

Update 12/12/2019, 10.22 a.m. EST: This article was updated to include additional comments from Michael Harrower.