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Water, Geography, and Aksumite Civilization: The Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories (SRSAH) Project Survey (2009–2016)


For at least four decades, archaeologists have identified irrigation as playing a potentially major role in the rise of Aksumite civilization. Based on a systematic survey covering the area between Aksum and Yeha (Ethiopia), Joseph Michels proposed that large-scale irrigation systems introduced from Southwest Arabia contributed to the rise of Yeha as a major center of Pre-Aksumite civilization. To evaluate spatial patterning of archaeological sites with respect to water availability, this paper reports on results from archaeological survey of a 100 km2 region surrounding Yeha conducted by the Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories (SRSAH) Project from 2009 to 2016. The SRSAH Project recorded 84 sites dating from the Pre-Aksumite to the Post-Aksumite periods (c.800 BCE to 900 CE). No ancient irrigation systems were identified and results do not show a correlation between archaeological sites and water resources. This suggests that irrigation was less important than Michels contended and that rainfed agriculture, terraces, and small-scale irrigation comparable with practices evident in the region today were sufficient to sustain ancient populations.


Depuis au moins quatre décennies, les archéologues ont identifié l’irrigation comme jouant un rôle potentiellement majeur dans l’essor de la civilisation axoumite. Sur la base d’une enquête systématique couvrant la zone entre Axoum et Yeha (Éthiopie), Joseph Michels a proposé que les systèmes d’irrigation à grande échelle introduits du sud-ouest de l’Arabie avaient contribué à l’essor de Yeha en tant que centre majeur de la civilisation pré-axoumite. Basé sur une étude archéologique d’une région de 100 km2 entourant Yeha menée par le projet Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories (SRSAH) de 2009 à 2016, cet article présente les résultats des analyses qui évaluent la structuration spatiale des sites archéologiques en fonction de la disponibilité de l'eau. Le projet SRSAH a enregistré 84 sites archéologiques datant de la période pré-axoumite à la période post-axoumite (environ 800 avant JC à 900 après JC). On n'a identifié aucun système d'irrigation ancien et les résultats ne montrent aucune corrélation entre les sites archéologiques et les ressources d'eau. Cela suggère que l'irrigation était moins importante que ne le pensait Michels et que l'agriculture pluviale, les terrasses et l'irrigation à petite échelle comparables aux pratiques observées de nos jours dans la région étaient suffisantes pour maintenir les populations anciennes. 

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We are very grateful to the people and institutions that made this research possible, including The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Tigrai Culture and Tourism Bureau, Aksum University, University of California, Los Angeles, and Johns Hopkins University. Analysis of lithics conducted by Steve Brandt (University of Florida) and Elizabeth Peterson (Simon Fraser University), and analysis of pottery conducted by Cinzia Perlingieri (Codifi Inc.) and Gabriella Giovannone (University of Naples), added crucial artifact data to our survey results and situates sites in time. Thanks also to Catherine D’Andrea, Kebede Amare, Aley Woldeselassie, Habtamu Mekonnen, Fantahun Zelelew, Diane Lyons, Mekonnen Gebre-Meskel, Tesfay Aragie, Seminew Asrat, and the people of Edaga Rabu, Adwa, and Ahferom Woredas for their support.


Funding was provided by the University of California, Los Angeles, Johns Hopkins University, and NASA (ROSES) Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (Grant #NNX13AO48G).

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Correspondence to Michael J. Harrower.

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Harrower, M.J., Nathan, S., Mazzariello, J.C. et al. Water, Geography, and Aksumite Civilization: The Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories (SRSAH) Project Survey (2009–2016). Afr Archaeol Rev (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-020-09369-8

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  • Ethiopia
  • Eritrea
  • Spatial archaeology
  • Aksum
  • Irrigation
  • Water management