AIMS AND TIMELINE
This multi-disciplinary, mainly archaeological, project seeks to further our knowledge of the Amhara populations that took control of the Lalibela region (Lasta) in the late 13th century. We are interested in the people themselves and their culture, and hope to elucidate the biological, social, cultural and material context and consequences of the encounters that took place between the local Agäw speakers and the incoming Amharic speakers. For this, we are constructing a comparative database on the sites we are investigating, looking at key parameters such as landscape use, architecture, ceramics and other material culture, metal production, wall paintings and other forms of expression, such as the carved low-reliefs that decorate the cave walls of Wašša Mika’el church alongside medieval wall paintings clearly associated with Yǝkunno Amlak.
We plan to produce a typology of medieval ceramics in the area and compare it with material recovered from other Ethiopian sites. Human remains found at each of the sites associated with King Yǝkunno Amlak will be compared with the skeletonised and mummified remains at the Zagwe site of Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos.
Although we are focusing on the Christian medieval period in the area, it cannot be understood without reference to what existed there before. We therefore take a holistic approach and investigate all evidence, historical and prehistoric, that may help in modelling the period in which we are primarily interested. All levels and periods of occupation are taken into consideration and accurately recorded and interpreted, not only to provide contextual material for our own analyses but also to inform future archaeological work.
An initial reconnaissance trip for the project involved fieldwalking, surface collecting and carefully documenting a number of sites. An important element was engaging with the local communities to gain their support for the project, which was also approved by the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Patriarchate of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Addis Ababa
As the project director was unable to travel for health reasons, two Ethiopian team members, Habtamu Tesfaye and Abebe Mengistu, carried out further preliminary surveys at sites not visited in 2009, thus helping to define the scope of the project.
Sustained and intensive archaeological work at Gännätä Maryam was begun in April–May 2012 by Brian Clark for his PhD research. His aim was to investigate whether a kätäma (medieval royal campsite) might have existed there.
In March–April the project team conducted survey work at Gännätä Maryam and Wašša Mika’el, including the supposed palace of Yǝkunno Amlak’s grandfather and the prison mountain. Brian continued his fieldwork, but it became apparent that erosion and long-term ploughing had destroyed any stratigraphy. As a result, Brian successfully converted his study into an in-depth environmental analysis of the area.
The team was also authorised to undertake a limited rescue excavation outside Gännätä Maryam church, where excavation for an access path had cut into part of a previously unknown burial ground. Only three test pits were excavated due to time constraints. The skeletal material discovered was recorded, lifted and stored at the Cultural Centre in Lalibela.
In November we returned with osteologist Katie Tucker to process the skeletal material recovered in April and to examine the bone assemblage at Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos.
In November, a systematic survey of the outer compound at Gännätä Maryam revealed the extent of the cemetery discovered in 2013, and several graves were fully excavated, including one from a rock-cut niche. Further non-invasive work was also conducted at Wašša Mika’el, where we also continued our discussions with the local community.
Team members made two trips to Lalibela to work on the project material (human remains, grave fill, ceramics and other small finds) deposited at the Lalibela Cultural Centre.
Excavations resumed at Gännätä Maryam in April, this time in the inner church compound where the priests believed the burials would be older. The compound was thoroughly surveyed but excavation had barely begun when opposition from a local community member meant we had to back-fill and postpone our planned work.
The translation of the gädl (‘life’) of King Yǝkunno Amlak from Gǝ‘ǝz into modern Amharic, funded by the project, was finally printed and published. The initial print run of 1000 copies was donated to the Gännätä Maryam church community for sale to pilgrims and other visitors.
After lengthy negotiations over the previous two years, the team was warmly welcomed back to Gännätä Maryam in January to be presented with copies of the gädl and to plan the next stage of the project there in May. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic prevented any further international travel this year.
As there was no fieldwork in May, the team instead produced a video presentation of our work that was showcased online in the DigNation Festival, organised by DigVentures, on 13 June 2020 (see link on the Home page).
The restrictions caused by the pandemic led us to rethink our fieldwork model. Instead of waiting until such time as the team members based in Europe could travel to Ethiopia again, we asked Ethiopian team members – with the ARCCH’s permission – to conduct survey work in the field by themselves, while the project director and the rest of the team kept in daily contact with them by email, messaging and telephone to offer guidance, advice and instruction where necessary. In this way, the team very successfully surveyed areas around Wašša Mika’el (in Gazo wäräda) and Wägädät Qirqos (Wadla wäräda), beginning in October 2020.