Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 5-4-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Fiona Marshall


The Aksumites of the North Ethiopian and Eritrean highlands are known for their trading activities in the Red Sea between 50 BCE-CE 900. Much attention has been focused on prestige goods such as gold and ivory and the role that long-distance trade played in supporting elites and ruling institutions of the Aksumite state. Very little is known, however, about local or regional trade in subsistence commodities and the organization of trading networks. The restricted distribution of resources, ecological setting, and organizational requirements of the Afar Trade Route presented early Ethiopian agriculturalists and pastoralists with a unique set of options for trade and exchange as well as some significant constraints. Using an integrated ethnoarchaeological and archaeological approach, this study sought to better understand the role of regional trade from the northeastern highlands to the Afar lowlands in Aksumite economic organization.

Ethnoarchaeological research on the contemporary Afar salt caravan route in Northern Ethiopia documents the location of the route, feeder routes, and key nodes and demonstrates that the least costly paths were used by caravaners. Evidence was also collected on the organization of the contemporary trade and existence of a salt-oriented niche economy in the eastern highlands. Distinctive material remains of the Afar caravans included over-night campsites at transitions between the highlands and the lowlands and at major passes, and the presence of distinctive bread cooking stones on overnight campsites.

Three major archaeological sites or ancient towns were discovered on the salt route and additional ancient trader towns. Key trader towns were identified at Agula and Samre and ancient border towns at Usot and Des'ia. Excavation of ancient caravan sites at Agula and Desi'a revealed topographic and material similarities to each other and the presence of ancient bread cooking stones similar to those characteristic of modern caravaners. Aksumite churches, non-elite stone structures, Aksumite highland pottery and obsidian distinctive of the Afar were identified at the towns of Agula and Desi'a, suggesting that the Church, elite and local actors participated in the trade. Radiocarbon dates and archaeological data on stylistic, morphological, and technological attributes of ceramic and lithic artifacts provided information on chronology and site use, demonstrating the existence of local or regional exchange in commodities from the Afar lowlands to the northern Ethiopian plateau from as early as the Aksumite (50 BCE-900 CE) period.

This study has produced new methods for identification of caravan transport on the Afar trail and is the first to document ancient trade on the route. It also lays the groundwork for more extensive archaeological fieldwork on local and regional trade in Northeastern Ethiopia. Useful cross-cultural comparative material is provided for archaeologists interested in the material remains of caravan organization in Africa and elsewhere. In many parts of the world, pack animal-based caravans are being replaced by trucks and modern roads. This project has also helped to record this aspect of Tigray and Afar cultural heritage.


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