The Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland has seen interaction between state and non-state peoples for at least two millennia. However, little is known about these interactions from an archaeological point of view. Our research project intends to cast light on this topic by looking at the lowlands of
Introduction: Frontiers, Peripheries, Margins
The borderland between Sudan and Ethiopia is scarcely known archaeologically, a situation that contrasts with the northern regions of both countries. Compared to the core areas of state formation (Edwards 2004; Phillipson 2012), studying the tribal zone between them seems a dull undertaking a priori, since they lack their rich material culture and complex social developments. Yet there are at least three good reasons to investigate the borderland. First, the very persistence of small-scale stateless communities from deep Prehistory to the present is a phenomenon that deserves close scrutiny, as it is proof of a striking capacity to resist dominant societies (Fernández 2003; González-Ruibal 2014) and of a complex scenario of interactions (Jedrej 2006; Brass 2015). The concept of stateless societies, however, requires some clarification. Some of the groups of the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland have had traditionally an essentially egalitarian political organization (among males): this is the case for most slash-and-burn agriculturalists. But not for pastoralists, who do not fit neatly into clear-cut sociopolitical categories, as Brass (2015: 258) reminds us. We also have to bear in mind that stateless societies are not necessarily alien to the idea of the State or radically isolated from it. Jedrej (2006: 208) has argued, referring to the Hadjeray and Nuba, that “instead of a duality of states and societies, social relationships of alliance and hostility were realized as a hierarchical network of ranked positions. In other words, diverse relationships of power and domination penetrated from the elite in the centre out to the peripheries, creating one political field”. This political field of interaction could well be labeled “borderland”. Furthermore, neither the absence of state or egalitarianism can be equated with lack of complexity. The term “horizontal complexity” better describes the nature of many non-state societies (McIntosh 1999: 9). This complexity can be expressed through ritual positions, corporate institutions that curtail power, intricate horizontal forms of integration and interdependence, etc. (McIntosh 1999).
Another reason that makes peripheral regions worth studying is the role played by borderlands in the politics and economy of the different states of the Horn of Africa (Pankhurst 1997; Brass 2015). This role, however, has been hardly investigated, in part due to the absence of written sources. This has led to a crude characterization of peripheries as mere extractive zones, providers of prestige goods for the core regions. Finally, the relative closeness of the borderland communities to the state favored appropriations and hybridizations that are very interesting for understanding processes of cultural contact more generally (Lightfoot & Martínez 1995; Ylimaunu et al. 2014). A good example of these processes of appropriation is what anthropologist Wendy James (1977) has termed “Funj mystique”. It refers to fragments of traditions, genealogies and myths that can be associated to the Funj Sultanate of Sennar (1505-1821) and that have been present among the stateless groups of the borderland until very recently.
Between 2013 and 2016, we conducted three archaeological field seasons in the lowlands of Metema and Qwara (
We will employ three key concepts. First, we consciously use the term “frontier” to refer to the eastern Sudanese borderland. As Baudel & Van Schendel (1997: 213) note, “frontier commonly refers to the territorial expansion of nations or civilizations into ‘empty’ areas”. Sudan’s eastern borderland, as we will see, is a thinly populated territory (though not empty) that has been perceived as an open space for expansion and exploitation. As such, it is a land of migration as well and we believe that many of the communities that we have documented archaeologically are groups of migrants – either permanent or seasonal. This is not surprising: all the present inhabitants of the lowlands of Qwara have arrived from elsewhere during the last 70 years or so, as we could gather from interviews with members of the different ethnic groups now residing in the region (Gumuz, Dats’in, Amhara and Tigreans). Apart from expansion and migration, frontiers are also related to three other important phenomena. Conflict between state and non-state peoples and amid tribal groups is perhaps one of the most generalized outcomes of frontier situations (Ferguson & Whitehead 1992). At the same time, frontiers can also be the space for middle-ground cultural encounters, that is, forms of contact between states, empires and other ranked societies, on the one hand, and less hierarchical groups, on the other, that develop in relatively equal terms (Gosden 2004: 30-32). Yet middle ground encounters do not imply necessarily a situation of perfect symmetry. There is usually a more powerful actor and a less powerful one (this is the case, for instance, with the relationship between the Funj sultanate and its periphery), but there is more balance than in colonial or predatory situations. Symbiotic relations, which are typical of ecological border zones, can also be characterized as non-symmetrical middle ground encounters. This is the kind of relations that develops between mobile pastoralists and agriculturalists or sedentary communities and hunter-gatherers. A third phenomenon that is related to frontiers is ethnogenesis (Chappell 1993) – but also its opposite, ethnocide (Hall 2000: 241). The latter has been more characteristic of the last two hundred years, whereas ethnogenesis has undoubtedly existed since prehistoric times. Migrations, conflict, middle-ground encounters and ethnogenesis are all characteristic of African frontier societies (Kopytoff 1987).
The other couple of concepts that need clarification are “periphery” and “margin”. Note that we are not using these concepts in a derogatory way, taking for granted that cores are creative and dynamic and peripheral regions passive recipients of others’ inventions, as African cultures have been often perceived in archaeology and other disciplines (Wynne-Jones & Fleisher 2015). In fact, our intention is precisely the opposite: to reclaim the relevance of African peripheries and margins, not only for understanding long-term social processes in the continent, but elsewhere as well.
For periphery we understand an area that lies on the outskirts of a state but is an integral part of it; that is, it partakes of the political, economic and cultural practices that develop at the core of the state. Peripheries often lie within the official political boundaries of a polity, but usually retain a large degree of autonomy. Margins, instead, are beyond the state, both geographically and politically, and they are perceived as remote and alien also in the cultural imagination of state peoples. They are not part of the state territory, either de facto or de jure, although (rhetorical) claims on margins are sometimes made by expansive polities. Political, cultural and economic influences from the core arrive indirectly and often as faint echoes. However, margins can play an important economic role, as suppliers of strategic goods that are at the base of the political economy of the state. In our case, these include gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, incense and slaves. Furthermore, margins often reflect, in a sort of domino effect, major events occurring at the state core, such as the collapse of a regime, political fragmentation and processes of empire- and state-building. From this point of view, the history of the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland can be described as the transformation of a margin into a periphery, a process that has not yet come to an end (Markakis 2011).
In the Margins of Medieval Sudan (
ad 600-1300): The Gelegu Tradition
The first occupation by pottery-making, food producing communities that has been documented in the
Some common elements can be pointed out in relation to the landscape and the organization of space (Fig. 3). In all cases, the sites are not located more than 1.5 km away from the main river (Gelegu or Dubaba). The surface occupied by the settlements is always small, ranging from as little as 1000 m2 (Selferedi-Kuter 4) to a maximum of 5000 m2 (Bermil, Amidla). The smaller sites (1000-3000 m2) are located on the vertisols of the alluvial plain of the Gelegu river (Selferedi-Kuter 4, Zoha, Mahal Gerara). The larger settlements (4000-5000 m2) lie on the base of prominent hills (Bermil, Amidla, Jebel Mahadid). This can be related to the different functions of the sites, the larger ones being perhaps more permanent or at least reoccupied more frequently. The small surface of the sites suggests that they were used by small groups of a few nuclear families, which is consistent with seminomadic communities in the region. Thus, the pastoralist Rufa’a transhumant camps consist of 10 to 15 households, whereas the Fulani herding unit comprises 4 to 8 households (Ahmed, A.G.M. 1973: 49, 52). Each household is made up of a nuclear family (husband, wife or wives, small children and unmarried daughters). Therefore, we can calculate an average camp population of 25 to 50 people among the Fulani and double that figure for the Rufa’a. The Fulani probably provide a better analogy for our sites, considering their size.
The density of surface finds is very high in all cases and this evinces an equally dense occupation of the space. The sites are well delimited by artifact scatters and no secondary concentrations have been found that may be indicative of dispersed compounds. No structures were identified, either on the surface or in the test pits that were carried out in five of the sites (Selferedi-Kuter 4, Amidla, Mahal Gerara, Jebel Mahadid, Bermil). The sites on hills (jibal), which are sandstone formations, have been heavily abraded by the action of the rains and no original levels were preserved: in most sondages, either bedrock or saprolite appeared only a few centimeters under the surface. The alluvial sites presented a better panorama.
We conducted five test pits in Mahal Gerara (four of 1×1 m and one of 2×1) and three in Selferedi-Kuter 4 (two of 1×1 m and one of 1.5×3 m). Both sites are located in-between the slope of a bar of silt and the vertisol of the alluvial plain. Unfortunately, Mahal Gerara was completely disturbed by plowing and the unstable behavior of the vertisol. As a result, the occupation level was all mixed up and the charcoal that we submitted for radiocarbon dating furnished a contemporary date. In Kuter 4, we documented three levels with archaeological materials in Sondage 3, along a stratigraphic sequence of 50 cm (Fig. 4). These levels were identified as distinct stratigraphic units from slight changes in soil characterization (e.g. black spongy silty soil SU03, less dark, grittier, more compact SU02) and the distribution of archaeological materials. However, since the limits of stratigraphic units were not so easily recognizable during the process of excavation, due to the nature of the vertisol, we also subdivided the layers in artificial spits of 10 cm, in order to avoid mixing up artifacts from different layers. The most recent level is of the Funj period (see below) and the two others pertain to the Gelegu Tradition. The occupation level proper lies at the interface between the two lower layers (Stratigraphic Unit 02 and 03), at a depth of 30 cm, where bones and sherds appear flat in situ and in larger quantities.
The material assemblage documented is limited, mainly pottery (Fig. 5). This shows strong resemblances across the seven sites, although there are some minor differences (the parallels for the material will be discussed in the next section):
The pastes are of well levigated clay, homogeneous composition and with fine to very fine mineral (quartz) temper (less than 1 mm). Orange color predominates, although the frequency of orange vs. dark-colored sherds varied from some sites to others.
Surfaces are polished and often burnished.
The ceramic assemblage is massively composed of open forms – basins, bowls and dishes (90%).
Rims are often decorated with finger or nail impressions (14 to 33% of the assemblage depending on the site).
Pots are of medium size, with 60% of the vessels having a diameter comprised between the 20-29 cm range and only 15% of 30 or more cm.
The walls are relatively thin, with 60% of the pots having a wall thickness comprised between 0.6 and 1 cm.
Apart from pottery, few other artifacts were retrieved: a few grinding stones, which do not appear in all sites (they are absent in Bermil and Amidla) and are rare in the rest; a stone weight from a digging stick (Zoha); spindle whorls (Amidla, Bermil, Mahal Gerara, and a stray find), and a few faunal bones and river shells (Kuter 4, Mahal Gerara). We will discuss the spindle whorls in the next section, since they are relevant for providing a chronology. The faunal remains that could be identified belong to cattle. No lithic artifacts (apart from the few mortars and the digging stick weight) appear unambiguously associated to these sites, thus indicating that they were occupied by fully iron-using peoples. The digging stick weight is not informative from a chronological point of view, as similar pieces are known from the Mesolithic to the present (Gascon 1977). In this context, however, it can bear some cultural significance, because stone weights are uncommon in Western Ethiopia, unlike in Eastern Sudan (e.g. Fernández et al. 2003: 252, fig. 41).
The Gelegu Tradition is dated by two radiocarbon samples obtained from the only site that provided organic material in context: Selferedi-Kuter 4. Some artifacts, however, have parallels in the Sudan that contribute towards defining the chronology for this tradition. As for the radiocarbon dates, all three occupation levels of Kuter 4 provided charcoal samples that could be successfully dated. The Stratigraphic Unit 01, as has been pointed out, furnished a Funj chronology consistent with the material and will be dealt with later. The two other levels (Stratigraphic Unit 02 and 03) yielded virtually the same date, thus showing that the site had a short occupation. SU02 was dated to 788± 22
The beginning of the tradition is more difficult to date, because we were unable to find organic material from an undisturbed archaeological level in any of the four other sites belonging to this tradition where we conducted test pits. Therefore, we have to rely on archaeological parallels. A Post-Meroitic date is suggested by the bowls with stylus-impressed lozenges or quadrangles found in Mahal Gerara (Fig. 6, n.1 and 2). This kind of decoration is well documented in the Sennar area for the Post-Meroitic period (ca. 350-600
Other interesting parallels can be found in seven sherds from Bermil decorated with stylus punctuates (Fig. 6, n. 13-16). This decoration, described as “gouged” and “punched” by Balfour Paul (1952: fig. 6, 7-11), was documented in Umm Sunt, north of Sennar. The site, or sites, included settlements and cemeteries dated between the Post-Meroitic and Christian periods (Edwards 1991); as well as a Funj site documented later (Fernández et al. 2003). The stylus punctuates appear in the few sherds belonging to globular pots with incurved or straight rims. The decoration was made with a gouge-shaped stylus in five cases and by punching in the other two. The gouge-decorated sherds, in particular, are remarkably similar to the Umm Sunt ones.
All these Post-Meroitic/Christian elements represent a small fraction of all the material recorded during survey and test-pitting. Some might well have been imported from the Sudan. There is, however, a type of vessel that is abundant in the area and locally made, but has perfect parallels in the neighboring country: the large bowls with finger-printed decoration along the tapered rim (Fig. 7), which represent between 14% (Amidla) and 33% (Bermil) of all rims documented in the sites belonging to the Gelegu Tradition. In fact, they can be considered the type fossil for this tradition. Identical bowls and basins with finger-printed rims have been found in Soba where they are called Type J (Welsby 1998: 92-93, figs. 40 and 41). They are common in levels dated from the 6th to 9th centuries
More generally, the pots that make the bulk of the ceramic record (basins, bowls, and open forms more generally) coincide with the prevalent forms in the typology of Post-Meroitic and early Christian sites (ca.
A chronology around the mid-first millennium
The best typological parallels for the Gelegu Tradition place it in the Post-Meroitic and Early Christian period, roughly between
Who were the people of the Gelegu Tradition? The material assemblage shows strong resemblances with the Sudanese material culture known from the sites of the Blue Nile. At the same time, it is not an exact replica of that material assemblage. We hypothesize that the people of the Gelegu Tradition were part of small communities moving along the main watercourses from the southern Gezira into the foothills of the Ethiopian plateau. The original territory of these communities probably lay between the Blue Nile and the Dinder, where several Post-Meroitic and Christian sites have been reported (Chataway 1930; Dixon 1963: 234; Ahmed & Ahmed 2000; Bashir et al. 2012). No assemblages have been fully published, however, to make systematic comparisons with ours, although some available materials show remarkable similarities (Bashir et al. 2012).
It is likely that the people of the Gelegu Tradition were semi-sedentary pastoralists moving seasonally with their herds, probably at the beginning of the dry season, from eastern Sudan towards the greener pastures of the Ethiopian foothills: Metema receives an average rainfall of over 900 mm, compared to just 200 mm in Sennar. They would probably return to the Sudan before the start of the rains in May, so as to avoid tripanosomiasis and other diseases that are lethal for cattle.
Proof of these seasonal movements could be the site excavated by Bashir et al. (2012), Azazo ROSE 5, near Roseires, where seasonality is inferred from the existence of multiple levels of occupation, marked by layers of ash and hearths (Bashir et al. 2012: 133). The phenomenon of transhumance between Sudan and Ethiopia is well attested today in the area (Osman 2009; Schlee 2012). Pastoralists from a variety of ethnic groups (Fulbe, Masalit, Daju, Beni Amer) return to the same places every year in the Qwara and Metema lowlands during the dry season and stay for three or four months (around February-May). We only have evidence for herding from the site of Kuter 4, where several bones belonging to bovines were preserved and were big enough for identification. Transhumance today involves primarily cattle, because goats and sheep are much less demanding in terms of diet.
Seasonal mobility could perhaps explain the strange ceramic repertoire of the Gelegu Tradition, which is extremely restricted, with the large majority of vessels belonging mainly to one category (open bowls) with different sizes (dishes, bowls, basins). The striking scarcity of grinding stones and mortars, which are also small, stands in contrast with their overabundance and large size in sites of later chronologies. This could perhaps be understood in relation to the semisedentary or seminomadic character of the Gelegu people. Another point that would corroborate this hypothesis is the very small surface covered by the settlements, of which five out of seven have 3,000 square meters or less.
The question is why the herders of the southern Gezira decided to move into the Ethiopian foothills precisely when they did. We have to look at events in the Sennar area in the Meroitic and Post-Meroitic periods to understand the process. At some point during the first half of the first millennium
Recent surveys and excavations have shown that the Meroitic influence extended further towards Ethiopia than originally thought, along the Blue Nile and Dinder valleys (Eisa & Welsby 1996; Ahmed & Ahmed 2004; and see Fig. 1B): Post-Meroitic and Christian sites have been found as far south as Fazogli and Galegu, almost on the Ethiopian border (Ahmed & Ahmed 2004: 187; Bashir et al. 2012: fig. 1). With the collapse of the Meroitic Kingdom, the Sennar periphery probably became autonomous (Brass 2015). The relative abundance of Post-Meroitic sites documented around Sennar (Abd el‐Rahman 2007) confirms the growth of the former dependency of Meroe. This might have led to overpopulation and the displacement of some groups along the alluvial plains of the Dinder, Rahad and Blue Nile towards the Ethiopian foothills, which were hitherto only visited by hunter-gatherers, as far as we can tell from the many sites with microlithic industries found along the watercourses and the total absence of pottery-yielding sites dated before the first millennium
Between the Kingdom of Alodia and the Sultanate of Sennar (
ad 1300-1650): The Jebel Mahadid Tradition
At some point between
It is of course impossible to characterize settlement patterns or spatial organization from just five sites. However, there are some new elements that are very conspicuous and that evince important sociocultural changes. For the first time, permanent structures are recorded. They fall into three categories: defensive, domestic and ritual. Only Jebel Mahadid and Tach Gerara have the three kinds and the best and most numerous examples by far come from the first of these sites, which we will describe in some detail.
The occupation of Jebel Mahadid spreads along the base of a rocky elevation of the same name, which emerges 300 m to the west of the Gelegu River (Fig. 10). The archaeological site occupies three strath terraces that extend from the pediment of Jebel Mahadid to the Gelegu river. The lower and middle terraces have yielded materials belonging to the Gelegu Tradition. The site of the phase under discussion occupies mostly the upper terrace, but also part of the middle. The maximum length is 450 m (
We consider as ritual structures at least three different features: oblong or oval stone platforms, fan-shaped platforms attached to hut foundations, and rectangular structures. In Jebel Mahadid, 52 structures were documented, of which 28 are hut remains (some with trapezoidal platforms attached), 23 oblong platforms and the remaining one a rectangular feature. The function of the non-domestic structures is difficult to ascertain, but a ritual use can be hypothesized.
This is undoubtedly the case with the rectangular structures of Jebel Mahadid and Tach Gerara, which are located in isolation at the entrance of the sites. They are both made of big stone blocks delimiting a space of around 3 × 1.5 m, which is filled with burnt clay. In the case of Jebel Mahadid, a fan-shaped stone platform is attached from the south. Inside the rectangular structure we found an almost complete incense burner.
Regarding the oblong structures, the situation is not so clear. We excavated one of them at Jebel Mahadid (Fig. 11, n.1). These platforms are less than 2 m long and are identified as tombs by the local communities. Indeed, they are very similar to Post-Meroitic/early medieval cairns and tumulus (e.g. Edwards 1998: 103-104) and some of our structures may actually be graves. The excavation at Jebel Mahadid, however, only revealed a carpet of stones lying flat directly on the ground, although carefully arranged, and was unable to identify anything resembling a ditch or pit beneath. When we dismantled the platform, we discovered broken grinding stones, handstones, small pottery sherds and tiny bone fragments amid the blocks composing the structure, none of which tells much about the purpose of the structure. The two structures recorded in Tach Gerara are bigger (the largest has a diameter of 6.5 m), circular rather than oblong, and the function might have been different.
More informative, instead, was the sondage in one of the huts with an attached fan-shaped platform (Fig. 11, n.3). The sondage yielded no materials except a single perfectly spherical stone which appeared adjacent to the platform (Fig. 12). Spherical stones have been traditionally used in the region for a variety of purposes: in rituals of investiture, in ceremonies of divination and rain-making, as a device for bringing fertility or maintaining the cosmic order (González-Ruibal 2014: 176-177). Interestingly, these stones appear in areas historically occupied by people identified as “Hamej”, who are considered the original subjects of the Kingdom of Alodia (Spaulding 1974, see discussion below). In fact, the sacred stones were known in several places as “Soba stones” (Seligman and Seligman 1932: 428-429) and the Hamej used to swear until the early 20th century “by Soba, the home of my grandfathers and grandmothers” (Chataway 1930: 256). The Bertha and Gule stones show the greatest formal resemblance with the one we have found in Jebel Mahadid.
In Jebel Mahadid, domestic structures, in the shape of stone rings, appear interspersed amid the oblong platforms, although the latter tend to cluster at the edges of the site. In fact, in the central part of the settlement (Zone 2a and 2b) the ratio was 18 huts to only 3 stone platforms. This is inverted at the edges, where we have a total of 20 stone platforms for 10 huts. Hut foundations show a remarkable degree of regularity: they are composed basically of a ring of unworked stones, simply placed on the ground, and have a diameter of 4 meters (Fig. 11, n. 2). The ring often reuses broken grinding stones and complete grinders appear in great numbers beside the huts and in open areas, along with pottery, thus showing that domestic activities took place mainly outside. Inside the huts, the majority of structures show traces of burnt wattle-and-daub. The walls, therefore, were not made of just bamboo or wooden sticks, as they are today, but of a wooden frame covered with mud, as in Sudan. This is related to a more permanent settlement than is the case with the present slash-and-burn cultivators. The circle of stones would have helped to fasten the wattle-and-daub wall. Many structures, particularly in Zone 2a and 2b, have deep deposits of red-burnt clay and charcoal. In the case of one of the huts that we excavated (SR06, Zone 2a), the burnt layer was 30 cm deep and had many carbonized sticks and poles inside. In another hut in Zone 2b a complete broken pot was found embedded in a thick deposit of wattle-and-daub. This indicates that the settlement, or part of it, was destroyed by fire.
Other huts do not have remains of burnt clay: the other domestic structure that was excavated (SR02, Zone 2b) had in all likelihood walls of sticks and straw. Both SR02 and SR06 had a trapezoidal attachment and both furnished grinding stones, but pottery sherds were only found in SR02. All the fragments belong to kitchen ware: pots for boiling or brewing and a big fragment of doka for baking kisra (unleavened bread) or dry porridge. The structures that we have documented were probably parts of larger compounds, given their small size. This is further suggested by the fact that some hut foundations are very close to each other, even adjacent.
Stone rings have also been documented in Tach Gerara (three) and Shimeligir (only one: others may have been destroyed by a road that was recently built). The diameter is bigger than in Jebel Mahadid (5.7 m in Tach Gerara). Also, the stone rings in both sites have four large blocks of basalt inside and no visible remains of wattle-and-daub or pottery, at least on the surface, so the function of these structures remains unclear. Raised huts are a possibility, with ethnographic parallels in the area.
As with the previous tradition, the material assemblage is rather monotonous. Pottery accounts for the great majority of the finds, although there are some changes in the assemblage that are noteworthy: spindle-whorls disappear, grinding stones are extremely abundant, and incense-burners are documented for the first time. Regarding pottery, a new style develops which is characterized by the following traits (Fig. 13):
The pastes are generally cruder than in the previous phase, with poorly sorted mineral temper as well as vegetable temper (straw), now documented for the first time. The color of the pastes is similar (ochre to orange), but the firing is more irregular, typical of an open bonfire, and the walls often have burnt zones. The pastes are gritty and crumble easily.
The modelling is crude. This is particularly obvious in the mouth, which is undulating. The surfaces are usually left untreated, especially the outer wall, which can be very rough, with many irregularities, depressions, finger marks and straw impressions. However, some elements present a strong polishing and even burnishing inside. This is the case of the bowls and plates used for baking stiff porridge and unleavened bread (kisra).
The ceramic assemblage is composed of four main types: Type 1: Shallow bowls and plates, similar to those of the Gelegu Tradition, used for serving porridge or kisra. Type 2: Plates and bowls with rough external surface and polished interior that are identical to the medieval Sudanese doka, used for baking kisra (Welsby and Daniels 1991: 179). Type 3: Deep bowls with scratched outer surface probably for baking stiff porridge (they can be considered a variant of the doka). Type 4: Hemispheric pots with protruding rims likely used for boiling, brewing and stewing. There are other less frequent types such as beer (?) jars with rounded bottoms and small cups and pots with polished or partially polished outer surfaces perhaps for serving food. Their shapes and sizes cannot be reconstructed from the available fragments.
The decorations are very scant and carelessly made: the corpus is limited to a few incised sherds, a couple with simple impressions, and a pot with a strip of nail impressions under the rim.
Pots are of larger size than in the previous period, with as much as 80% of the vessels having diameters of 30 cm or more.2
The walls are thick, with 90% of the pots having a wall thickness of over 1 cm.
The change in pottery style is remarkable and is revealing of the appearance of new eating habits, particularly the introduction of kisra. The pottery assemblage seems to prelude the subsequent Funj tradition which arrives to our days. This is manifested in the introduction of hemispheric cooking pots, cruder modelling and vegetable temper. The main difference lies in the absence of decoration, which is, instead, redolent of the previous Gelegu Tradition.
We have two radiocarbon dates for this tradition, both coming from the same burnt structure (SR06): 531±27
The pottery is scarcely eloquent and comparable material is not easy to find, except for the doka, which have excellent parallels in Soba, where they are labelled Type K and dated to the 9th-12th centuries
Another object with good parallels is the incense burner (Fig. 15). Cup-shaped censers with incised decoration have their best correlates in the site of Abu Geili, where they are dated to the Funj period (Addison & Crawford 1951: 49, pl. xxix, xv, 9). However, the examples that we have found in Funj sites are quite different: they are hyperboloid-shaped and baroquely decorated with impressions and incisions. Nevertheless, our Funj sites are later than those of Sennar (see below). So a 16th-17th-century date would still be coherent with both the Funj contexts of Sennar and our pre-Funj Jebel Mahadid Tradition. In any case, both types of incense burners are documented simultaneously in northern Sudan from the Terminal Christian period onwards (Phillips 2004: 65). This gives them a solid post-1400 date.
An object of particular interest, and not only for chronological reasons, is a fragment of a dïst from the Ethiopian highlands found in Jebel Mahadid (Fig. 16). This form has remained almost unchanged between the 13th century and the present, although the best parallels for our piece are from the 13th-17th c. period (cf. Dombrowski 1971: 187, 196; Torres 2017, fig. 12, n. 11). The dïst is a fine carinated bowl with red, burnished surfaces used for cooking and serving stews and sauces. Its presence reveals connections between the people of the lowlands and the Ethiopian plateau.
A remarkable change can be identified in the archaeological record of the Qwara lowlands around the 14th or 15th century. The small, seasonal occupations that characterized the Gelegu Tradition gave way to permanent settlements, often very large, with substantial, even monumental, architecture and defensive elements. The more permanent character of these settlements is also corroborated by the big-sized grinding stones that appear for the first time in great numbers. Pottery undergoes an equally noticeable transformation: the quality is poorer and new types are introduced, most notably the doka and similar pots for baking stiff porridge or kisra. The first contacts with the Ethiopian highlands are now unambiguously documented in the archaeological record.
As with the previous tradition, we have to look at developments in the Sudan to understand what is happening along the Ethiopian foothills. We believe that this new tradition might be related to the decadence of the Alodian kingdom and a new displacement of its population – variously known as cAnej, Anaj or Hamaj – towards Ethiopia.
Jay Spaulding (1974: 27) argues that “the Alodian state and its people, the cAnaj or Hamaj, did not vanish abruptly at the end of the medieval period, but rather continued to play a significant role in the later history of Ethiopia and the Sudan”. According to the historian, after the demise of Soba with the Funj conquest around 1504, the elites emigrated towards the south and established a new polity in Fazogli, which occupied the land between Sennar and the foothills of the Ethiopian plateau. This movement towards the south, however, might have started earlier than the official date of the Funj invasion. O’Fahey & Spaulding (1974: 19) believe that the decline of the Alodian Kingdom was well advanced by 1300: the unified polity had by then fragmented into several autonomous polities. This would explain the decay documented in the capital by archaeological excavations from perhaps as early as the 12th century, given the absence of Terminal Christian pottery and Islamic glazed wares later than the 13th century (Welsby & Daniels 1991: 9). Benefitting from this collapse and fragmentation, Abdallah Jamma, the ruler of Qarri had already routed the people of Alodia, the cAnaj/Hamej, at some point during the 15th century, that is, before the Funj expansion (Holt & Daly 2000: 25).
Thus, the displacement of the center of gravity of the Christian kingdom towards its southern periphery might have started two centuries before the establishment of the Funj sultanate, during the period that O’Fahey & Spaulding (1974) call “the transitional age”, between
The defensive systems identified both in Jebel Mahadid and in Tach Gerara (Fig. 17) make sense in the troubled situation of the region between the late 15th and early 17th centuries. Both sites are good examples of nucleated settlements in naturally defended positions: there is a trend towards concentrated (versus scattered) settlements in times of trouble along the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland (González-Ruibal 2014: 158). Conflict in the area involved dynastic fighting amid the early Funj as well as border wars: Sultan Dakin (r. 1568-1585) is known to have waged a border campaign in Abu Ramla, immediately south of our area of study (O’Fahey & Spaulding 1974: 37) and Emperor Susinyos from Ethiopia raided and taxed the borderland in the 1610s (Pankhurst 1997: 368-369). Our discovery of pottery from the Ethiopian plateau in the lowlands can perhaps be related to the period of Ethiopian hegemony over Sennar during a large part of the 17th century (Spaulding 1974: 31-32).
The end of the Jebel Mahadid Tradition is perhaps related to the expansion of the Funj towards the south, epitomized by the conquest of Fazogli in 1685 (Spaulding 1974: 32). This probably led to new movements of Hamej towards the Ethiopian foothills. We still do not know whether there is a gap between this phase and the Funj period. In fact, the disappearance of the site of Jebel Mahadid itself occurs before 1685, based on the available radiocarbon dates. It is tempting to associate the massive level of destruction, which is likely situated in the 16th or early 17th century, with any of the raids that either Funj or Ethiopians launched across the borderlands at precisely that time.
In the Periphery of the Sultanate of Sennar (
ad 1650-1900): The Funj Tradition
Before the 17th century, the Qwara lowlands were a margin in relation to the neighboring states. They received small groups of migrants or refugees as well as cultural echoes from the state traditions and were indirectly integrated from an economic point of view. The situation changed with Sennar’s conquest of its southern marches, which implied a transformation of Qwara from margin to periphery. This led to a much greater integration of state and borderland from an economic, cultural and political point of view, although the region preserved its de facto autonomy. This period is much better known through historical documents and oral traditions. Among other things, this allows us to know for sure that the people that occupied the area were the Hamej. It is important to bear in mind that Hamej is a generic ethnic term (Tsega Endalew 2006: 17-18) that included different groups at different times (Bertha, Gumuz, Gule, Burun, Sillok, Dats’in). The original name was probably the aforementioned Anej or cAnaj, but this was interpreted derogatorily by Muslims as Hamaj, “ignorant”. As we have seen in the previous section, migrations of people comprised under the label “Hamej” may have started well before the late 17th century, perhaps as early as the decline of Soba during the end of the Christian period.
One of the most remarkable changes of this new tradition is the overabundance of sites, in comparison with previous phases: 17 settlements with Funj materials have been documented during our survey (see Fig. 2). Some of these may not be proper settlements but neighborhoods within the same village. In any case, the number of sites that emerge in a very brief period of time (around 150 years) can only be satisfactorily explained as a result of migrations, for which we have both supporting written information and abundant ethnographic and ethnohistoric parallels (e.g. James 1979; Triulzi 1981).
Funj-period sites are all, without exception, located on the vertisols of the river valleys and on bars of silt and gravel along the main water courses, very much as villages are today (Fig. 18). Many sites are still small: Kuter 4, Bermil-Hamej and Dengersha occupy 0.5 hectares or less. However, we now have larger sites that are close to one hectare (Gerara 1, Abba Sheña, Mirt Gelegu). The pattern of settlement changes: villages are no longer nucleated, but scattered. Good examples are Tebeldiya 1 and 2 and Mahal Gerara 2, 3 and 4, which are separated only by a couple of hundred meters and probably were part of a single village. If nucleated settlements in hills are characteristic of troubled times throughout the borderland, scattered settlements in alluvial plains are historically symptomatic of peaceful phases (González-Ruibal 2014: 157-158). This fits well with the period comprised between the late 17th and early 19th centuries.
Hamej sites have a very distinctive material assemblage that we will call “Funj pack”, as it appears with little variation in the Funj core around Sennar. This assemblage is composed of the following items:
Pottery decorated with incised bands of triangles, parallel lines and cross-hatching.
Incense burners with lavish decoration.
Clay smoking pipes.
Glass and stone beads.
The decorated pottery is very distinctive (Fig. 19). Crawford & Addison (1951: 162) suggested calling this kind of pottery Type 1, because it was extremely abundant in the Funj site of Dar el-Mek. We propose the label “incised-frieze decorated wares” or
Other kinds of pottery have been found, all characterized by thick walls and crude modelling. These include 1) flat-bottomed dokas, which are cruder and have thicker walls (2.2 cm or more) than those of the Jebel Mahadid Tradition (Type 3) (Fig. 20, n.1-2); 2) large hemispheric pots, rough to the outside, similar to Type 4 of the Jebel Mahadid Tradition (Fig. 20, n.3); 3) plain bowls with rough external surfaces of medium or small size; 4) large storage jars with very thick walls (3 cm) and very rough surfaces to the inside and outside; 5) burma or water jars, decorated with mat impression – a typically Sudanese form and decoration which has been attested in the Funj levels of Abu Geili and Dar el Mek (Crawford & Addison 1951: 67, 163-164, 167, pl. xlvi). Some fragments are decorated with covering roulette, but the size and shape do not permit reconstructing the pot. It is likely that they belong to water jars as well. The firing is generally of the sandwich type, with a black core and ochre, orange or red surfaces, suggestive of open bonfires, although fine
Of particular relevance for its cultural connotations is a large fragment of a crude rakwa or ablution jar that appeared in one of the test pits (Sondage 3) of Kuter 4 in association with
Incense burners resort to the same decorative grammar of
Smoking pipes have been found in four sites (Mirt Gelegu, Gerara 1, Kuter 4, Gumuz Badïmma) and they show a remarkable typological diversity (Fig. 23). Pipes are frequent in Funj sites in Sudan, such as Abu Geili, Sennar and Arbaji (Crawford & Addison 1951: 96-98, pl. lx; Balfour Paul 1951). The pipe that is more similar to Sudanese examples is the one from Gerara 2, whose shape and roulette decoration have good parallels in the neighboring country (Balfour Paul 1951). The undecorated pipe from Gumuz Badimma, in the Rahad valley, is also structurally very similar to pieces from Sudan (Crawford & Addison 1951: fig. 18).
Beads have been collected in a number of sites (Fig. 24): Tach Gerara and Kuter 4 (glass beads) and Dengersha (agate bead). Glass beads are cobalt blue, turquoise or green. In Tach Gerara, three glass beads appeared associated to
Other materials appear but are represented by only one item (a spindle whorl on a reused sherd, a net sink, a fragment of an arrowhead, a knife) or are very abundant and non-diagnostic (grinding stones).
The question of chronology is far less problematic in this case than in the previous two traditions. The Funj period starts in 1504 and ends in 1821, when the Sultanate is conquered by the Turco-Egyptian army. Funj cultural traditions, however, persisted well into the 20th century (James 1977). Another question is when the Ethiopian borderlands were incorporated into the Funj world. This probably occurred in relation to the conquest of Sennar’s southeastern periphery during the late 17th century. We suggested in the previous section that the Jebel Mahadid Tradition likely came to an end at that time. We know that the collapse of Fazogli in 1685 led to displacements, one of which, at least, is well documented through oral traditions: the Bertha migration. Some Bertha clans abandoned the Fazogli area and settled in the Ethiopian foothills and escarpment, in what became known as Benishangul (Bela Shangul). This migration has been set in-between the late 17th century and the early 18th century (Triulzi 1981: 62-68) and it is quite conspicuous from an archaeological point of view: a new settlement pattern, domestic architecture and style of pottery suddenly made its appearance, replacing the local material assemblage (Fernández 2004). Another motive that can be adduced for the migrations is the great famine and smallpox epidemic of 1684, which is known to have led to population movements elsewhere (Holt & Daly 2000: 29).
Archaeological criteria to narrow down the dating of the Funj in Qwara include the smoking pipes – the generalization of tobacco in the Blue Nile does not predate the early 17th century (Crawford & Addison 1951: 96) – and a single radiocarbon date from the last level of occupation of Kuter 4 (
For the end of the Hamej and the disappearance of the Funj Tradition we have a variety of sources. The present people called Hamej in the area, the Dats’in, assert that they arrived to the region in recent times, probably the 1970s and found it deserted. In 1900, a British officer in charge of surveying the borderland between the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Ethiopia also found it empty of people: “The country is thinly, and for many miles entirely, uninhabited, Dervish raids having almost depopulated it” (Gwynn 1901: 573). Gwynn refers to the Mahdist campaigns in western Ethiopia that took place mostly in the 1880s. This is reflected in the archaeological record: no Funj site shows signs of continuous use into the present. However, the depopulation probably started before the Mahdist period, since the area had been subjected to a ruthless Turco-Egyptian occupation since 1821. Material evidence for this is a fortified outpost that we found near the Rahad, comprising two forts and a mosque (González-Ruibal et al. 2015). It is located to the east of the Hamej-occupied lands, thus proving that the entire territory had fallen under effective foreign rule. The Hamej endured slave raids and border fighting between Egyptians and Ethiopians, especially between 1828 and 1838 (Abir 1968: 99-103). British colonial officer C.H. Armbruster wrote that the Hamej living between the Atbara and the Dinder had been hunted down by the Shukriyya and Dubaina Arabs at the service of the Turco-Egyptians during that period: most men were massacred and women enslaved (Rossetti 1910: 968). The few Hamej that survived took refuge between the Dinder and the Blue Nile, where they still live today.
The Funj period implied a transformation of the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland from a margin into a periphery. For the first time, we document a material assemblage that is identical to the one present in the state core, in this case Sennar. From this point of view, the region can contribute to our knowledge of the hitherto scarcely investigated Funj archaeology (Edwards 2004: 270-271). The Qwara lowlands maintained its autonomy, probably under the rule of a petty chief, perhaps the mekk of Abu Ramla, but they could now be considered de jure and to a large extent de facto part of the Funj Sultanate. Another proof of the area’s deeper integration is the appearance of a number of imports. These are no longer regional, like the Ethiopian pottery of the Jebel Mahadid phase or the Sennar pottery of the Gelegu Tradition. They are global: agate beads from India, glass beads from Europe. The region became simultaneously a periphery of Sudan and a margin of the capitalist world-system. The use of tobacco, as evinced by the pipes, is another document of the integration of this remote area into global economic and cultural trends.
One of the most striking proofs of this incorporation, however, is offered by several fragments of Asian porcelains from Tach Gerara (Fig. 24, n. 4-6). They were collected around a rectangular stone building with two rooms still preserving two meter-tall walls. The sherds belong to three different vessels: an underglaze blue cup of provincial ware / Asian market ware of the early 19th century (cf. Klose 2007: fig. 144a, b); an enameled cup of provincial ware / Asian market ware, dated in the 18th century (cf. Klose 2007: fig. 147), and a blue-and-white porcelain cup, of more uncertain origin and chronology (probably Chinese, 18th-19th c.). The provincial ware was a cheap version of the more expensive Chinese porcelain, although they were both produced in China during the Qing dynasty (Klose 2007: 48). This pottery appears in Africa and the Middle East during the second half of the 18th century and the early 19th century. In our case, we know that from the 1770s onwards, private entrepreneurs wrested from the Funj king the right to exploit the riches of the borderland (Kapteijns & Spaulding 1982: 43) and engaged directly in trade with the tribal communities.
The cosmopolitan objects of Tach Gerara stand in stark contrast with the hand-made pottery characteristic of the region; not only because of the technology, but also of the social uses they stand for: the cups were for drinking tea or coffee, also global commodities. Nevertheless, we have not found any trace of jebenas in our sites – today’s ubiquitous coffee pot of Sudanese origin – and, in fact, apart from Tach Gerara, we have retrieved no imported wares in any of the other Funj sites documented to date, but this is probably because ceramics were the smallest and less important part of the imports. Salt was much more relevant for the local communities (Spaulding 1980: 6). Of manufactured objects, imported beads were those that could be most readily incorporated into the local value system, as bead aprons, necklaces and other adornments are known since Meroitic times at least.
Our work in the Rahad-Dinder watershed in Ethiopia has documented the process of transformation of a frontier in the long term (Fig. 25). Two millennia ago, only hunter-gatherers roamed the region. This seems to have been the case for all the area comprised between the Atbara and the Blue Nile, since no clear evidence of early occupations by food-producing peoples have been documented to date (Fernández 2006; González-Ruibal et al. 2015), and probably north of the Atbara as well, if we can projected onto the past what we know of the last few centuries (McCann, J.C. 1990: 122-123). The situation started to change around the mid-first millennium
The fate of Alodia, in fact, is probably related to the emergence of a new cultural assemblage in the area at some point between 1300 and 1500. This new assemblage is what we call Jebel Mahadid Tradition, which is characterized by permanent settlements with stone architecture and a new pottery style. Connections with the Sudan are obvious in this case in the introduction of the doka, a baking tray for making bread, and the incense burner, artifacts related respectively to new culinary and ritual habits. The first connections with the Ethiopian highlands are now documented for the first time in the form of fine ware, perhaps evidence of the stronger involvement of Abyssinia in the western lowlands from the 16th century onwards. It is possible that the people of Jebel Mahadid were emigrants from the Gezira who were moving as a result of the crisis of the Alodian Kingdom (starting around the 13th century) and the conflicts that ensued.
The phase came to an end with the Funj conquest of its southeastern fringe, which occurred during the late 17th century and led to the displacement of so-called Hamej communities into the Ethiopian foothills. It is at this point when the margin became a periphery, that is, an area more strongly integrated into the economy, culture and politics of the state. In fact, the material assemblage of the Hamej allows us to start addressing the question posed by Wendy James (1971: 205): “how it is possible for communities where there has never been any direct contact with Funj immigrant nobles, sometimes situated long distances from Funj centres, to lay wholesale claims to Funj identity”. The survey of Qwara shows that these groups were in fact part of the Funj world, at least in material terms and it is obvious that things and ideas came together to the borderland. Indeed, the remote Ethiopian lowlands became from the 18th century onwards part of a system.
The authors want to thank the editors of the journal for their thoughtful advice and Mike Brass and an anonymous referee for suggestions and comments that have improved the paper. Funding for fieldwork was granted by the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports through the Archaeology Abroad Program (2013, 2014 and 2015). The authors want to thank the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage for providing the necessary permits and support. We are also grateful to the authorities of Qwara woreda (district) in Gelegu town for authorizing fieldwork, providing personnel and furnishing relevant information. Fieldwork benefitted from the invaluable collaboration of Chalachew Simenew (Bureau of Culture and Tourism, Amhara Regional State) and Worku Derara (Addis Ababa University). Almudena Hernando (Complutense University, Madrid) and Candela Martínez Barrio also participated in the fieldwork and contributed to the project in different ways. Many of the sites in the Gelegu area were reported to us by Salih Belay from Mahadid, whose assistance during the three field seasons was crucial for the success of the project. We are also grateful to the neighbors of the Gelegu region for the kindness, hospitality and willingness to help in our research. Particular thanks to a hundred-odd school boys and girls who surveyed with us in Bermil.
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D-AMS 015987 and D-AMS 015988. All dates have been calibrated using OxCal (IntCal 13 atmospheric curve).
The number of vessels unambiguously assigned to this phase where the diameter could be reconstructed with precision are only a dozen. Many small fragments, however, clearly pertain to vessels with large diameters.