Laboring away in the rugged landscape of Ethiopia’s northern uplands, a specialist archaeological crew are about to hit paydirt. While the team excavate an area only 30 miles or so from the capital of the former Kingdom of Aksum, they come across a building hidden by the earth. And this find isn’t just remarkable for how it may affect our understanding of this ancient civilization. You see, the relics may also completely transform how we view early Christianity.
The potentially history-changing discovery was made within the context of a five-year operation, which started in 2011 and ended in 2016. And the work took place about 70 miles from the Red Sea – and not far from Ethiopia’s neighboring country of Eritrea – at an excavation site once known as Beta Samati. This name means “house of audience” when translated from an East African language called Tigrinya.
Before 2009, however, the area hadn’t been of much interest to archaeological experts. In fact, the specialists’ attention was only drawn to the site when people living nearby suggested that they should visit a certain hill. This slope, the locals knew, was historically critical – though the reasons for this weren’t understood. Nonetheless, the hill had featured in the natives’ stories for generations.
So, led by Johns Hopkins University’s Michael Harrower, the archaeologists eventually got to work in the area. And throughout the course of their research, the team had a number of important breakthroughs that have helped to paint a clearer picture of the region – as well as the ancient kingdom that once ruled there.
Although things were a little more vague before these discoveries were made, historians had already constructed a broad narrative of the Kingdom of Aksum. Essentially, Aksum was seen to be a “trading empire” that at one point encompassed a vast area throughout East Africa and West Asia. In today’s terms, it would’ve fallen within the borders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The kingdom is also said to have existed from roughly 100 A.D. to 940 A.D., although its origins can potentially be traced back to the Iron Age. Apparently, Aksum got its start as far back as 400 B.C. before it developed further over the five centuries that followed.
Records suggest, too, that the capital of the Kingdom of Aksum was once a place called Mazaber. Within time, though, this status was transferred to an urban center also known as Aksum. And the city of Aksum is still inhabited today, with just under 67,000 people calling the area home. A number of ruins and artifacts from the metropolis’ ancient past are also still to be found in the region.
Meanwhile, a pair of hills rise into the sky at opposing ends of the city of Aksum, while two small rivers cut through the landscape of the area. These features, it’s been posited, may have initially contributed to the development of the territory as an urban center.
Then there are the vertical structures – known as steles or stelas – which were erected by Aksum’s ancient inhabitants. Found within the vicinity of cemeteries, these items were seemingly designed to honor the dead. And while the steles may be approximately 1,700 years old, they’re nevertheless considered a symbol of modern Ethiopia.
Many of Aksum’s steles were raised, moreover, in an area known as the Northern Stelae Park. But perhaps the example with the most checkered history is the towering, 79-foot-tall Obelisk of Axum, which in 1937 was taken away from its rightful place by Italian soldiers. It was only in 2005, in fact, that the structure was brought back to Ethiopia and raised again three years later.
So, what exactly were the steles used for? Predominantly, it’s thought that they indicated burial sites. These grand constructions may also have had circular sheets of metal that were embellished with shapes and patterns attached to their exteriors. One area in the western end of the settlement is even said to house resting places that date back to the fourth century.
Interestingly, too, the Kingdom of Aksum was known for trading in a currency of its very own. This money is said to have started circulating towards the end of the third century, under the rule of King Endubis. And at around this same time, Aksum emerged as one of the most significant powers on Earth – alongside China’s Three Kingdoms, the Roman Empire and the Sasanian Empire.
Trade was apparently one of the main ways in which Aksum forged itself as a force to be reckoned with. The kingdom was known to do business over great distances, meaning it could ultimately establish an intricate economy and society. In addition, Aksum was prone to extending its reach through military force.
And it helped, too, that Aksum possessed large amounts of gold, which was taken both from within its own lands and from its vanquished enemies. Along with ivory, this precious metal was a significant export for the kingdom, with the Byzantine Empire seemingly happy to snap up any gold going. Other sources of income that were traded out of Aksum were slaves, salt and – perhaps bizarrely – the shells of tortoises.
With the help of camels, these products were brought to a port called Adulis en route to Aksum’s trading partners. And from there, the exports were sent away in exchange for other valuable goods, such as cloth from Egypt and India, glass and weaponry.
A number of containers that were originally from the Mediterranean region have also been found at the archaeological sites of Aksum – suggesting that olive oil and wine were similarly transported into the kingdom. Aksum coins, meanwhile, have been discovered in places as far away as the Mediterranean, Sri Lanka and India.
Yet in spite of this vast trading network, the Kingdom of Aksum eventually started to fail towards the end of the sixth century. And while historians can’t say for certain why this occurred, it’s thought that the deterioration of agriculture in the region may have played a part. Rival groups may also have started to take over smaller areas of the kingdom.
And Aksum’s decline could have been hastened because its leaders let the heads of defeated tribespeople retain a certain degree of power. This enabled these chiefs to organize and execute uprisings against the larger kingdom – fundamentally weakening Aksum and perhaps contributing to its eventual downfall.
Then, at the beginning of the seventh century, Arab Muslims started to compete with Aksum for control of its sea trading networks. The main hub of the kingdom was forced to move, too. Eventually, then, Aksum fell into a slump – and by the end of the eighth century, it had disappeared entirely.
Throughout the course of its history, though, Aksum had an interesting relationship with religion. During the early stages of the kingdom, its subjects worshipped multiple gods – some of which were in fact specific to the area. One of these deities was Mahram, who represented war and monarchy.
Other gods important to those within the kingdom were Hawbas – who was closely associated with the Moon – and Astar, who was linked to Venus. Divine beings such as Meder and Beher were also offered up animal sacrifices – particularly in the form of cows.
Then, in around the fourth century, Christianity finally reached the Kingdom of Aksum. This is thought to have been made possible by the region’s direct trading links to the Roman Empire, as the Romans had themselves recently accepted the relatively new religion.
As a consequence of Christianity reaching the kingdom, churches subsequently began to spring up in the region. Monasteries were also founded, including one set up by Abuna Aregawi, who was later made a saint. And those living in the Kingdom of Aksum steadily took up Christianity, too. In fact, the religion is still widely observed in Ethiopia today.
So, while we do know some things about the Kingdom of Aksum, there are still gaps in its history that need to be filled. And over recent years, Michael Harrower and his colleagues have been working to do just that. Some of their findings have even ultimately altered the way we view this ancient civilization.
Harrower and his team’s work started back in 2009, after they began an assessment of an area near a settlement called Yeha. You see, it’s previously been suggested that this place was once the capital of a realm predating the Kingdom of Aksum. Numerous discoveries have been made in the area, including evidence of early forms of writing.
Despite this, though, there hadn’t been much archaeological work in or around Yeha. And while in the 1970s experts did take note of certain sites that had been deemed significant, the broader territory hadn’t been adequately investigated. So, Harrower and his fellow archaeologists sought to remedy this state of affairs.
And people living locally pointed the archaeologists in the direction of a particular mound, as they knew the geological feature was in some way significant. In 2019 Harrower explained to CNN, “[The hill] was part of the local oral tradition. They knew it was an important place but they didn’t know why.”
In any case, the archaeologists got to work. And during several operations between 2011 and 2016, many intriguing discoveries were made. Stonework from around the eighth century was taken from beneath the earth, for instance. Yet arguably the most exciting find came in the form of the ruins of a Christian basilica or church.
The building measured up at about 60 feet in length and 40 feet in width, and it hosted a revealing array of artifacts. A golden ring with a stone bearing the likeness of a bull’s head was discovered in the vicinity, along with almost 50 objects created to resemble cows. This implies that belief systems predating the arrival of Christianity were still around at the same time as the church.
Speaking specifically of the ring, Harrower said to CNN, “It paints an important line of evidence. The ring looks very Roman in its composition and its style, but the insignia of that bull’s head is very African. [It’s] very unlike something you would find in the Mediterranean world, and [it] shows the kind of interaction and mixing of these different traditions.”
The team also unearthed a stone carving bearing a cross and ancient text that translates into English as “venerable.” There was also lettering nearby with an even more explicitly Christian flavor, as the words seem to request that Christ be “favorable” to those who made use of the church.
Finally, the experts used carbon-dating techniques on the objects with the aim of establishing when the building was first created. And, incredibly, that process suggested that the church had been constructed all the way back in the fourth century. This would have been roughly around the time that Christianity was made legal within the Roman Empire.
And in a message sent to Fox News, the archaeologists involved in the excavation elaborated on their significant discovery. “Early basilicas in Ethiopia were key places of Christian worship,” they said. “And the site… appears to be one of the first in the Aksumite Kingdom – built shortly after King Ezana converted the empire to Christianity during the mid-fourth century A.D.”
The implications of this find are potentially immense, too. After all, it all but proves that Christianity swiftly spread almost 3,000 miles away from Rome. Perhaps, then, the religion advanced with the help of trade links from southern Europe to Africa and parts of Asia. According to Smithsonian magazine, archaeologist Helina Woldekiros has even suggested that Aksum was a “nexus point” for the Roman Empire and more southerly regions.
Christianity has, at times, proven to be a difficult subject for historians focused on these earlier centuries. Before the religion was legalized within the Roman Empire, you see, followers were often forced to practice their faith secretly for fear of mistreatment. As such, there’s arguably an absence of evidence pertaining to Christianity’s early spread.
But thanks to the discovery of this church, the period within which Christianity reached the lands of Aksum has become clearer. As language expert Aaron Butts put it to Smithsonian magazine, “[This find] is, to my knowledge, the earliest physical evidence for a church in Ethiopia.” It’s even been said that the place of worship is actually the oldest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa.
And the remains of the church have also called into question the traditional notion of how Christianity reached Ethiopia. Until recently, a common tale implied that an Aksum ruler was converted by a missionary called Frumentius – a narrative that may now be challenged by what Harrower and his team have found.
And the church’s contents have also emphasized the importance of business-related activities in Christianity’s dissemination. Inside the building, tokens used as a sort of currency for trading purposes were discovered. Items from the Mediterranean and an area today encompassed by the state of Jordan also prove that distant exchanges took place.
Discoveries such as these all have the potential to paint a more vivid picture both of this region and how Christianity spread there. As an expert named Alemseged Beldados put it to Smithsonian magazine, “The Aksumite Kingdom was an important center of the trading network of the ancient world. These findings give us good insight… into its architecture, trade, civic and legal administration.”
Nevertheless, Harrower has mused on the difficulties that he faces in his job. “Politics and religion are important factors in shaping human histories but are difficult to examine archaeologically,” he said. Despite the challenges, though, the work can be ultimately fulfilling and vital – especially when you make a momentous find on the level of the Aksum church.
And thousands of miles away, two researchers appear to have unearthed something just as incredible. There’s a potential link to the Bible, too, if what the pair have uncovered is true. It’s all to do with Australia’s rocks – and how they could confirm what Christians have believed for generations.
Australia may be full of many wonders, but the Pilbara region definitely stands out among them all. This area in the west of the country is not only packed with unusual and one-off wildlife and greenery, but it’s also home to a whole host of astonishing geological features. The eye-catching rock formations in the Pilbara have even given scientists crucial insights into the beginning of the world. And, incredibly, one of those discoveries suggests there’s some scientific basis for the events mentioned in the biblical Book of Genesis.
Sprawling over more than 193,000 square miles, the Pilbara region is double the area of the entire United Kingdom and as big as the northeastern United States. And given the sheer size of the landscape, it’s perhaps no surprise that environments there are varied, ranging from dry and desert-like to tropical.
But there’s something for everyone in the region – from beautiful sandy beaches and secluded islets to rocky gorges, plunge pools and mountains. And the incredible natural wonders don’t end there. Rare animals such as the Pilbara leaf-nosed bat and the olive python are also to be found in this part of the world.
There’s also a more than 30,000-year history of human habitation in the Pilbara, with its one million rock carvings all acting as evidence that ancient peoples once lived and thrived there. Given the remarkable flora and fauna in the area, though, you may be surprised to learn that the Pilbara is also seen as “the engine room of Australia.”
How did the region earn that moniker? Well, it appears that the landscape is bursting with natural resources – some of which are typically used within industry. Mining operations have found iron ore, natural gas, gold and base metals, for example, among the rocks there.
Yet the history of mining in the Pilbara goes back just a few decades, to the 1960s. And there has been extraction in particular of iron ore, with some six million tons of the metal having been found in the region. In 2014 the Pilbara was said to be responsible for an amazing 95 percent of Australia’s iron ore production, in fact.
Owing in part to this extraction work, the Pilbara is home to around 60,000 inhabitants – most of whom live in the western third of the region. Many of the various mines, towns and commercial districts are also located in the vicinity. And while this era of human habitation is essentially modern – even industrial – the area has an ancient history that we’re still discovering today.
Indeed, while humans may have lived in the Pilbara for tens of thousands of years, the region itself has existed for far longer than that. And it not only plays home to some of the first rocks to have formed on the planet, but also fossils from the earliest lifeforms. These relics from a bygone age include remnants of sulfur-eating bacteria and stromatolites created by tiny microbes. But the location’s unique features certainly don’t end there.
You see, the Pilbara has a remarkably uncommon geological makeup. Rock formations such as those found in Western Australia are only seen in one other place on Earth: South Africa. And these incredibly rare arrangements actually date back to a time before tectonic plates began to create landforms in the way we see today. This makes areas of the rock here billions of years old.
Before we move on, though, let’s have a quick chat about plate tectonics. Essentially, movement of the enormous plates that glide across the Earth’s surface can create new landforms – either as the result of causing volcanic lava flow or by pushing rock upward when the plates crash into each other. Yet the Pilbara predates even this incredibly old process.
The formation of the Pilbara goes all the way back to the early days of Earth, in fact. At the time, the planet was incredibly hot, with temperatures high enough to melt rock. It’s thought that molten basalt and granite then sank and rose over the course of millions of years, with this process leaving a distinct mark on the region’s landscape.
When seen from above, the area is now dotted with telltale domes of rock – leftovers from that ancient activity. These mounds somehow survived the later tectonic plate movements and survive to this day. And as a result, a number of rocks in the Pilbara region have been dated to over three billion years old.
Understandably, these age-old rock formations have proved popular among geologists and scientists. In particular, they’re of use for those trying to understand exactly when and how plate tectonics began shaping landforms. The theory of gravitational overturn in the Pilbara even came about as a result of research in the region.
But there are certainly other findings to be made about the Pilbara. For instance, in March 2020 University of Colorado Boulder researchers Benjamin Johnson and Boswell Wing published a study in the journal Natural Geoscience that detailed some of their work in the region. And during the course of the duo’s investigations, they discovered some very interesting things indeed.
More specifically, Johnson and Wing decided to analyze the chemical composition of the ancient rock of the Pilbara, looking in depth at the levels of the isotopes oxygen-18 and oxygen-16 there. These elements can, it appears, tell us a lot about the formation of landmass.
The isotopes actually become trapped in the rock at the time of its formation, and their differing levels may give clues as to what the surrounding environment was like when that rock was created. For instance, lower amounts of oxygen-18 are a telltale sign that a landmass had appeared. Explaining this further, Wing was quoted in a March 2020 Daily Express article as saying, “When you form a soil, you form clays, and clays hoover up heavy oxygen.”
Soil and clay, of course, form on the ground, and therefore low levels of the heavier oxygen-18 can indicate the presence of land. Wing went on, “What you can tell from that is how much soil formation was going on.” So, given how old the Pilbara rocks are, the pair decided to test samples from the area for the two oxygen isotopes. And the results of this investigation may well surprise you.
In total, Wing and Johnson analyzed over 100 rock samples from the Panorama region of the Pilbara. But while tests for levels of oxygen-18 and oxygen-16 should have revealed steady, consistent levels of these isotopes throughout the ages, these processes ultimately indicated something entirely different. And what the researchers discovered had implications not just for our understanding of the early Earth, but also of more heavenly considerations.
After looking at the samples, you see, Wing and Johnson discovered that oxygen-18 isotopes existed at higher than expected levels in the Pilbara rocks. Why is this significant? Well, although the heavy compound is usually hoovered up by soil and clay-rich environments, that doesn’t appear to have happened in this area.
And while Wing and Johnson have admitted that the disparity between expected and actual levels of oxygen-18 is very tiny, it is still significant. In a March 2020 report by Sci-News.com, Wing is quoted as saying, “Though these mass differences seem small, the [isotopes] are super-sensitive.” Faced with these unusual levels, the researchers then came to a unique conclusion.
Johnson and Wing theorized that these higher oxygen-18 levels suggested no continents had existed at the time the isotope was trapped over three billion years ago. This subsequently led them to assume that the world, without any landmass, was covered in an enormous ocean – meaning the Pilbara, in turn, was once an ancient ocean bed.
And the evidence seemed to fit. Some of the examples of early life found in the Pilbara region are water-based, after all, while much of the landscape bears the scars of flowing liquid. “Today, there are these really scrubby and rolling hills that are cut through by dry river beds. It’s a crazy place,” Johnson said of the area, according to a March 2020 article by The Independent.
Of course, the possibility of a world covered in water has implications not only for geologists, but also for theologians. And while those two groups may sound like curious bedfellows, they do actually have a few things in common. Both share an interest in the mechanics of the beginning of the world, for instance.
For scientists, of course, the Big Bang and the evolution of the solar system are key. Theologians, on the other hand, are more typically concerned with the divine creation of Earth and everything on it – a process that is described in the Book of Genesis.
The Book of Genesis opens both the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible. And, famously, it recounts a version of what is claimed to be the beginning of the world, which God apparently created in six days. Some aspects of the tale even seem to mirror Johnson and Wing’s theory.
In particular, Genesis states, “And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.’ And it was so.” The suggestion here is that at some point during the six-day creation period, Earth was covered in water – with no land in sight.
And this idea that the young planet contained nothing but water appears to parallel Johnson and Wing’s research. If their theories are correct, then, the Book of Genesis may actually have some basis in fact. Yet there is one small problem with the Bible-mirroring-life theory.
According to the Book of Genesis, God creates the oceans and the land in around three days. For many biblical scholars, this event took place around 6,000 years ago. But, of course, the scientists studying the Pilbara have dated the rocks there to approximately 3.2 billion years ago – which makes for quite the disparity in time periods.
Still, there are those who don’t see this difference as anything to worry about. Indeed, some so-called Old Earth creationists believe that there’s a perfectly good explanation for this not-inconsiderable discrepancy. It’s all to do with the translation of the Hebrew word yom, meaning, among other things, “day.” Many readings of Genesis verses take that as a literal 24-hour time period.
By contrast, a number of Old Earth creationists translate the word to mean a time period with a definite duration – not necessarily a 24-hour cycle. This interpretation of yom does have precedent in Hebrew, but in this instance, members of the group have taken its definition a little further. And by a little, we mean so much further…
For Old Earth Creationists, you see, a biblical day can last up to billions of years. This means that the time period in which God created the land could have lasted epochs. And given that we still don’t really know how, why or exactly when plate tectonics created the continents, it’s easy to see why this explanation appears so attractive to some. If it’s true, then the Bible may well describe the actual creation of the planet.
However, many geologists are excited by the findings for many different reasons. According to the Daily Express, Wing has said, “[These findings are] at the limit of the geological record. That’s why old rocks and the ancient Earth [are] so fun.” And there’s potential for the Pilbara rocks to teach us even more.
Wing was quoted by Sci-News.com as saying, “Our findings could help scientists to better understand how and where single-cell organisms first emerged on Earth. The history of life on Earth tracks available niches. If you’ve got a waterworld, a world covered by ocean, then dry niches are just not going to be available.”
So, to understand the journey of life on Earth, we need to discover when the planet finally spawned a landmass. According to Wing, though, his and Johnson’s theory doesn’t entirely rule out land altogether. “There’s nothing in what we’ve done that says you can’t have teeny micro-continents sticking out of the oceans,” he explained.
Wing went on, “We just don’t think that there were global-scale formation of continental soils like we have today.” And now he and Johnson intend to study young rocks all over the world in an attempt to pinpoint the birth of tectonic plates. Indeed, Johnson was quoted by The Independent as saying, “Trying to fill that gap is very important.”
Meanwhile, the Pilbara region itself is about to become part of Western Australia’s future in a big way. While the mining industry there still grows, the government is plowing over a billion dollars of investment into the area. And the plans in place are ambitious.
The authorities intend not only to boost infrastructure, but also the populations of two of the towns in the Pilbara to 50,000 people each. That’s a long way from the 60,000 or so current residents of the Pilbara’s three regions. Yet the ambitions for the historic area don’t end there – and they don’t all include mining, either.
In essence, one of the aims of the project has been to “[transform] Pilbara mining communities into modern cities and towns.” To do that effectively, then, the government intends to concentrate on community projects, land development and economic diversification of the area. And the development of agriculture in the Pilbara seems to mark a move away from mining.
In particular, a multi-million-dollar government investment saw abandoned mines being repurposed into new farmland. Land purchased around old operations has been used for growing animal fodder, making use of the excess water used in ore extraction. To date, three schemes of this type have been funded in the area.
But those moving to the Pilbara over the next few years may well have no idea that they’re so close to some of the world’s oldest features. And while Johnson and Wing continue to search for answers, the region will always offer a window into a time before life as we know it took hold of the planet – either by way of divine intervention or nature itself.