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The adventures of an ethnoarchaeologist in Ethiopia

May 13th, 7 p.m. We finally got there. After one of the shortest 20 hours trips of my life we finally got to Adigrat. Yes, I know… Where the heck is that? Well, think Africa, then go East, then find Ethiopia, and finally look up to Tigray, the northeastern region. There it is… Just about at the Eritrean-Ethiopian border! How exciting, isn’t it? Sure. Until you are actually there and about to start your fieldwork. It is difficult to explain. My fellow ethnoarchaeologists for sure know what I am talking about: excitation, nerves… even fear. What if everything just goes totally wrong? I was very lucky, though. First of all, Stefano was coming with me as a supervisor. But also, as we arrived to Adigrat the members of the Eastern Tigray Archaeological Project led by Catherine D’Andrea (Simon Fraser University, Canada) were waiting for us. Their contribution to our fieldwork was instrumental as they provided both access and accommodation, as well as unconditional help and support throughout all six weeks we were planning to stay. For that I thank them all.

As a PhD candidate of the RAINDROPS project, I am working on one of the study cases, that is, the Tigrinyan region during pre-Aksumite (1600 – 50 BCE) to Aksumite (50 BCE – CE 700) times. The general purpose of my investigation is to understand past agricultural practices and people-plant relationships in the Tigrinyan Highlands, as well as how these phenomena evolved through time. The main problems to unravel include the introduction of agriculture in the region, the origin of C4 cereal production in the area, their relative importance in relation to C3 Near Eastern crops, and the importance of past water management practices during both pre-Aksumite and Aksumite times –all of them matters of debate still today. In order to tackle such questions, we implemented a research plan which combines ethnographic and archaeological data by using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and comparing modern environmental data and crop growing conditions with the results of archaeobotanical analysis from both archaeological sites, following the methodological principles proposed by the RAINDROPS project.

Despite the warming welcome, I was a little bit scared. The real work was about to start. Our preliminary information was promising on paper. Our main goals were to perform at least 15-20 ethnographic interviews and to arrange collection of modern cereal samples of finger millet and sorghum from locally grown crops using traditional methods (with a minimum of three plants per field per seasons from at least three different fields). It sure seemed like a lot. Luckily for us, ETAP members Laurie Nixon and Yemane Meresa agreed to take us into their very own piece of paradise, the valley of Mezber. After years of archaeological and ethnographic work there, they both were familiar with the people of the villages, their customs and life rhythm. The introduction was of course smooth, and we started collecting valuable data from day one. I was feeling comfortable alongside my colleges and everything was going perfectly! During a week, we learnt about crops, land tenure, agricultural techniques, growing cycles, food preparation… All my expectations were surpassed! Not only we found people growing our research crops, but we also got to witness the sowing process! Even better, the local communities were one of the most welcoming people I have ever encountered.

When things work out, times runs rapidly. All of a sudden, it was time for Stefano to leave and the vertigo came back. Before going home, he accompanied me to Mekelle –capital city of the Tigray province– and we visited the Tigray Agricultural Research Institute. Once again, we were greatly received by the director of research, Dr. Zelealem Tesfay. As expected, officers there were of great help, as they assisted us in our search of areas dedicated to finger millet and sorghum agriculture. Furthermore, we got one of them to work with us as a translator. Everything felt so real and serious. It was all up to me then and I felt prepared for the task. The first day flying solo was… let’s say interesting. As we started the fieldwork in another valley, Segelat –located adjacently to Mezber– I found myself trying to repeat what I experienced the previous week. And you know, a knock-off is never the same as the original! That same night I found my self wondering about whether all the years in school were actually useful in any way…But everything changed on day two, as we found what I called finger millet heaven. Everyone was cultivating dagusha there. Suddenly, there were thousands of questions to ask and not enough time to answer them. You could say I got my mojo working! I even began to understand some key words in Tigrinya, such as crop names, soil types and colours use to define varieties. During the following days we continued our work in Segelat valley and expanded to the Bizet area to the southwest accompanied by Phillipa Ryan, Daryl Stump and Richard Lee, where we were able to document sorghum cultivation and even distinct types of irrigation practices. As the number of interviews increased both patterns (such as crops varieties, land tenure regimes, growing cycles, manuring practices…) and divergences (such as sowing traditions, crop-soil suitability, water management…) in between communities emerged, and everything started to make sense –at least in my head! There was a certain je ne sais quoi… a sense of homogeneity within the heterogeneity! Finally, the last week we visited the surroundings of Menebeit, a village near by one of the archaeological sites studied by the ETAP project. Hoping to keep the good sensations and confirm the image I had been creating in my mind during weeks, I found myself feeling somehow discouraged when some things did not add up with the 27 previous interviews. Interestingly, such feeling quickly transformed into excitement, along with an overwhelming necessity to come back and expand the limits of my interviews. Indeed, it became clear that some questions such as those regarding crop differentiation, agricultural decision-making, irrigation history or land rotation needed further exploring if I wanted to understand the variability I had witnessed over the six weeks I spent listening to the graceful Tigrinyan people!

Anyway, our work in northeastern Tigray was not limited to ethnoarchaeology. During the time we were there, we managed to also recover hundreds of archaeobotanical samples with the help of the ETAP project excavators. Two archaeological sites in the Gulo Makeda district had been selected as study cases: the pre-Aksumite rural site of Mezber and the Aksumite urban center of Ona, both sites were inhabited during times of critical cultural developments, and together they provided a unique laboratory to investigate agricultural practices and past human-plant interactions! As so, phytolith samples were taken both from previous season archive bulk soil samples and during the excavation process. When subsampling, samples from contexts associated with cremation, storage and waste practices were prioritised. During excavation, samples were recovered from every differentiated context during archaeological work. As for C4 carpological remains, the evidence in Mezber was limited to 6 wild millet seeds from a single context, which were not available in Adigrat. As so, isotopic analysis of archaeological crops would have to be limited to the microbotanical remains unless more C4 remains are found in the samples processed this year. In order to mitigate the taphonomic problems about the origin of the phytoliths, we decided to carry out a systematic sampling of grindstones, which we thought it might be a better source of information when performing isotopic analyses. That is, since they should contain remains produced by the direct processing of the seeds!

All in all, we were able to meet all our objectives, and also formulate new questions. But more importantly, at least for me, it was an amazing work experience where I got to meet and learn from new colleagues, but also to experience Tigrinyan people kindness. Indeed, I would say that nothing prepares you for your very first ethno-archaeological field season. Nothing. It does not matter how many years you have been studying, or how ready you think you are. Lots of things will happen and they will definitely shake your perspective, how you understand the world, not only professionally but also personally. And the best part is that you do not even see it coming. For that, once again, I thank you all


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