Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A conversation with Tsegai Medin

(Left) TSEGAI Medin in Buia, Nov. 2010

Issayas: Would you tell us about yourself?

Tsegai: My Name is Tsegai Medin, I am a doctorate student in Quaternary and Prehistory (Paleontology) at the University of Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona (Spain). My studies involve Early to Late Pleistocene paleontological researches (macro-fauna) with special focus at the Danakil Depression of Eritrea (Buia, Mulhuli-Amo…etc) and the Orce sites (Venta Micena, Fuente Nueva-3, and Barranco León) in Southern Spain. More to the point, I am interested in Early Pleistocene sites of Africa, the Levantine Corridor, the Caucasus, and southern Europe, chronologically spanning from ca. 1.8 to 1.0 Million years. I was working as Director of Heritage Management at the National Museum of Eritrea (still I am closely working with the Museum) and I'm still involved on various national and international research projects and conferences. I have international membership in the “East African Association of Paleoanthropology  Paleontology within Eastern Africa”

Issayas: What is Archeology?

Tsegai: Archeology is the scientific study of the past and the way people lived, and interact with their environment based on the things they left behind. The shared ways of life learned by a group of people, including their language, religion, technology, and values are closely studied by Archaeologists by examining artifacts objects made, used, or changed by humans. 

Issayas: What does archeology tell us about Eritrea?

Tsegai:  It is too early to narrate about Eritrean archaeology since the coverage of research on various layers of history is still pending.  However, based on the potentially documented information, from the National Museum of Eritrea, I could summarize the answer of your question as follows; Eritrea is a country of tremendous prehistoric, historic, medieval and recent events, in which the oldest of its evidence is as old as humanity. A number of these archaeological sites have evidences of ancient traces of Human settlements, ancient historic civilizations (which predates the civilizations in our region) and evidences of first introduction of Christian and Islam (in our region) having international significance.  The discovery of such significant archaeological sites in the country can tell then its importance in nation building process as an engine to economic, social and political development in the nation.

Issayas: I have heard some people say what does fragmented pottery found here and there got to do with modern Eritrean history. I guess the comment suggests what does having bread on the table got to do with some pottery from the remote past. What is your response to this kind of comment?

Tsegai: I already mentioned on the second question, that, archaeology is a scientific study of people in the past based on the artifacts they left behind. These artifacts include bones, ceramics, stone tools, iron, shells, charcoal …etc. Like all of these artifacts the importance of fragmented pottery in understanding the life ways of societies in the past is ineffable. Archaeologists spend a lot of time looking to recover the small remnants of material culture left behind by prehistoric societies. Pottery is particularly useful for reconstructing how past groups lived. It is used to determine a person’s social ranking, gender, or even possibly their relationship to others in the group. Archaeologists use pottery and the designs placed upon it to decipher how various areas within the archaeological site were used. For example, one would expect to find pottery in a food preparation or cooking area, but would not expect to find it in a sleeping area. For example, the introduction of pottery was a breakthrough in complex agro-pastoral societies in the highlands of Eritrea. Before the introduction of modern technologies, archaeologists were highly depending on ceramics for typological study and further to relatively date the site under investigation in comparison to other relatively well studied sites. Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich was conducting ceramic typological analysis to understand the development of urban-ism of societies in our region (lowlands and highlands of Eritrea).

Issayas: What are the significant archeological findings to date in Eritrea?

Tsegai: The most significant archaeological sites known to archaeologists in the country are dated from 27 Million years to the present (the recent history of war for liberation). To mention chronologically;

1.The  discovery of new elephant species from Kudo-Felassi which was dated to about 27 Million years; the well recognized Late Early Pleistocene sites of Buia and Mulhuli-Amo (evidences of large mammals among these, the 1 Million year Human evidence having decisive place in filling a gap in the phylogeny of Human evolution);

2.Evidence of first Human exploitation of marine resources (Abdur Gelàlo and Asfet);

3.Inventory and documentation of rock art and engraving sites (Hishmele, Adi-Alewti, Quarura, Beati-Mariam…etc);

                                  Fig. 1. Rock art from Der’a, in the southern part of Eritrea

4. Evidences of complex agro-pastoral societies on the highlands and lowlands of Eritrea- E.g. Sites of Greater Asmara Area (Dated to 800-400BC).

5.The sites of Aqurdet, Bisha and Harenay in the lowlands and Qohaito, Adulis, Metera, Keskese, Toqondaè in the highlands (potential sites that could possibly had a close  mention as part of the mysterious Land of Punt).

                                             Fig.2. The pillars of Qohaito, known as temple-8

6.The 30 years war for liberation (E.g. Naqfa - the triumph of Eritrean perseverance over adversity and oppression and as such is symbolic of a culture of independence, self-reliance, and resistance to oppression that is central to the cultural fabric of Eritrea today).

                                            Fig. 3. One of the many trenches  of Naqfa

Issayas: Where is Buia located and what is the significance of the site?

Tsegai: The fossiliferous area of Buia (100 Km south of Massawa, northern Danakil Depression, Eritrea) was discovered in 1995 during a preliminary geological survey under the aegis of a collaborative research program between the Department of Mines (Eritrean Ministry for Energy and Water Resources, Asmara) and the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Florence. Further studies were carried out in the area during several field seasons in 1995-1997 and 2003-2004, also involving research teams from the National Museum of Eritrea as well as other Italian and European institutions. These activities led to the discovery of a new important paleoanthropological site at Buia where an abundant fossil vertebrate collection was recovered, among these was the most complete Human cranium.

                                                                      Fig. 4. Buia Homo Cranium

A large number of archaeological localities with extraordinarily abundant and well preserved Mode 1 (Oldowan) and Mode 2 (Acheulean) tool industries were also identified in this area. The chronology of the site has been established at around 1.0 Ma. The research works on 2011 and 2012 led to the discovery of an important site within the Basin, named after the local name, Mulhuli-Amo. In this locality, evidence of Human parietal bones probably belong to more than three individuals was found. The research will continue at the end of this year and the finding of further evidence is promising. One of the most important findings from Buia is the 1Million years old Human cranium which is found in association with very rich vertebrate faunal species and highly concentrated Acheulian Hand axes. Therefore, the date of the Human evidence from this site, chronologically fills the big gap between Homo erectus (1.4 Myrs) to Homo heidelbergensis (0.65myrs). The finding of this complete cranium is among the most important discoveries in Human evolution research.

Issayas: What was Adulis and its significance? What are the latest findings in Adulis?

Tsegai: Adulis is well known by classical sources, as the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (1st c. A.D.) and the Christian Topography (6th c. A.D.) as an important port of trade in the Red sea in Antiquity. The site has been identified for the first time by Henry Salt at the beginning of the 19th century in the Zula Bay. The first field-survey was conducted in 1840 by Vignaud and Petit, as part of the Theophile Lefebvre mission. After 28 years the first excavation has been conducted in 1868 by British soldiers under the direction of Captain William West Goodfellow, under the auspices of the British Museum. At the end of the 19th century the British explorer Theodore Bent produced a graphic documentation of the site. In 1906 Richard Sundström, a team member of the Enno Littmann, excavated a large building in the North Eastern sector of the site. After one year, in 1907 the Italian archaeologist Roberto Paribeni conducted a substantial excavation in different areas of the site. As a result, two Byzantine “Churches” and the early levels of occupation of the site were identified at the South West limit. At the end of the 1960s Francis Anfray, French archaeologist, also conducted an excavation in the central sector of the site focusing on the documentation of a residential area. All these investigations were colonial by nature and failed to follow scientific standard of study, as a result, they produce a biased and distorted publications which totally underestimates the culture and history of this country; precious artefacts were found discarded on the surface; and other important materials recovered from the excavations were transported to their respective museums (Italy, England, France and Ethiopia) awaiting official reclamation process.

In early 2011, a five-year joint Eritreo-Italian project started to conduct the first  scientific excavation, survey, ethnographic assessment, maritime environment studies, geological surveys, and management works, at the ancient port city of Adulis. The result of the stratigraphic excavations revealed masonry structures of an ancient church having an area of 180 sq. meters. Various archaeological artefacts (pots, ceramics, charcoal samples, amphora, stone tools, wall structures, bones, iron materials, coins, beads…etc) were also collected from the stratigraphic excavations and survey. The architecture of the ancient church shows close similarity to the already identified churches in Metera and the Byzantine world. The design of the wall structure of the church enlightens to the locally dominated civilization in the area with trade-connected outside influence. This fact significantly confirms to the locally dominated establishment of the ancient port city of Adulis in particular and the civilizations of the hinterland of Eritrea in general.

                Fig.5. The exposed masonry structure of the ancient temple from Adulis

Even though results of scientific carbon and ceramic seriation dating are pending the results of ceramic typological analysis shows ancient occupational levels that belong to the Adulite civilizations. Based on the findings from the stratigraphic excavations, the lower occupational level predates the Axumite civilization. The discovery of the Adulite civilizations will surely concern the previously known civilizations in the region and this is an incredible result in the ancient history of East Africa. More importantly, the results of this seasons excavation, survey and laboratory analyses are very important in preparing an alternative history of Eritrea and  also in out-dating the biased history of  the country published during the colonial times.

The ancient port city of Adulis along the coastal fringes of the Red Sea is the site of global importance and holds a phenomenal amount of information about the trade systems (with the Romans, Arabs, Persians, Indians and Chinese) of this part of the ancient world between 500 B.C. and 700 A.D. It has also an important insight into the economy of the littoral and highlands of Eritrea.  Modern Adulis appears at first glance to be little more than a series of mounds, with hardly a stone standing. It must have been deliberately destroyed, never to rise again. Perhaps this happened in the well documented Arab raids of AD 640.

Issayas: Today's Adulis is 7 km. inland than the Adulis mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (a 1st century AD. sailors/trader manual) which was 3 km. inland. What happened? Even with the 3 km. mentioned in the above mentioned book, how was Adulis considered a maritime power when it was located inland?

Tsegai: The ancient port city of Adulis is located at the Red Sea coast alongside the western shoreline of the Gulf of Zula. It is situated on an area of coastal low-lying land that has been drained by major rivers. According to the mid 1st Century AD writing of Periplus of Erythreaean Sea, Adulis was a port city situated at 3.3km from the sea. It declined at the mid 7th Century (Peacock, et al., 2007). Since its fall, enormous environmental change took place at the site and nearby coastal area. At present, the distance to the sea has been widened to about 7km and a significant amount of alluvial sediments has been deposited at the site, which resulted to the retreat of the sea backwards. Geologically, the ruins and all adjacent coastal area are covered by substantial fluvial derived alluvium overburden. It comprises un-consolidated alluvial sediments transported from the central highland hills and Mount Ghedem.

Issayas: Are there any other places where there are major archeological findings in Eritrea beside the eastern side?

Tsegai:  Yes, there are many. The National Museum of Eritrea has an extensive plan to conduct a national inventory (to make a survey and ethnographic inquiry in order to understand the distribution of the archaeological sites within the country. However, throughout the country you find traces of archaeological site. 

Issayas:  Tsegai, thank you for taking out time from your busy schedule to talk to me. Good luck with your studies.

Tsegai:  You’re welcome.


  1. Afro Ingenuity- Center for Art and ArchaelogyJune 10, 2012 at 12:41 AM

    Greatly interesting!However, in regard to this, our institution which is engaging in archiving vital archaeological remnants and facts, in deed, is badly suspicious about your saying ( to quote as it is..." Even though results of scientific carbon and ceramic seriation dating are pending the results of ceramic typological analysis shows ancient occupational levels that belong to the Adulite civilizations." Here, what we are emphasizing is how you can believe merely that all typological ceramics result claim to the Adulite civilizations? Please comment for us in this case as we are readily credited with other information whicj is completely founded on other angles rather than what you have aforementioned. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for dropping a comment on my brief interview, page. As you mentioned "quoting to my words". You might be right to think in that way. But,i was saying this not to represent the whole ceramic assemblage collected from all stratigraphic layer of the site. I am referring to the lower stratigraphic layer that we found in the 2010 excavation. From this occupational stratigraphic layer we also found ceramic that belong to earlier civilizations (compared to the regional ceramic sequences). These information was basically confirmed by one historical archaeologist who have a regional understanding of this chronology in east Africa.


  3. Even though your cooment is sheltered on generalized information, notwithstanding to this, we are classifying you that our institution had been in eagerly concoted efforts for publishing its archaelogical foundations. And, even we are not sure to what extent, you are cordially invited to shower your professional comment on a few pages which are greatly related with the fundamental reaserch you have exerted. We are ready to sent it to you, and based on your interview, we have with-drawn our plan to publish thereby to broaden its content with hortative critisms.

    Yours Giussepe Zedekil, Genela Manager, Afro Ingenuity

  4. Is there any relationship between the land known to the ancient Greeks as the land of Ethiopia and the current one? Where Profet Mohamed followers took refuge? The present day Ethiopia or Eritrea? Which is the oldest mosque in Africa? The one in Wokro/Tigrai, or the one in Massawa? What about Saba? Was she a queen of Yemen or Axum? What about the legend of the Arc of covenent and that of priester Jhones? One wonders whethera all these are real history or simply legends.

  5. Even though Tsegay Medhin, as professional in that field, have to classify it, you Dear, your questions claim further, deeply founded researches on every milieu of the past generations. Hence, it would be optional to let your secured and spam-free email to sent you some answers of the questions you have posted on June 22, 2012 6:04 PM.

  6. I am sorry, but the response to my questions is not that clear. I still feel that there is a lot of confusion around the questions I have raised. For example, Stanley Burstein, Ancient African Civilization, Kush and Axum states that the name Ethiopia was related to the area around Nubia which is essentially the present day Northern Sudan. On the other hand, William Leo Hansberry, Joseph Pankhurst and the rest have been echoing the Ethiopian position. In fact, the latter’s’ fairy tale has been used by Ethiopia to conquer, expand and subjugate the people of the Horn of Africa. Aklilu Habtewold has used it as part of his argument in 1949 to claim Eritrea. I am hopeful our historians will clear this confusion in the coming future. Talking about clearing confusion, I am sure that most of you have read the the book, The Red Sea Citizens by Jonathan Miran. Although this is only about a part of Eritrea, it is an excellent and well researched book.