What is it about?

It discusses how Ethiopia’s Christian and medieval past was perceived and exploited by Menilek II, the founder of modern Ethiopia, to consolidate his political power and resist the encroachments of European states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This paper shows how Menilek used archaeological data to assert his continuity with the Solomonic dynasty and consolidate his political authority to strengthen historically documented narratives about his genealogical ties with ancestors who had established and ruled one of the great ancient African civilizations at Aksum. It also shows how Menilek supervised and ordered excavations to search for traces of Ethiopia’s Christian past in the ruins of medieval royal churches and former royal campsites while emphasizing his pivotal role in inviting the first foreign scholars to conduct archaeological excavations at historical sites in the country. It argues that this combination of archaeological activities was instrumental in developing a sense of Ethiopian national identity during Menilek’s reign and thereafter.

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Why is it important?

Although the relationship between archaeology and politics has been widely investigated in Europe and other parts of the world very limited work has yet been conducted in Africa. Among African countries, Ethiopia provides a unique example in the application of archaeology and archaeological data for consolidating political authority, nation-building purposes, and resistance to encroaching European colonial powers. Ethiopia was one of just two African nations not colonized by Europeans (the other being Liberia) and also differs from most other Sub-Saharan nations due to its ancient history, its early adoption of Christianity, its indigenous calendar and writing system, and an institutionalized monarchy that forged the modern nation of Ethiopia and preserved Ethiopian independence during the time of European colonization. Ethiopia’s rich political and cultural history is a vital part of Africa’s past.

Perspectives

In this paper, I explain how archaeology was instrumental in providing material evidence for consolidating political power and justifying the conquered territories. Consolidating political authority and affirming historical and territorial continuity using archaeological evidence can be taken as one of Ethiopia’s multi-faceted reactions to the surrounding European colonial powers in that very difficult period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Viewed from a broader perspective, it seems that Menilek attempted to use the results of archaeological excavations for nation-building and promoting national identity even as European colonial powers used archaeology in other parts of Africa to denigrate the pasts of African peoples and divide communities along ethnic lines.

Dr. Ashenafi Zena
Washington State University

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This page is a summary of: Archaeology, politics and nationalism in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ethiopia: the use of archaeology to consolidate monarchical power, Azania Archaeological Research in Africa, July 2018, Taylor & Francis, DOI: 10.1080/0067270x.2018.1513242.
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