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Mining a Mother Lode: Early European Travel Literature and the History of Precious Metalworking in Highland Ethiopia

  • Raymond Silverman (a1) and Neal Sobania (a2)


Our primary concern in this essay is with reconstructing the history of material culture. As anyone who has ever looked into the material culture of Ethiopia quickly discovers, the travel accounts of early European visitors can be a rich and varied source for illuminating any number of such traditions, including those of metal-, leather-, basket-, and woodworking, as well as pottery, weaving, and painting. Dating from the first part of the sixteenth century, the descriptions of journeys and residences in Ethiopia became more prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when they also begin to include illustrations of more than the landscape. As sources for the reconstruction of a particular material tradition, these accounts can offer valuable insights into the nature of the objects and the people who produced and used them. Conversely, they can be frustrating to work with, since the pertinent data they contain most often come in the form of a sentence here or there. Rarely are there entire sections dedicated to descriptions of particular traditions or processes, unless one happened to be of special interest to the writer.

Among those scholars who have used travel accounts to great effect is Richard Pankhurst. For many decades, as even a cursory examination of his numerous publications illustrates, he has been mining this mother lode for the scattered sentences and tantalizing suggestions they offer. His most comprehensive writing on this subject is an often-cited 1964 article, “Old Time Handicrafts of Ethiopia.” Divided into sections, each dealing with a different tradition, Pankhurst cited various descriptive accounts that mentioned specific traditions. The basic approach taken in this and other publications that have followed is one perhaps best described, in keeping with the mining metaphor, as one of “prospecting” or in some cases mining “surface deposits.”



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1 Pankhurst, R., “The Old-Time Handicrafts of Ethiopia,” Ethiopia Observer 8(1964), 221–42

2 Even studies of ironworking and the role of blacksmiths in society are limited, although there are a few good sources, such as Amborn, H., Differenzierung und Integration. Vergleichende Untersuchungen zu Spezialisten und Handwerkern in südäthiopischen Agrargesellschaften (Munich, 1990), and Todd, J., “Iron Production Among the Dimi of Ethiopia” in Haaland, R. and Shinnie, P.L., eds., African Iron-Working, Ancient and Traditional (Bergen, 1985) 88101.

3 See in particular Moore, E., Ethiopian Processional Crosses (Addis Ababa, 1971); idem., “Ethiopian Crosses” in Religiöse Kunst Athiopiens. Religious Art of Ethiopia (Stuttgart, 1973), 66-90; and Ethiopian Crosses from the 12th to the 16th Century” in Proceedings of the First International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art (London, 1989), 110–14

4 Moore's dating scheme is based on engraved inscriptions on the cross that offer a donor's name, dateable changes in the Ge'ez script (i.e., paleography), illustration of distinctive crosses in dateable paintings, and stylistic comparison of engraved pictorial imagery with datable painted imagery.

5 Moore, , Religiöse Kunst Athiopiens, 67, 78. In Lalibela there is a bronze cross attributed by local tradition to the reign of Lalibela (ca. 1185-1225). Another early example is maintained in the monastery of Debre Negwagwad that is said to date from the reign of emperor Zara Ya'qob (1434-68): ibid., 67.

6 Moore, , Religiöse Kunst Athiopiens, 78, cites what she identifies as the earliest reference to crosses, a letter dating from 1404 that speaks of Ethiopian monks carrying simple iron crosses (Moore, , “Ethiopian Crosses,” 113), or a century later, the Portuguese account of Alvares, who described “a procession in Bizen … in which priests carried ‘fifty small crosses of silver, of bad workmanship’.”

7 Moore, , Religiöse Kunst Athiopiens, 78. It is interesting to note that Moore does offer a brief discussion of the context in which wood crosses were (are) produced: “It is evident that certain centres for fine woodwork existed, and some carvers, probably monks, specialized in making and selling wooden crosses, but the fact remains that many must have been produced by individual priests for their own use only.” (Moore, ibid., 85). She does not, however, indicate where she obtained this information.

8 Hecht, D., Benzing, B. and Kidane, Girma, The Hand Crosses of the IES Collection (Addis Ababa, 1990).

9 Perczel, C.F., “Ethiopian Crosses at the Portland Art Museum,” African Arts 14(May 1981), 52.

10 Brus, R., “Ethiopian Crowns,” African Arts 8 (Summer 1975), 8–13, 84.

11 Pankhurst, R. and Pankhuist, R.J., “Ethiopian Ear-Picks,” Abbay 10(1979), 101–10.

12 Ibid., 103-04.

13 These earpicks, excavated in 1974 by Neville Chittick, were published by Munro-Hay, S.C., Excavations at Aksum: An Account of Research at the Ancient Ethiopian Capital Directed in 1972-4 by the Late Dr. Neville Chittick (London, 1989), 220, 229; he offers a line drawing of one of them, figure 15, 204.

14 See Kobishchanov, Y.M., Axum, trans. Kapitanoff, L. T. (University Park, 1979), 137, for some of these sources.

15 Munro-Hay, S.C., Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh, 1991), 180–95, and idem., “Aksumite Coinage” in M. Heldman with S.C. Munro-Hay, African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia (New Haven, 1993), 101-16, for a discussion of Aksumite coins.

16 For descriptions of some of these finds see Munro-Hay, , Excavations at Aksum, 210–21, 228–33.

17 Munro-Hay, , Aksum, 241.

18 Simoons, F.J., Northwest Ethiopia: Peoples and Economy (Madison, 1960), 177.

19 Bureau, J., “Le statut des artisans en Ethiopie” in Éthhiopie d'Aujourd'hui: La Terre et Les Hommes (Paris, 1975), 39, mentioned the jewelers associated with the region of Aksum: “Les Tigré, et plus spécialement les Shiré de la région d'Axum, sont d'excellents orfèvres dont la réputation est assez forte pour qu'aujourd'hui ils détiennent la presque totalité du marché des bijoux de la capitale.”

20 Alvares, Francisco, The Prester John of the Indies: A True Relation of the Lands of the Prester John Being the Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Ethiopia in 1520 Written by Father Francisco Alvares, trans. Lord Stanley of Alderley (1881). rev. and ed. with additional material by Beckingham, C.F. and Huntingford, G.W.B. (2 vols.: London, 1961), 1:80, 81.

21 Ibid., 1: 303-04.

22 de Almeida, Manoel, Some Records of Ethiopia 1593-1646, Being Extracts from The History of High Ethiopia or Abassia by Manoel de Almeida together with Bahrey's History of the Galla, trans, and ed. Beckingham, C.F. and Huntingford, G.W.B. (London, 1954), 62.

23 This observation is supported by Pearce, N., “A Small but True Account of the Ways and Manners of the Abyssinians,” Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay (1820), 2, 43; Harris, W.C., Highlands of Ethiopia (New York, 1844), 275; Johnston, C., Travels in Southern Abyssinia through the Country of Adal to the Kingdom of Shoa (1 vols.: London, 1844), passim.

24 Parkyns, M., Life in Abyssinia, Being Notes Collected During Three Years' Residence and Travels in That Country (London, 1868), 232–34.

25 Ibid., 243.

26 Rüppell, E., Reise in Abyssinien, (2 vols.: Frankfurt, 18381840), 2:181–82.

27 Harris, , Highlands of Ethiopia, 158, 148, 307.

28 Powell-Cotton, P.H.G., A Sporting Trip through Abyssinia (London, 1902), 110.

29 Johnston, , Travels in Southern Abyssinia, 2:337, 336.

30 Harris, , Highlands of Ethiopia, 141.

31 Ibid., 275.

32 Johnston, , Travels in Southern Abyssinia, 2:335.

33 Parkyns, , Life in Abyssinia, 234. The Agame region is located to the east of Adwa. Most of its inhabitants are Afar.

34 Pearce, , “Small but True Account,” 59.

35 Wylde, Augustus B., '83 to '87 in the Soudan (2 vols.: London, 1888), 2:288.

36 Rey, Charles F., Unconquered Abyssinia as it is To-Day (London, 1923), 225.

37 Ibid.

38 Wylde, , '83 to '87 in the Soudan, 1:289.

39 Norden, H., Africa's Last Empire: Through Abyssinia to Lake Tana and the Country of the Falasha (London, 1930), 166.

40 Johnston, , Travels in Southern Abyssinia, 2:334

41 Wylde, , '83 to '87 in the Soudan, 1:287.

42 Rey, , Unconquered Abyssinia, 225.

43 Parkyns, , Life in Abyssinia, 233.

44 Johnston, , Travels in Southern Abyssinia, 2:337.

45 Examining the importation and use of these important silver coins in Abyssinia is outside the purview of this essay. For information on the subject see Pankhurst, R., “The Maria Theresa Dollar in Pre-War Ethiopia,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 1(1963), 826; Schaefer, C.G.H., “Enclavistic Capitalism in Ethiopia, 1906-1936: a Study of Currency, Banking and Informal Credit Networks” (Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1990), 66–134, 137–59.

44 Johnston, , Travels in Southern Abyssinia, 2:335.

47 Ibid., 2:234; Harris, , Highlands of Ethiopia, 29, 172.

48 For these practices in West Africa see Garrard, T., Gold of Africa: Jewellery and Ornaments from Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal in the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum (Munich, 1989).

49 Rey, , Unconquered Abyssinia, 124.

50 Norden, , Africa's Last Empire, 165–66.

51 Parkyns, , Life in Abyssinia, 233.

52 Ibid., 234. A Venetian sequin is a gold coin.

53 Pearce, , “Small but True Account,” 5758.

58 Parkyns, , Life in Abyssinia, 234.

55 Richard Pankhurst has offered a number of a overviews of the role that foreigners have played in Ethiopian history; see in particular his An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia from Early Times to 1800 (London, 1961), 289306, and The Role of Foreigners in Nineteenth-Century Ethiopia, Prior to the Rise of Menilek” in Butler, Jeffrey, ed., Boston University Papers on Africa. African History (1966), 181214.

56 Alvares, , Prester John, 2:501.

57 Bruce, James, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, & 1773 (3d. ed.: 7 vols.: Edinburgh, 1813), 4:117, cited in Natsoulas, T., “The Hellenic Presence in Ethiopia. A Study of a European Minority in Africa (1740-1936),” Abba Salama 8 (1977), 55.

58 Pearce, N., The Life and Adventures of Nathaniel Pearce Written BY Himself During a Residence in Abyssinia From the Years 1810-1819 (2 vols.: London, 1831), 1:163-64, 257.

59 Rohlfs, G., Meine Mission nach Abessinien auf Befehl Sr. Maj. des deutschen Kaisers im Winter 1880/81 (Leipzig, 1883), 266.

60 Pankhurst, , Economic History, 304–05.

61 Pankhurst, , “Role of Foreigners,” 185; Combes, E. and Tamisier, M., Voyage en Abyssinie, dans le pay des Galla, de Choa et d'Ifat, 1835-1837: précédé d'une excursion dans l'Arabie-heureuse (4 vols.: Paris, 1838), 1:195–96.

62 Dufton, H., Narrative of a Journey Through Abyssinia in 1862-3 (London, 1867), 157.

63 Pankhurst, , “Role of Foreigners,” 210.

64 Sellassie, Guèbrè, Chronique du Règne de Ménélik (Paris, 1932), cited in Pankhurst, , “Role of Foreigners,” 210–11

65 Norden, , Africa's Last Empire, 41.

66 Natsoulas, , “Hellenic Presence,” 79. He bases his theory on formal or stylistic affinities between contemporary Greek and Ethiopian filigree work.

67 Ibid., 85. Natsoulas (ibid., 55) offers three related reasons: “(1) they were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and their status as Europeans was doubtful; (2) they had been continuously present in the Middle East for a considerable time; and (3) they were Orthodox Christians.”

68 Pankhurst, , “Role of Foreigners,” 207, mentions that after the death of Tewodros, John “entered the body guard of Emperor Yohannes; but evidently he was a man of many skills, for he was put in charge of the customs at Adowa, Hausen, and Adigrat and also worked as a silversmith.”

69 Several nineteenth-century observers commented on the situation, some equating their servitude with slavery. See, e.g., Parkyns, , Life in Abyssinia, 234. Natsoulas, , “Hellenic Presence,” 86, argues that it was because they had become indispensable and irreplaceable members of (court) society that they were not allowed to leave the country.

70 For a discussion of this stratification see Hoben, A., “Social Stratification in Traditional Amhara Society” in Tuden, A. and Plotnicov, L., eds., Social Stratification in Africa (New York, 1970), 187224.

71 Pankhurst, R., “Status, Division of Labour and Employment in Nineteenth-Century and Early Twentieth-Century Ethiopia,” Bulletin of the Ethnological Society 2(1961), 22.

72 A variety of terms appear in the scholarly literature for these special groups found in many Ethiopian societies: “submerged classes,” “outcast groups,” “pariah groups,” “occupationals,” “despised groups,” and “caste groups.” The literature is full of debate addressing the validity of using any and all of these terms.

73 Levine, D.N., Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (Chicago, 1965), 70.

74 Alvares, , Prester John, 1:149.

75 Almeida, Some Records of Ethiopia, 55n1.

76 Bruce, , Travels, 4:123, quoted in Natsoulas, , “Hellenic Presence,” 86.

77 Norden, , Africa's Last Empire, 164.

78 Simoons, , Northwest Ethiopia, 178.

79 Heldman, M., “Creating Religious Art: The Status of Artisans in Highland Christian Ethiopia,” Aethiopica 1(1998), 131–47.

80 Heldman, M., The Marian Icons of the Painter Fre Seyon: A Study in Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Art, Patronage, and Spirituality (Wiesbaden, 1994), 8081.

81 If this were indeed the case, the question that remains is why the shift? Why couldn't the monastic community continue to produce metal goods for use in their churches? There is in fact evidence from at least two nineteenth-century accounts of Shoan society that there were religious communities that included artisans in their ranks. (Johnston, , Travels in Southern Abyssinia, 2:320–22; Krapf, J.L., Travels in East Africa (London, 1968), 1:216; cited in Pankhurst, , “Status,” 30.)

82 Ross, H.C., Bedouin Jewellery in Saudi Arabia (London, 1978); idem., The Art of Bedouin Jewellery: A Saudi Arabian Profile (Fribourg, 1981).

83 These impressive publications can serve as models for the sort of research that is needed in Ethiopia.

84 Until roughly 10,000 years ago the two areas were connected by a land bridge crossing what is today the Straits of Bab al-Mandeb, the narrow stretch of water that separates Yemen from east Africa.

85 Raunig, W., “Yemen and Ethiopia—Ancient Cultural Links between two neighbouring Countries on the Red Sea” in Daum, W., ed., Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix (Innsbruck, 1988), 409–18.

86 The Pankhursts conducted a limited survey of European and North American museums for study of Ethiopian earpicks. (Pankhurst, /Pankhurst, , “Ethiopian Ear-Picks,” 102–03). Raymond Silverman documented many examples of Abyssinian silver and goldwork in his survey of European and North American museums (R. Silverman and N. Sobania, “Ethiopian Traditions of Creativity: ‘Art’ or ‘Handicraft’” in R. Pankhurst, ed., Ethiopian Art and Architecture: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art, in press.

87 See Pankhurst, Secular Themes in Ethiopian Ecclesiastical Manuscripts: A Catalogue of Illustrations of Historical and Ethnographic Interest in the British Library,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 22(1989), 46; idem., “Secular Themes in Ethiopian Ecclesiastical Manuscripts: II,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 24(1991), 59; idem., “Secular Themes in Ethiopian Ecclesiastical Manuscripts: III; A Catalogue of Manuscript Illustration of Historical and Ethnographic Interest in the Library of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 25(1992), 55. This is a method that Moore used in her study of processional crosses.

Mining a Mother Lode: Early European Travel Literature and the History of Precious Metalworking in Highland Ethiopia

  • Raymond Silverman (a1) and Neal Sobania (a2)


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