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.”