Modern archaeology is not just excavating, it involves to preserve and to present its discoveries to the public. After the sensational discovery of South Arabian cult and votive objects near Wuqro in the highlands of Tigray in 2007, a joint team of the German Archaeological Institute and the Tigray Culture Agency unearthed a well preserved temple precinct of the Sabaean moon god Almaqah, erected during the 8th – 6th centuries BC. During the course of four years of excavations the site developed into a perfect place to study the early culture of northern Ethiopia and how it was influenced by South Arabian features in the last millennium BC.
Already in 2008, the Tigray Culture Agency protected the temple ruin, being one of Ethiopia’s most ancient monuments, by a provisional shelter. However, how to present this precious piece of cultural inheritance to the public? “We jointly developed an idea to preserve the entire excavation site as an open-air museum” said Pawel Wolf, field director of the project. Two important steps towards this aim have been achieved in the last two years.
After a large complex of side rooms with votive objects, incense burners, pottery and other artifacts bearing witness of the ‘everyday life’ in the last millennium BC has been discovered next to the temple, the provisional shelter became too small and a larger shelter roof was urgently needed. Financial support came from the German Foreign Office and the German Embassy at Addis Abeba. A several thousand Euro project was set up to construct a new shelter roof. According to engineer Fesehatsion Wolday from GIZ Mekelle, who designed the blueprint and supervised its realization, 20 x 25 metres was the maximum possible span to cover an area without disturbing it by internal columns.
The archaeological site became a construction place. The new shelter, constructed by the Mekelle-based company ‘Wolday Building Constructor’ has been finalized this November. Being almost five metres high, it now protects the entire sacral precinct of the Almaqah temple and, in the same time, it permits a free sight to its ruin and cult inventory.
However, how to protect this cult inventory? For example the shrine’s altar, being one of the best and most completely preserved of its kind on both sides of the Red Sea - perfectly carved in local limestone by South Arabian stone masons 3000 years ago. Its votive inscription contains the first known written evidence of Yeha, the ‘capital’ of the kingdom of that period. It is obvious that such unique finds cannot remain in their original place, but an open-air museum without these artifacts…? Kebede Amare and Ricardo Eichmann, the directors of the joint archaeological project, decided for replacing all the cult objects by replicas.
Again funded by the German Foreign Office and the German Embassy, this plan was made real in 2011-2012 by the German conservation institute ‘Restaurierung am Oberbaum’. Jan Hamann, its director, and his assistant prepared special Silicon-gypsum casts: a combination of 2.5 tons of traditional casting technology with modern chemistry. The copies have been finally made out of a cement-lime-gravel mixture, combined with natural pigments – resulting in replicas as perfect as the originals.
These works constitute two important steps on the way to an open-air museum. While the excavation of the main shrine of Almaqah is almost ready, future excavations shall unearth the entire sacral precinct. By entering the temple and its surrounding rooms and guided by information boards, visitors shall understand the temple, its function as well as the cultural significance of its features.
The joint archaeological project is part of a co-operation between the Orient Department of the German Institute of Archaeology, directed by Ricardo Eichmann, and the Tigray Culture Agency, directed by Kebede Amare.
For further information please contact Prof. Dr. Ricardo Eichmann (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Dr. Pawel Wolf (email@example.com) at the German Institute of Archaeology.