Category Archives: ETHIOPIA

Language of the Megalithic Tiya

Every thirty seconds we were jumping up on our seats, and the luggage mounted on the roof of our bus all the time threatened to fall down. Shortly afterwards, red dust rose from the road and broke through half-closed windows causing a general attack of coughing among us.

‘Please, close the widows’, some voices were heard. ‘It’s difficult to breathe’.

Then the sound of closed windows was heard, only to make them open in a while to stick out a camera at the sight of half-naked, painted people with red hair, walking along the road or curiously looking at our passing vehicle behind the fences of their villages. But seeing multiply barrels of camera’s lens pointed at themselves, some angrily waved their arms, turned away or fled. It also happened that someone threw a stone at our bus or showed a gesture of demanding money for any taken photos. At that signal, we usually stopped and met them face to face paying for their patience. Those people belonged to the Ethiopian tribe of Hamers. The Hamer, also called Hamar, are an Omotic society living on the territory east of the Omo River, in southwestern Ethiopia (Atlas of Humanity 2020). We were just about to leave their land to come back to Addis Ababa, lying over six hundred kilometres away in the north. From there, we were going to take our flight back to Istanbul.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site on the way

On the whole, it took us two days to get to the capital with an overnight stay in Arba Minch. Yet before we reached our half-way point, we encountered another peculiar tribe. There were eight boys walking on stilts, who suddenly appeared in the middle of the road we travelled. All of them, except for one, had covered their bodies in different designs with white paint, and were gracefully posing on their wooden scaffolding to our cameras. Of course, not for free!

Stilt-walkers in southern Ethiopia (Banna tribe). Photo by Magdalena Michniewicz-Piurkoś. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Anyway, a great idea of creating such a teen tribe to earn pocket money after school. Moreover, the boys were once rewarded for their creativity with their photo having been published by National Geographic. It is a fact, however, that youths in Ethiopian villages, like those of Banna people living in Lower Omo Valley, learn to walk on stilts to watch for predators attacking livestock (Rees 2017).

On the second day everybody was already extremely tired with hours spent in the seating position so we stopped sometimes on the way to get out of the bus and stretch our legs. On the other side, we did not want to stay on the road after dark so our breaks were quite short. Finally, about fifty kilometres from Addis Ababa, we reached our last must-see stop before leaving Ethiopia. It was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tiya, which had become famous for its intricately carved megaliths.

Land of megaliths

“Owing to its long tradition of erecting monuments, Ethiopia is regarded as a land of [megaliths]. The varieties of […] monuments comprised within the Ethiopian megalithic culture fall into three major groups: dolmens, tumuli and stelae” (Derara 2008:64), of which the latter can be furthermore subdivided into two groups, in terms of their occurrence. Whereas, the first group of stelae appears in the north of the country, mainly in Tigray region (see Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration: Stelae), Ethiopia’s southern part is renowned for a huge number of particular megalithic sites, containing the so-called stones of Gragn (Ya Gragn Dingay) (Finneran 2007:243; Derara 2008:64).

The site of Tiya, Soddo region, Ethiopia.

Gragn is an Amharic word and means the left-handed; it refers to the historic character of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, who brought three-quarters of modern day Ethiopia under the power of the Muslim Sultanate of Adal during the Abyssinian-Adal War in the sixteenth century (Finneran 2007:243; “Ahmad …” 2020). Although “[local] tradition identifies [the stones as] mementos of his victorious progress through the region” (Finneran 2007:243), their history is not linked to him in any way.

Problematic dating

Such megaliths are variform dressed standing stones, generally associated with burials, containing flexed skeletons of men and women, with or without any grave goods (Finneran 2007:243, 248; Stardust’s Shadow 2007; Derara 2008:64; Mire 2020:11). Such archaeological results “have been confirmed by excavations at Tiya […] and Gatira Demma. [According] to these sources, [the tombs] were dated between the [eleventh] and [thirteenth] century to the [twelfth] century A.D. respectively” (Derara 2008:64). Still the age of megalithic sites cannot be precisely determined (UNESCO 1992-2020); it is only based on the carbon dating of the burials. Stones themselves cannot be dated in that way as they do not contain an organic material. (Finneran 2007:248; Derara 2008:64) What is more, in the area of the megaliths at Tiya, researchers have also unearthed tools from the Middle Stone Age so the site itself may have been associated with the finds (Douze 2014; “Tiya …” 2020).

The monoliths of Tiya. The site contains stelae measuring from two to five metres high.

It is believed, however that if these monoliths “do not belong to any Christian or Muslim funerary tradition, [they] must predate the fifteenth century” (Finneran 2007:248), but could not be earlier than the burials (Ibid.:248). According to Niall Finneran (2008:248), the correlated graves “suggest both a strong association with the stelae, as well as some basis for dating the monuments. [A] sample of bone from tomb X at Gattira-Demma gave a radiocarbon date of ca.1200 AD.; this broadly matches a similar date yielded by excavations at Tomb 1 at the nearby site of Tiya […] as well as dates obtained […] on the tumulus at Tuto-Fela, to the south-east of Wenago in the north of Gedeo at the southern range of the distribution of the megaliths”. Moreover, subsequent studies have proved that iconographic decorations of the stone graves correspond respectively to the gender of an individual buried beneath them (Finneran 2007:244-248; Stardust’s Shadow 2007; Adventures … 2012; Mire 2020:3-22).

A wider distribution of the megalithic tradition

“The lands of the southern highlands of Ethiopia (the modern provinces of southern Arssi and Sidamo) were only finally incorporated into the Christian Empire [of Ethiopia] during the nineteenth century and they possess a very distinctive cultural [and archaeological] heritage of their own” (Finneran 2007:243). This concerns the region of Soddo (also Sodo), which lies approximately one hundred and sixty kilometres to the south of Addis Ababa (Ibid.:243). The etymology of the name Soddo may itself reflect the Oromo noun for dressed stone (Ibid.:243) After Anfray (1982) the word Soddo also refers to standing stones in Sidama language (Derara 2008:77). Yet Sidama vocabulary had been strongly influenced by Oromo language (“Sidamo language” 2020). Moreover, these two ethnic groups are related as they both make a part of Eastern Cushitic speaking people (“Sidama people” 2020).

Megaliths of Tiya aligned over an axis of forty-five metres with a group of thirty-three stelae. Photo taken by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

“In broad terms, the region of the megaliths extends [south-west] from Addis Ababa along the west of the line of the Rift Valley lakes, although similar stones have been [equally] noted as far north as the site of Gherem Gabriel, near Debre Berham just to the north-east of Addis Ababa, as well as in Efrata and Gidim in northern Shawa. [In the south, the] he distribution [of such monuments] extends […] to the Hadiya and Kambata groups, then further [southwards] still through Wolayta into Sidama, an area bounded to the north by Lake Awasa, and to the west by Lake Abaya. […] The site of Tiya occupies the northern  portion of the region, in Soddo proper, and is located [fifty] kilometres due south of Addis Ababa” (Finneran 2007:243-244), in an area known as the Gurage Zone (Derara 2008; Reese 2019).

The fallen anthropomorphic stela of Tiya, designed as a burial for a woman, probably one of a high status. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Such distribution of the megalithic sites may have overlapped with permanent human settlements in these areas, especially those with water supply, farmland and a defensive position in the highlands (Derara 2008:67). Such factors were highly significant in selecting a site for habitation and for communal religious rites, one of which was apparently the erection of megaliths (Ibid.:67).

One diverse family of stones

The tradition of megalithic sites in Ethiopia has been already studied since early years of the twentieth century (Derara 2008:63).

One of the Tiya stelae with the engravings representing the so-called daggers. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The site of Tiya was first studied by the French archaeological team at the end of the 1970s (Mire 2020:11; The British Museum 2020). Even earlier, “[in] April 1935, one of the Tiya stones […] was discovered during a German expedition” (Rey 2015), however, studies on the megaliths were mostly led by Francophone scholars” (Finneran 2007:243). “The site was first reported by Azïs and Chabard (1931) in their impressive volumes of texts and pictures; since then Joussaume (1983, 1995) has studied it more systematically” (Mire 2020:11). Quite inspiring and stimulating for future studies can be work by Godet and Pierre (1993), Anfray (1982, 1992) and Le Quellec (1987), who have attempted to decipher the site’s mysterious symbolism (Ibid.:11). Especially, the excavations led by Francis Anfray and Roger Joussaume in situ have “thrown some light upon this fascinating cultural tradition [of Tiya]” (Finneran 2007:243). Anfary (1982), however, admits that their “attempts to relate it to traditions in other regions [of Ethiopia] ended with no appreciable gains. [Moreover] the task of systematic survey [itself] seems to be carried out relatively less than the problem demands” (Derara 2008:63). Nevertheless, there have been made a few significant conclusions so far.

Between the stelae of Tiya. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

According to archaeological studies, the diverse concentration of megalithic sites shows an observed regional variation from north to south; yet this mosaic culture should be treated and interpreted as one group of megaliths (Finneran 2007:244). These stones, of which there are roughly one hundred and sixty archaeological sites discovered so far in the Soddo region (UNESCO 1992-2020), “are representative of a very distinctive southern highland cultural phenomenon” (Finneran 2007:244).

Unusual stones

The megaliths “range from simple monoliths to elaborate figurative and phallic [stones]; in the northern regions of Soddo they tend to be grouped whilst further south the megaliths often stand alone” (Finneran 2007:244).

Such megalithic sites as Tiya (around 160 altogether) were possibly cemeteries for both men and women.

In case of Tiya, the stones appear to be laid out like a row of headstones (Reese 2019). “[This] may imply that the northern sites, such as Seden and Tiya, are actually cemeteries” (Finneran 2007:244). As Joussaume (1995:218) reports “[fifty] tombs have been excavated [at the site of Tiya], with pits generally of 1.50 metres deep and 1.80 metres wide, yielding a total of [fifty two] individuals of whom [seventeen] have been identified as women and [eighteen] as men, with one infant” (Mire 2020:11). “The majority of the bodies, [twenty and four] in total, had been placed on a bed of wooden sticks [whereas other] eight bodies were laid instead on a stone slab with another stone slab placed on top to close the pit” (Ibid.:11). After Joussaume (1995) “[there] is good reason to believe that some of the other [twenty] skeletons might originally have also been placed either on sticks or stones, of which some traces can still be seen (Ibid.:11). Archaeological excavations also revealed that the buried people died between the ages of [eighteen] and [thirty] and were laid to rest in a foetal position” (Stardust’s Shadow:2007). In some tomb quarters, as Joussaume (1995) reports, there were still preserved grave goods, such as lithics pottery, bovine bones, beads and iron objects (Mire 2020:11). They were usually placed separately from the body, above the pit that held the individual (Ibid.:11).  

Another cluster of three stelae a short distance from the larger group of the Tiya site.

Furthermore, there are visible patterns among various stone arrangements within the group of Soddo, like “in the north-east of the site of Gayet-Gareno where the recumbent [standing stones] appear to be grouped into squares. It is [also] striking that the distribution of the known sites tends to group along roads; it may be possible that these [monoliths] are territorial markers  as well as grave stones, marking boundaries along-long-established routes of communication through the highlands” (Finneran 2007:244).

The site contains ones of the tallest megaliths in the region.

Ethiopian megaliths are carved from local volcanic rocks, rhyolite (Finneran 2007:244). In the north of Soddo decorated [monoliths] predominate” (Ibid.:244). Sometimes, the monuments are also referred to as stelae, yet they are believed not to belong to the northern stela tradition (Ibid.:243-244), which possibly “has its roots in the borderlands with the Sudanic worlds” (Ibid.:248; see Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration: Stelae). Neither they are linked to “the megalithic traditions of the Harar and Tchercher mountains, where the ‘dolmens’ are […] dated to the second millennium BC” (Ibid.:248). On the other side, a symbol of lance (epée), which is highly characteristic of many of the megaliths of Soddo, is also visible on the fragments of stela four at Aksum (Ibid.:244); this would mean that some iconographic elements were common for all Ethiopian megaliths, even though they had originated from various traditions.

Taking a closer look

The site of Tiya is among the most important and representative of all (Rey 2015; UNESCO 1992-2020). It contains thirty-six monuments (UNESCO 1992-2020), including “[roughly] aligned over an axis of [forty-five metres] a group of thirty-three stelae, with another [cluster] of three stelae a short distance from [the larger group]” (Rey 2015). Among them all, there are thirty-two carved stones, covered in symbols in low-relief; although some of them can easily be identified, most still remain difficult to decipher (UNESCO 1992-2020).

The group of three stelae at closer look. Like others, they are all covered with typical enigmatic symbols.

The standing stones on the site are generally taller than the monoliths found elsewhere in the region (Reese 2019). Most measure between two and three metres high with the tallest reaching over five meters (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). Tiya’s sanding stones can be divided into three types: anthropomorphic, phallic (snake-like), and non-anthropomorphic (Reese 2019; Mire 2020:20). While anthropomorphic stelae resemble a human shape, though highly schematized, the phallic or snake type looks like a tall and thin shaft (Finneran 2007:244; Reese 2019). The final groups contains flat monuments with irregular edges but usually resembling rectangular blocks (Derara 2008; Reese 2019). Yet, most of them narrow up to the pointed end, looking like a knife sticking out of the ground (Mire 2020:20). Furthermore, all the monoliths “may [originally] have been coloured in organic pigment” (Finneran 2007:244).

Plan of Tiya stelae field (after Joussaume 1985). Source: Finneran (2007:243; Figure 6.16).

Either type bears a series of particular symbols carved on them. Their combination predominantly includes engravings representing a sword, the so-called forked branch sign, and what Joussaume (1995) describes as la triade symbolique (the three signs), consisting of the design similar to zigzag (Σ), Х, and finally discs or circles (Mire 2020:11) Most stelae in Tiya also have mysterious perforations on their bottom part (Ibid.:11). Just one stela was still standing at the site of its initial studies, and this in situ stone revealed that the perforations had once been below the ground (Ibid.:11).

Weapons on the megaliths

Among the symbols carved on the Tiya standing stones, the most frequently utilised is the ubiquitous engraving of a dagger, lance or epée (on around twenty-eight stelae), which also widely appears at other megalithic sites in the region, such as Odotibo, Firshi, Seden and Lalou (Finneran 2007:244; Mire 2020:11).

Some steale are covered at least in four different types of symbols of unknown meaning. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Its symbolism is ambiguous; it may refer either to general weapons used in the community, or to the occupation of men buried beneath the stones (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:70). In the latter option, the symbol of lance could signify a burial of a hunter or a warrior, while the number of daggers carved on a particular stela would signify the rank of the warrior or the number of killed enemies (Derara 2008:70). Hence, it is also possible that some male remains belonged to individuals who were killed in battle (Reese 2019). The signs of daggers may also refer to the ritual hunt or slaughter (Mire 2020:21). In further hypothesis, such weapons as represented on the stones were possibly made of iron, which would be another significant insight into the economy of the megalithic community (Finneran 2007:244).

When the site was discovered, all of the stelae, except for one, were fallen on the ground.

However, to make the whole picture complete, it should be also mentioned that the position and layout of the so-called weapons on stones vary; sometimes, the dagger’s blade points up, the other time, it is directed down. Certainly, it must once have had a meaning; nonetheless, it is unknown today. Maybe it was a symbolic representation of warriors fighting against each other, providing that each dagger would represent a warrior on each side of a combat. There is even a theory saying that the so-called daggers pointing at each other look more like starting or landing space rockets than weapons. 

Signes ramifiés

Unlike the symbol of the lance, which form is observable in a material world, some of the designs at Tiya, or elsewhere in the region, are more abstract than others. Likewise, a few of the megaliths “at Tiya carry a very distinctive Y-shape, described by Anfray (1982:126) as signes ramifiés (vegetable signs or a branch of a tree) (Finneran 2007:244; Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:11). Like other engravings, it is also accompanied by other different signs, including the daggers (Mire 2020:11). This is probably why Anfary (1982) also compares it to a projective weapon like a spear (Derara 2008:71). Still, there are many other alternative theories on its possible meaning.

The enigmatic symbol of signes ramifiés translated in various ways by scholars studied the megalithic culture of Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

This enigmatic image features the rectangular base and branched pillar attached to this base (Derara 2008:71). “In connection with this depiction, there are different plausible but still controversial views” (Ibid.:71). Assuming it is an actual representation of a tree, the sign could suggest its religious and ritual meaning in a society and so “be interpreted in the light of the tradition of sacrificial flora, sacred grass and trees associated with the fertility rituals currently practiced in the Horn of Africa” (Mire 2020:11). In the burial context, the symbol may stand for continuation as much as continuous is the circle of nature (Ibid.:17). After a Swedish-Somali archaeologist, Sada Mire (2020:17), “[this] would make sense in Tiya in terms of the archaeology as the place is clearly linked to ritual and, perhaps, the blessings of the ancestors and the protection of a family […]. The sprouting or a ‘vegetable’ sign of Tiya may therefore be associated with the regeneration of the lineage. [To this day], plants are also part of ritual meals and are used in many local [religious rites].”

A bifurcated stick carried by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein. Source: Mohammed Ademo (2011).

 There is also another evidence indicating a ‘vegetable’ nature of the symbol; it is linked to present-day beliefs of the Arsi-Oromo people who represent a Cushitic ethnic group of Ethiopia (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). They believe in the powers of the so-called dhanqee or dhanquu, which is a short and bifurcated (rather forked) stick, carved from a sacred tree and carried as such by the pilgrims of Dire Sheik Hussein (a holy site for Muslims) (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17). Although it is today mostly associated with Islam, the symbol of dhanqee is as well a part of the long lasting tradition of the Sky-god religion as practised by the Oromo today and in the past (Derara 2008:71; Mire 2020:17).

Wooden ‘pillows’ of headrests (Gime) are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure. Source: Hamill Gallery (2020).

Nonetheless, an archaeologist Worku Derara (2008:71) claims that although the Tiya symbol’s “branches at the top resemble the stick, [its] rectangular base cannot be correlated with the pointed metal called Ankase, which is attached at the base of the stick held by pilgrims.”

Four most frequent symbols on one of the stelae: a dagger, forked branch, discs and a zig-zag. There is still missing the X or H sign. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Another theory, which is widely accepted, is based on the oral information from the area suggesting the enigmatic design represents the traditional wooden headrest (Derara 2008:72). Such wooden ‘pillows’, locally called Gime, are used by many groups in southern Ethiopia to support the head during sleep and in some instances to preserve a complicated coiffure (Derara 2008:72-73; Ethnix 2012). However, as Derara (2008:73) points out, morphological differences between the Y-shaped symbol and the wooden headrest does not allow to openly connect them.

Gender ambiguous

On the other side, the engraving of the forked branch is “not unlike the bucranial symbol from the prehistoric rock art of the north” (Finneran 2007:244), which is usually interpreted as manhood or male virility.

One of the two anthropomorphic stelae in Tiya dedicated to female burials. The standing stela represents typical of the Soddo region female features, such as a necklace and schematized breasts. The woman’s image is, however, deprived of the arms and head.

In this context, the sign “may be related to fertility symbolism” (Ibid.:244). Accordingly, if a standing stone is read in an analogous way to a human body, the Y-shaped symbol is found approximately at the level of human genitalia (Ibid.:244). Simultaneously, two other megaliths of Tiya “are [distinctly] feminine in nature [by their form and decoration]” (Ibid.:244). The anthropomorphic slabs, of which one is standing and the other fallen on the ground, both reveal the visible outlines of woman’s breasts below a sort of necklace (Finneran 2007:244,248). The standing one is already deprived of the arms and head, but there is still the lower half of the tombstone, exposing the feminine features (Adventures … 2012). it is obvious that such stone slabs were obviously reserved for buried women (Finneran 2007:244,248; Adventures … 2012).

The second anthropomorphic stela revealing female features. This one is fallen on the ground. Still it has partly preserved its phallic head and rectangular torso, showing female breast and necklace. In the comparison to the previous one, the necklace here seems more intricate, which may indicate a higher status of a woman buried beneath that stela.

Similar representations among the stones of Soddo indicate the notion of strong gendered associations (Finneran 2007:244,248) that go “beyond the narrative of [male] heroism [and] so may [turn out to be the key to] the meaning of [the Tiya] symbols [in general]” (Mire 2020:21). It also happens that two genders are even combined and exposed by the shape of a single stone, as it is in the case of Tiya fallen anthropomorphic stela and almost identical representation on Gora-Shino stela (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21). In both cases, the phallic-fashioned monolith additionally bears a schematic female figure, standing akimbo (with hands on the hips and elbows turned outwards) with noticeable breasts and a more intricate necklace than in the first case of the Tiya standing stela (which probably indicates a woman of significance) (Finneran 2007:244,248; Mire 2020:21; Adventures … 2012; Reese 2019).

Such a combination of genders, however, is not exclusive to Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, it has got a much longer tradition than the megaliths in the region of Soddo, providing that the latter are dated accurately. Similar iconography had already been applied in abstract forms of art as early as in the Bronze Age, or even earlier, the most striking exemplum of which are the so-called Anatolian Discs from Cappadocia.

Phallic or snake shaped stelae?

Among the stelae of Soddo, also present at Tiya, there are monoliths described as phallic as they resemble penis in erection. Nevertheless, some scholars interpret them as snakeheads (Mire 2020:20).

Gora Shino Stela, which is similar to the fallen female stela in Tiya. Both reveal a mix of genders by means of phallic/snale head and female breasts. Source: Finneran (2007:246; Figure 6.19.b).

As a matter of fact, there is a visible connection between both images, not only in the context of their physical appearance but equally “between snake worship and phallic symbolism” (Ibid.:20), which is also strongly interwound in ritual use of fertility stones (Ibid.:20). These may be additionally covered in patterns resembling reptile skin, as it appears in the form of sinuous zigzag shape on the phallic, mixed gender stela of Tiya (Ibid.:20). This is not merely the matter of iconographical interpretation; such analogy is visible in current practices associated with the Cushitic religion, where phallic ritual objects are also covered in snakeskin (Ibid.:20). Moreover, in the tradition of Africa snakes are generally seen as symbols of renewal and fertility, as much as it is expressed by phallic imagery (Ibid.:20). “The occurrence of phallic symbolism, therefore, may be seen not just as a symbol of a victorious battle and masculinity but also as a symbol of reconciliation […], purification [and by extension, the continuation of the family and resurrection” (Ibid.:20).  

The fallen female stela in Tiya; the frame around its rectangular part is covered in sinuous zigzag patterns resembling reptile skin, which may introduce snake symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Snake rituals may have been also related to the perforations on the stones of Tiya (Mire 2020:20). Such holes feature the stela part initially buried in the ground; snakes as chthonic animals are believed to live and move underground and the perforations at the base of stones stuck in the ground may have been intended to make this movement possible (Ibid.:20). This may also “relate to the notion of ancestor spirits moving in the form of snakes underground”(Ibid.:20).   


Another engraving appearing profusely is another abstract sign, which resembles the letter W or M in a reversed position (Derara 2008:70; Mire 2020:11). Others compare it to the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ) (Stardust’s Shadow 2007). “As noted by Anfray (1982) this representation has remained mysterious because no possible explanation can be given” (Derara 2008:70).

The abstract sign in the shape of the letter W or M in a reversed position, or the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, epsilon (Σ). Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Nevertheless, the symbol may be read as a metaphor for a ploughing trace, as it is represented in a scene at the Eritrean rock art site of Amba (Baahti), dated back to the first millennium BC (McCann 1995:39; Finneran 2007:84-85). Although the pastoral scene shows a continuous zig-zag design left by the activity of ploughing in the field by a long beam plow driven by oxen (McCann 1995:39), creators of medieval stelae may have used just its section to represent the very same idea. Moreover, it was easier to represent it in such an artistic abbreviation due to limited surface of the stela they worked on.

Ploughing scene, Baahti Focada, Eritrea (after Graziosi 1941). The zig-zag symbol from Tiya may be a metaphor for ploughing and so a symbol of the cultivation of land. Source: Finneran (2007:85; Figure 3.5).

Additionally, carving in relief took longer than painting the scene on the rock. If it is the case, the abstract design possibly symbolized the land owned by the buried man or the significance of land cultivation itself.

Eyes of a god

Another mysterious symbol on the stones of Tiya looks like a circle or a disk. Two such engravings appear on nearly all the Tiya monoliths and on others in the region (Mire 2020:11,21).

Discs or circles may be interpreted as the eyes of the Sky-god, a supreme deity of the Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

They are carved on the same level of the stone and usually in the proximity of one or two of the three mentioned above symbols: the forked branch (ϒ), zigzag (Σ) and (Х/H), which are usually depicted between or below them (Ibid.:21). The disks may signify the eyes of an omnipresent, all-seeing deity and so are possibly related to the cult of the Sky-god, who is usually associated by contemporary believers with the eye and seeing (Ibid.:21). As Mire (2020:21) claims “belief systems […] tend to linger”, and so the same deity may have been also worshiped by the megalithic builders.

Scarification rituals?

Alternative theory says, however, that all the signs highlight again the significance of gender symbolism and so they expose intimate detail of a human body (Mire 2020:21). In this context, the two discs would stand for male breasts (Ibid.:21), especially if they are placed above Y-shaped symbol, earlier identified as male genitalia. More problematic are attempts to interpret two other symbols, which appear in the proximity of the previous ones.

The engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The X or H-shaped sign, is usually positioned between the discs and the forked branch and may refer to the stomach or naval. Sometimes, however, it is replaced by the zig-zag design. Otherwise, either of them is carved on the right or left side of the first two. Are these scarification signs on the belly area? Among Somali, such decorating of a human body is still applied as a healing ritual; this could have been also practised by the megalithic culture (Ibid.:21). Irrespective of a possibility of such a link, the engravings’ placement, form and configuration must convey a meaning, yet not revealed so far.

Ringing stones

“Another interesting [finds] at Tiya are drum stelae” (Mire 2020:22). They may “have been related to ritual and have been symbols of status or used to call upon or ward off spiritual beings. [Such] stone drums are still used in Lalibela to call people to prayer” (Ibid.:22) as they give a particular metallic sound, like gongs, tin drums and bells usually do, especially while being tapped with a metal object.

Rigning stones serving as stone chiurch bells at Christian Monastery on Lake Tana.

The stelae’s ringing ability is attributed to the iron content of the diabase (“Ringing rocks” 2020). Little is known, however, about the ‘drum stelae’ discovered through archaeology” (Ibid.:22).

Finding the key

Thestelae of the Soddo region can be a link between the ancient megalithic culture and the current peoples living in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The carved designs on stelae in the region of Soddo may have been “used for regulating and organizing people as well as the material world. The may [have] simply [conveyed] information [in time, from generation to generation, or signified] power, social organization or cult system, or [else] the economy of a given society” (Derara 2008:69). Equally they must have played a transcendental function by witnessing to “the relevance of the community in association between the dead (ancestors) and the living”(Mire 2020:3). These and similar hypotheses have been proposed by scholars for centuries. Generally, many scholars suggest that “a megalithic tradition in the Horn [of Africa] seems to go back millennia” (Ibid.:3). Nevertheless, “it is problematic and [highly ambiguous] to infer the meaning of symbols [without] the presence of a living culture similar to or comparable with what the stelae exhibit”(Derara 2008:79). It is the missing piece that would probably shed light on mysterious character of the megalithic culture of the Soddo region and its ancient creators (Ibid.:80).

There is a need for further exploration of the site and its symbolism. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

The “anonymity behind [the symbolism of the Tiya stelae] can be, [however], resolved through ethno-archaeological studies conducted on the material culture of the diverse communities living [over the wider part of southern] Ethiopia. It is also valuable to look into the evolution and relation of megalithic art in the Horn of Africa because of the long-standing contacts and cultural ties over the centuries” (Derara 2008:79). Apparently, the monoliths of the southern Ethiopia “represent the archaeological evidence for Cushitic or Nilotic-speaking pastoralist groups of the southern highlands, whose lives, […] were disrupted by the migration of the pastoralist Oromo (‘Galla’) who emerged from their ancestral lands on what is now the northern Kenyan [and] southern Ethiopian border and in a series of massive population movements thrust northwards into the highlands during the sixteenth century” (Finneran 2007:248)Although Oromo people adopted in time either Christianity or Islam, they have maintained their special identity which may be a bridge between their contemporary rituals and those once conducted by the megalithic builders (Ibid.:248).

The living reveal the secrets of the dead

Today, “despite some Semitic speaking clusters, the majority of people living in southern Ethiopia are Eastern Cushitic speaking people” (Mire 2020:10) and “[it] is noteworthy that there are systematic cultural similarities within [their groups, such as Oromo or Konso], and that these commonalities are crucial to an understanding of Tiya cemetery in particular and of stelae traditions in southern Ethiopia in general” (Ibid.:11).

The fallen stela with visible perforations at the base, probably once being set in the ground. A series of hypotheses are proposed for such marks. Some are related to the snake and ancestors cult. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

For instance, “a close study of Oromo funerary material culture, which is hugely distinctive and symbolically expressive, in the case of Oromo in the Arssi region may have  drawn upon certain elements derived from the earlier megalithic carving traditions” (Finneran 2007:248). Among the Eastern Cushitic speaking groups, both the Oromo and the Konso (Ibid.:5), the “stones erected for the dead served not only as grave stones but also as symbols of ancestors and fertility and the preservation of the family. […] Their traditions and […] archaeology of indigenous practices furthermore offer important insights into the site of Tiya and the practices that may have once taken place there”(Ibid.:11).

The people who live today around the site of Tiya, in the Gurage Zone, are called the Guraghe themselves (hence the area’s name) (Mire 2020:10). They are Ethiopian Semitic group who originally come from the Harar region, not the Tiya area itself (Ibid.:10). Nevertheless, like the Eastern Cushitic people of southern Ethiopia, they also “share a belief in a traditional deity they call the Sky-god, Waaq” (Ibid.:11), which shows, they have probably absorbed it from an earlier Cushitic culture, like Oromo (Ibid.:10-11), “given that the Sky-god religion is a region-wide belief and [its rituals] are recognised by all the people” (Ibid.:17).

Southern Ethiopia is a real mosaic of peoples, their rituals and cultures. It is a real paradise for both ethnographers and photographers. There is equally much work to do for archaeologists who can look for some evidence of still present customs in reference to the monuments, decorations and burial practice of Tiya. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, it is likely “that the Oromo [people] themselves would feel affinities with the religious culture of the people who had created the stelae of Tiya” (Ibid.:17). It is also why they trace their ancestry also to the part of Soddo, where the site in question is located (Ibid.:17). The Oromo “imprint upon highland society is evidenced by a distribution of their language, yet they transformed socially in response to their new surrounds in the case of the adaptation of their Gada social system (a system of an age-grade classes)]” (Finneran 2007:248). In such a way, they could have also absorbed and preserved the notions of the ancient culture.

As many scholars underline, the meaning of symbols roh Tiya and other sites require more
ethnoarchaeological studies.
Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat.

Such cultural elements as “language, religious beliefs and sociopolitical organisation, enable [scholars] to explore the ideas expressed at Tiya cemetery since these ideas seem today to encompass all the elements essential to the living and to their relationship with each other of times of death and birth” (Mire 2020:11). Important aspects of current life in the region to some extent overlap with archaeological and ethnographic evidence regarding human fertility, animals, cultivation of land, inheritance, wealth and burial practice (Ibid.:3-17). This is why there is a need for “studies involving careful examination of the material and culture of the people residing over the wider part of southern Ethiopia” (Derara 2008:76). It can also be relevant to Tiya, where some evidence of still present customs is consolidated by the monuments, decorations and burial practice (Mire 2020:11).

Unrevealed secrets of Ethiopia

Since the site of Tiya became a part of the UNESCO World Heritage in 1981 (Mire 2020:11), it has been recognised as one of unique archaeological locations in Ethiopia, such as Axum, Lalibela, Abuna Yemata Guh, Debre Damo, Fasiledes Castle or Konso landscape (Reese 2019). Although all these sites represent the testimony of the ancient past of Ethiopia, there have not been enough studies to fully understand it yet (Ibid.). Also little research has been done lately on Tiya, likewise in case of other megaliths in the region, whose purpose and meaning behind their physical appearance still remains unclear (Ibid.).

Last photos of the Tiya megalithic site. It is definitely one of the many precious archaeological sites in Ethiopia.

To protect the site, however, authorities conducted some conservation work in 2017 (Ibid.). Keeping the stelae in good shape not only may attract more tourists but also help to continue further research to finally unlock some significance of the story the monuments still hold secret.


“Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

“Sidama people” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

“Sidamo language”(2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

“Tiya (archaeological site)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

Ademo M. (2011) “The rite and rituals of Sheik Hussein Bale, and Wahhabism.” In: OPride. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Adventures in the Horn (2012) “Trip to Tiya”. In: Adventures in the Horn. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Atlas of Humanity (2020) “Ethiopia. Hamer Tribe”. In: Atlas of Humanity. A Photographic Journey around the Beauty of the Cultural Diversity. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Derara W. (2008) On the Megalithic Sites of the Gurage Highlands: A Study of Enigmatic Nature of Engravings and Megalith Builders. Addis Ababa University, Archaeology and Heritage Management, Faculty Member.

Douze K. (2014) “A new chrono-cultural marker for the early Middle Stone Age in Ethiopia: The tranchet blow process on convergent tools from Gademotta and Kulkuletti sites”. Quaternary International, Vol. 343. pp. 40–52. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

Ethnix (2012) “Headrest Wooden Pillow” In: Earthlink. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Finneran, N. (2007) The Archaeology of Ethiopia. New York and London: Routledge.

Hamill Gallery (2020) “Ethiopian Headrest 201-206”. In: Hamill Gallery. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th June, 2020].

McCann, J. C. (1995) People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800–1990. London: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Mire S. (2020) Divine Fertility: The Continuity in Transformation of an Ideology of Sacred Kinship in Northeast Africa. UCL Institute of Archaeology Publications: Routledge.

Rees R. (2017) No Turning Back. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers.

Reese M. R. (2019) “The Intricately Carved Tiya Megaliths of Ethiopia”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Rey S. (2015) “Megalithic Stones of Tiya, Ethiopia, Africa”. In: Solarey. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Ringing rocks ”(2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

Stardust’s Shadow (2007) “Ethiopia Reprise: Tiya Stela Site”. In: Stardust’s Shadow. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

The British Museum (2020) “The Country of the Standing Stones: Stela in Southern Ethiopia”. In: The British Museum. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th June, 2020].

UNESCO (1992-2020) “Tiya”. In: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Available at <>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2020].

Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration: Stelae

After leaving the site of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, we headed off to the Central Stelae Park in Aksum (also known as Axum). While we were approaching to the hill of the royal commemoration, two slender grey granite towers started growing before us on the blue horizon.

The Fallen Stela

Aksumite Empire

Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient kingdom of Aksum (the Aksumite Empire is not just Aksum alone but the region known as Tigray), became an international empire in the first millennium AD (Finneran 2007:146; Sullivan 2019), having “contacts with the eastern Mediterranean world, the Nile Valley, Arabia and even further across the Indian Ocean to India and China. Aksum also forged [in the early fourth century (c. 324)] its own distinctive Christian identity [that lasts till nowadays embodied by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church]” (Finneran 2007:146). The Aksum region had been populated and expanded by Agaw people since the fourth century BC (Sullivan 2019) but it had grown out from the Proto-Aksumite Culture (Finneran 2007). The latter reaches back to the first millennium BC and so the Ethio-Sabeans period with its long traditions related to the empire of the Queen of Sheba, which capital was possibly located in Marib (today Yemen) but with its boundaries stretching over both South Arabia and Ethiopia (Finneran 2007; Sullivan 2019). Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings proving their right to the crown, claimed descent from Menelik, a legendary son of the famous queen and King Solomon of Israel (Sullivan 2019).

Central Stelae Park

Yet before the fourth century and the first Christian king of Ezana, “the Kingdom of Axum had a complex social hierarchy [:] an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. [Aksumite elaborated tombs] suggest that the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments known as stelae” (Sullivan 2019).

Central Stelae Park

The largest and well carved stelae are present at the Central Stelae Park with the multi-storied carved features: two of them are now standing: looking from the south, there is stela two (the Obelisk of Axum) in the centre, stela three (King Ezana’s Stela) on the right (eastern) side, and on the left – “stela one, [the Great Stela] lies recumbent at the western edge of the group. [Stela] two was toppled in antiquity and was removed to Rome during the Italian occupation in the 1930s from where it was returned [in 2007]” (Finneran 2007:165).  Stela three, in turn, is standing now supported by a system of lifts with blocks and ropes preventing it from falling down. “Three other, smaller multi-storied stelae, [fourth, fifth and sixth], stand to the east of the main group.” (Finneran 2007:165). The obelisks are believed to be “manifestations of secular and ideological power” (Finneran 2007:165) of the Aksumite rulers and had once a funerary function (Finneran 2007:165). While “stela one is associated with the complex of the Mausoleum and East Tomb, [stelae two and three are related to] a warren of catacombs beneath the stela park” (Finneran 2007:165).   

Megalithic empire

The Afterlife Palace of Kings

As Finneran (2007:165) notes “the stelas are more than mere tomb markers. [They] embody a great deal of symbolic and social meaning.” Nos one, two and three “were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows” (Sullivan 2019). After some scholars “the tomb [is] a palace for the dead king [in the afterlife]” (Finneran 2007:167) and the door may suggest access to this sphere (Finneran 2007:168).  As it is widely accepted the monuments were carved, brought to the site and erected in the pre-Christian Aksumite period, that is to say around 200-300 AD by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum (Finneran 2007:165-173). “Chronologically it is obvious that the stelae should be associated with the pre-Christian burial rituals of the […] kingly elite, possibly commemorating not an individual, rather a dynasty. […] The development of a royal mausoleum […] during the third century is evidence of a rupture with the earlier capital zone on the summit of Beta Giyorgis and the creation of a new type of kingship, removed from the proto-Aksumite intermediate-level society towards a semidivine kingship and dynastic system” (Finneran 2007:169). The royal obelisks “face southwards […] at the foot of Beta Giyorgis, [and] the approaching traveller […] would have passed along a line of throne bases, […] which may have been the bases of large statues, possibly of [Aksumite] kings” (Finneran 2007:167). This means “the area was a dedicated royal necropolis”, (Finneran 2007:168) designed to project a royal power beyond life (Ibid). This is why more elaborated and massive stelae had been erected at the site. Still the one question stays unanswered – HOW? (Foerster 2016).

From the left: the Obelisk of Axum and the King Ezana’s Stela

The Great Stela or the fallen stela number one weighs 520 tons and is 33 metres high and as such stays the largest monolith to have been raised once by humans (not to mention lying megalithic blocks from the Baalbek site, weighing over 800 to 1000 tons) (Finneran 2007:168; Simon Fraser; SFU 2020) “[Yet] the indications are that [the stela] was never successfully erected.” (Finneran 2007:1650. “The Great Stele was carved on all four sides and represents a thirteen-storey building” (SFU 2020).

“Stela two – the Obelisk of Axum – is a smaller version of stela one. […] In total the monolith was 24,6 metres long and weighed [approximately 200 (SFU 2020)] tons; it was intentionally destabilised during antiquity and broke into five pieces” (Finneran 2007:168). According to an archaeological survey in 1997, “the structure was undermined from the front [the south side] and was pushed forwards from the back [the north side] with the result that the baseplate was displaced southwards and the stela itself cracked as it impacted upon the ground” (Finneran 2007:168).

Stela three or King Ezana’s Stela – is around 21 m high and weighs approximately 160-170 tons. “it is the only large stela that was never relocated nor ever fell down, and is presumably the last obelisk erected in Aksum. […] Following the concerns of the stela’s tilting position, it was structurally consolidated in 2008” (SFU 2020).

False door of the Obelisk of Aksum

With the coming of Christianity, pagan rituals and stelae constructions ceased (Finneran 2007:168). This is probably why the stela two was toppled and the door handle of the stela one was deliberately defaced  (Ibid). Yet, it seems “strange that [King Ezana’s Stela] was spared” (Finneran 2007:168). On the whole, we may assume that “bar the toppling of [the Obelisk of Axum], the transition to Christianity was marked by a general acceptance of pre-existing sacred spaces and respect for monuments” (Finneran 2007:168).

How …?

The all monuments were made of local stone (Finneran 2007:168). “The number of quarry sites  have been surveyed on the slopes of Gobdera Hills” (Finneran 2007:168) – 4 kilometres west of Aksum (Finneran 2007:168; Connah 2016:129), from where “came the granite used for the dressed stones of local Aksumite buildings and some of the stelae” (Graham Conna 2016”129). After Finneran (2007:169) “the stone was then moved across the southern flanks of Beta Giyorgis into the town. […] It is hypothesized that the motive power could have been provided by elephants”. Some other scholars suggest it was achieved by means of wooden rollers …

520 tons …?

Irrespective of any hypothesis, some facts must be considered : namely, the distance between the quarries and the cemetery, the mountainous topography of the Gobdera Hills, Beta Giyorgis and Aksum itself, and possibilities of an elephant or a group of these animals dragging one piece of multi tons megalith through often a narrow and steep area. And it must have been one piece as the stelae were carved out of one single piece of rock. Assuming the fact they were carved on site, the block dragged must have been larger and heavier before it was reshaped and erected.

Stelae and stelae …

More primitive stelae in Aksum

Erection of stelae in Axum has got a long ancient tradition. Although “the Aksumite stelae owe little to the Semitic idea of the Nephesh, or memorial stone, […] it must be assumed that the use of stelae came to prominence as part of the strong process of acculturation  between the northern Tigray highlands and the steppic Sudanic lowlands to the west, [yet in the pre-Aksumite period]. Stelae are also very diverse, embracing a wide range of motifs, such as [the South-Arabian inspired crescent disc symbolism, a carved Egyptian ankh symbol, lances, house-like structure]” (Finneran 2007:172-173). Major part of such monoliths, however, is much more primitive and roughly carved in the comparison to the royal obelisks (Beta Giyorgis, Matara, Hinzat, Sidamo, Munro-Hay, the Gudit Stelae Field, Tiya) (Foerster 2016). Is it possible then that the royal and more elaborated obelisks are far older than presumed? (Foerster 2016). Foerster (2016) suggests that “some of these granite stelae could in fact be more ancient, and were inherited by the Kingdom of Axum and were re-erected by them. The major damage to the [stela one] may be evidence of a massive catastrophe that severely impacted the first builders, perhaps 12,000 years ago, [possibly by earthquakes]”. Similar devastation of the megalithic constructions is also visible while looking closer at the tombs themselves.

When did the tradition start?

On the other side, “the royal stela is carved as a skeuomorphic representation of a multi-storied building constructed from wood and stone. The door and window frames […] are also reflected in the church building at the monastery of Debre Damo (sixth century), inter alia, and are suggested by architectural  reconstructions of Aksumite palace building” (Finneran 2007:165,167). Very characteristic of the royal stelae is also “the distinctive curved [top] of the multi-stored construction, which resembles the symbol of the moon deity [from the time of the pre-Aksumite empire]. The presence of small holes here may imply that a metallic plaque had been fixed upon the tops of the megaliths” (Finneran 2007:1767-168). Is it then a continuation of the long-term Ethiopian tradition from the more ancient symbols of the crescent moon and wooden architecture to the repetition of the same patterns in the stone stelae dressing? Or maybe the other way round, assuming the stelae had been already present there and adapted as much as some of the tombs structures? And finally, how did the Aksumite subjects shape blocks of granite rock and on that scale? (Foerster 2016).

The Great Stela

Giant’s playground

I stood by the fallen stela number one and I could not help feeling the enormity of the structure at which I felt like shrinking. “The indentations on each side of the stela are elaborately undercut.  This concept causes the strong Aksum sunlight to enhance the apparent relief of the carved surfaces” (SFU 2020). This is why the play of light on the stela carvings were giving a distinctive visual impression (Finneran 2007:167) that it is no longer a stone but a giant busk of a living being moving along in the sun. Then, I looked around the Park. Everywhere, there were some multiton megalithic pieces scattered around as if by a storm, and left among the trunks of still standing stelae: some were partially protruding from the ground, sometimes with precise patterns carved on them, others assuming more regular shapes being probably once a part of a bigger construction. All of those elements looked like abandoned toys in the playground of a giant who had forgotten to collect them.

At the site of the Central Stelae Park


Simon Frazer University (SMU) (2020) “Aksumite Stelae: true treasures of human craftsmanship.” In: Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Connah, C. (2016) African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Foerster, B. (2016) “The Amazing Megalithic Obelisks Of Axum In Ethiopia” In: Inca Hidden Tours. . Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Sullivan, K. (2019) “The Kingdom of Axum: Facts and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse.” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Finneran, N. (2007) The Archaeology of Ethiopia. New York and London: Routledge.