Dressed Stones of the Region of Soddo

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 Hamer people. 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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

Featured image: Stelae of the site of Tiya, in the region of Soddo. Tiya is one of the most important megalithic groups of the region of Soddo. Photo by Julien Demade – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Tiya (archaeological site)” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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