The Ancient Port City of Adulis: Research Updates

The site of Adulis is located on the south-western shore of the Red Sea, in the Zula Bay, about 56 km south of Massawa.

The geographic location of the site, at the connection of international maritime and terrestrial routes, was the key factor for the flourishing of Adulis, the preeminent port town in the Horn of Africa in Antiquity. Equally favourable was the position of the settlement at the confluence of three rivers, the Komaile, the Haddas and the Alighede, with extensive arable land all around and close resources like stone quarries, obsidian and salt deposits.

The commercial vocation of Adulis was already active in the Pharaonic era, at least starting from the Old Kingdom (2650 – 2150 BC), as part of the Land of Punt, the region where the Egyptian expeditions sought after precious and exotic items like obsidian, ivory, rhinoceros’ horn, hippopotamus skins, tortoise shells, monkeys and aromatics.

In the 7th – 8th century AD a natural catastrophe, a flood and probably seismic events destroyed the ancient port town, abandoned by its inhabitants and never repopulated again.

Adulis, submerged by sand and silt, disappeared for a long period of silence from the pages of History.

In 2011 Eritrea launched a new generation of archaeological research, resuming excavations in Adulis after a gap of more than fifty years. The project is directed by the Commission of Culture and Sports, and the Italian Eastern Desert Research Centre (CeRDO), in collaboration with the Northern Red Sea Region and the Università Cattolica di Milano, Politecnico di Milano, Università Orientale di Napoli, Università dell’Insubria di Varese.

Since 2011, the annual excavation campaigns have brought to light extraordinary monuments: two early Christian basilicas and the cathedral, with splendid marble and alabaster decorations; the residence of a high-ranking personage next to the cathedral, rooms for domestic and production uses, burials and numerous movable finds, many of which imported from afar.

The area of the town – about forty hectares – is dotted with mounds of basalt slabs, testimonies of a stone architecture that, outside the Roman Provinces, in Antiquity can be found uniquely in this region of Africa, elsewhere characterised by wood and mud constructions.

The 2024 campaign, concluded a few days ago, brought exceptional novelties: big and completely preserved vases were discovered, entire because they were intentionally buried.

They pertain to an earlier phase of the town’s history, dating back to the 1st -2nd century AD, which until today is almost unknown.

Up to now, in fact, it was believed that the development of the town could be dated between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD.

The contents of the vases can only be revealed after careful excavation in the laboratory: they could contain foodstuffs, or remains of burials.

Other ceramics, found in fragments in the area surrounding the two entire vases, can be referred to even more ancient times: studies will confirm the hypothesis of the dating of some fragments to the 2nd – 1st millennium BC, when Adulis was the destination of the Pharaonic expeditions to the mythical Land of Punt, “the Land of Gods and Wonders”.

The task of the next excavation campaign will be the stratigraphic investigation of the area surrounding the vases, to verify their possible domestic or funerary context.

Adulis Project 2024

April 3rd 2024, Asmara


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