A new museum exhibit opening this fall in Adigirat, Ethiopia will bring desperately needed revenue to the impoverished region where SFU professor Catherine D'Andrea holds an annual archaeological dig. The museum artifacts all come from the dig.


SFU archaeology prof, students and staff give back to locals in Ethiopia

August 12, 2016

By Diane Luckow

After more than a decade of archaeological research in the Gulo Makeda region of northern Ethiopia, SFU archaeology professor Catherine D’Andrea and her team have unearthed more than 70,000 artifacts and reaped several exciting discoveries about the area’s ancient agricultural peoples and societies.

Now, she is completing an economic development project that not only ensures the artifacts are preserved and displayed, but also contributes to the impoverished area’s economy.

The locals, who are all subsistence farmers, rely on the employment D’Andrea provides during her annual six-week dig for the Eastern Tigrai Archaeological Project. She runs the dig with an interdisciplinary team from Canada, Ethiopia, the U.S., and Italy, and funds it through her Social Sciences and Humanities Research grants.

Dig a safety net for locals

R: Catherine D'Andrea

“The dig has become part of the social safety net that feeds the local farmers,” says D’Andrea, who notes the rural area where the archaeological site is located has no minerals or other natural resources from which to derive income.

“The archaeology is all they have.”

The farmers’ plight inspired D’Andrea to find a way to help improve the community’s economy, and she’s using the archaeological dig as the springboard.

Museum exhibit to generate regional income

For the past four years she has been working to establish a museum that will generate admissions revenue in the nearby town of Adigrat, and to develop an accompanying interpretive centre at the dig site. The ideas came out of a former SFU  student's thesis. Stephanie Jones, who studied in the School of Resource and Envionrmental Management, made several recommendations for expanding development in the region.  

 D'Andrea says the exhibit takes advantage of a growing tourism trend in Ethiopia.

“Tourists can visit the museum in Adigrat, then get information about visiting the nearby interpretive centre at the site, where they will pay an admission fee to learn about various aspects of the dig,” she says.

This fall, the project comes to fruition with the opening of a museum exhibit in Adigrat that will house 138 artifacts dating from 1,600 BC to 700 AD. The artifacts include ceramic bowls and pottery fragments, stone beads (including carnelian), jewelry, copper-alloy implements such as awls and tweezers, stone tools, animal bones, and a large quern—a grinding stone to grind flour.

Exhibit an SFU collaboration

There is also a photographic display of rock art completed by SFU Archaeology Lab Manager Shannon Wood, who participated during her vacation time, and a painting of Queen Makeda (Queen of Sheba) painted by local Ethiopian artist Mulugeta Weldekidan.

To complete the project, D’Andrea called on SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology curator Barbara Winter and SFU students Laurie Nixon-Darcus, Elizabeth Peterson, Habtamu Mekonnen, Hewan Ayana and Jaclyn McLeod for assistance. They designed the museum display cases, which were built by local Ethiopian carpenter Kibrom Gebre-Selassie, and also designed the trilingual information posters, which were printed on canvas by SFU Document Solutions.

Christie Pohl, a conservator with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, travelled to Adigrat to clean and repair the artifacts.

“She took six small boxes of broken glass shards and restored them into a beautiful glass pitcher marked with brown and green spiral designs,” says D’Andrea. “It’s about 2,000 years old. It’s a Roman pitcher because the Romans were important trading partners with ancient peoples of northern Ethiopia.”

Next: an interpretive centre

The next step is to develop a small interpretive centre on the archaeological site. Work on it has begun, and will be completed during next year’s dig.  

Says D’Andrea, “With the participation of both farmers living near the archaeological site in Gulo Makeda and people in the town of Adigrat, we’re ensuring that both rural and urban stakeholders are preserving archaeological resources while also receiving economic benefits from their cultural heritage.”

Christie Pohl, a conservator with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, spent her vacation in Ethiopia to clean and repair the artifacts.