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Italian-Eritrean mission to discover the 'African Pompeii'

Photo Credit: Serena Massa

This article was translated from Italian using online software 

By Tatiana Santi | Sputnik News

The lost city of Adulis returns to light, submerged in the 7th century AD probably by a flood caused by a tsunami. Thus a treasure that speaks to the present and to the future is born again from the sand and the mud. Italian-Eritrean mission to discover the "African Pompeii".

A project born some ten years ago from the adventure of the Castiglioni brothers, one of the most famous Italian anthropologists and archaeologists, which allows today to discover step by step the marvelous Adulis, a fundamental piece to understand the ancient world. An immense work made possible only thanks to the Italian-Eritrean cooperation and to the excellence of numerous Italian universities involved in the project.

A city of 40 hectares, of which only 1% has been brought to light at the moment, which leaves archaeologists breathless and attracts curious tourists: three paleochristian basilicas with Byzantine marbles and imposing stone structures. The houses and the necropolis are still to be discovered, an area rich in information on the life of the population of Adulis. The project, funded by the Research Center on the Eastern Desert (Ce.RDO), by Piccini Group as main private sponsor and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, looks to the future and fully represents the concept of "public archeology".

The archaeological site should in fact become the first national archaeological park of Sub-Saharan Africa, an event that would revitalize the territory from a tourist and economic point of view. Moreover, thanks to archeology it is possible to study the ancient systems of dew pits, thanks to which water was produced, a teaching that therefore comes from the past and proves extremely useful for the future. Sputnik Italia has reached for a deepening the archaeologist Serena Massa, director of the mission.

- Professor Massa, please tell us about the discovery of the "African Pompeii". What are the particularities of this archaeological site?

- This discovery is due to two very important factors. On the one hand there is the will of the Eritrean authorities to enhance their archaeological heritage, on the other the choice of the brothers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, invited by the authorities, who fell on Adulis. Now unfortunately Alfredo is gone, only his brother Angelo Castiglioni remained. Their experience of research in the eastern desert along the Red Sea has led them to choose this site, which was completely buried by sand and mud. That's why, from an idea of ​​Alfredo, parallelism with Pompeii was born. As Pompeii lies beneath meters of volcano ash, so Adulis lies under meters of mud due to the catastrophic event that caused it to end in the seventh century AD

It is a project that starts long ago from 2010, every year there are excavation campaigns with an Italian-Eritrean team and with the collaboration of important Italian universities. Besides the Catholic University, to which I belong, we have the Polytechnic of Milan, the Oriental University of Naples and the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology of the Vatican.

- What exactly does the Italian mission consist of? What is the importance of the project for Italian universities?

- I would stress that this is not just an Italian mission, but a joint Eritrean and Italian mission. The conditions on the spot are special and we certainly could not achieve the results achieved until now if we did not have full cooperation with the Eritrean authorities, archaeologists and topographers.

The site has a history that starts from prehistory: from the second millennium BC there are traces of a settlement in the locality that we know by the name of Adulis only starting from the first century AD thanks to Western sources. Specifically Pliny the Elder quotes this name. The presence of our universities, each with its own competence, naturally serves to address all the aspects and all the eras of this very rich site. To bring to light structures that have been under the sand for two thousand years means that we must intervene to preserve them. It is a site of extreme interest, a key piece in the history of the ancient world that serves to understand the present, but it is at the same time little known, that's why there are so many scholars and universities asking to take part in the mission.

- How many spaces and artifacts were discovered during excavations? How much is there to be discovered?

- Based on the knowledge gained from the past, from the study and from satellite photos, we are more or less dealing with a city of 40 hectares, that is a large city. At the moment we have rediscovered 1% of the entire site. We discovered the main monuments, because we had to give a sign to the communities around which the importance of the site was. The will is to then make it an archaeological park, which would be the first national archaeological park of Sub-Saharan Africa.

We have pulled out of the great monuments, but they are only part of the aspects of the city. We still have to discover the private houses, the necropolis, from which we expect a lot of information, because they contain the items of equipment that are usually intact, in addition to the skeletons, which will allow to study the population of the place.

- What is the importance of the project for relations between Italy and Eritrea and above all for the development of the area?

- I believe that finally, at least in words, in the world it is understood that from the culture can derive interesting aspects from the point of view of quality of life. Around the cultural sites can turn a craft, economic, tourism, we talk about an induced that revitalizes the territories in a qualitative way and from an income point of view. During the year, tourists go to see the remains and are surprised by the imposing nature of these monuments. We are talking about beautiful stone architectures, another rare aspect speaking of these regions. Building in stone required a series of knowledge and skills. Then there emerged paleochristian basilicas that are extraordinary, with marbles from Byzantium, with testimonies rich in objects coming from the Indian Ocean and on the other side of the Red Sea.

We are talking about a new chapter for relations between the two countries. I would like to stress that we are well received and well-liked, it is a very friendly relationship. Italy and Eritrea are very close.

- What is the value of archeology also for the present? Is it a subject that also speaks of the people living today?

- Tells us all about us. Archeology studies the material culture, which is at the very origin of culture. Writing, which occurs very late, is a genre limited to elite classes and classes of government. 99% of the history of humanity is in the material documents that archaeologists bring to light. The objects speak like books, the fact of being able to touch the life of these people thousands of years ago is a great emotion.

In addition to emotion, which makes young people and students passionate, there is an aspect that concerns the present and the future. We study in these semi-arid contexts where there is little water and too much water at certain times. We must try to understand how to manage this process, because it is said that the third world war could happen due to water scarcity and drought, a real global problem. In front of Adulis there is the archipelago of the Dahlak Islands, the site is part of a context rich in biodiversity. It is one of the last paradises of the coral reef on the planet.

These islands are characterized by the total absence of water sources, yet are dotted with hundreds of tanks. Which means that the water was probably produced with the technique of dew pits, it was possible to produce water and cultivate. I believe it is an indication of how useful it is to study such traditional techniques for the present and for the future. We talk about public archeology, a subject that serves to improve our lives in a sustainable way.

Adulis ruins - Photo Credit: Serena Massa

Adulis ruins - Photo Credit: Serena Massa

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