At the invitation of the Ethiopian authorities through letters dated 15 February and 3 March 2005, and by the Italian authorities through a letter dated 5 April 2005 and by a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Italian and Ethiopian Governments and transmitted to UNESCO by the Permanent Delegate of Italy to UNESCO through a fax dated 17 February 2005, a multidisciplinary UNESCO scientific mission for the non-destructive archaeological investigation of the archaeological zone of the World Heritage property of Aksum was undertaken in the context of the return of the “Obelisk of Aksum” (Stela number 2) by the Italian Government to Aksum in Ethiopia. The mission was coordinated with the Ethiopian authorities in Addis Ababa, the Permanent Delegation of Ethiopia to UNESCO, UNESCO Addis Ababa Office, the Italian Delegation to UNESCO and the Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa, to pave the way for UNESCO’s involvement in the erection of the Obelisk at Aksum World Heritage site. The objectives of the mission included the collection of information leading to the preparation of a detailed Project Document for an Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed erection site, the definition of the appropriate methodology for this intervention, and to appraise and carry out a preliminary assessment on the state of conservation of Aksum World Heritage site, specifically as regards the feasibility of the proposed erection of ‘Stela 2’, following its return from Italy. The UNESCO mission also took advantage of the visit to assess on the state of conservation of Aksum.
The UNESCO mission undertook six days of scientific sub-soil prospections of the archaelogical zone of Aksum World Heritage property using georadar technology (Ground Penetration Radar or GPR) and electro-tomographs. The purpose of these explorations was to investigate, in a non–destructive way, the possible presence of archaelogical remains in or around the area where Ethiopia has proposed to re-erect the Stela, i.e. at its original location, in view of its potential impact on the property and the surroundings. Prior to the mission, desk-studies and consultations were carried out on past archaelogical excavations.
Preliminary results of UNESCO’s scientific prospection show that the erection of the stelae in its original location would require extreme precaution in order not to affect the archaelogical remains at the site, and not to destabilize another stela (No.3) which stands nearby. As a result of these investigations, the UNESCO team discovered a number of tombs and cavities in the vicinity of the site. The first profile showed the presence of three underground cavities, two of which are just in front and below stela 2. Further profiles taken at five meter intervals revealed further cavities under the ground and in particular a very large chamber with a collapsed roof just below and in front of stela 3, as well as others to the northeast of the entrance to the site. The need for such an extended investigation is connected to the erection project to the stela itself and in particular in order to identify ground or at least a path free of any underground cavities able to support the stela and the necessary erection equipment.
UNESCO preliminary studies have shown that the extent of the archaelogical zone of Axum is much more extensive than previously thought. Clearly, a comprehensive archaeological investigation is now called for. If the stela is to be erected in its previous site, this undertaking would require extreme precaution as well as previous salvage of archaeological remains to save what can be saved on the new chambers, located by the georadar and electro-tomographic investigations.
The UNESCO mission noted also that Aksum and its surrounding countryside contain a number of architectural and archaeological properties of importance for the development of culture and tourism in the Tigray Region. These properties are an integral part of Aksum's townscape and are interspersed within the area of the daily activities of residents of the town. The most important of these properties is the main stelae field running north from the town at the foot of Beta Giyorghis hill along the banks of the Mai Hejja stream. Within this field, there are approximately 120 stelae ranging from simple undressed stone slabs to elaborately carved obelisks as high as 30 meters.
As regard to the main stelae field, there has been concern for some time about the stability of the only remaining, standing carved stele because of its very pronounced lean. This situation should continue to be monitored until such time as a definite evaluation can be made. Another problem has been water leakage into some of the tombs. A corrugated iron roof has been added to the western end of the park over the "Tomb of the False Door". At the Gudit stelae field, the land continues to be used for agriculture, but this poses no danger as long as there are no ongoing excavations. It should be emphasized that the Old Town of Aksum constitutes in itself an important historic urban ensemble and should therefore be seen as an important element of the cultural heritage.
Aksum, like nearly all World Heritage properties in Ethiopia, does not have properly demarcated boundaries. The boundaries of the core and buffer zones of the World Heritage property should be defined as a matter of urgency, especially taking into account that Aksum has a large population living within what can be termed as the heritage core area.
There is currently no system which ties the properties together or which allows for their interpretation by visitors to Aksum or by residents of the town. The problems noted include: lack of signs at any of the properties identifying them in any way; no interpretation or presentation of the properties other than by the guides provided along with the price of admission to the sites; no explanatory material (brochures, books, etc…) to supplement what the guides may say and that can be taken away with the visitor.
The Government of Ethiopia secured from the World Bank a Learning and Innovation Loan (LIL) amounting to US$5m with the objective of testing and developing, on a pilot basis, the means for more fully integrating the conservation and management of its cultural heritage into local and national economic development. The project will also contribute to the revitalization of economic activity by testing out approaches for small crafts-based enterprises and by capitalizing on tourism potential. The Cultural project has four components - (i) Site Planning and Conservation (ii) Inventory and Documentation Development (iii) Support for the development of Artisan Crafts, and (iv) Support for Project Management.
In Aksum, the project will finance site planning activities for the town's archaeological sites, including the development and planning of an expanded archaeological museum. The expanded museum will serve as a local cultural and educational facility, as well as housing more recent historical acquisitions. The site planning process will complement a new "Master Plan" currently under development. The World Heritage Centre will consult with the State Party and the World Bank to ensure that the values of the properties are taken into consideration in the implementation of the projects.