Deep in the trenches

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

The site of Pella lies in the Jordan Val­ley and has been in­hab­ited for over 10,000 years. Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ben Churcher has dug at the site for over thirty years and so is well placed to ex­plain why it is such a spe­cial place

Due to the unique dawn cho­rus it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to sleep in and miss a day’s ex­ca­va­tion at the site of Pella in Jordan. The cho­rus ac­tu­ally starts be­fore dawn, around 5 am, with the first blast from the lo­cal mosque at the nearby vil­lage of Tabaqat Fahl. This pre-recorded call to prayer starts with two taps to the mi­cro­phone as if to say ‘is this thing turned on?’ and is fol­lowed by an am­pli­fied ver­sion of the prayer call by some­one with a slen­der grasp of har­mon­ics. It stirs me from my slumber, but so too the vil­lage dogs that start up an unholy bark­ing that re­ver­ber­ates through the tent in which I’m try­ing to sleep.

Just as things calm down, there is a sec­ond call at about 5.30 am as if to say ‘if by some mir­a­cle you missed me be­fore, here it is again’. Then peace again for an­other 15 min­utes be­fore you hear the Ex­ca­va­tion Di­rec­tor, Dr Stephen Bourke, mak­ing his rounds to make sure we are fully awake. He does the same rou­tine each morn­ing as un­fail­ingly as the mosque calls. First the bed­room of Dr Pamela Wat­son our Late Ro­man and Byzan­tine spe­cial­ist, “Good Morn­ing Sitt Pamela?” says Stephen us­ing the Ara­bic hon­orific for ‘Lady’, to be an­swered by a mum­bled re­ply. Then on to the tent next door: “You awake young things?” On it goes get­ting ever closer to my tent. Fi­nally it’s my turn and I re­sist the temp­ta­tion to say “how could

I pos­si­bly still be asleep?” and mut­ter a po­lite re­ply in­stead. And so an­other day at Pella be­gins.

After a cof­fee we pick up our dig bags and head out of the dig house for the short walk to the trenches so that we are there by 6.30 am. The lo­cal work­force have al­ready had their names ticked off by the Ex­ca­va­tion Fore­man and are wait­ing for us stand­ing hud­dled around the trenches in the early morn­ing cool. The short walk gives me time to check out the weather by look­ing back over the dig house and across the Jordan Val­ley as it is from this di­rec­tion, the west, that the bad weather comes. To­day, like most of the 2017 sea­son, it looks good with hardly a cloud in the sky. “Sabah al

khair" (morn­ing of good or good morn­ing) I say to the as­sem­bled work­ers who re­ply "Sabah al noor" (morn­ing of light or a bright morn­ing to you). The po­et­ics of the Ara­bic lan­guage aside, it does look like a bright morn­ing.

From where the main trenches are po­si­tioned we can just see the first rays of sun lick­ing the top of Jebel (Moun­tain) Sartaba to our east although, in Fe­bru­ary when we ex­ca­vate, it will be an­other half hour be­fore the sun reaches our trenches and the day will be­gin to warm up. That is, it will reach some trenches by around 7 am, but not mine. This is be­cause I com­mand the deep cut which, at its deep­est, is now eight metres (26 feet) be­low ground level: lit­er­ally a place where the sun never shines!

Dig­ging for history

It has taken many years of painstak­ing work by the Aus­tralian team to get to these depths.

In the early years the team first ex­ca­vated a se­ries of deep trenches fur­ther to the east and straight­away these trenches en­coun­tered a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of a late Byzan­tine/early Umayyad town­scape (sixth to eighth century AD) that was wor­thy of preser­va­tion and pre­vented fur­ther ex­ca­va­tion in this area. This meant new trenches were opened to the south along the steeply ris­ing face of the Tell (mound) at Pella. These trenches plumbed the depths be­low the Late Clas­si­cal Pe­riod and revealed Iron Age (1150–750

BC) de­posits on top of ex­ten­sive Late Bronze Age (1550–1150 BC) phases. The Late Bronze Age phases in­cluded one build­ing dubbed the ‘Gov­er­nor’s Res­i­dence’ that had plas­tered floors and a soli­tary pit con­tain­ing an in­laid ivory ‘lion box’ and two frag­ments of cu­nei­form tablets: the only ones ever found across the en­tire site. Be­low the Late Bronze Age lev­els, a sub­stan­tial sec­tion of the Mid­dle Bronze Age (2000–1550 BC) city wall was ex­ca­vated. This mud-brick con­struc­tion was still stand­ing, in places, to a height of five metres: dwarf­ing a small stretch of the Early Bronze Age (3200–2800 BC) city wall also un­cov­ered to its west.

As you dig deeper, how­ever, the area in which you can work gets smaller as ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures from later pe­ri­ods, such as a five-me­tre-high Mid­dle Bronze Age city wall, are left in place. So by the time you reach the Early Bronze Age you are left with lim­ited space in which to ex­ca­vate and in­creased dif­fi­culty in phys­i­cally ac­cess­ing the area in which you are work­ing.

When Dr Bourke took over the di­rec­tion of the ex­ca­va­tions from his men­tor Pro­fes­sor Basil Hen­nessy in the early 1990s, he de­cided to move to the west along the face of the Tell hop­ing to be able to reach Bronze Age lev­els with­out first hav­ing to re­move the over­bur­den of many suc­ceed­ing pe­ri­ods. In this more cen­tral area (area XXXII), the team un­earthed an­other stretch of the Early Bronze Age city wall, as well as a stone plat­form dat­ing to the pre­ced­ing pe­riod, the Chal­col­ithic (4500–4200 BC).

It was through the ex­ca­va­tion of this plat­form that the tra­jec­tory of the Pella ex­ca­va­tions changed. In or­der to ex­pose the en­tire plat­form, the sides of the trench were ex­panded to the west and this en­coun­tered, at a higher level, a num­ber of huge stone blocks that were thought to date to the Mid­dle Bronze Age, based on as­so­ci­ated pot­tery. But as only a cor­ner of the struc­ture was ex­posed, it really was any­one’s guess as to what the stones be­longed to or their age.

I re­mem­ber this point very well as I was filming a doc­u­men­tary at Pella dur­ing 1995 and we have footage of Stephen stand­ing on the ex­posed cor­ner and an­nounc­ing to the cam­era that “this

is prob­a­bly a cor­ner of a tem­ple”. I re­mem­ber think­ing at the time “that’s a brave call” but for­tune favours the brave, as Stephen was proved ab­so­lutely right.

We didn’t know this in 1995 and it took the team un­til 2001 to fully ex­pose what is one of the largest Mig­dol (fortress) Tem­ples ex­ca­vated in the re­gion. This dis­cov­ery came slowly. At first our main area of ex­ca­va­tion was on top of the neigh­bour­ing hill of Tell Husn where we were un­earthing a ma­jor

stone for­ti­fi­ca­tion from the Early Bronze Age. On the main Tell, only one trench was in­ves­ti­gat­ing what we now know is the tem­ple’s south­ern wall. One sea­son mor­phed into two and still this wall kept go­ing as it dawned on us we were deal­ing with a ma­jor build­ing. By 1997 the full 32-me­tre length of this south­ern wall was un­cov­ered and in 1999 the en­tire team was de­ployed to ex­plore the build­ing’s in­te­rior. How­ever, be­fore the lev­els as­so­ci­ated with the tem­ple could be reached, the ar­chae­ol­o­gists first had to care­fully ex­ca­vate a large Late Ro­man (ap­prox­i­mately 300–400 AD) and Byzan­tine (ap­prox­i­mately 500–600 AD) hous­ing com­plex that cov­ered the whole area. It took time to fully record the hous­ing com­plex but slowly the Mig­dol Tem­ple be­neath be­gan to be revealed and by 2001 we had the com­plete floor plan.

This Canaan­ite tem­ple takes its name from the two fortress-like tow­ers that flank its en­trance and was built around 1650 BC, and after three ma­jor re­builds, went out of use around 850 BC. Dur­ing these 800 years the re­gion saw the es­tab­lish­ment of the Bi­b­li­cal king­doms of Is­rael and Ju­dah, the rise and fall of the Egyp­tian New King­dom and the ar­rival of new peo­ples, such as the Philistines. It was a mo­men­tous time and a pe­riod in which schol­ars are es­pe­cially in­ter­ested as it sets the scene for much of the history that was to follow. The Pella Mig­dol Tem­ple bears tes­ti­mony to these times: mas­sively built as an ex­pres­sion of the first great age of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism dur­ing the Mid­dle Bronze Age, re-con­fig­ured dur­ing the Late Bronze Age as the in­flu­ence of Egypt grew and then shrink­ing in size as the re­gion po­lit­i­cally frag­ments dur­ing the Iron Age.

While it would have been tempt­ing to just con­cen­trate on the tem­ple dur­ing this time, the team had to be­gin think­ing ahead of time be­yond the tem­ple it­self. In the knowl­edge that it takes sev­eral sea­sons to care­fully ex­ca­vate the up­per lev­els be­fore the Bronze Age can be reached, dur­ing the late 1990s the team be­gan sev­eral new trenches to the west of the tem­ple. The aim of these new trenches was to ex­plore what Stephen hoped would be ma­jor civic buildings as­so­ci­ated with the tem­ple. Although we did not know the civic buildings would be lo­cated in the west, ear­lier work in other ar­eas to the east of the tem­ple had pro­duced no ma­jor civic buildings dat­ing to the

Mid­dle Bronze Age. There­fore, if not to the east, then per­haps to the west. Here again, for­tune favoured the brave.

Dur­ing the 2000s, and still to­day, we re­main fo­cused in the western tem­ple precinct and my eight me­tre-deep trench is the in­her­i­tor of those ex­ploratory trenches be­gun back in the late 1990s. Here, too, we first had to ex­ca­vate the con­tin­u­a­tion of the Clas­si­cal Pe­riod hous­ing com­plex first seen over­ly­ing the tem­ple.

Be­low this phase in the west, how­ever, was one of the largest surprises we’ve had at Pella, as the ex­ca­va­tions im­me­di­ately came down on a thick layer of mud-brick col­lapse and de­struc­tion, some­times sev­eral metres thick. This col­lapse orig­i­nated from a large Iron Age build­ing that once ex­tended across the western tem­ple precinct be­fore be­ing de­stroyed at the hand of hos­tile forces or just pos­si­bly an earth­quake around 800 BC (it is hard to tell such things em­phat­i­cally in ar­chae­ol­ogy). This build­ing has over 46 rooms. In the south we un­cov­ered the store­rooms with one room full of me­tre-high stor­age jars con­tain­ing ei­ther oil or ce­re­als, in the next room a pile of clay loom weights; all that re­mains of the loom that would have pro­duced the woollen tex­tiles for which the re­gion was renowned.

In the north were the more do­mes­tic ar­eas of the build­ing and we un­cov­ered kitchens and finer pot­tery that was for daily use rather than the coarser stor­age jars from the south­ern rooms. In one area I un­cov­ered a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of the sud­den­ness of this build­ing’s col­lapse, as luck would have it, per­fectly sec­tioned in the wall or sec­tion of my trench. This vi­gnette con­sisted of a pot­tery jar full of

grain that had been rest­ing on the floor and lean­ing against a wall. The trench sec­tion showed the mo­ment of the ves­sel’s demise be­cause, as if frozen in time, the large mud-brick that had fallen and smashed the jar was still em­bed­ded in the crushed ves­sel as tes­ti­mony to the vi­o­lence of the build­ing’s de­struc­tion.

That this de­struc­tion was so sud­den and so com­plete is abun­dantly clear, yet nowhere have we found the re­mains of a trapped per­son or even an an­i­mal for that mat­ter. This makes us think that the de­struc­tion may have been de­lib­er­ate: per­haps at the hands of Hazael of Da­m­as­cus (842–796 BC), who we know cam­paigned in the area boast­ing of the cities he had de­stroyed.

The dis­cov­ery of this vast and in­tri­cate build­ing has com­pletely rewrit­ten our im­pres­sion of Pella dur­ing the Iron Age. From the early in­ves­ti­ga­tions it seemed that this pe­riod was small and not much more so­phis­ti­cated than a vil­lage. This was some­what sup­ported when we later revealed the Iron Age in­car­na­tion of the tem­ple which was the small­est of all the tem­ple phases. Mov­ing to the west, how­ever, the team has un­earthed a build­ing that has gone from be­ing called a ‘civic build­ing’ to an ‘Iron Age palace’ and am­ply demon­strates that the Iron Age at Pella was far from be­ing a sim­ple hill vil­lage. It also shows a re­mark­able so­ci­etal shift in that the large, well-pro­vi­sioned palace was now the cen­tre of the city rather than the nearby diminu­tive tem­ple. This is a marked change from the Bronze Age and per­haps il­lus­tra­tive of a gen­eral mis­trust of the old the­o­log­i­cal or­der.

Be­neath the Iron Age struc­ture are Bronze Age lev­els that we are still ex­ca­vat­ing and this is my task as I stand at the top of my trench sur­vey­ing the scene on that crisp morn­ing in 2017. Be­low me the deep cut is spread out with ver­tig­i­nous sec­tions stretch­ing down through thou­sands of years of hu­man history. There, now fully revealed, are the rec­tan­gu­lar walls of the Mid­dle Bronze Age ‘Court­yard’ palace. This build­ing is large and we have so far only ex­ca­vated the south-eastern cor­ner of it re­veal­ing three rooms ar­rayed along­side the plas­tered court­yard. While there have been a few nice finds as­so­ci­ated with this struc­ture, an Egyp­tian scarab and a cylin­der seal­ing be­ing the most-no­table, rooms have been dis­tress­ingly clean

and largely empty of finds.

The pri­mary rea­son for this is that this sec­tion of the Tell has been in­ten­sively used over many years and in the suc­ceed­ing Late Bronze Age, the Mid­dle Bronze Age palace was re­designed and reused.

This meant that the floor sur­faces of the Mid­dle Bronze Age palace, where one would ex­pect to find arte­facts, were re­moved by the Late Bronze Age in­hab­i­tants as they re­moulded the build­ing to their own needs. Those needs in­cluded some pretty odd cult struc­tures, which may have been as­so­ci­ated with the nearby tem­ple, or per­haps served a more pri­vate, sec­u­lar pur­pose. The pres­ence of three rock-lined pits: one neatly placed within a room of the for­mer Mid­dle Bronze Age palace, and two placed to the south, dom­i­nated the area.

These pits are over four metres deep and one had a base of stone. Not de­signed to be wells, nor sealed for use as stor­age, these pits were prob­a­bly seen as por­tals to the un­der­world, in which of­fer­ings were placed to en­list the aid of the gods. In the cen­tral pit we un­cov­ered a num­ber of shal­low bowls that were prob­a­bly used to di­vine the gods’ will by in­ter­pret­ing the pat­terns made by drops of oil in a bowl of wa­ter in a process known as lecanomancy. Once touched by the di­vine hand, as it were, these bowls be­came sa­cred and were placed in the pit along with other small of­fer­ings in­clud­ing, most un­usu­ally, the bones of large pelagic fish. These fish of­fer­ings re­in­force the cul­tic na­ture of these pits as fish were seen as be­ing from the do­main of the un­der­world and the gods as­so­ci­ated with this nether re­gion. Each pit was within a small room and the floors of these rooms showed fre­quent re­plas­ter­ing in­di­cat­ing the re­peated and long-term use of the area for what­ever rit­u­als took place here. While the Mig­dol tem­ple to the east was for pub­lic wor­ship, in this area things be­came per­sonal and elite in­di­vid­u­als felt that they were at a gate­way lead­ing to the gods. While mute to­day, these fea­tures con­jure up a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse of long-dead re­li­gious prac­tices at a time when Pella was a ‘cathe­dral town’ and a re­gional fo­cus for re­li­gious ob­ser­vances.

Be­yond Pella

Be­yond the deep cut is the edge of the Tell, and be­tween us and Tell Husn, the green Wadi Jirm that once had a never-end­ing stream of wa­ter bub­bling up from a spring at the val­ley’s head (now Jordan’s ap­petite for wa­ter has this wa­ter drawn off un­der­ground and piped to the re­gional cen­tre of Ir­bid leav­ing the wadi de­void of wa­ter). The Wadi Jirm once flowed down to­wards the Jordan

 With abun­dant fresh wa­ter, ac­cess to fer­tile farm­ing land, and well de­fended, Pella stood at the epi-cen­tre of world events over the mil­len­nia. As an im­por­tant re­gional cen­tre with an al­most unbroken oc­cu­pa­tion from the Ne­olithic Pe­riod to the present day, the past 10,000 years is rep­re­sented at Pella. Some­times it was more prom­i­nent, at other times lit­tle more than a vil­lage: but it was a sur­vivor 

Val­ley that is panoram­i­cally spread out to our west, and di­rectly op­po­site us, the Jezreel Val­ley cuts in from the Mediter­ranean, which on a good day, you would be able to see from Pella were it not for the in­ter­ven­ing coastal Carmel Ranges. The Jezreel is also known as the Plain of Es­draelon, or more dra­mat­i­cally, the Plain of Ar­maged­don, and we re­mind our­selves at Pella that we will have a grand­stand view of the bat­tle at the end of days be­cause Megiddo, the proph­e­sied lo­ca­tion of this bat­tle, lies just to our west.

Closer, but also to our west, is Beth Shan (Beit She'an) where many of the fam­i­lies of the men who work with us came from fol­low­ing the first Arab– Is­raeli War in 1948. At this town after the Bat­tle of Gil­boa (around 1012 BC), the Philistines ex­posed the bod­ies of the Is­raelite King Saul and his sons on the wall of the city. Here the Egyp­tian Pharaoh Thut­mose III (1479–1425 BC) cap­tured the town and it re­mained an Egyp­tian ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre un­til at least the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (1290–1279 BC), and prob­a­bly up un­til the fall of the Egyp­tian Em­pire around 1130 BC. Much later in 634 AD, the Byzan­tine forces were de­feated by the Mus­lim army of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khat­tab on the muddy plains in front of Beth Shan and in 1260 fol­low­ing their de­feat by the Mamelukes at the Bat­tle of Ain Ja­lut, the re­treat­ing Mon­gol forces passed by Beth Shan but did not en­ter the town it­self.

And what a view the an­cient in­hab­i­tants of Pella had across this sweep of history. Never a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal cen­tre (although the dis­cov­ery of the

Mig­dol Tem­ple sug­gests it may have been a ma­jor re­li­gious cen­tre for a time), Pella re­mained in touch but not to­tally en­meshed. With abun­dant fresh wa­ter, ac­cess to fer­tile farm­ing land, and well de­fended, Pella stood at the epi-cen­tre of world events over the mil­len­nia. As an im­por­tant re­gional cen­tre with an al­most unbroken oc­cu­pa­tion from the Ne­olithic Pe­riod to the present day, any Western Asian his­tor­i­cal pe­riod from the past 10,000 years is rep­re­sented at Pella. Some­times it was more prom­i­nent, at other times lit­tle more than a vil­lage: but it was a sur­vivor.

Since 1979 the Australians have in­ves­ti­gated most of these pe­ri­ods: not just in the area of the Tell that I’ve been de­scrib­ing but also across the hills and plains of the surrounding hin­ter­land: a su­perb Natu­fian site (Wadi Ham­meh, ap­prox­i­mately 12,000 BC); rich Bronze Age tombs with one mem­o­rable tomb re­veal­ing over 2,000 ob­jects; a Ro­man and Byzan­tine fortress on top of Tell Husn; an Ab­basid car­a­vanserai (trader’s mar­ket) to the north of the Tell and Ot­toman Pe­riod wa­ter mills in the Wadi Jirm among the most note­wor­thy. Through this rich mo­saic of time, the archaeological work stitches to­gether the ebb and flow of cul­tures, re­li­gions and peo­ple at this one spot: the peo­ple who lived through and re­acted to the events that we read about in our history books.

This makes the very land­scape around Pella alive with history and past lives. And now it is time for me to do my lit­tle bit to bring this amaz­ing story to life as I gather the men to­gether, shoul­der my dig bag and de­scend into my trench for an­other day’s ex­ca­va­tion at Pella in Jordan.

The Pella Project runs a vol­un­teer pro­gramme where, for a set fee, the gen­eral pub­lic can join the ex­ca­va­tions to dis­cover what it’s like to live and work at a ma­jor Mid­dle-Eastern archaeological site. Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on the Pella vol­un­teer scheme, as well as on the site it­self, can be found at http://syd­ney.edu.au/arts/ re­search/neaf/ex­ca­va­tions/in­dex.shtml. The next Pella sea­son is planned for Jan­uary–Fe­bru­ary 2019.

Be­low: Map show­ing the ma­jor ex­ca­va­tion ar­eas de­noted by Ro­man nu­mer­als Pre­vi­ous pages: The site of Pella show­ing the Byzan­tine Church (to the left in the wadi), the main Tell with trenches (cen­tre) and the dig house and vil­lage of Tabaqat Fahl to the left

Over­leaf, bot­tom: The court­yard at the Pella Dig­house Over­leaf, top: The western tem­ple precinct look­ing to­wards the western wall of the Mig­dol Tem­ple Above: The tem­ple precinct deep cut (Area XXXII) in 2017, is over eight metres deep and here shows Mid­dle and Late Bronze Age ar­chi­tec­ture

Above, top: The mas­sive Mid­dle Bronze Age Mig­dol Tem­ple

Above: Late Ro­man mo­saic floor

Left, top: A vol­un­teer finds a shal­low bowl in one of the Late Bronze Age vo­tive pits Left, mid­dle: Ben Churcher points out a pot­tery jar filled with grain which has been de­stroyed by a large mud­brick: a mo­ment frozen in time (Im­age: © Bob Miller) Left, bot­tom: Ben and his work­men (Im­age: © Bob Miller) Above: Re­mains of the Byzan­tine church in the Wadi Jirm with Tell Husn in the back­ground (Im­age: © Bob Miller)

Over­leaf: A smashed am­phorae is recovered dat­ing to the Clas­si­cal pe­riod Left: View over the Jordan Val­ley from Tell Husn Above: Timeline for civil­i­sa­tions and em­pires in the Mid­dle East

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