Deep in the trenches
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 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.
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)...
Above, top: The massive Middle Bronze Age Migdol Temple
Above: Late Roman mosaic floor
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...
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...
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