Thursday, July 23, 2015

What the stones say

(Note: this is the second of three posts about UNC Charlotte’s Mount Zion Archaeology Project)

Here’s another reason why the Mount Zion project is “unorthodox archaeology,” as I claimed in the last post: it’s complicated.

OK, this isn't exactly what I mean...
Of course most archaeological excavations are complicated in their own ways, but archaeologists tend to prefer to dig sites where, as they say, “the stratigraphy is undisturbed.” Lay translation: they mean where someone hasn’t re-inhabited the area, dug up the site and mixed up the buried layers of history. Once this happens, it’s a little hard to figure out what goes with what period, because older stuff can end up on top of or in the middle of younger stuff.

Stratigraphy: why we nail tags on dirt walls.
“Undisturbed stratigraphy” unfortunately does not describe the situation in Mount Zion. When your site is in the middle of a city, especially a city that has been inhabited and fought over for three thousand years, there is going to be a little messing with the archaeological record of the site and some churning of the layers of history.  Life has gone on here for a long time, untold struggles have occurred, and, as a result, Jerusalem is very complicated. Mount Zion is too.

So why dig there? Well, there are some good reasons that the usual thinking might miss. Like the stuff that’s there anyway.

Dig director Shimon Gibson notes that the oldest houses in the area were  1st Century houses that were abruptly abandoned when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE because of a Jewish revolt. “The ruined field of 1st Century houses in our area remained there intact up until the beginning of the Byzantine period (early 4th Century),” Gibson said. “When the Byzantine inhabitants built there, they leveled things off a bit but they used the same plan of the older houses, building their walls on top of the older walls.”
Some of the complex jumble of the Mount Zion dig.
Subsequently, the sixth century Byzantine Emperor Justinian contributed further disturbance when he completed the construction of Nea Ekklesia up the hillside from the site. The construction involved the excavation of enormous underground reservoirs and the excavation fill was dumped downhill, burying the more recent Byzantine constructions. But for preservation purposes, this disturbance was actually a good thing.

“The area got submerged, “ Gibson said. “The early Byzantine reconstruction of these two-story Early Roman houses then got buried under rubble and soil fills. Then they established new buildings above it. That’s why we found an unusually well-preserved set of stratigraphic levels.” Even out of chaos comes some order.

But, in fact the situation is still far more complex than that because the area is a hillside – some 1st century structures appear to be at a higher level than some structures that are clearly Byzantine and built five centuries later. “In many places, reverse stratigraphy is going on,” Gibson noted. “There is a hodgepodge of levels.” The site is a complex puzzle of historical levels, reflecting not only a complex history, but a complex topography and complex changes to the landscape.

The whole dig at the end of the 2015 season. Photo: Rachel Ward.
This all might be a problem if analysis depended completely on looking at small objects in the soil, but buildings, of course, can tell us even more than artifacts, and the excavation has uncovered several, some sufficiently intact to give the feeling that the lives of the people who abandoned them are still knowable in the spaces they inhabited.

In one of several structures that appear to be Jewish houses from approximately the time of Jesus, a large underground water supply – a cistern – contained something strange – cooking pots and the remains of an oven, indicating that someone may have been living in the emptied tank. What was going on here remains inconclusive, but the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus mentions Jews hiding from the attacking Roman legionnaires in underground water systems, when the city was besieged and destroyed in 70 CE, so this may be the record of a family’s last days.

1st Century Roman-Jewish bathroom with tub: a
sign of opulence. 
The same structure contained other revealing details. Like many large Jewish houses of the time, the structure contained an underground pool – a mikveh --designed for ceremonial bathing, but unlike all but one other Herodian building ( a palace) that has been excavated in Jerusalem, this mikveh also had an attached entry room with a carved bathtub for pre-ceremonial cleaning. This unusual feature, the team believes, was an extravagant add-on, a sign of the fairly extreme wealth of the inhabitants. Intriguingly also found in the structure were a large number of shells of the murex sea-snail – the source of the famous Tyrian purple dye (“imperial purple”), an expensive luxury commodity. Since sea snails are not creatures native to the mountains of Jerusalem, this implies that the inhabitants may have been involved in supplying luxury products.

In other words, the building provides a glimpse into “the lifestyles of the rich and famous” (or at least of the rich) of Jewish society in Jesus’s Jerusalem.  Other houses on the site from other periods – Byzantine, Muslim -- may divulge other telling details of the personal and domestic lives of the people who inhabited them. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, O the stories stones can tell.

A shell of the Murex sea snail,
the source of Imperial Purple dye.
We may never know specifically who those inhabitants were, or whether or not they were famous people from history, so why do these details matter?  Gibson points out that in most cases, all we know about history are the major events and the famous people, but we really know very little about life was actually like in the surrounding worlds of the times.

“In the case of the Muslim history of Jerusalem, we know about the mosques and madrassas, but we hardly know anything about the daily life,” Gibson said. “Here in this site we have three superimposed levels, belonging to the Umayyads (7th to mid 8th Centuries) Abbasids (mid-8th to 9th Centuries) and Fatimids (9th to 11th Centuries) which allow us to reconstruct the cultural life in the houses from these periods.”

What we see at Mount Zion, more than we do at the usual excavations of royal palaces and temples and grand public buildings, is evidence of the lives of real people. We see the lives of many real peoples, in fact, whose times overlapped and replaced each other. The site shows us a history, but it’s the intricate history of life, not just a neat summation of major events, generals and rulers.

This jumble of ruins is messy and confusing – like real life – but it may have more to say to us than what we usually get from the usual stories of the past. It’s complicated, and only time and more digging and analysis will tell us all it has to say.

(Next post: What has the past done for me lately?)

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