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Spring 2006 Vol. IV, No. 3

Uncovering the History of Lebanon

Participating in an archaeological excavation is a curious thing. You are, after all, taking part in an endeavor with no real sense of what will come of it. At the same time, however, this is also part of the attraction. Regardless of what you discover on the ground, the whole experience is sure to have a profound affect on your perceptions of a given region and the ancient history of its peoples.

‘Tell’ is the name for the mound of material culture that develops over time as a result of continual human occupation; ‘burak’ refers to the large cisterns located near the site. (“Burak” is the Arabic word for cistern.)

This is what I experienced when I took part in the 2005 season of the AUB archaeological excavations at Tell el-Burak. The site is situated along the shore of Addusiyye, a small village a few kilometers south of Saida. Here, tucked tightly between plantation and sea, lie the physical remains of the site. The edge of the site abuts the coast and rises sharply from the shore. During its earliest phase, running from the eighteenth century BC through the seventeenth century, the site must have projected an imposing figure for some of the earliest Levantine travelers.

It is the location itself that first caught the eye of Professor Hélène Sader, the principal investigator of the site and a professor of archaeology at AUB. Today, the coast of Lebanon is witnessing unprecedented construction. As a result, the archaeological evidence of the largely coastal civilization of Phoenicia is being destroyed at an alarming pace. Because Tell el-Burak is located on state property, however, there has been no destruction, either as a result of building or major looting. The historical importance of the site and its pristine condition make Tell el-Burak the perfect location for an excavation.

AUB and the University of Tübingen in Germany have been jointly conducting the archaeological excavations since 2001. Students from Lebanon, Holland, Germany, and the United States participated in the field school that is conducted during the course of the excavation. The “dig team”, consisting of a core staff of six return excavators and a dozen or so archaeology students, made the trek through the banana plantation each morning just before dawn to take advantage of the early—and coolest—hours of the day. Getting an early start is a must when you are working on an excavation during the summer.

But before excavation even began, a team of specialists from the German Archaeological Institute did a geo-magnetic survey analysis to map areas of the site that might have particular archaeological interest, such as burials, walls, or metallic objects. The map provided the excavation team with a rough outline of the ancient buildings that were hidden beneath the surface. From this knowledge, an efficient plan of excavation could be formed prior to any digging. The geo-magnetic testing showed that the bulk of the tell was constructed as a foundation for a single mud-brick structure—a structure that later excavations revealed to be a massive Middle Bronze Age palace. The occupants and daily life of this building are largely unknown and are the focus of the continued excavations.

Science plays a large and growing role in archaeological fieldwork these days. This is as true at Tell el-Burak as at any archaeological site. Biological science is helping uncover details of what life was like in this ancient city and informs archaeological understanding of the various burial sites that have been discovered, such as the Middle Bronze Age burial recently excavated at Tell el-Burak. Osteological specialists

have analyzed dog and human burial remains in addition to the various faunal (animal) bones that have been found, giving evidence to the difficulties of ancient life through evidence of disease and trauma on the bones. Botanical remains have also been studied to reconstruct the local environment of the ancient inhabitants of the site, providing clues to the amount of food consumed through local produce as opposed to imported goods. This in turn informs our understanding of the local economic conditions, agriculture, and the availability of natural resources when the site was occupied. The organic evidence taken from soil samples can give a fairly accurate date for the site through 14C radiocarbon dating—a technique now widely used to date archaeological materials.

Understanding the nature of the relationship between the site and the sea is particularly important, because of what it tells us about the ancient function of the tell. For this reason, a geo-morphological study was initiated to investigate the ancient position of the site and the sea. Although the sea today comes perilously close to eroding the face of the tell, the geo-morphological fieldwork that has been done tells us that the Mediterranean did not always reach as close to the site. Ralph Pedersen of Texas A&M University’s Institute of Nautical Archaeology, with help from an AUB archaeology student, conducted an underwater survey of the coastline that is informing our knowledge of the site’s accessibility from the sea. The survey took a number of depth measurements and searched for possible locations of anchorage and docking structures.

Although these scientific techniques are invaluable, they cannot replace the knowledge that is learned as the result of systematic archaeological excavation, which requires that students and staff role up their sleeves and start digging. Over the course of four seasons of digging at Tell el-Burak, extensive archaeological remains of varying type and time have been discovered. The work has revealed structural evidence from the Middle Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Ottoman periods on the site. At a site such as this—where material remains from several chronological periods are superimposed on each other—an excavator gets only one chance to excavate an area, since much is destroyed in the process of excavation. Therefore, proper excavation techniques and documentation are of crucial importance. You never dig randomly at a site. Previous research in regional settlement patterns and coastal variations in Lebanon gives a general idea of possible features of interest at a particular site. The site is then divided into areas of scrutiny. Digging is then done slowly and stratigraphically: layer by layer.

The most delicate example of “archaeological destruction” is in the antechamber of the Middle Bronze Age palace. A large room with plastered and intricately painted walls was uncovered and meticulously excavated and restored. An expert in art conservation and restoration spent a month working with a small section of this unique Levantine discovery. The large painted room is covered in geometric shapes along with depictions of trees, but because it is largely deteriorated, much restoration is needed. Peering from an opening in the frescoed room, just above the sea, you can imagine the ancient dwelling in its brilliantly complete environment. Today we find the structure next to several Iron Age residences that have been excavated by the AUB team. Surrounding all of these structures is a large stone wall built in the Middle Bronze Age. Originally used to retain and reinforce the tell, the wall was rebuilt for the Iron Age inhabitants of the site as a fortification. Today, the AUB team is continuing to uncover new features of the ancient habitation at Tell el-Burak, as well as document and research the existing structures. The excavation is a process of discovery, one that is revealing the ancient world to us—often with the aid of the most modern scientific techniques currently available.

The excavations at Tell el-Burak will continue this summer and incorporate a fall course at AUB for the specialized training of archaeological field techniques. A thorough excavation of the Iron Age remains, as well as continued excavation of the painted room, will be conducted. The excavations at Tell el-Burak are a unique opportunity for AUB students to be trained in archaeological fieldwork. In the absence of both written and reliable archaeological records, little is known about settlement and culture in ancient Phoenicia. The Tell el-Burak excavations are filling a huge gap in the history of the Phoenician kingdoms of the motherland and are throwing new light on Lebanon’s past.

Berytus Archaeological Studies, published in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is the oldest archaeological journal in Lebanon and the only one which continued to be published during the war. The museum newsletter, published twice annually, also includes archaeological news.

3200 years later… bridging the gap at the ancient city of Sumur at Tell Kazel, Syria

At the Tell Kazel excavations, archaeologists are uncovering ancient tools and temples while putting together the pieces of the area’s historical and anthropological puzzle. Together they have confirmed that Tell Kazel is the site of the ancient city of Sumur—the capital of the Kingdom of Amuru. Tell Kazel, which is about 10 km north of the Lebanese border, is the location of an ancient kingdom that was ruled by the Amorite Dynasty (Bronze Age-Iron Age, fourteenth-twelfth centuries BC), which had close ties with the two largest powers of the period, the Egyptians and the Hittites. The excavation is led by AUB Museum Director Leila Badre and a team of two dozen archaeologists from AUB and abroad.

Tell Kazel is located in the Homs Gap, which once offered the only passage to traders from the sea seeking to get to the Syrian hinterland. It also overlooks the then-navigable Al-Abrash River. Given its propitious location, it should come as no surprise that many peoples have left their traces in Tell Kazel. The imported items found at the site testify to the inhabitants’ extensive connections to the outside world.

“The reason we chose this site for excavation was to locate the city of Sumur and fill in the historical/archaeological gap between the late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age at around 1200 BC,” explains Badre. Indeed, the AUB-led excavation team found the remains of three Bronze and Iron Age temples consecutively built over each other, dating back to the eras of the Sea Peoples, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks, respectively.

In addition to temple offerings, braseros (incense burners) have also been found at the site. The largest brasero was an exceptional size, measuring about 120 centimeters in height! “This is the tallest ever-known brasero,” says Badre. A number of other items, including plates, juglets, figurines, and luxury items, such as faience and necklaces were also discovered. Badre says that the first temple was very well preserved and produced the greatest number of archaeological finds.

The other major discovery was a residential area that revealed the signs of thoughtful urban planning, with orthogonal streets made of layers of ash and pebbles to drain the water vertically, thus sparing planners from installing horizontal drainage canals. “One building had something absolutely special and not found anywhere else in the Levant region,” notes Badre. “Its floors were paved with sea shells and the walls were encrusted in shells.”

All of these discoveries at Tell Kazel are important, she says: “We were able to trace the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age. There has never been a discovery like this one on the Syrian-Lebanese coast.” The Tartous Museum, in the city’s former cathedral, is now home to an up-to-date display of the archaeological treasures that the AUB team has assembled.

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