THE DISCOVERY OF PELLA’S CANAANITE TEMPLE
When you reach the edge of the great rift of the Jordan Valley you can not help but be impressed by the view. From your vantage point high in the eastern hills surrounded by gnarled pines and oaks, the heavily eroded hillsides descend to the valley floor; their exposed flanks showing all the twisting and folding that has been inflicted on the rock strata along what is the world’s largest geological feature. At the bottom on the floor of the valley, a patchwork of irrigated fields, many covered by plastic greenhouses to conserve water, stretch away before, in a carbon-copy of the hills you are standing on, the mountains of Judea and Samaria rise up in the west.
The site of Pella in Jordan is in the north of this mighty valley, nestled in the first rolling hills of the eastern mountains, opposite Israel and the valley of Esdraelon. In the hills surrounding Pella finds of stone axes indicate that the region has been inhabited for at least one million years, but the history of Pella itself begins when a small settlement was founded by some of the world’s earliest farmers around 8000 BC in the Neolithic period. This first Neolithic settlement was to begin an unbroken line of human occupation at the site spanning the next 10,000 years.
This remarkably long history has been painstakingly uncovered over the past twenty years by a team from the University of Sydney; a team of which I’m proud to be part. From my first season in 1983, I have seen the site of Pella evolve from being virtually unknown to one of the more important archaeological sites in Jordan.
Although I have been present when there have been some major discoveries over the years, one of the more rewarding experiences at the site has been to see the Pella Migdol Temple slowly emerge from the deposits that have buried it for millennia. The excavation of this temple is a credit to the Director of the Pella Excavations, Dr Stephen Bourke who has overseen the excavations in the temple precinct. These excavations began, as often happens in archaeology, by a chance find nine years ago and they have occupied the bulk of our efforts right up to our most recent season that was held between January and March 2003.
The 1994 Season
Our very first sight of the temple came in 1994 when a very large stone block was uncovered in the north-west of an area being investigated for Chalcolithic (c. 4000 BC) occupation. Not much was thought of the stone at first, but when it eventually proved to be the top of three enormous corner stones of an obviously massive structure, the mystery began. That 1994 season showed that some of the occupation associated with this building was from the early Iron age (c. 1000 BC) – and as this important period had largely eluded the Australian’s spades at Pella up to this time, our interest was aroused.
The 1996 Season
During the next season in 1996, the main focus of the team’s excavation was elsewhere on the site but Stephen made sure that one trench was placed along the wall discovered in 1994 to determine what type of structure it might belong to. By the end of the season this trench revealed that the wall was a massive construction over thirty metres in length. In places moreover, this trench indicated that the wall was much older than the early Iron age and, indeed, there were hints that it had been built sometime in the late Middle Bronze age (c. 1600 BC). While this was the largest construction yet unearthed at Pella, even when compared with Pella’s Roman and Byzantine monuments, there was still no definite knowledge of its use as none of the interior deposits had been excavated. While Stephen suspected that any building that had been in use for over seven hundred years must be a temple; we had to wait until the next season to be certain.
The 1997 Season
That chance came in the northern spring of 1997. Now that our appetite had been whetted, the majority of this season concentrated on finding out as much as we could about the building and trenches were laid out to explore the building’s interior. Luckily one trench was placed directly over the temple’s ‘Holy of Holies’ and we were able to determine that our building was indeed a temple. This trench contained what will probably be the icon of the temple – a one-metre high ceramic cult-stand with painted decoration of humans, animals and vegetation. This cult-stand was used to support an offering bowl that would have stood as an altar in the most sacred precinct of the temple. Possibly used in connection with the worship of the chief Canaanite deity, El, the cult-stand came up in pieces in 1997, but it has been restored in Australia. However, as the excavations within the interior of the temple were limited in 1997, we still did not fully understand the phasing and history of the temple at the season’s end.
The 1999 Season
Renewed excavations began in 1999 with the temple again the focus of our work. In this season we expanded the excavations in the Holy of Holies and several more cult stands were excavated. We also found the northern wall of the building making the temple a very large 32 x 24m (indeed it is one of the largest of its type yet found). In addition we also worked in the south-east of the building where we excavated the stone foundations of a large mud-brick tower which would have once flanked the temple’s entrance. This discovery confirmed that we were excavating a temple known locally as a ‘Migdol’ or ‘Fortress’ temple whose entrance towers were probably modelled on the pylons that you find in contemporary Egyptian temples.
In this season we also began to understand the temple’s chronology and its three major building phases. Although we could not be absolutely sure at this stage, we suspected that the temple was originally constructed around 1650 BC during the Middle Bronze age. Following this we could detect two major rebuilds; the first in 1350 BC during the Late Bronze age and the second in 900 BC during the early Iron II period. It also seemed that the temple was destroyed by earthquake prior to each of these rebuilds and the same cataclysm probably accounts for the temple’s final destruction around 800 BC.
The 2001 Season
In 2001 a lot of work still needed to be completed as we had not yet excavated the temple’s central hall. As we would see, it was only when this area was excavated that the plans of the three major building phases became clear – and these plans ended up being very different from how we imagined the phases prior to the commencement of the season. We also needed to know more about what was happening immediately outside the temple and so a number of trenches were also placed to the west, north and south of the temple to examine deposits in these areas. While the very north-east corner of the temple will not be excavated in the foreseeable future as it underlies a modern cemetery, we managed in 2001 to excavate as much of the temple’s plan as we will be able to uncover.
Now at last we could see the full history of the temple laid out in front of us. At the bottom is the massive Middle Bronze age Migdol Temple whose construction around 1650 BC required foundations made up of stone blocks over a metre in length; foundations that reach a depth of 4m on its southern edge. On top of these massive foundations you can then see where the temple was completely remodelled around 1350 BC during the Late Bronze age. Doing nothing in half measures, the builders in 1350 BC completely removed the mud-brick superstructure of the Middle Bronze age temple, leaving only the stone foundations which they then used as the foundations for their temple.
Because of this major constructional activity we will never know what destroyed the Middle Bronze age temple as the later builders, in the process of levelling the earlier temple, removed any evidence that would have once existed. Before the 1350 BC builders began construction of their temple however, they dug several large pits into which they placed broken storage jars and sacred objects such as cult-stands. They then sealed these pits by laying the temple’s floor over the top of them. This would tend to indicate that the original temple was very badly damaged by earthquake to the point were repair was impossible. When presented with the task of rebuilding their temple, the builders of the Late Bronze age first gathered whatever damaged temple goods they could find, and because these objects were still sacred, they stored them in pits for safe keeping. They then abandoned the northern section of the temple as it appears to have been too badly damaged in the earthquake, possibly due to its relatively shallow foundations. The builders then constructed a narrower temple with the Holy of Holies to the west and a large central pillared hall leading to the entrance in the east.
When this temple too was destroyed around 1150 BC, we have ample evidence in the thick layers of burning that it was fire, probably started by earthquake, that brought the temple down. Unlike their ancestors in the Late Bronze age, the Iron age builders were operating under far more constrained economic circumstances. Therefore a lot of the destruction was left where it was and, initially, the damaged temple was merely patched up until, around 900 BC, a new temple was built on top of the ruins. This Iron age temple was only a third the size of its predecessors and the area that was once the central hall of the earlier temples was abandoned by the Iron age builders and used instead for a variety of domestic purposes. Finds in this area however, tend to indicate that this was not just any regular domestic area. One example is the very aptly named ‘Cow Box’ that I had the pleasure of excavating in 1999. This ceramic box takes its name from five moulded cow’s (or bull’s?) heads that adorn its rim and it was probably a model shrine. This find indicates that perhaps this ‘domestic’ area still had a religious function, possibly as priests’ quarters.
The Pella Migdol Temple has presented the researchers at Sydney University with many years of work, as they must now analyse their finds and write up their reports. Even at this preliminary stage we can say that this is the largest and most complex temple excavated in the region in over fifty years. It will therefore provide fresh evidence on issues that concern archaeologists today; issues that may have been overlooked by archaeologists in the past. One such aspect is the detailed examination of plant and animal remains so that we can determine what types of crops were stored in the temple (chick-peas seem to have been a favourite in the Iron age) and what types of animals were offered for sacrifice (so far only the shoulder joints of young sheep and goats have been found within the temple).
The Pella excavations also have the opportunity to add to our knowledge concerning changing religious practices at a crucial time in the history of the Middle East. Already several broad brushstrokes can be painted. The original Migdol temple, for example, displays the characteristics of other Canaanite temples in the region, most notably at Shechem and Hazor, indicating a uniform religious belief across the Levant. The 1350 BC reconstruction, however, has its closest architectural parallels in temples that have been excavated in the Nile delta of Egypt. At this time the New Kingdom Pharaohs of Egypt were at their height – both politically and culturally. One hundred years earlier the Pharaoh Thutmosos III had campaigned far to the north of Pella and by 1350 BC the general region of Pella is nominally under the control of Egypt. While there is no evidence of direct Egyptian occupation at Pella, the temple design is perhaps indicative of the dominant cultural, and religious, trends of the day. In turn, the Iron age temple, by its change in orientation and impoverished construction, could indicate the breakdown of a common religious iconography in the region, and with the collapse of New Kingdom Egypt, the political and economic fragmentation of the Levant into small, and poor, city-states.
The 2003 Season
In early 2003 a further season at Pella revealed further evidence about the fascinating chronology of the temple. The major surprise came in the centre of the temple where a few deposits and pits still needed to be excavated. As this work progressed a thick white plaster floor was revealed. This floor was cut by the massive building of the Migdol Temple and so it must be earlier, in all probability the floor of an earlier temple on the site. The pottery associated with this floor indicates an early Middle Bronze age date (c. 2000 BC). This earlier temple was associated with with a series of plaster-lined bins to its south. These bins contained pottery vessels presumably used in a temple ritual, probably funerary meals. With the large Migdol Temple, and now this earlier phase of temple architecture, it appears that we are excavating in the religious precinct of Pella.
The 2003 season also further explored associated deposits to the south and west of the temple. Trenches in these areas revealed additional evidence of the 800 BC destruction of the settlement, probably by a destructive earthquake. In one trench a cache of Iron age pottery vessels were found crushed on the floor of a house giving good evidence of the sudden and through nature of this destruction.
At the end of the 2003 season all deposits associated with the construction or use of the Migdol Temple had been investigated. This ends over nine years of careful archaeological work into this building. What remains now is to further explore the buildings that existed to the exterior of the temple and to perhaps further investigate the earlier phases of architecture beneath the temple.
Ben Churcher, Astarte Resources
Further Information: For more on the Pella Project, please visit:
The Pella Project