Velvet Megiddo

Megiddo 2.jpg

Tell al-Mutesellim (biblical Megiddo) turns iridescent when struck by the sun. The ruin-mound of approximately 26 cities has experienced many builders, winters, and excavators over the course of thousands of years.

Pictured here is the eastern opening of a deep trench dug by Schumacher and the German Oriental Society at the beginning of the 20th century. Debris piles, also swathed in green, step down to the Jezreel Valley (Merj ibn-Amir) below.

While rain-showers are possible in the Spring, these are lovely days to visit Israel/Palestine.

Image by Bible Land Explorer Jess Poettker.


Interested in crafting an adventure of your own in the Land of the Bible? We work with church pastors, administrators, and college professors to customize trips to meet specific educational/ministerial needs. Shoot me a note at to discuss the possibility or consider joining one of our planned excursions listed here.

Moses and his seat

Dr Moses of High Point University humored me today by posing beside a replica of "the seat of Moses." This famous artifact, cut from a single block of basalt, was found at the site of Chorizim (Khirbet Karazeh), Israel. Today it can be seen just inside the door of the reconstructed synagogue.

On Jordan's Stormy Banks

The Wadi Kharrar intersects the Jordan River about five miles north of the Dead Sea. As pictured, tourists, worshippers, and the curious are permitted down to this famous river that serves as an international border. 

Weekend wandering

Weekends are a precious commodity when working an archaeological site. For some diggers, the weekend is a time to relax, rehydrate, and escape the sun. For others, it is a perfect opportunity to explore the country beyond the 5 x 5 meter square. For several summers, I had the pleasure of rambling with Matt Grey (now Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU). On this day we hunted flints in the eastern desert of Jordan, not far from al-Harrana.

Partners in grime

M.J. and Julia commanded the effort in Square 3 in the 2011 "Megiddo East" excavations. Note the strategy of excavating within a grid marked out by string and established for purposes of dig-control. I'll never forget how the heavy clay soil surface of the Jezreel Valley made for a challenging (and blister-making) start-up for every square.

Dido's city

On a wet winter morning I ascend a hill to view Dido's city. It is Carthage, mighty Carthage.

The name made Rome tremble.

Her ships were the gliders of the Mediterranean. Her merchants, the dealers of enterprise. Her iniquities (whispered by washerwomen along the Tiber), were without peer, feculent.

I pull at my jacket.

From the Byrsa I gaze across the Gulf of Tunis. The grey mounts of Cap Bon cower in the squalls.

Druze workmen at Dan

Workmen at Tell el-Qadi (Tel Dan), Israel, probe the stone ramparts on the northern edge of the site. Fortifications from many periods are in abundance in this frontier town. The ramparts being probed here are proto-Canaanite, hailing back to the Early Bronze Age. They are roughly contemporaneous with the great pyramids of Egypt. 

Note the square blocks to the right of the standing men. These are a part of the infamous "high place" at Dan (Area T-1) which was constructed in the Iron Age.

I shot this image in the summer of 1989.

Beyond field work

Field excavation is only the first of many steps in the archaeological process. Less glamorous, but equally important is the hard work of data selection, description, analysis, interpretation, presentation, and publication. Materials gathered in a single season may take years, if not decades, to reach the public eye.

Here Vicki uses calipers to record measurements from a collection of Early Bronze Age ceramic materials excavated by an American team at Tell Ta'annek (biblical Taanach) in the 1960s. The collection is housed at the Palestinian Institute of Archaeology in Birzeit, Palestine.

I shot this during our 1996-1997 sabbatical.

Hasa panorama

Members of the Abila Expedition (1986) get a view to the Wadi al-Hasa. Like many teams in the field, the Abila group often traveled on weekends to explore other parts of Jordan. Here, they take in the view from the north rim of one of the Middle East's "Grand Canyons." The Wadi al-Hasa is believed to be the biblical Zered. It carries runoff from the highlands of Transjordan into the Dead Sea.

Leaders from that season pictured here include Wilkie Winter (left with hat), Horace Hummel (center, plaid shirt) and Jack Lee (right with yellow cap).


A trinity temple

The Roman street leads the explorer through the forum of Thugga (Dougga, Tunisia). Just ahead rises one of three temples still standing on the site. The Capitolium is an elegant structure fronted by a colonnaded porch. It was dedicated to Rome's trinity: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Construction was likely completed 166-167 AD. 

Walk under it

Even in Thugga, on the edge of the Empire, the Roman fingerprint is unmistakable. I stand before a triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Alexander Severus in AD 228. Compared to other decorative structures, this one is relatively simple. It consists of two pylons linked by single arch that spanned the ancient road linking the city to Carthage and Tébessa. Fluted pilasters reach skyward. Between them are niches, like shuttered windows.

The local name for the gate is Bab er-Roumia or "Gate of the Christian Woman." There is evidently a story here, but I don't know it.

Arches like these were iconic in the New Testament world and beyond. They were built in prominent places for honorific and propagandistic purposes. 


It was not always so quiet

The sun follows a shower and falls on the theater of ancient Thugga (Dougga), Tunisia. Built in the middle of the second century AD, time has been kind to these stones. The cavea is well preserved. 3,500 rowdy souls gathered here to listen, sing, and laugh.

I take my seat among them, alone.

That smalltown charm

The remains of Thugga (or Dougga) are sprinkled across the velvet hills of north-central Tunisia. The site is remote and rural; UNESCO touts it as “the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa."* 

From a Roman perspective, Thugga rests on the southern fringe of the empire. Before its annexation into the Latin fold, however, it was at the center of of tribal kingdom known as Numidia. Curiously, this name is drawn from the Greek Nomades, or "nomads."** The Numidians are legendary as animal breeders and trainers. The Romans remember them as excellent horsemen.

At its height, the population of Thugga numbered between five and ten thousand persons. 


*For a fuller description of Dougga, have a look at UNESCO's World Heritage page here.

**Pliny the Elder is less gracious. See his comments on the country of the Numidians here.

Hydrothermal karst speleogenesis. Yeah, I said it.

My geologist road dawgs talk like this all the time. For the rest of us, it is the process that creates a hot spring like this one.

The site is known as Korbous; it is located on Cap Bon, Tunisia. Here, hot, mineral-rich waters bubble up from the roots of the mountain and tumble back down into the Mediterranean. Such places are rare and therefore attract curious tourists, spa-seeking-bathers, and some serious algal growth (translation: slime).

This has been true for a long time. The Romans called the place Aquae Calideae Carpitanae and built baths here. One could go and sit in the 130 degree water after oiling down and scraping up. A first century inscription (now lost) was even mounted in the wall of one such building. It identified the benefactor (see source here).

"Decimus Laelius Balbus, son of Decimus, praetorian quaestor, had steam baths, a scraping room and a sun terrace built."

For Bible Lands Explorers, Korbous may evoke memories of Pamukkale ("Cotton Castle"), Turkey (adjacent to the ruins of ancient Hierapolis). As in Korbous, the mineral-laden water leaves a thick coat of white deposits on the rocks.

Bathe with a buddy

Among the more amazing features of many Punic Kerkouane residences are the private baths. This one is particularly elaborate. Note the flecks on the floor. That is a sure sign of opus signinum or "fancy linoleum" (for more, see here). The tub is in the style of baignoire à sabot, suggesting a seated, rather than a reclining affair. I'm just guessing now, but this one looks like a two seater. Note how the bottom of the tub is raised to create the seats. The construction also minimizes water use and maximizes space in this small room. The third basin (closest to the camera is raised still higher, perfect for face or hand washing or washing a child. All are rose-stained for a lovely effect.

Don't you feel squeaky clean now?

There she goes again

Cement floors are not the only place where the Tanit symbol lingers at Kerkouane. She also appears on architectural fragments. Note the stone fragment with bas relief (on the right) on display at the local museum. See the crude figure composed of a circle, a line, and a triangle? Compare it with the figure posted yesterday here. What is new in this presentation is the image of a crescent moon (?) beside or above her crossbar "arms." The combination of the Tanit symbol and the crescent moon is not unusual. Typically, though, she isn't gripping it in jai alai mode; it hovers above her head like a crown.

Tanit is believed by many to be the Punic presentation of the fertility goddess. In Near Eastern contexts, she is Astarte or Ishtar or even Asherah. These matters get gummy (no doubt!) as one moves cross-culturally, but you really shouldn't be surprised to find this new old lady doing the shay-shay on Punic floors. The Phoenicians lugged Baal Hammon from one end of the Mediterranean to the other and gave him a fresh start; why not his babycake as well? 

I placed my ball-point pen in the shot for scale.

In case you are wondering, reading Brian R. Doak's, Phoenician Aniconism in Its Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern Contexts (SBL Press, 2015) is on my to-do list. Maybe it should be on yours too?


Fancy floors

Yesterday I posted an image and briefly described an excavated house at the site of Kerkouane (see here). Today, I take you to the courtyard inside a house and note two things about the floor.

First, recognize the lovely example of opus signinum. This construction technique is common to Roman Italy--and even draws its name from an Italian site--but in fact, is believed to have originated here in North Africa (the same is true of mosaics in general). Opus signinum is a term used to describe a concrete made by grinding tiles or pottery to powder, mixing it with lime to create a slurry, then pouring and pounding it into place on a gravel bed. It should be "not less than six fingers thick" cautions Vitruvius. The floor above is made in this way; note how white marble tesserae are placed into the ruddy colored matrix to create a pleasing and durable surface.

To get the "six fingers thick" comment and other details see the classic sources on ancient construction. For Pliny the Elder, go to his Natural History (35:46). Read the reference here. For Vitruvius, go to his On Architecture (7.1.1). Read forward from here

The second item of note in this image is the figure placed before the threshold of the room. This is a stylized female character believed to be Tanit, a popular deity of the Phoenician/Punic people. She is there to meet you at the door. More on her on another day.

Life happened in #4

Life happened in houses that lined the streets of ancient Kerkouane (the site is introduced here). Many of the lower courses of the walls have been preserved to a height of about two feet. Upper courses were composed of mud brick. White and colored stucco faced exterior surfaces. Each unit had a doorway and oftentimes a hall entrance leading to a central courtyard. Around this courtyard were various rooms and other features such as a bath, a well, or the base of a stair. It is assumed that the stairs led to a second floor where additional living space was found.

This is the hall entrance to one house. Note the basin (well?) to the right as one turns from the hall to the courtyard. Note also the bath area immediately to the left (only the curved lip of the tub is visible). A drain for liquid waste runs the length of the hall and back out into the street.

Archaeologists gave this dwelling its own address within the checkerboard city: it is #4 rue de l'apotropaion. Don't you wonder who lived in #4? Was the master of the house the owner or a tenant? How many persons called #4 home? Were they of local origin? Punics? Libyans? Were they fisherman, merchantmen, or agriculturalists? Did they fear/hate the Romans or did that only happen after the First Punic War? So many questions!

Don't miss the sheep grazing in the distance.

For readers interested in learning more about ancient housing layouts like this, see Birgit Tang, Delos, Carthage, Ampurias: The Housing of Three Mediterranean Trading Centers (L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2005).

Packing off Dad

In this partially preserved relief, the pious son carries his lame father while fleeing the sack of Troy. The son's name is Aeneas; the father's name is Anchises. Aeneas is guided by his mother, the goddess Aphrodite (upper left). Anchises carries a box that holds statues of the ancestral gods of Troy.

The purpose of the facade is clear: to communicate the heritage of Rome and underline provincial loyalty. According to the well-worn story, Aeneas was a Trojan hero (a grandson of its founder, in fact) who escaped the epic battle and eventually settled in Italy. His family, called the Aeneads, gave rise to the Romans. As a community foundation story, it is clever; the Romans reject the status of "newcomers" and claim a place of their own in a deep (and mythic) Mediterranean history.

Mentions of Aeneas are found in Homer's Iliad, but his story is played out fully in Virgil's Aeneid (a masterpiece of Latin literature written prior to the birth of Christ).

The detail pictured above is part of a larger set of reliefs recovered at the site of Aphrodisias, Turkey.

An archaeologist's rig? (part 3)

To be perfectly honest, I don't remember where I saw this "Safari Lunchbox." It was somewhere in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan during our 2004 season at Tell Jalul. I'm thinking it was used by one of those companies that takes dudes for desert rides. 

It is a shame that its last paint-job was applied with a nylon brush. 

The bones of this Landy are still good under all those dings and dents and missing lamps. You can tell by the way the hood proudly sports the spare. 

More musing on knobby-tyred vehicles used by archaeologists is found here.