Pella is located in the eastern foothills of the north Jordan valley, around five kilometres east of the Jordan River in the modern-day Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It overlooks the north/south road that runs up the Jordan Valley, as well as the east/west trade route west down the Jezreel Valley to the coast at Haifa. Verdant agricultural flatlands stretch away to the north of the site, and broken uplands well suited to horticulture rise sharply to the east. The high cone-shaped largely natural hill of Tell Husn dominates the southern approaches to the site.
Around eight hectares
Lying at around 60 metres below sea level, the rectangular flat-topped 400 x 200m main mound of Pella (Khirbet Fahl) stands approximately 30 metres high, and occupies an area of around eight hectares at its greatest extent. The largely natural hill of Tell Husn overtops the main mound by more than 60 metres at its flattened summit, adding perhaps another hectare to the occupied area at various periods in history. A copious natural spring (the Ain al Jirm) empties into the Wadi Jirm at various places along the lower south side of the main mound. Roadways wind their way up from the Jordan Valley roads via the Wadi Jirm to the upland plateau, some running south around Husn to the spectacular Roman ruins of Jerash, and north west across the Jordan river via long-lived Beth Shan to the coast at modern-day Haifa. Pella is surrounded by rich, well-watered agricultural lands, strategically located at the crossroads of two major trade routes, and easily defended. Unsurprisingly, it has one of the longest unbroken sequences of occupation in the entire Jordan Valley.
The landscape surrounding the main mound is rich in archaeological remains stretching back deep into the Palaeolithic period. The first trace of hominid occupation dates from the Lower Palaeolithic, around 250,000 years ago. Survey and excavation in the Wadi Hammeh, five kilometres north of the main mound, have recorded a long sequence of Middle (80,000-40,000) and Upper (35,000-20,000) Palaeolithic campsites in the hills surrounding Pella. The famous Epipalaeolithic village site of Wadi Hammeh 27 (14,000 years old) marks the first permanent settlement in the region. Thereafter the landscape gradually begins to fill, with small Neolithic villages, walled Bronze and Iron Age settlements, Hellenistic and Roman villas, and Byzantine wine and olive production sites the dominant features. Cemeteries of all periods dot the landscape, occasionally free-standing and stone-built, but mostly cut into the flanks of the exposed hillsides. By the late Byzantine period (ca. 550 AD) the landscape must have been very densely occupied and intensively farmed.
Mentioned in over 100 ancient texts
The various settlements at Pella have been mentioned in over 100 ancient texts, first in Egyptian Execration Texts of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1800 BC), and thereafter ever more frequently in Egyptian, Greek and Roman sources. The ancient site was revealed to western scholarship in the early 19th century by the English travellers Irby and Mangles in a visit to the site in early 1818. Modern Tabaqat Fahl was identified with ancient Pella of the Decapolis by the American historical geographer Edward Robinson, when he visited the site in spring 1852. The final link in the chain of identification was forged by William Foxwell Albright during a visit to the site in winter 1924, when he recovered the surface ceramic evidence of a long Bronze Age occupation, allowing him to equate the well-known Egyptian toponym of Pihil with Greek Pella.
A short 10-day probing of the main mound occurred in 1958, when the Americans Funk and Richardson sampled the extensive Classical and Late Antique strata on top of the main mound while recovering enough pre-Classical pottery to confirm Albright’s surmise about a long pre-Classical occupation. This latter was highlighted soon after by two seasons of Jordanian rescue excavations in 1963-64 which uncovered 15 surprisingly rich Bronze Age tombs. Full-scale excavations commenced in March 1967 when Robert Houston Smith of Wooster College, Ohio, carried out a single season of investigations among the Classical remains to the west and east of the main mound before the Arab-Israeli war of that year halted all further fieldwork until the late 1970s.
History of Excavation: The First Twenty Years (1979-1999)
The Pella Excavation Project began life 30 years ago as a joint mission between the College of Wooster, Ohio and the University of Sydney. When conditions normalised in the Jordan Valley in 1977, Wooster director Smith invited Sydney Professor J. Basil Hennessy to join him in a return to the site. In conjunction with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, Wooster and Sydney excavated together between 1979-85, Sydney digging in the winter months (December-February) and Wooster in the spring (March-May). After the 1985 field seasons, Wooster completed their field program, and since that time Sydney has continued excavations alone.
The Sydney program of work at Pella has changed emphasis over the course of the 30 years of excavation, beginning (1979-85) with a thorough sampling of all major horizons from the Lower Palaeolithic through to the early Ottoman periods on and near the main mound, before moving into more extensive excavation of select horizons (1986-90), along with the first investigation of major hinterland sites. Between 1992-97 work concentrated on prehistoric horizons (ca. 6000-2000 BCE) on the main mound and on Tell Husn, and since 1997 work has centred on the Bronze Age Fortress Temple Complex and associated structures.
Excavations in the Temple Precinct (1999-2009)
The massive stone Fortress Temple was first detected in 1994, delineated between 1994-97, and ever more intensively excavated from 1999 onwards as it became clear that the entire temple precinct was largely undisturbed since its final destruction around 800 BC. Fragments of six distinct phases of temple architecture are preserved one on top of the other, giving evidence for some form of cult practice in this one area for well over 1000 years (ca. 1900-800 BC). At least three of the temples had suffered destruction by fire with each destruction acting to seal distinct (and largely complete) assemblages of cultic paraphernalia in situ. This remarkable preservation has already produced a host of beautiful cult furniture, including Egyptian stone statue fragments, painted ceramic cultic vessels, bronze figurines and furniture fittings, glass plaques, gold jewellery and lapis and other polished stone beads, carved wood and ivory box or furniture inlays, along with a number of rich foundation, votive and destruction deposits. We outline key architectural findings and some of the more spectacular and intriguing finds below. Work is on-going and all conclusions are preliminary and tentative.
Early Mudbrick Temples (ca. 1900-1650 BC)
At the beginning of the sequence we have exposed fragments of two small Middle Bronze Age mudbrick temples. The earliest (the Green Mudbrick temple) was built around 1900 BC. A second temple (the Brown Mudbrick Temple) was constructed around 1750 BC, slightly larger but on broadly the same alignment. The two small mudbrick temples were in use for perhaps 200 years. These small but carefully-constructed mudbrick structures probably ranged between seven and 10 metres in overall dimensions, going on contemporary finds at Tell el Hayyat, Tell Kittan and Nahariyeh, the first two sites close by Pella in the Jordan Valley, with the third located on the coast.
Materials connected with these small temples are very fragmentary but include many tiny flecks of gold foil, faience and wooden inlays, fragments of tiny ivory statuettes, and an enigmatic half-sphere of bitumen with impressions on the flat side suggesting use as a structural fitting. All these very small fragments may have been offering debris but equally could be structural residues, as each small temple appears to have been ‘cut down’, ritually decommissioned and filled in with its own fabric debris before new structures were built on top of earlier constructions.
The Stone Fortress/Migdol Temple (ca. 1650-1500 BC)
The two small temples were all very badly cut about by the major construction that dominates the entire temple precinct, that of the massive stone and mudbrick Fortress or Tower temple, which was laid out across the top of the two preceding structures some time around 1700 BC. Dry stone walls between two and three metres thick, in places preserved to a height of four metres, were laid over massive intentional fill layers of stone and rubble mix, in their western end, up to four metres thick. These terrace/fill layers were brought in to expand and level up the natural eminence on which the smaller mudbrick temples had been placed.
The first phase of the stone temple consisted of a large hollow rectangular (22 x 16m) box construction with two projecting solid stone piers (antae) flanking the east doorway. Perhaps 100 years later (ca. 1600 BC) the structure was modified. An internal cross-wall was constructed across the western end of the hollow rectangle, creating a delineated ‘Holy of Holies’. At this time the entire eastern end of the temple was remodelled. Two large hollow stone towers were constructed over the cut-down antae, and the eastern wall reinforced and laterally buttressed externally to accommodate the weight stress of the high towers.
The south Levantine Fortress or Migdol form is normally thought to derive from the Syrian EB/MB anten-temple form, which featured a simple hollow square to rectangular structure equipped with two external solid square buttresses projecting to flank a single entrance from the east. The original temple design seems to have been a simple ‘hollow-box’ arrangement, in which a large enclosed but otherwise featureless space was created, perhaps to be viewed as the dwelling place of a numinous aniconic deity. The absence of a formal cult niche, any central focus of worship, cultic paraphernalia or offering debris inside the building was striking.
Although no cult offerings were detected within the structure, they were found in abundance within a small but carefully constructed mudbrick building located some five metres south of the stone temple. Two rows of three square plaster-lined (and sealed) mudbrick bins set into the floor of this mudbrick repository contained collections of miniature offering vessels (bowls, jugs and funnels), along with exquisite alabaster cups and gypsum rams-head handled bowls, burnished juglets and carinated bowls. A series of stone-lined plaster-sealed water-collection pits were uncovered, too, and found to be linked together via mud-plaster sealed ceramic piping. These discoveries suggest this southern area was the venue for libation ceremonies, perhaps of a funerary nature, given the presence of miniature ceramic funnels in the plaster bins. Elsewhere in cemeteries at Megiddo and at Pella itself, full-sized funnels were found inserted in the soil above tombs, very probably employed in the care and feeding of the ancestors.
The alteration in the temple form at Pella (and arguably at Shechem, Megiddo and Hazor in Israel) bespeaks a fundamental change in the relationship between god and human, a sharpening of the sacred/profane dichotomy, with worshippers now very definitely screened off from the god. Although speculative, this may herald a formal change in religious observance, switching from the remote numinous figure of El/Dagan, Father of the gods, to his son, the martial storm god Baal/Hadad. Ugaritic religious epics document the triumph of Baal in a war between the gods, generally interpreted as recording the spread of Baal worship throughout MB/LB period Canaan. Although few Late Bronze Age temples contain unambiguous evidence on ownership, when rare inscriptions or more copious textual evidence does exist, it speaks mostly of Baal or Hadad. Archaeologically, male iconography predominates.
Accounting for such a profound change in religious practice is fraught with difficulty. One possible explanation would link the spread of Baal worship with the documented spread of the Hurrian peoples and their distinctive religious beliefs. Hurrian names become a noticeable presence in the roster of north Syrian peoples from the later years of the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2300 BC). They spread throughout Syria in the later Middle Bronze Age and began to infiltrate southern Canaan early in the Late Bronze Age. It is worth remembering that the Egyptians claimed it was precisely such a movement of Hurrian Mitanni that triggered Thutmosis III’s first military campaigns, which ultimately brought much of south/central Canaan (including western Jordan) under Egyptian control for the first time.
The Egyptianising Temple (ca. 1350-1150 BC)
The relatively relaxed supervision of the Thutmosid empire in Canaan began to change in the challenging circumstances that developed in the wake of the Hittite conquest of much of the north/central Levant from a weakening Mitanni around 1350 BC. This provoked a thorough reform of the Egyptian Imperial administration, and at sites like Pella on the newly-militarised frontier, we gain some impression of the ‘footprint’ of the new Egyptian administration, as both ‘hard power’ (armies and fortresses) and ‘soft power’ (cultural assimilation) were brought to bear on the hitherto under-regulated peripheries.
In the temple area at Pella, an Amarna-period earthquake (ca. 1350 BC) severely damaged the structure, crushing/warping major weight-bearing walls and probably collapsing the towers. A major refurbishment was undoubtedly required, but the form it took is revealing of the greater cultural and political changes at work. The entire temple was cut down to its stone footings and the northern third of the structure levelled off, perhaps as part of a sacred garden. A completely new north wall was constructed six metres south of the original. The reformed structure now formed a much narrower 18 x 12 metre rectangle. The internal division on the line of the Holy of Holies was retained, but a much grander formal entrance to the inner chamber was created by the laying of basalt slab threshold stones, and positioning basalt column bases to flank the entrance. A central line of massive pillars also held up the now certainly roofed cella. The large hollow-square towers of the preceding structure were not rebuilt. The effect was to create a colonnaded antechamber and a grander entrance to the Holy of Holies. Inside the Holy of Holies, a thick yellow plaster floor was laid over a series of distinct foundation deposits featuring miniature faience plaques, semi-precious stone beads in agate, lapis and amethyst, round glass plaques, faience cylinder seals and Aegeab ceramic cups. These foundation deposits have close parallels in Egyptian temples and underline the changing cultural orientation of the priestly elites at Pella.
In the newly colonnaded antechamber the floors were destined to become honey-combed with offering pits over the next 200 years of unbroken use. Some pits contain fragments of exquisite Egyptian statuary. One very fine example of a quarter-size scribal figure in Aswan granite is of the finest workmanship, and probably came from an Imperial workshop in Egypt. Copper alloy figurines of the so-called ‘smiting god’ form illustrate traditional offerings, while finely wrought copper furniture fittings, miniature harpoons, faience ‘Kassite buckets’, glass and green jasper scarabs, copper cymbals and several sets of scale pans and weights (for incense offerings?) underline the diversity of the offerings. A large and diverse collection of specialised ceramic offering vessels are present within this offering mix. They include kidney-shaped bowls, jars and jugs painted with the ‘tree of life’ motif, a number of ring kernoi (hollow tyre-shaped vessels with multiple openings) and several stunningly decorated cylindrical fenestrated cult stands. Together they make up the richest collection of offerings recovered from a temple context in the last 50 years. In tandem with the analysis of large collections of animal bones and botanical samples, the study of these rich offering assemblages will provide us with a wealth of knowledge into the particulars of cultic practice at Pella through the ages, while hopefully offering insights into similar practices documented in the textual sources of the surrounding lands.
The final ‘Egyptianising’ temple did not survive the general destruction of Pella at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Although we believe that an earthquake was the cause of the fiery destruction which buried the entire site below over a metre of debris, we cannot as yet absolve the enigmatic ‘Sea Peoples’ of all responsibility as this is precisely the time that their destructive presence is felt along the coastal plains (ca. 1200/1150 BC). When the dust settles in and around Pella, we are in the changed circumstances of the early Iron Age. The Egyptian empire has fallen, and new peoples and cultures are soon to coalesce into the groups that will later become familiar to readers of the Bible. At Pella a new temple rises directly on top of the Bronze Age Holy of Holies, but constructed on a completely different ground-plan (indirect access) signalling another profound change in culture, religious observance and – just possibly) – population. We plan to investigate the early phases of the MBA mudbrick temple sequence in our forthcoming 2011 field season, while expanding exploration across a large open courtyarded structure west of the temple, that looks more and more likely to be the long sought-after palace of Bronze Age Pella. But that is definitely a story for another day.
Dr. Stephen Bourke a Research Associate at the Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation of the University of Sydney, is a Near Eastern archaeologist and has worked on numerous international archaeological projects since 1980. He currently directs the Sydney University excavations at Pella in Jordan, and has done so since 1992. Previously he led four seasons of renewed excavations at Chalcolithic Teleilat Ghassul, Jordan, between 1994-99. His interests centre on the Neolithic beginnings of urban life through to the end of the pre-Classical Iron Age in the Levant (ca. 6500-300 BC). He has written or contributed to over 50 publications. Current research projects include work arising out of ongoing excavations at Pella. He is completing a monograph on Sydney University work at Chalcolithic Teleilat Ghassul and working on another based on his Doctoral work on British excavations at Tell Nebi Mend, ancient Qadesh on the Orontes. Connected with this earlier work, he is now researching the Second Millennium BC settlement history of the Homs region for the University of Durham’s central Syrian Homs regional survey.
Over the last fifteen years the Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation in conjunction with the Pella Excavation Project have provided members of the general public with an opportunity to work on the University of Sydney’s excavations at Pella in Jordan. People of all ages and backgrounds have been able to experience the unique atmosphere of working on an archaeological dig. We will further investigate the large Bronze Age temple (ca. 1900-800 BC) on the main mound, continue searching for the Roman Imperial temple (ca. 150-200 AD), and explore the newly discovered Hellenistic (ca. 83 BC) destruction level on Tell Husn.
Each volunteer spends three weeks with the excavation team living on site at our dig-house. Half a volunteer’s time is spent excavating in a trench with an experienced archaeologist, assisting them with the dig work. The other half is spent in the house, helping with the cleaning, description, cataloguing and packing of delicate objects, as well as assisting the conservators, photographers, illustrators, surveyors and specialist analysts (e.g. botanists and zoologists) as needed, when they process and study most finds from the field.
Website for more details: http://sydney.edu.au/arts/sophi/neaf/excavations/index.shtml