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Uncovering 10 years of archaeological history in Lebanon

New book details what excavation projects have revealed

It's been almost 15 years since Lebanon's bloody civil war came to an end with the Taif Accord. In that time much of the country has been rebuilt with new roads, buildings and infrastructure emerging in all the major cities especially the capital.

Yet as important as the reconstruction has been for Lebanese citizens today it has had an equally important effect for the Lebanese citizens of the past - or rather what it tells us about the people who lived in this land thousands of years ago.

As buildings have been torn down and foundations dug for new edifices countless archaeological sites have been found revealing new facts and confirming already-known theories about the nation's past.

Now for the first time all the postwar archaeological discoveries have been collected in a new book published by the Lebanese-British Friends of the National Museum with the aid of Byblos Bank, ADIR, Assurances Banques Populaires Francaises and the Philippe Jabre Association and launched yesterday in Beirut.

"Decade - A Decade of Archaeology and History in The Lebanon 1995-2005," edited by Claude Doumet Serhal in collaboration with Annie Rabate and Andrea Resek, contains photographs, maps and detailed essays on numerous historical sights in the country and all the digs that have occurred since the end of the civil war.

"This is the only book that summarizes 10 years of archaeological achievement in this country," explains Serhal, an archaeologist and friend of the National Museum. "It is important because it offers to the general public, for the first time, an idea of what has been achieved in Lebanon's ancient sites since the end of the war.

"The book also aims to present a scientific study of one of two big symbols associated with Lebanon: the purple [the ancient dye made from the shells of murex mollusks so prized in the ancient world] and the Cedar. We also added some general articles by nineteenth century travelers, painters, and collectors."

The 12 archaeological excavations documented in "Decade" - Tyre, Tell, Rachidieh, Sidon, Eshmun, Shhim, Beirut, Byblos, Yanuh, Tripoli, Tell Arqa, Hourriye, The Qadisha Valley, and Kamid el-Loz - are covered by articles written in English or French by the archaeologists leading them and numerous photographs and illustrations. The essays, while sometimes highly specialized and scientific, try in the end to bring archaeology to a wider public and show, for example, the scientific value of every team and how they used new technologies and computer reconstruction to aid their work. It is a highly researched and informative book though except for a general map no real effort has been made to link the articles, and it lacks a chronological spectrum showing the evolution of these sites throughout history, which may have helped the general reader.

The 580-page book, which retails at $115, is the culmination of years of work by the Friends of the Museum and the independent journal, "Archaeology and History in the Lebanon" or AHL, set up by the friends and the General Direction of Antiquities in 1997.

"As the journal came close to its 10th anniversary the sheer volume of information that was generated from the various excavations inspired the concept of an umbrella publication bringing together and highlighting the exciting discoveries made in the last decade," says Serhal.

Some of those exciting discoveries were made in Lebanon's second city of Sidon. There, in a location near to the Soap Museum, an archaeological excavation led by the British Museum has been taking place for the last two years aiming to tell the full story of this ancient Mediterranean merchant city.

"Sidon was one of the most important metropolises of the Near East from the earliest of times. It is mentioned 38 times in the Old Testament and appears in Genesis as the oldest Canaanite city, 'the firstborn of Canaan,'" explains Serhal who is the chief archaeologist on the site.

"Moreover, the Old Testament, like Homer, often uses the term 'Sidonian' to refer to all Phoenicians. This usage shows that at a certain time Sidon was the most characteristic of Phoenician cities," she adds.

But archaeologists never had any remains of this glorious past to work with. Ever since Sidon was founded, it has been continuously occupied - people kept building on top of their ancestor's houses, new quarters were simply laid on the previous ones.

Before the British Museum excavation had started, the history of Sidon was known only from old texts.

"We now have a continuous stratigraphy [the layers of rock strata in the earth indicating age] for Sidon, from the beginning of the third millennium until the end of the second millennium around 1300-1250 B.C - the Bronze age period named as Canaanite period," says Serhal. "As for the Phoenician period (1200-333 B.C) known also as Iron Age, we have found these levels and we hope to continue to excavate them."

The work in Sidon began 10 years ago and the discoveries were continuous: clay houses unique in Lebanon, warrior's tombs, burial jars for children and adults.

"On the one hand our excavation shows the continuity of life in this city during the Canaanite period, and on the other, it shows the evolution of people and traditions," says Serhal. "We can see the functional changes in the houses and tombs. The 53 tombs that we excavated are each different. Some bodies were buried in jars, others in holes carved in sea sand that was brought into town, and others in constructed tombs. Funeral objects were deposited next to the dead - small jars, jugs, bronze weapons for the warriors and jewelry for children."

All these objects, together with other pottery are today in the custody of the General Direction of Antiquities.

The latest and most important discovery was made this year - a monumental building dating back to the end of the second millennium. The floor is covered with carved stones, leading to a hole full of ashes. A big fire was built in this place for a long period. Could it be a burning altar for sacrifices or offerings? Is this building a temple of a Canaanite god?

"We cannot judge yet," says Serhal, "but we will study the ashes and send it for a Carbon 14 test in order to give it a definitive date, and the continuing excavation will help us determine the function of this building."

The study of the pottery or small objects discovered on this site has permitted archaeologists to define the relationship between this city and other "metropolises" of the Mediterranean Sea. For example, the relationship between Sidon and Egypt is confirmed by the discovery of scarabs (beetles) found in the tombs. And the unearthing of a Minoan cup has revealed that trade relations between the Levantine coast and the Aegean World existed in the nineteenth century B.C.

"The discovery is important because this is the earliest Minoan cup found in the Levantine cost," says Serhal.

The work of the Sidon excavation, which is jointly funded by the Lebanese General Department of Antiquities, the British Museum, the British Academy, the Council for British Research in the Levant, as well as the Hariri Foundation, Byblos Bank and Nokia Lebanon is not limited to the Soap Museum site but has been extended to the Old town.

Parallel to the fieldwork, a series of core samples were taken from the old city to Aix En Provence University in France where they were studied in an attempt to find the outer limits of the ancient harbor. The result was that for the first time the size and limits of ancient Sidon were known in full.

"Sidon was always known as a harbor city. Until today we never knew where the old port really was. We have located this port in what is known today as the old town," says Serhal.

Serhal and her co-workers hope to make this site accessible to the public so everyone can enjoy the knowledge and fascination of history.

"Basically, this is what we work for. The excavation in Sidon can be seen as a role model to promoting Lebanon's rich cultural heritage," she says.

"Decade - A Decade of Archaeology and History in The Lebanon 1995-2005," is available in all good bookshops at $115.

Beirut,11 22 2004
Joanne Farkakh
The Daily Star
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