Sidon: 2004 season of excavation

Because Sidon was so densely built up, much of our information about Sidon’s past was for a long time largely obtained from an area on the outskirts of the city. Seven years ago, in 1998, the Lebanese Department of Antiquities authorized the British Museum to undertake research on the ancient mound in the centre of the city of Sidon. At last came the very first opportunity to systematically excavate right in the heart of the city on the northern slope of Sidon’s ancient Tell.

Important historical facts have been elucidated during our previous excavations in 1998-2003 and the sixth season in 2004 was no exception. Much new and important material has emerged about the history of Sidon and the archaeology of the Lebanon.

 

The Early Bronze Age

A domestic installation, containing a basalt basin, a limestone quern with a distinctive curved shape and a basalt mortar, dating to the latest phase of the Early Bronze Age (EBIII B), first excavated in 2001, was completed this year. A mud brick building consisting of seven rooms, which were partly used as storage space, was also further excavated. At the end of the season the Early Bronze Age level was reached in a large area revealing a substantial building with at least one large room that will be excavated next season.

 

The Middle Bronze Age

A further seventeen Middle Bronze Age burials were discovered this year bringing the total of the burials excavated to 53. Two constructed graves of warriors each containing a spearhead and dagger in addition to pottery vessels were discovered. This spear-dagger combination instead of the more common Palestinian axe-dagger grouping was found for the first time at Sidon associated with the presence of an elaborate bronze belt. The belt consisted of circular discs with concentric circle decoration pierced for attachment to a cloth or leather backing very similar to those from the Dépôts des offrandes at Byblos. Other bronze artifacts included pins and a fibula. Three burials were dug directly on top of the sand layer. Twelve further Middle Bronze Age burials of children in jars were also found. Three of them contained Egyptian scarabs as well as necklaces with semiprecious stones. Also associated with the Middle Bronze Age was an assemblage consisting of a clay oven containing very dark loose ashy fill, a small circular feature with a white plaster outer rim, the cut of a chalked-line post hole and the lower foundation of a N/S wall which abuts one of the jar burials discovered this season. A steatite scarab was also found on a MB floor. It bore an inscription: “The beloved Seth-Ba’al, lord (or master) of Iay”.

During the 2000-2001 seasons, impressive remains of a monumental building were uncovered. The building, one corner of which (the North West corner), reached 1.22 m in height was exposed this season. It is now possible to date this building to the Middle Bronze Age. The stone wall of the building is of an excellent quality measuring 1.09 m wide with large boulders on top of it belonging to a later period of the MB Age. The monumental structure and size of this wall can only indicate an important public building (found on other sites in Palestine and identified as palaces). A whole series of thin chalky clay layers (floors) were found in the north-west corner with a large rectangular block of dark clay on the floor of the eastern face of the wall. The presence of this building which we were only able to date this season and which will be further excavated in the future, corroborates the idea that “warrior burials” were not interred in open country but were near permanent settlements .

 

The Late Bronze Age

A building of which only one underground room remains, a sort of basement, was further excavated this year. Later trenches followed the lines of the walls of the building, which were apparently torn down in the mediaeval period when the ramparts and the castle were built. Of the ancient walls themselves, only the ashlar masonry of one part of the west wall is preserved. The room measures 4.60 m x 5.70 m and is 3.70 m below the contemporary surface. The floor consists of large paving stones oriented E-W. A few narrow paving stones laid N-W were found among the large ones. This building was destroyed by a fierce conflagration. It had wooden beams, which were found in a relatively good state having been carbonized; some were more than 1.05 m long. According to calibrated C-14 dating the trees from which these beams were made were grown around 1390-1120 BC. The fire collapsed deposits, some of which had been excavated in previous seasons, were removed from the basement area. This revealed packed clay mortar floor surfaces. These clay floors, which showed evidence of a burnt out central post to the building were removed to expose the limestone flags of the original floor.

A large cut appears to have been created against the northern wall by repeated burning that has gradually eroded both the clay floor layers and the underlying limestone flags. This process also appears to have damaged the internal face of the northern wall. In the course of this repeated burning attempts were made to repair the floor around the fire, and along the east and southern edges. This repair work lipped over the edge of the burning hollow. A further cut was evident in the north-west corner of the building. Its position in the corner and the large amount of pottery may perhaps indicate a type of foundation deposit.

The finds from the floor of the building consisted mainly of very fragmentary pottery. Most of the vessels are of local undecorated wares in general use; fragments of Mycenaean wares were also found. A bone spindle whorl with incised decoration was found on the floor as was a faience scarab. The base of the scarab bears an inscription with the name of an almost unknown pharaoh, Djed-kheper-re, who reigned during the Second Intermediate Period. Another steatite scarab of local make was discovered this year.

As things stand at present, there are still uncertainties over the interpretation of this large cut created against the north wall of the building. The pottery found seems at this stage contemporary with the floor material, thus eliminating the possibility of the cut having been made at a later stage. The question remains however as to the purpose of these repeated strong fires in the basement of a building which damaged very high quality flag stone as well as the internal face of the northern wall.

The 2004 season of excavation further revealed for the first time, two layers of Late Bronze Age deposits consisting of an east-west wall and in situ pottery. Further excavations are planned.

 

The Iron Age

In 2003 domestic installations with a series of plaster floors and a posthole were found. Further excavations were undertaken revealing the continuation of these floors which date back to the 5th-4th century BC.

 

Conclusion

The excavations at Sidon are of great interest for more than one reason: the archaeological complexity and richness of each stage of the development of the city is at last being revealed for the first time by benchmarks whose existence has until now only been suspected. This excavation is, after Beirut, only the second systematic urban excavation in Lebanon. The possibilities here, unlike those at Beirut, are limitless. This project is the only one of its kind in that the excavation is taking place on land expropriated by the State for the sole purpose of archaeological research.

One of the main objectives of the programme of excavation undertaken since 1998 was to elucidate the stratigraphy of Sidon in the third millennium BC. This objective has been attained, and the publication is in press. The Early Bronze Age will now be excavated level by level on a wider scale. The Middle Bronze Age period in Canaan is poorly understood. The ever-increasing database for the MB IIA has hinted about its place in the international world of the Middle Bronze Age. At Sidon, the importance of the interconnections with Crete is highlighted through the discovery of a Minoan cup firmly dated by C14 to 1950-1800 BC and considered now as being one of the earliest imports from the Mesara Plain to the Levant. The relationship between Canaan and Egypt remains of considerable interest. Several imports from Egypt to Sidon have now been identified. We are currently re-examining through each layer and with the help of the excavations undertaken by Manfred Bietak at Tell el Daba’a, Egyptian common ware fabrics imported to Sidon. The results are very exciting. They are for the first time contributing to a proper comprehensive study of the relations with Egypt as a whole. The evidence from Sidon also shows that MB IIA culture appeared suddenly in Canaan, going through several stages (6 levels of occupation) before emerging as the full-fledged urban culture of the later Middle Bronze Age (2 levels). The Late Bronze Age, until now mainly known by the building excavated since 2002 was recently found for the first time in stratigraphical layers. The Iron Age deposits of the 5th -4th century at Sidon are also found in stratified levels.

The stratigraphical sequence encountered at Sidon and the continuity of occupation is exceptional. This will undoubtedly lay the foundations for a chronological sequence for the Lebanon as a whole which is not found at present. At this stage six occupation levels have been found for the third Millennium BC, eight levels on top of the sand for the Middle Bronze Age, two levels for the Late Bronze Age and two levels for the Iron Age. The excavations further highlight the distinct independent development of coastal Phoenicia as a separate region, from both Syria and Palestine.

The scientific potential of this excavation is exceptional. In short, and without any doubt, much remains to be done at Sidon.

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