By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST NEWS Service
CORALLES, NEW MEXICO (ANS – August 15, 2017) — It’s a fascinating experience watching Drs. Steven Collins and Robert Mullins discuss ancient pottery sherds during “Ceramiganza,” the pottery analysis day for Trinity Southwest University.
I heard phrases such as MB1a, MB1b, MB2, Roman, fabrics, Levant, and Iron Age used as if they were common vernacular. I suppose for two leading Biblical archeologists the phrases and words are common, but for the uniformed the expressions sounded like a foreign language.
Dr. Steven Collins (Veritas Evangelical Seminary and Trinity Southwest University) and Dr. Robert Mullins (Azusa Pacific University) were in New Mexico to examine, discuss, and analyze the recent pottery evidence from the Tall-el Hammam excavation in Jordan, where Dr. Collins is the lead archeologist. Most scholars now accept that Tall el-Hammam is the ancient city of Sodom. Along with roughly twelve other volunteers, Dr. Collins and Dr. Mullins sifted, studied, and photographed the cadre of evidence for the elusive — but becoming more explicable — Biblical city and the history of the site centuries after its destruction in the time of Abraham.
I watched as Dr. Collins and Dr. Mullins hold up the sherds, run their fingers across them, discuss the markings, lip configurations of the jars, and the unique patterns and designs found on many of the pottery examples. At times they had casual discussions, asking if the pottery had MB1, MB2, or Iron Age characteristics — or even Roman (which a couple were). They talked aloud about the “fabric” of the pottery (fabric is the mineral and compositional makeup of the pottery). A few times they consulted a leading book on ancient pottery, The Ancient Pottery of Israel and Its Neighbors from the Iron Age through the Hellenistic Period.
It was a mini-lesson in Biblical archeology and scholarship.
And during breaks the discussion continued. Dr. Collins discussed the larger Levant archeological findings; including a recent trip he took to Italy and Crete to compare his archeological evidence with Bronze Age Minoan archeological findings. And Dr. Mullins shared with me the dig he’s leading, Tel Abel Beth Maacah in Israel, where they just unearthed a fascinating figurine of a head that may be a link to the Aramaean culture.
I’ve been covering the Tall el-Hammam dig for several years — and after each archeological season — the evidence mounts like an exciting mystery, a who-done-it of monumental significance. I was able to chat with Dr Collins about the recent dig in Jordan, getting some updates concerning Tall el-Hammam.
Dr Collins, tell me about the customs house you began to uncover a couple of seasons ago. Are there any new developments?
“We’re calling it a customs house, but we really don’t know what it is at this point, other than it looks like a small, heavy-duty government building with balance scales and weights in it, and a lot of furniture,” he says. “I’m sure that will become clearer when we widen out the Bronze Age exposure in the 2018 dig season. We had a lot of help from our local workers during this past season, so we moved a lot of dirt! We definitely have reached the MB2 destruction layer. We know this dark, ashy mixed-matrix very well from having excavated through it many, many times. This is exactly what we did in our 2014 UA.7GG probe, and we hit the MBA on the last day.
“In the next two seasons we widened that area into what is the fantastic trench in Field UA that exposed monumental MBA architecture and gobs of painted ‘palace ware’ pottery. It’s really rewarding to be in the MBA once again at the end of the 2017 season, even though it would have been nice to have the MBA palace higher up in one of the other levels. But we dig for the facts, and this is the reality of Tall el-Hammam’s stratigraphy; thus, we take what presents itself and move on from there. What a great site it is!”
“Dr Ritmeyer has provided us some history on the Hellenistic/Hasmonean and Early Roman/Herodian phases on the Tall el-Hammam’s acropolis. In ancient times, allied cities and kingdoms maintained signal-fire networks by which they could relay information quickly across vast distances. The messages were simple, of course. At night or on cloudy days messages like ‘enemy approaching’” ‘under attack,’ and ‘all clear,’ were signaled from atop towers and key elevated locations using codes flashed from large polished bronze mirrors reflecting light from signal fires. Reflecting sunlight worked well on clear days.
“A letter found at the Israelite city of Lachish reflects the march of the Babylonians through the region in the early 6th century BCE: ‘We are watching for the signal fires of Lachish, and we cannot see [the signal fires] of Azekah.’ During the Hasmonean and Herodian periods the Jews were able to signal the start of Shabbat from Jerusalem throughout the region and all the way to the Jewish population of Babylon in about ten minutes! Dr. Ritmeyer now thinks that the Hellenistic/Roman Period building atop Tall el-Hammam may have served as an important link in the Hasmonean and Herodian signal fire network.”
“Furthermore, Dr. Ritmeyer has some wonderful ideas about how our Iron Age buildings connect with Biblical history. The Iron Age ‘palace’ and fortified town guarding hundreds of silos full of grain was likely part of Solomon’s Gilead district administrative operation. So, there’s a lot of history that we’ve connected to as a result of this year’s dig. All very exciting!”
Before you left for the excavation, you told me about a possible store city connected to Tall el-Hammam. Were you able to gain any further knowledge about this?
“This season we found evidence that the Iron Age store city at Tall el-Hammam was perhaps more significant than we anticipated, perhaps even the capital of Solomon’s Gilead District. The size of the IA2 ‘palace’ and associated storage facility, along with the monumental gateway and many storage silos excavated in previous seasons, suggests a city of some importance, and not merely a garrison town,” he told me. “In archaeology you never know what you’re going to discover!”
In season’s past, you had a conundrum, what you called the “red palace.” Did this past season help shed light on the red palace?
“The period of the ‘red palace’ (RP) has been a conundrum since we got our first look at it way back in Seasons One and Two,” he replied. “Our tentative identification of it was Middle Bronze Age based on two things. First, the abundant pottery sherds used as a binding material in the mudbricks belong to the EBA, IBA, and MBA. We have yet to see any later pottery in the bricks, not even Iron Age which is plentiful across the upper tall where the building is located. Second, the Hellenistic/Roman structure built atop the acropolis was cut into and over the ‘red palace’, and another group of foundation walls built over the ‘red palace’ seemed to be of Iron Age date, and were underneath the late Hellenistic and early Roman construction. So, on the basis of stratigraphic logic and pottery, it seemed that this was a reasonable hypothesis.
“During the past three seasons we uncovered a section of the MBA palace complex slightly lower on the acropolis to the NE. This was unequivocally MB2 in date, with practically every pottery form known from that period on the floors, and lots of it. The size of the bricks was commensurate with the size of those in the RP only twenty or so rmeters to the SW. Also, there was significant fire damage to both buildings.
“This season, when we began excavating the RP we found very little pottery, except for a few kraters (large bowls with handles) and other fragments that were unfamiliar but with a grayish fabric similar to MBA vessels. Then we ‘cored’ the foundations of the RP. Among the dry-laid boulders there were several MBA diagnostic sherds, but no Iron Age or later sherds. So, no surprise there. Up to that point an MBA date for the RP was still reasonable, even preferable. Even Dr. Ritmeyer and Dr. Nigro (chief archaeologist at Jericho) saw an MBA style to the building.
“Then we started a deep probe in one of the RP rooms, and immediately Iron Age 2 pottery sherds started showing up. At almost 2m down, they were still present. Maybe it was a pit dug by IA2 folks, which they’re known to do. So I had another probe started in another RP room. Below the RP floor there was a nice cobble surface. Underneath the cobble surface, IA2 pottery starting appearing. In the first probe, which was now quite deep, the IA2 sherds were obviously going underneath the RP foundation, and also underneath the foundations of the previous phase.
“It become clear to me that the building(s) underneath the RP foundations were IA2. That meant the RP had to be later still. Since we did find a number of Hellenistic pottery sherds around the surface, and since the kraters found in the collapse of one room looked rather Hellenistic and not MBA, the picture of the RP identification changed: The ‘red palace’ belonged to the IA2 or Hellenistic Period, but no earlier. The one or two building phases underneath were IA2. In archaeology we go with the evidence, and this is what the ceramic evidence demands for the RP and the structures beneath it. The puzzle of the many walls and phases on the acropolis wasn’t entirely solved, but the RP wasn’t MBA. The other parts of the Middle Bronze Age palace was further down.”
Finally, tell me about three pottery sherds unearthed that caused you to begin re-thinking your ideas concerning the date of the ‘red palace’.
“We found three Iron Age sherds where, according to our previous theory, they shouldn’t be,” he stated. “So I called over Dr. Gary Byers and asked if he wanted the good news or the bad news first. My good news was that we weren’t languishing in a Turkish prison. The bad news was that our working hypothesis of less than 24 hours ago was in deep trouble. We now had some Iron Age sherds about a meter deeper than they should be, at least deeper than we wanted them to be!
“At first it was like a punch in the gut you didn’t see coming. On its face, it meant that the phases of the ‘red palace’ weren’t Middle Bronze Age after all, but Iron Age 2, or later. It didn’t mean we didn’t have a Middle Bronze Age palace, but simply that it was much deeper than we thought. We’d already excavated parts of it twenty or so meters to the NE. All the pottery ‘reads’ coming out of the palace phases and foundations thus far have been Bronze Age, and many MB1 and MB2. We were getting closer and closer to making what we felt was a firm call on it. Now three little Iron Age sherds had overturned the apple cart.
“All I could do for a couple of minutes was to stare blankly across Field UA, not really focusing on anything but what this meant. It was a sickening feeling. I called for Gary. I needed someone with whom to share the misery! ‘All this work for a stinking Iron Age palace?’ I didn’t really say it, but that’s what I was thinking! Deep breath.
“But then I began to think this through, trying this on for size: since the evidence came out in close proximity to a weird out-of-sync wall with the plaster slab that we’ve had trouble matching up with anything in the palace construction, maybe that ‘phase’ is a scab wall thrown up by Iron Age ‘squatters’ re-using one of the old palace rooms (then in ruins), and re-making it by adding what they needed to get a roof over their heads, and digging down to add height to it. That explains the few IA2 sherds, but did that really happen?
“There was one good way to check this theory: Dig a probe in one of the other palace rooms away from this ‘scab wall’ to see how the pottery reads at that level and even further down. Good idea. Will it work? Maybe; maybe not. It’s complicated, but in short, an Iron Age 2 or later date won out for the RP. The pottery reads this past weekend from the loci associated with the destruction of the RP confirm it. It’s now a solid conclusion that the ‘red palace’, much of which is a large warehouse annex of a palatial residence, was first built in IA2a and destroyed in IA2b-c. It’s great to finally have this worked out!”
“To say the least, this year’s dig had both frustrating and potentially game-changing finds. But that’s how it goes in archeology: boom or bust. But I’d add a third ‘B’ to this matrix—build. Based on this year’s reading of the diagnostic pottery sherds from the large building we excavated this past season, it dates to the Iron Age 2 period, and was destroyed during IA2c (7th-6th centuries BCE). Its foundations were laid in IA2a (10th century BCE), and was thus contemporary with Solomon, suggesting that the IA2 city at Tall el-Hammam was one of his major store-cities in the Transjordan. In short, what we do know is that the case for Tall el-Hammam being the ancient city of Sodom is building stronger each year. This year’s addition to the later history of the site is icing on the cake. I’m very optimistic that the forthcoming dig in 2018 will be one of our best yet.”
To learn more about the Tall el-Hammam excavation, click here: http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/biblestudyandtheology/discipleship/ans_sodom_found.aspx?mobile=false
Photo captions: 1) Dr. Robert Mullins. 2) Dr. Steven Collins. 3) Tall el- Hammam Ceramiganza. 4) Pottery from Tall el-Hammam. 5) Pottery sherds from Tall el-Hammam. 6) Discovering the Lost City of Sodom by Dr. Steven Collins. 7) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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