Birzeit, Palestine: I don’t mind if I do

N.B. Out of respect to the fact that this work is currently unpublished, I feel obliged to leave out one or two cool things and generally gloss over the details – apparently there are risks of vandalism and theft at the site so I will not specify the name or location.  When the publication comes out, relatively soon, it’s my understanding that it’ll be publicly available so rest assured I’ll bring it up again.

Wandering through the Ramallah Museum I strike up a conversation with the friendly curator (one of the first words I learn in every language is ‘archaeologist’: I’m still at that early stage where I’m giddy with the concept of calling myself one.  “Al-attar”, I routinely mispronounce).

“I’ve been travelling around,” I say, “looking for digs.  I hear field season’s over in Palestine now though.”

“Actually,” he says, smiling, “I know a guy.”

So the dig I’ve wangled my way onto is courtesy of Birzeit University, Birzeit – a university town some ten minutes out of Ramallah.  Dr. Hamid Saleh is leading the excavations here at this early Byzantine village (i.e. before the Islamic conquest in the mid-seventh century), as an opportunity to train his large number of students, ranging from first years to Masters students.  Some of them are first-timers on site, whilst others have seen it all.  In-house excavations are generally like this: it’s a good model educationally, allowing students to learn as they go both under professional supervision and with the assistance of contemporaries.  I only spent a week here, but it’s better than nothing.

I find myself, for the first time in my life, supervising.  Fortunately for the data I end up supervising a desperate search for bedrock that comes up empty.

My main square, before I failed to find rock.  Personally I blame whoever built the terraces on these rolling hills: everywhere else they were like ‘bedrock?  No problem!’.

Much cooler stuff is happening around the basilica.  I use basilica in the architectural sense, as structures that evolved out of the pre-Christian Roman Period into the default style for Orthodox buildings after the adoption of Christianity.  Often relatively modest things, the one we’ve got here is no more than 10 x 20m in area, but it’s very well preserved and is frankly really nice.  This has all been done before I got here, in the space of three weeks: for supposedly new students they know how to work.

Incidentally, this is all geometric mosaics under there.  It’s a real shame you can’t see them.

This view is running along the nave of the church away from the altar, before the recovery of the mosaics ,which will be reburied under breathable material and sand just in case someone else wants a look.  The atrium or open courtyard also borrowed from Roman architecture doesn’t seem to have survived but the narthex has: the narthex, an officially unconsecrated area of the church structure, was for the purpose of permitting heathens to enter the church for baptism and general ‘ooh, look at the artwork’ chicanery (the facetious jerk in me wants to call this the ‘try before you buy’ room).  These things stop appearing in structures once Christianity is dominant in an area, and as such can either be used as an upper limit for construction dates (when the Christian trajectory of a province is known) or as an insight into Christianity’s status in an area (when the construction date is known).  To make this a little easier to visualise I’ve stolen a map from Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia, a floor plan of Old St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The basilica we’ve got our hands on seems to have fewer aisles than this one – Greek and Latin churches are different long before the Schism – but balances this out with a sacristy (base for the priest) at the back, sadly collapsed along with the NE wall.  This collapse seems to me to signal the end of the settlement, probably not long after the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate and the socio-populational upheaval implied: the only indication that anything happened afterwards is the fact that the terracing stones clearly came from buildings here.

The one thing that I’m curious about is the basilica’s position relative to the rest of the settlement.  There’s been a bit of work done on an unidentified public building to the west, where most of the settlement is (a modern road runs just E of the basilica and cuts off any remains from there, but it seems that it sits on the settlement’s E edge anyway).  This itself is only halfway up the hill, but the basilica sits at the bottom.  I always thought that religious buildings went on high ground: seeing as we’ve got hints of a Roman presence maybe the structures of the time simply made this impractical.

Back on the road: stay tuned for more oversimplification and self-regarding waffle.

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