Archaeology in Lebanon – Digging between Politics and Practicalities – Marshall Schurtz

September 11, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

Archaeology in Lebanon is a fascinating but nearly untapped resource. Decades of political strife created difficult conditions for archaeologists and limited the opportunities for excavations. Like much of the archaeology in the Middle East, the heyday of massive excavations took place during the period of European colonization in the region, as the central governments allowed and encouraged work. The Penn Museum’s own affiliated excavations at Ur (1922-1934) were a perfect example of these excursions. Around the same period Maurice Dunad conducted large-scale excavations at the famous Phoenician port city of Byblos on the Lebanese coast. His work uncovered a great number of buildings and thousands of years of occupation but the speed of his excavations did not allow for detailed studies. Today, the Byblos excavations remain the most extensive record of ancient life in the Levantine state of Lebanon, despite the deficit of information. For decades, archaeology in Lebanon ground to a standstill because of the horrendous civil war (1975-1990) that ravaged the nation. In the last decades, since the peace process brought together previous enemies, archaeology has reemerged anew, albeit slowly. Despite the reports of violence and seemingly imminent descent into chaos again, the country remains together and scholars are continuing their work.

View of Byblos, Excavated out in 2015
View of Byblos, excavated out in 2015, Photo Credit: Author

This summer I journeyed to the north of Lebanon to work on a project excavating a small, Bronze Age site, Tell Fadous-Kfarabida. It is a joint project between Columbia University and the American University of Beirut (AUB). My own attachment to the project began during my semester abroad at AUB where I studied with one of the directors, Dr. Hermann Genz. From there I learned about the work being done and acquainted myself with the country. Tell Fadous-Kfarabida is a small site, only about 1 hectare, with occupation limited mainly to the Bronze Age. Despite its small size and its lack of a port, the architecture and artifacts at the site show considerable elite influences that would not be expected at a site of this type. Importantly, Tell Fadous-Kfarabida is only 15 km north of Byblos, which probably put it in the same kingdom or sphere of influence as that city. Iconography at the two sites confirms this, and the continued excavation at this site is instrumental to filling in the gaps about Byblos and Lebanon.

Najaf Square in Beirut
Najaf Square in Beirut, Photo Credit: Author

Getting to the site of Tell Fadous-Kfarabida is an adventure in itself. For all of us archaeologists arriving in Lebanon, we enter through Beirut at its international airport. Beirut is a bustling and colorful city that mirrors the country that it governs. From the urban capital of this small nation of almost 5 million we head north along the coast. The northern coast has long been the center of Christian life in Lebanon, and driving along the major highway we see the change from mosques and churches to almost exclusively churches. Nestled between the mountains that abut the sea are hundreds of little villages dotting the coast, two of which are Faodous and Kfarabida. The site, Tell Fadous-Kfarabida, lies between these two villages and is less than 100 meters from the cliffs of the coast. This site is an extreme contrast from my previous summer working in the dry mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Completely foreign to my previous experience, our accommodations were located in a hotel, mere steps from the beautiful waters of the Mediterranean. Sitting and watching the waves, one can easily forget that not far away refugees are suffering and armies fight their battles to decide who controls what territory. My focus is instead on massive walls, possibly fortifications, that ringed the ancient site thousands of years ago. Over four weeks of excavation, we uncovered clues to help fill in the archaeological gap that the realities of politics in the region have let grow.