Journey to the ancient Middle Eastern cities of Pella, Petra and Jerash with a seasoned archaeologist as your guide.


Pella, Tell Excavations, Jordan
Pella, Tell Excavations, Jordan. Image: Not supplied
© Pella Excavation Project

Discover first-hand what it's like to be an archaeologist working in the Middle East uncovering Bronze and Iron Age city walls, palaces and temples; Greek and Roman townhouses, theatres and colonnaded streets; Byzantine churches and industrial workshops; and an early Islamic cityscape brought to a sudden end by a massive earthquake.

Hear highlights from 50 years of excavations from Stephen Bourke (USYD), archaeologist and Director of the Pella Excavation Project.


We always talk about our society as a connected one, but people have been connected for a very long time. We can show that there's connections between Afghanistan, Southern Africa, the Baltics and Pella from about 2000 BC. Stephen Bourke

Sarah: Before we begin I'd like to acknowledge and pay respects to the traditional owners of the land on which the museum is located, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to any elders past, present and emerging. Welcome here tonight, everyone, to the Australian Museum. I'm Sarah, I'm a creative producer here tonight. We've got Stephen Bourke with us tonight. Some of you may know him or may know his work. So he's a Near Eastern archaeologist, he's based out of the University of Sydney. He's been working in Pella for 25 years...38, okay, got it really wrong. And he's just returned from Iran with his wife Katrina, so very well-travelled, very versed in this area. Has anyone been to Jordan? Whoa, that's a lot. Does anyone really want to go to Jordan? That's a lot as well. So okay, ask questions at the end, we've got 10 minutes, so save them up, and I'll bring up Stephen now.

Stephen Bourke: Well thanks, Sarah, and thanks to the Australian Museum for inviting me to have a bit of a chat about our work at Pella in Jordan. University of Sydney has been working at Pella since 1979. The first excavation season at Pella was in 1967 from our colleagues at Wooster College Ohio, and so at one level we celebrated our 50th birthday this year—although the Australian excavation's 40th birthday will be in the next field season in 2019. Pella in Jordan is a large, double mound site. It's located about five kilometres east of the Jordan River.

2:00

It's a significant, eight-hectare main mound that's about 14 metres thick, and there's a high hill to the south, Tell Husn, that had a fortress on it through certain parts of the site's history.

This whole area, about 25, 30 hectares, is occupied over time. One of the best springs in the Jordan valley erupts down along the south face of the site, and people have been living there more or less continuously for about the last 10,000 years. And when you look at the large tell sites that are typical of Jordan, basically if you build your houses out of mud brick, when they fall down and you level them out flat, no one in dump trucks comes along to remove the debris and so you build the next one on top of that by levelling that out. You do the same thing for about 8,000 years, you end up with a high tell.

It also means when you dig through such things you have to take the layers off one at a time from the top. This site was occupied until 1967 all the way down to the first occupation at around about 7500 BC. Now that being said, occupation in the area of the Jordan valley has been going on for about 1.6 million years. So when people came out of Africa they basically walked past Pella on their way out.

At Pella we have occupation in the vicinity that we can certainly date back to about half a million years. We've got the first sedentary villages, which means the first time people are living for more than six months of the year in one place, really, at Wadi Hammeh 27, excavated by my colleague Phillip Edwards, dating from about 15,000 years ago. And we've got occupation right the way up to, in our last field season, 1967.

4:00

That's a five fil coin made in 1967. It was probably dropped when the last people left the site, pretty close to the beginning of the Six Day War. Our workmen were terribly concerned that we were interested in these little copper coins because they said, you know, 'We have quite a lot of them, Dr Steve, if you'd like some.' So we had to explain that the ones that we found on the site were different to the ones that they had in their pockets, and the guys were looking at me a little bit, going, 'It's still a five fil coin.'

So sometimes we have a certain difficulty in explaining why we care about discarded rubbish, but we do, mainly because we're asking simple questions about when things happened, what are the major things that may occur along the way to explain significant changes, and when there are disruptions, to what extent are we able to draw technological conclusions, what we call agency conclusions—invasion, people, earthquake…we're in one of the largest tectonically active zones in the world. And what we're all looking for is, I guess, eternal verities, things that stay the same, and significant things that change.

So over the course of 8,000 years at one site, the great advantage is that we can ask these questions over a long period of time. We can actually start to talk about from the beginnings of settled life through to the first cities. When the first cities fall and the second cities rise in the Bronze Age, what are the key features? When the second cities fall and the first great empires rise, what's changed, what does the bringing of empire do for places? To what extent does climate change and significant climate amelioration—getting good, getting bad—have on the civilisation? To what extent does foreign trade matter? How important is it to be connected in a world?

6:00

We always talk about our society as a connected one, but people have been connected for a very long time, it just took a little longer. But we can show that there's connections between Afghanistan, Southern Africa, the Baltic and Pella at about 2000 BC. And if things can move, ideas can move, so that we tend to assume people's horizons are narrow, and we're often wrong at that point, and that's why we care about trade.

To an extent technology and new technology—why does it matter when you invent pottery, what is the key thing about having fired ceramics? What does it matter when you finally have significant amounts of copper, what does it matter when copper's replaced by iron? What does it matter when iron's replaced by steel? When the first empires rise, what is the effect of imperial demands and imperial imposition on peoples? How do people respond to significant numbers of foreigners among them? What is the role of religion and does it change over time? That's the thing that digging the one site for over 30 years allows us to ask. We ask the long-term questions.

The other thing, of course, is that it gives us a chance to second-guess ourselves, and you might think, what do I mean by that? Well, if you've been digging a site for 20 years you've got a pretty reasonable idea of what's been going on at the site. But a whole new generation of people 20 years later will have a different take on the material.

So that my colleague Alan Walmsley, a senior Islamic archaeologist on the site, did a lot of really important work in 1981, '82, '83. His significant doctoral students are now back at the site interrogating his own work, and adding their insight from 15 years of working in the Damascus citadel. They're training a third generation of students who are coming out to the sites now. And it allows us to test, refine and consider anew differences, things we mightn't have understood correctly in the past.

8:00

As I go through things, and what I'll say is we've got 38 areas, we've got 10,000 years of occupation, we've got 38 years of excavation. I'm going to be selective about what I talk to you about tonight. But we'll just take it as we go and see where we get to.

The Neolithic, on the south side of the main mound, starts around about 7500 BC. The basic problem is that it's 16 metres down. So by the time you get to the Neolithic you're digging it in pretty narrow holes, because you've got to go through 16 metres of accumulated material from the 15th century AD for the most part, right the way down to 7000 BC. So that when people talk to us about the Neolithic and they say, 'Well, you've only got a few sites uncovered, you've only got a few bits and pieces.' You say, 'Well, you know, it did take us 26 years to get down to it.'

And of course there are Neolithic sites that are only Neolithic sites. And they will say, 'Well why would you care to dig Neolithic at this site?' And the answer is because immediately on top of it, at about 5000 BC, there's the early Chalcolithic. So we can ask, what's the first major transition? And the first major transition at the Chalcolithic period is that what's called the secondary products revolution. What does that mean? Well basically instead of killing your cows, you milk them. Instead of eating your sheep, you shear them. Instead of killing all the males, you use them as bullocks. Instead of eating your donkeys you use them for transport. In other words, you get a secondary product, and also unforeseen consequences: lactose intolerance is a real problem with dairy, but it isn't if you make butter or if you make cheese.

So certain secondary products can survive a long time. We've got something like 10,000 animal bones and about 700 botanical samples, and we've got residue from the pots stretching over 4,000 or 5,000 years.

10:07

So we can ask questions about well, to what extent do they grow new crops? Actually, barley gives way to wheat. Two-row wheat gives way to four-row. Olive is added. Fig and date is added. Lentils of various sorts are added. Medicinal herbs are added in greater numbers over time. Dairying of cattle becomes important over time. And a few other things as well.

The first thing is foreign trade. That little thing is a green stone figurine and it comes from the Amuq Valley in Northern Syria. That is a not particularly exciting piece of pottery, but it's probably the earliest export from the Nile valley at about 4800 BC. And that's hippopotamus tusk ivory and that's…it's just a cow scapula, but it's used for artistry, actually grinding up pigment.

Houses are still three or four metres wide, but they're starting to get internal subdivisions and extra storage facilities. And if you just go on another 500 years you're starting to see huge storage facilities. These things are a metre and a half wide, they're a metre and a half deep, and you find them in lines dating around 4200 BC.

Agricultural surpluses are now very significant. What are agricultural surpluses good for? They're good for actually paying craftsmen, because if you're a really good maker of copper, you can't eat copper, someone's got to actually pay you. So no one's going to actually put their own agricultural surplus at risk. You're not going to have your kids go hungry if you're worrying about feeding the copper worker. So you've got to be sure in your agricultural surplus. You start to get very significant storage of these materials. You're starting to get very large, purpose-built facilities.

12:03

That looks like a wall, but in fact it has a series of silos built on top of it to lift it off the ground to keep the grain dry. 4200 BC. And then you're starting to get things like this, which is a village about a kilometre uphill. And when we did our first analysis in the 1980s under Jack Hanbury-Tenison from Oxford University, he came to some pretty interesting conclusions. He said about 97% of all the botanical remains are olive, and there's almost no animal bone there. And in the 1980s things were done a little bit more quickly than we do today, so that point about being able to check your results, we went back in 2011 and had another look for another three seasons at trenches beside the ones that were dug before. Because we wanted to check whether or not the results were reliable.

And so we wandered around the site. This whole thing is one large series of houses. We cut trenches all the way down the slope and you can just start to make out little fragments of walls cut into the bedrock. You also see lots of pits, and you'll see channels. Walls in here, channels down there, pits and post holes for outside. And quite substantial dwellings with work areas around them. And actually it confirmed Jack's results from the 1980s, and we finally realised what we had. We had a major olive processing site.

So people are starting to do specialised farming. They're not just generalised farming, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that; this whole village is devoted to one thing, the production of olive oil. Because you need two things: you need places to be able to crush olives, and you need enough water to be able to separate the residue and the oil. Olive oil is the first great export product of all of the Levantine Middle East.

14:01

We know this because most of the tombs of pre-dynastic Egypt, dating from about 3800 BC, are chock-a-block full of Levantine olive oil. Literally hundreds of jars of the stuff, and they're labelled, 'Levantine Oil'. So that we're actually able to show that from 4000 onwards, one of the key things that are going on in the Middle East at this time is significant trade in what we'll call primary products.

They're moving grain around, they're moving copper around, but they're moving huge amounts of oil around. And it's starting to drive a significant change in society. One aspect of it is there's a lot more money around, because it's pretty clear, from what we can see, that the Egyptians toddled up across the Sinai to the places in the Jordan Valley and said, 'Right! As much olive oil as you can make we'll buy.'

Now, most people were probably used to making enough olive oil for themselves and a little bit left over. But when the Egyptians say, 'If you can get people to fill those hills with trees and make a zillion gallons of the stuff we'll be back next summer and we'll take the lot.' All of a sudden, people start to think differently about how you mobilise labour. All of a sudden labour becomes very valuable. All of a sudden the nasty lands, the broken lands, the uplands, all of a sudden they become valuable too, and you see the first great movement of people throughout the landscape.

When you do settlement analysis, they're moving away from the water sources, all of the hill slopes become important, because, in spite of what some think, entrepreneurs is not a new idea. People have worked out if someone's prepared to pay you money for things and for using the rubbish land that you can't grow cereals on, and even the goats fall of it half the time—I mean it's pretty steep—you're going to do it, because the Egyptians are going to pay you in manufactured goods. And we can see that because we dig them up. Except this isn't happening in the Roman period, this is happening 2,500 years before the pyramids are built.

16:00

So it gives you a bit of an idea, before the event, of where these huge city walls come from. Because this is the next step. This is the beginning of the Bronze Age. This is the early Bronze Age, this is the late fourth millennium and the early third millennium. And this is called the first great age of cities, and everybody wants to know, where did they come from? How did they afford these giant walls and palaces and whatnot?

Well, the answer is, go back 1,000 years and you can see the genesis of this. And I'll give you a few more reasons to believe it in a minute. Our basic problem at Pella of course is that the Early Bronze Age city walls are all around the edges, so we can get at the edges. This is where the city walls are. Trouble is, if you want to dig the Early Bronze Age on the inside of the tell, it's 12 and a half metres down. So we had the same problem. And we solved the problem by going up onto the high hill of Tell Husn. Because the high hill of Tell Husn has a Byzantine fortress of the 6th century AD on top of it and the rest of it's Early Bronze Age. Basically the whole thing is one huge Early Bronze Age fortress.

There's these large, rubble stone platforms, and they've terra-formed the entire eastern slope. This entire eastern slope of the site, they put gateways in, they've got a thick city wall along the side and this is a very large fortress. And it's a very large fortress with a lower town with another very large city wall around it. And what you've got to think of this thing is effectively it's the royal acropolis. It dates around about 2800, 2900 BC. We're still well 500 years before the pyramids. So people have got enough resources to build fairly significant things.

18:00

These things, as I say, are 15 metres on a side. They're five metres thick. They're stone, and they're the footings. They're building things on top of them. So the reason we cared about those deep holes before is that they give us the perspective on where did the wealth come from to create this stuff?

We went through a series of city gates, one sitting on top of the other. Gates are important, because they give you a bit of an idea of what sort of a view people have of their defensive needs, of how wide the gates need to be for things to get in an out. You can run a couple of wagons in through there. There's a lot of voids in here. You might wonder what they are. They're pieces of timber, so that the thing is a combination of pavement and timber, and it runs all the way up and around the corner. It's an indirect access gate. These gates give you a bit of an idea of the wealth, the function and the thickness of the walls and the way that they felt they needed to defend themselves. And we've got four of them, sitting one on top of the other. I showed you the first two. The second two are these ones in here. And this one is an eight-metre wide round tower that's defending one of our gates. You can see the inner edge of it there, you can see the curve of it there. And it's something like that. That's the site of Ararat in Southern Israel, dates exactly the same time period. But my point is a simple one, and that is, we have four gates sitting on top of each other.

20:00

Now, some of my colleagues have been arguing about the period before the great cities. And they're saying, 'Well we can't quite see this slow build-up of wealth. We can't quite imagine how things happened.' Which led them to assume some clever person from Egypt told them how to do cities. No. That's not the case at all. We've got a series of these gates and only the upper one dates to the time of the great city walls. The three of them below it, and they stretch back in date right the way to the middle of the fourth millennium BC. That's a 'guess reconstruction' of what it might have looked like. Around about 3000 BC.

Underneath them we have the same fifth millennium Chalcolithic. You can actually see walls and column bases there. Some pretty decent storage pits. Even for 4000 BC, these things are a metre and a half wide and they go down two metres. This one's actually got a painted stele in the inside of it. And a lot of these nice little well-made jars. So that the full sequence dates from about 4000 and goes right the way up to about 2500. It other words, it gives us a perspective on the prehistory of the age of first cities.

How does it work? What was the sinews of economy? Where did the wealth come from, to what extent did they have things like trade? And I'll talk about trade a bit more in a minute. But we always like to check our results. The patron saint of archaeology is Thomas. So we actually want to see again and again the same results before we believe them.

So our second major excavation up on Tell Husn is on the northern end of the site.

22:01

Dates to the same period, from about 4000 to 2500. That's the four-metre thick city wall that runs around the top of the high hill. It's 30 metres above the plain. And that gives you a bit of an idea of the size of these platforms. And I wasn't kidding when I said they're massive. That's a metre scale; these are the footings. So that's the wall. We're interested in the time period immediately after the time of the city walls and the time period immediately before the city walls. To find out what happened at the end, to find out what happened at the beginning.

What we're able to say is the final phase of the Early Bronze Age dates to around 2800, 2700 BC. It's relatively fitful occupation on top of a very wealthy Early Bronze Age, to occupation of about 2900, 2800 BC, which is destroyed in a huge regional earthquake. In fact pretty much every site in the Jordan Valley goes down.

But this stuff mends up into these huge plates. The important point about this is, this is not your normal crockery. These things are a metre wide. These are the residues of group feasting activities, and it gives you a bit of a hint as to what people are doing, how they're mobilising labour, how they're generating wealth. They're feeding people in very large groups. They're making provision for large group festivities and feasts.

So if you need people to build walls and to tend your olive groves and move material around your landscape, you probably have to move beyond your own families. You probably have to move beyond your own relatives. And one of the best ways to get strangers to work for you is feed them.

24:00

So that's the bit on top of the wall, now we have a look at a little bit underneath the wall. Just to remind you of the size of the footings, and you can see them from an even higher hill to the east, Jebel Sataba, and whenever we dig holes along the eastern slope it's solid. Solid archaeology. Four or five metres thick in places, and as I say, they're just the base, with the city wall along the side which is about four metres thick and about three metres high in places.

So one hint, one hint only of the range of the Early Bronze Age from about 2900 BC. In one small trench on the western side we found a hoard of copper materials. Simple axes, probably splitting axes to split timber. This is anything but simple, it's a very large spearhead, and little bits and pieces of copper. Probably a hoard that was being re-smelted to make new material. When we had all these things analysed, much to our surprise, while some of them came from the close sources at Faynan in Jordan, in the Jordan Valley, and some of them came from Timna in southern Israel. Some of them, for the first time ever, came from the island of Cyprus. And some of them came from eastern Anatolia. And that spear head—we didn't analyse it because it's beautiful and if you bore holes in it people get upset—the best parallels to it come from the north Syrian coast. So in one hoard, from one room in this (for want of a better word) acropolis palace area, we can show that they're pulling copper from every major copper source in the Middle East at the time.

26:00

And the idea was, oh well, they may have used this one and then over time they might have used this one, and then eventually around 2000 BC they might have used Cyprus. No. Not true at all. They were broad-spectrum-ing in their desire for copper from 3000 BC. And just be clear here, 500 years before the pyramids. People are chasing copper up and down the length of the Levant on to the island of Cyprus, and in fact more recent studies have shown, onto the plateau of Iran.

So people's horizons are very high. They're very wide. And this is the age of the first cities. How significant is each one of the features? Well that's part of what we argue about. What we can say is agricultural surpluses are so reliable that they can afford to push the boat out a bit for craft specialisation—ivory working, ceramics, not yet glass, but faience. A lot of copper working. And they're building huge buildings all around the site, including in places 10-metre thick city walls.

So, again, we want to know a little bit about the period before the great cities. So we punch holes through into bedrock and we do exactly the same sequence we did through the gates. And this is what we were doing last season. We finally got down to bedrock and it gives us a few interesting ideas on just how stubborn these blokes were in using the landscape. This is a drop of about four metres down the northern slope, and you can see the bedrock there has been carved back and you can see the small stone walls that have been cut into it. You can see that the bedrock's been carved here and they've laid lines of stones in there. They've cut pits and plastered them.

28:00

This is an outside work area. Sod's law, you never actually know when you put your trenches in a place that they're going to come up trumps. So of course this trench which we dug for five years is exactly all the outside areas of this lovely house, which we were able to get about 50 centimetres of by the end of the fifth season of excavation. Let me tell you, the excavators in here were not impressed with my choice of where to place the trenches. As I said to them, 'I think we'll dig on this side next season.' They said, 'Really, Einstein. Great idea.' But nonetheless we were able to show, through a detailed analysis of this material that what we thought had occurred from the first two soundings is exactly the same in each place.

We know this as much as anything because we have a series of radio carbon dates that date the various phases from 4000 BC right the way up to around about 2700 BC. We've done this in a number of different places across the site and we've done it for exactly the same reason. We're trying to verify and tighten up our story. We want to understand where the first cities come from. And this is one of the ways we do it.

Then the first cities all fall over in probably a very nasty combination of earthquake and just possibly severe climate change around 2600 BC. And by severe I mean like half the rainfall suddenly, like within ten years. And that can mess up your plans for agricultural surplus. So for the best part of 500 years Pella is unoccupied, and then shazzam, it gets reoccupied at around about 2000 BC and from pretty much the get-go you have city walls running that six and a half hectares of the site. We've excavated a couple of trenches. That's the Middle Bronze Age city wall. In places it stands eight metres high.

30:00

In places there are 67 courses of brick. And they use up so much clay in each one of these walls that you get layers of black brick, layers of green brick and layers of orange brick, and it's not phasing—that's the same wall—it's just they're literally digging out huge amounts of clay. About 4.5 million bricks. And if you stacked them all together you'd get two Giza pyramids. So a little bit of respect for the wall makers.

This is another section of the wall, and you can see just how beautiful the city wall is. And this one actually has an eight-by-twelve metre solid brick tower that projects back into the side of the tell. Because this is the low area and they need towers along the side. They didn't need so many up around here, even though it was still four and a half metres thick and in places seven and a half metres high.

So the city walls, same question: where did they find the agricultural surplus? We did the same story trying to work out what's going on. But there are a few other interesting things about the Middle and Late Bronze Age. In the Early Bronze Age we would have loved to have known more about the cemeteries of Pella, but we never found the Early Bronze Age cemeteries. But in the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age to follow it, so the second millennium BC—round figures, 2000 to 1200 BC—we found a very large cemetery all the way across the north slope of Tell Husn. So literally you could see your cemetery across the wadi.

And some of these can be pretty interesting. This weighs about four and a half kilos and it was found hammered on to the legs of a person who'd been beheaded in the doorway of a tomb, dating around about 1400 BC. So some people would say, ah, these are anklets. No, anklets you can take off. These things were hammered on. This is cold hammering.

32:00

So the poor dudes that had these things around their legs weren't going anywhere. And there's a line of four of them that actually goes along the edge of that tomb there. And that tomb goes back 22 metres into the rock. So the tombs get pretty large.

And some of them, if you're lucky, have a couple of thousand objects in them. I dug that, that's tomb 62. We dug it in 1984, and people say, 'It must have been fantastic!' And I said, 'The first thousand objects were pretty good. But you know what? That second thousand, we just wanted to go home by then.' It has some of the most beautiful Bronze Age pottery. There's 95 pieces of Chocolate-on-White ware in that tomb. It's the largest collection of the finest Bronze Age ceramic anywhere from one tomb. There's 58 Egyptian scarabs from the tomb. They contain most of the royal names of the 17th and 16th and one or two 15th dynasty pharaohs, so they tie the tomb very nicely into the period immediately before the Egyptian New Kingdom. Round about, let's call it in round figures 1600 to 1500 BC.

We also have these unprepossessing little nasty things, and you might think well why are we seeing those, they don't look very impressive. That's the earliest glass made anywhere in the world—16th century BC. Blue glass spacer beads, probably made with a Mesopotamian, not an Egyptian recipe. Our conservator Wendy Reade did a PhD on this material in the early 2000s, was able to show that this is the earliest recipe for glass known anywhere in the Middle East. It doesn't mean it was made at Pella, but they're importing it to Pella.

34:00

So this tomb probably isn't as impressive as you might think—although 2,000 objects is not so bad—but if there's 200 people in the tomb it's only ten objects a person. And there probably was about 175 in the tomb.

So it's a collective tomb, it's a clan tomb, it's not an individual family tomb, which in itself is interesting. And then you get some individual tombs that are quite good fun. This is a tiny little cyst grave found on the tell lined with stones, and for a while there, when it was excavated we thought, 'Oh my God, we've got a two-headed man!' Because there was a fellow there, and this thing in here sure as hell looked like a second skull. But it wasn't. It was a tortoise shell. And in fact it was a tortoise shell that had cut marks on it, making it quite clear that it was the sounding board for a stringed instrument.

As well as that, full of very nice pottery from Egypt. Alabaster from Egypt, faience from Egypt and weaponry from Egypt dating around about 1700 BC. Probably one of the wealthy people. And very similar plaques of lute players are known from exactly this time. Often found in tombs. So sometimes you can get things in the mass and sometimes you can get individual things that give you a bit of an insight into an individual's life ways. Can be good fun when you combine them both together.

Governmental structures of the Middle and Late Bronze Age. This thing is called the governor's residency. Basically it's the senior administrative building of the Late Bronze Age run by the Egyptians, probably at the time of Thutmosis III and afterwards after the Egyptians conquer Jordan and Palestine. And that was found in a tiny little pit there. That's the famous ivory box from Pella, the so-called lion box, for obvious reasons.

This thing is full of Mycenaean Greek pottery. It's full of Cypriot pottery.

36:00

And in another little pit beside this one, the first two Bronze Age cuneiform tablets ever found in Jordan, dating around about 1400 BC, which pushed literacy in Jordan back 1,000 years when they were found in the 1980s.

So what this thing is, is a governmental structure but it's also a very, very high wealth structure, because these are all fine oil bottles and this is all pottery that's imported, open bowls, for its design and its beauty. And just to make it clear, found with this fellow as well.

This is hippopotamus tusk ivory carved in royal workshops in Egypt. These things are not knocked up in a back room. That's a royal gift from the Egyptian pharaoh to the king of Pella.

Now, subsequent to all of that, in the first ten years of this century we've been digging a very large temple. In fact the largest of its type ever found. It's not one temple; it's about six temples, one sitting on top of another. First one dates all the way back to around about 1800, 1900 BC. The last one is knocked over around about 900 BC. So nice round numbers, a thousand years of religious worship in one place.

And what you can do when you study this stuff is that these tiny little early ones are about 10 by 11 metres, 12 by 8 metres; and then all of a sudden it's 24 by 28 and it's five metres thick and it's made out of stone. And then you get even larger additions, stone towers that are six metres square. Then of course the whole thing goes down in a nasty earthquake and the Egyptians rebuild it, and, what a surprise, they rebuild it differently. They have columned halls. They have holy of holies. What actually happened from the Early to the Late is that early on God lived everywhere. He didn't actually have a special room.

38:00

From around about 1500 BC onwards, maybe with the transition from the worship of El to the worship of Baal, (that's a little controversial) you start to see God restricted to one place and worshippers restricted to the other. And what that actually means is sacred and profane.

There is a place for people and there is a place for the god. Strong implication, they're not supposed to mix. And we know this to be the case with Egyptian theory. In the Iron Age there's something completely different. And these are really the same sort of temple, variations on a theme, but then in the first millennium BC all of a sudden you get something completely different. About the time the Philistines come to town.

The thing that becomes pretty nice is that when you dig the pit offerings to the gods, you start to get some very nice kit. You get green stone scarabs of royalty. You're getting life-size basalt statues. You're getting Egyptian imported diorite vessels, alabaster bowls and even ancient vessels, because that's an early dynastic from about 2700 BC, stone vessels that show up out of context 700 years later. What that is, is a sign of looting from early cemeteries in Egypt that's nonetheless being exported and offered to the gods in Jordan. You start to get faience writer. You start to get royal dedications. That's a scribal statue or fragment of a scribal statue in excellent Aswan granite. It's a royal workshop piece. You're getting Egyptian blue. You're getting statues of kings and you're starting to get really high quality bronze inlay with little bulls' heads on it, and you might think, oh, so what? That's about half a centimetre in size. And you're starting to get high quality ivory inlay.

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And these things are all offered alongside lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, glass plaques, faience vessels, beads of stone and glass and lapis and gold or agate and whatnot—all in dedicatory offerings in pits beneath the floors of the temple. Cylinder seals from across the Middle East from Kassite Babylonia, from Syria, from Turkey, from local areas. Metal figurines—the smiting god figurine of Baal. The metal snakes, if you know your Bible, always associated with the worship of El. And furniture items probably semi life size statues in bronze.

And then some pretty interesting cultic furniture of its own right. In pits you start to get these hugely interesting cult stands. Not because they're very pretty, but because of what's on them. These things actually have pictures of worship scenes taking place. Gods touching their beard. A mourning scene. Gods announcing their presence. Perhaps the mourning and the rebirth of Adonis. Fertility rituals. And some of these things can be pretty interesting. Bull masked men and people going, 'Oh really, how do you know it's a bull mask?' Well actually we found the bulls' heads with holes in them covered in red ochre. So we know that these guys were actually wearing some fairly significant masks, and this stuff dropping from the bull-man. This is part of a cult stand found smashed up in a pit. Some pretty interesting cult going on that we're still trying to work out what it's all about. But that's why this is precious, because they're windows onto actual cult practices dating around about 1400 BC.

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Our most recent work, immediately to the west—this is a temple in here, this is a temple in here. Immediately to the west over the last ten years is asking a simple question: Well, what's beside temples, who lives beside temples, what sort of buildings are found beside them, what's in them, how do they relate?

Because we're asking questions about religion and the importance of religion, the relative importance over time. They're investing a lot of money in these buildings. They're not tiny. These things are probably ten to 15 metres high and they're probably covered in red plaster so they would have stood out.

So we want to know what's beside them. And in the last few years we're getting down to very large stone buildings which look very likely to be the palaces of the kings of Pella in the Middle Bronze Age. Simple thing—kings don't like to walk very far to go worshipping the gods, so the palaces tend to be pretty close to the temples. And we found that in half a dozen different sites across the Near Middle East, so it's not too big a surprise, but it's nonetheless gratifying to find the things. And to find the seal impressions and the seals themselves and the cylinder seals on the beautiful brick floors, suggesting high level administration going on.

Slightly later, that one I showed you is 1600; this is about 1500. Thick plaster floors in large courtyard areas which have been re-laid, and re-laid, and re-laid again as they fall out of use. And associated with them, a series of these things that look like wells, but we have to be a little careful, because these things are about four and a half metres deep, but they're nowhere near the water table. So they might well be collecting water, but they're not strictly speaking wells going down to the water table. The thing that's interesting is they've got some really weird stuff in them.

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Normally you might expect, if it's a typical well you're going to use a jug of some sort. Occasionally they break, you're going to find them in the bottom of the well. Not the case at all. What we're finding here are these tiny little alabaster vessels. That's a centimetre scale. You're finding these little incense pipes. Then you're finding things like one small bead, or one highly polished spindle whorl. Or one jewellery box cover.

And the other thing that's interesting is normally you'd expect to find 60% or 70% sheep/goat, 20% cattle, and then a few other things. All the animal bones in here are fish and crow. Now fish and crow—the nether world and the world of the sky. These are appropriate offerings to gods, or your deceased ancestors, if you wish to know the future. You make an appropriate offering and so that they know it's you, you put one personal possession in there as well. And the form of (for want of a better word) augury that they're using, we think, is oil on a very small platter bowl, and the interpretation of the oil pattern is the way that the priest can answer the questions. The reason we think that is because 98% of the ceramics in there are all these little platter bowls. Nothing else.

So when you do your analysis of some of these things, we come up with something other than simple, prosaic possibilities. And it alerts you to a simple fact: past is a very different place to today. You can't assume that if things look the same as today they're going to be used the same as today. That being said, that takes us to around 1400 BC and may have something to do with new ideas coming in from the north. Hurrian peoples believed in particular forms of necromancy and they used the crows and they used the fish. And the fish had been brought a long way.

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But around about 1400 the Egyptians get in to the act and we start to see rebuilding of the complex with stone-paved floors. But they've got these things in underneath the walls. They're called lamp and bowl deposits, where you actually get a lamp and you get a bowl on top of it and you get an offering in the two. And they're there probably as an offering to secure the safety of the building in an earthquake zone. It's well known in Egypt, it's not known anywhere else. It suggests that these buildings were built at least under strong Egyptian influence of the Egyptian New Kingdom empire.

Trouble is, they're bloody clean, these Egyptian New Kingdom fellows, because in the last field season we opened up a 10 by 15 area and we got some beautiful architecture and there was not a damn thing on the floor. Not a thing. Not a skerrick. So I'm a little jaundiced when it comes to empire, because empires are very neat and tidy and it makes my job a lot harder.

You start to get large, pebbled piazzas. You start to get large storage areas, and you get large offering pits. And some of these pits have some pretty neat stuff in them. I am not saying that's the world's first bong, but it's certainly used for some form of communing with the spirits. You're getting these interesting things, which are ring kernoi, and what they're actually used for is first fruits of the season, you offer your oil, your wine, your milk, your butter. It all swirls together and then the thing goes into the pit as an offering to the gods. And there's quite a lot of fairly fancy little bits and pieces, be it gold or carnelian.

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And, as I say, we do the same thing, we get the same lot of radio carbon dates that confirm the dates of the earliest material about the same date as the earliest of the temples. And this sequence of buildings, one on top of the other, roughly parallels the sequence of material in the temples.

But with one interesting variation. During the time of the Egyptian empires, the temples get wealthier and the palaces get poorer. So what's going on there? Well, pretty clearly the religious elites are being co-opted by the Egyptian empire, but the previous ruling families are falling on hard times, because they're paying a lot more taxes to the Egyptians to keep their heads on their shoulders. So that if you actually analyse these buildings, the earliest ones before the Egyptian empire are beautifully made, and as the time of empire starts to have its impact, you start to see the repairs become crappier and crappier. The walls get smaller and smaller. The plaster gets thinner and thinner. And whole rooms go out of use and are literally backfilled.

So that it's not just that we're interested in what's there, it's trying to understand what it might tell us in relation to something we've just dug before. So the temple sequence is full of really nice stuff, but it tells us something very profound about the way the Egyptians govern. The way they were able to control the land.

And then, shazzam, the empire ends. There's a very large disruption around about 1100 BC. The Egyptians go home and from what we can tell they don't come back again. So the next major civilisation, if I can call it that, the civilisation of the Iron Age, is pretty much something new, and something not heavily influenced by imperial Egypt.

Now when we first were working on the Iron Age materials, the first things we were able to study were materials from tombs. The tombs are very different to the Bronze Age tombs.

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First thing, lots of lamps and lots of chalices. You might think, well, so what? Well, actually there were almost no lamps and no chalices in the Bronze Age tombs. And these lamps were found in the hands of people. You find them buried in extended positions with the lamps on them. You find the chalices sitting beside their mouths. Then you find things like beautiful bronze belts, except that they've been ritually killed. They've been twisted and broken.

You do find weaponry but it's been hammered into the ground and bent over. So there's new ideas going on here, and you get a lot of this stuff, which is gypsum, made in the Jordan Valley, not the alabaster you get from Egypt. This is local produce. And then you get things like this. Now this is beautiful hippopotamus ivory inlay. You might think yeah, okay, so it's furniture inlay. Except it wasn't found in furniture. It was found on the chest of a person and it was found with a series of beaded collars associated with it. So this thing had been cut down and repurposed as a pectoral, that you might be familiar with from ancient Egypt. Except this in the Iron Age dating around 1000 BC.

So that what you're seeing is a combination of new ideas about weaponry and how it needs to be treated, new ideas about the afterlife that emphasised light in the dark. And liquid offerings, because there's very few offerings that are solid materials. Locally produced material with very little from the outside world.

And when we did our first series of excavations on the eastern end of the site, you've got to say, the Iron Age architecture was not inspiring. You go down six and a half metres through the Hellenistic to get to this stuff, and you wonder why you bothered.

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There's little fragments of wall here and a little fragment of pit there. There's some interesting apsidal, i.e. round-at-one-end buildings, because if anyone knows anything about Philistine architecture on the coast, that's a pretty good sign of new architectural forms, except we're not on the coast, we're in the Jordan Valley. And anyone knows anything about your Bible, there is some suggestion that the Jezreel Valley, which is immediately opposite Pella, starts to see a Philistine presence. Certainly poor old Saul found a Philistine presence there, because they nailed his carcass to the wall at Beth Shan, only about five kilometres away from Pella.

However, this teaches us a nasty lesson. If that's all we dug, if we'd have packed up shop in 1990 and come home, we would have concluded that the Iron Age was a big, ugly, unimpressive hill village. And we'd have been 100% wrong.

We had a hint, way back in the '80s. My predecessor Tim Potts dug up these beautiful cult stands in a pit, in the far northern end of that large trench I showed you. But there was nothing else in here to inspire. You can see the odd pit, the odd fragment of stone. Nothing to get your blood working. But these things were unique and beautiful and completely isolated.

Until when we were doing the temple sequence, as I told you, we found that Iron Age temple at the top of the sequence dating to about 900 BC. And this is a perfectly decent structure. It's 12 by 8, the walls are a metre and a half thick and it was probably about five or six metres high.

This is one guess at the reconstruction of how it might have worked, and there's an altar in the courtyard to its east, and it had some pretty interesting cult furniture associated with it. This thing which we call a cow box is probably a model shrine.

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But it's a model shrine that's actually had incense offerings burnt inside it, and these little incense cups which were found smashed in it give us a bit of a hint. The interesting thing of course is that this is a correct reconstruction, so that when you looked at it from here, what you got was a line of cows looking back at you. So whatever's going on here, this is a pretty interesting different concept of god or godhead, or even just shrines and offerings. But it's something new, something we haven't hit before, and the best parallels for it are up on the Euphrates River.

And then we get these things. This is another one of these nice cult stands. The thing about this cult stand with its little pointy ears is that we've got one from Pella smashed up in a pit, dating about 900 BC, and there's a second one which is almost identical found on the Philistine coast at Tell Qasile, excavated by my colleague Ami Mazar in the 1980s. And when I showed Ami this one, he said, 'Oh, I know what that is, that's one of our Tell Qasile cult stands. They must have brought it down the Jordan Valley and deposited in your temple.' I said, 'Here's a thing, Ami, I've got another idea for you. I reckon that yours at Tell Qasile might have been made at Pella. And it might have been taken down the Jezreel Valley and lobbed in your temple at Tell Qasile.' And he went quiet for a minute and he said, 'You know we never did actually check where the damn thing came from.'

So both of us are working on our cult stands at the moment. But the key point is, both ends of the Jezreel Valley are linked together by material that's identical at about 900 BC. It's probable—not that I'll admit it to him just yet—that Ami's right, and that this is indeed a Philistine cult stand and it suggests that the temple in the Iron Age has a very significant Philistine component.

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And just as the Iron Age temple is sitting there, on top of the Bronze Age material I showed you a second ago, we wanted to know what was happening in the Iron Age, and the answer is, a lot more than we thought if we'd only taken the testimony of our excavations in the eastern end of the site.

Because we found a very large, multi-room complex, often with walls two, two and a half metres high and each one of these rooms has been destroyed in a massive earthquake, we think, although it might be military activity by Hazael of Damascus round about 800, 830 BC. But we know what's going on in each one of the rooms because the full room assemblages are sitting in each one of now 47 rooms.

So we get a pretty fair idea of how this complex works. There's rooms full of oil and there's rooms full of cereals. There's rooms full of grindstones, there's rooms full of looms and loom weights. There's kitchen furniture, there's a certain amount of military material. That's an iron scale from scale armour. That's a fairly nasty arrowhead. There's Egyptian-style scarabs from around about 900. There's simple pottery vessels. There's interesting amulets of one sort or another, and some very high quality basalt materials as well.

And, if you're lucky, we can do our National Geographic photos too. You can actually put the pots back together and work out where they're all found. This is a kitchen bench and it's got two sorts of grinder: a coarse grinder and a very fine sandstone grinder as you might well want in your own kitchens today.

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And you can actually find these small oil vessels, incense vessels, vessels for holding barley—one of these things seems like it might even have cinnamon in it which is kind of interesting, because we didn't expect cinnamon until the Roman period. But it's starting to pop up in the Iron Age across Israel now, and our preliminary analysis suggests that's maybe what these highly burnished red things might have carried.

In our very last field season we got lucky, because we were only able to put a big, long, thin, two-metre long trench in because of these massive Roman period walls. I'd like to say I like the Romans, but you know they do tend to cause a little bit of trouble if you're trying to learn about the pre-classical world. But we were lucky because we managed to get a long, thin wall and a very thick wall at the very end of it, and you might be able to see these large column bases just starting to emerge. There's actually a series of them.

And what this thing looks like is a monumental entranceway to the building. Because for many years I used to call it 'the civic building', because of course I didn't know what it was. It could have been a storeroom, it could have been a series of storage rooms, maybe there was storage with people living at one end of it. And yet it was so beautifully constructed, and it's 45 metres on a side and it has 46 rooms in it, and these rooms are dedicated to storage and industrial activity.

It started to look very much like the Iron Age palaces of other parts of the southern Levant. This particular palace is in a site in Turkey, and that's the monumental entranceway in the so-called Bit-hilani palace style. And that thing there, I suspect, is that little bit of the entranceway, because we've got 46 rooms running immediately to the south of it.

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So when we finished work in 1990, I'd have said we had a big hill village. And our last field season, finished a couple of months ago, would suggest that 100 yards further to the west is Jordan's first palace of the Iron Age.

And just to be sure that we're not kidding ourselves, from these buildings are starting to come some very impressive luxury items. This is a carved, spear-type vessel. It's only a little thing. It's about 10 centimetres across. You only find them in the palaces of Assyria, the palaces of Urartu in Turkey, and the palaces of the Iron Age kingdoms in Syria and the Lebanon.

This is our second one from Pella. That was the building plan from 2013, and all of the dates, the radio carbon dates—you'll have to trust me here—all cluster around 10 years around about 830 to 800 BC. That doesn't tell you when it was built. That tells you when it was burned down. Or so it seemed from my view on the top of the baulk.

I haven't even talked about Pella of Alexander the Great, Pella of the Roman period and Pella of the Christian exile, or Byzantine Christian Pella or Islamic Pella. There's a helluva lot of it to talk about, and I've given you a bit of a look at pre-classical Pella, the bit before Alexander the Great. The bit before the most familiar historical ages.

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The first three great ages of urbanism: the Early Bronze Age that I talked about on Tell Husn; the Middle Bronze Age, which we have on the tell, second millennium; and the Iron Age of the first millennium. And what we do in a big site like Pella, if we compare one age to another. What they eat, how they traded, how they interacted with each other, how they compare to each other, to the sites around. We want to know what makes early civilisations tick. And being able to do it in one place over a period of 8,000 years, means we can control for a few of the variables, because we don't have to keep asking, is it about land form, is it about water. It's the same water. It's the same land form over time.

Also a few cautionary tales. You've got to be very careful assuming that you know what's going on in archaeology, because as I said to you, 150 metres to the west of what we've been digging for 12 years turned out to be a completely different story of exactly the same time. So archaeology teaches you some fairly harsh lessons over time, and the first one is not to be too confident of your results. Which is why, having dug there for 40 years, it will not surprise us if we're doing good work there in another 40 years to come. Thank you very much for listening.

Sarah: Okay, so if anyone has questions, we have about five minutes, so raise your hand and there'll be a roving mic. First one in the centre just there.

Audience question 1: How do you decide where to dig a trench? And the other thing is if you're digging down through all these civilisations, are you destroying them as you're going down, or do you scrape them to the side, or what?

Stephen Bourke: No. The short answer is when we put a trench down, from the very beginning, we're digging into the 15th century AD.

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So we don't have much of a clue what's going to happen in the first millennium BC, because it's nine metres below. There's a few simple rules, though. Rule number one—people don't like to walk very far for their water. So it's a fair bet the major governmental structures are going to be near the water sources. So if the water source is down there, up here is likely to be where you might expect your major civic buildings.

Secondly, in the Jordan Valley, in midsummer, there's Marble Bar temperatures. It's 50 to 55 Celsius. Where the breezes blow in the afternoons are really good places to be. Along the southern edge of the tell in the highest possible places, you can expect major governmental structures. Now, where there are governmental structures there's likely to be domestic material. So if you're interested in domestic…

Religious buildings are always on the highest point. So if you can do contour planning and get a guess—and sometimes it is no more than a guess—of where the highest point's likely to have been on your site over time, fair bet that's where the temples are going to be.

Lower areas, where you actually see your city walls dive down, fair bet that's where the gateways are going to be. And sometimes you can literally stand on the site, you can see the contours. They drop down and they drop down and then they go clonk, like that. It's a fair bet that's where the city walls are going to be, because everything butts up against the inner face of the city wall.

So that being said, you can still put trenches down and get it horribly wrong. We didn't put those trenches on the eastern side of the site and dig them for 12 years because we wanted to get the crappy eastern suburbs of Pella. We thought that's where the good stuff would be, and we were dead wrong. Because the water source is in the east, but the nice breezes are over on the south, and we guessed that the water was more important than the breezes. Having spent a few summers down in the Jordan Valley, we were dead wrong. I'd much rather get the breezes than the water, and that's as it turned out.

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Second thing, about destroying things. Every single time you expose a structure, you're asking yourself a simple question: is that the best example of this we're likely to get on the site? Because if it is, you've probably got to leave it put. I didn't get a chance to show you some of the areas where we come down on beautiful Roman mosaics. Well no, in spite of my desire to get down to the Iron Age as quickly as possible, you can't really dig away your polychrome Roman mosaics.

So that when you get a beautiful example of a Christian church, sure, you leave it up. When you get a beautiful example of a Roman mosaic, you leave it be. When you get a beautiful example of a Hellenistic building, you leave it be. Does that cause you trouble? You betcha. Because sometimes you've literally got to jink 10 metres in one direction, which means you've got to dig all the other stuff away again.

So that's why we've been there for 40 years. If we didn't have to jink every now and then…when we got the Bronze Age temple, we couldn't dig the thing away, it's the most important find in the Jordan Valley, religiously, for the last 50 years. It messed with my plans, I was looking for the early Bronze Age, and I ran into the rotten thing and couldn't get rid of it. These things happen. So sometimes you make a call. Sometimes there'll be a long-term strategy: gee, I wish we had one of those, and when you get one of those you leave it be. But every now and then you're asking yourself a question, is this likely to be something that can be preserved, that is going to conserve up well, that is going to be put in a place that isn't going to have, you know in five years' time a very large shop beside it? Can we imagine that people in 30 or 40 or 50 years' time walking around the site might be able to look through the various civilisations over time? You make those calls. Sometimes you get them right, sometimes you get them wrong.

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Audience question 2: Hi, thanks for that. What did Indiana Jonesdo for the popular appreciation of archaeology, and what did it do to draw budding archaeology students…?

Stephen Bourke: I've got to say it made our job a lot easier in the 1980s. You know, there was a lot of students coming in to archaeology, and we're thinking, gee, we're good, enrolments are up, we must be doing something right. Yeah, there may have been an Indiana Jones effect. But Indi's getting a bit old now, so I think they need that next generation of the young Indianas, because you know in spite of our best efforts, after 40 years we're not really the sprightly 25-year-olds that we might have been in the 1980s. So yeah, it was helpful.

Sarah: Right, so if anyone has any other questions, you can grab Stephen on the way through. So just a round of applause for Stephen.