2013 Platt Fellowship: A Summer at Hippos Sussita

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Tags: American School of Oriental Research, ASOR, excavation, fellowships, israel, Matt Winter, Platt Fellowship
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Matt Winter, Platt Fellowship Recipient

My initial introduction to the site of Hippos Sussita, near Kibbutz Ein Gev in Israel, was one which left me feeling a sense of the grandeur this ancient city must have had. One of the member cities of the Decopolis, a region of ten major cities in what is today Israel, Jordan and Syria. Hippos was an important polis on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee during the late Hellenistic, Roman and Early Byzantine periods.

A view of the bastion. The springs for the vaults are visible atop the wall.

The city is situated on an oblong plateau overlooking the Sea of Galilee. A long, narrow and serpentine road ascends up from the valley floor. On its western side, closely following the ancient road that would have led to the west gate, the main city gate was located on the eastern side of the mountain at the edge of a saddle ridge. That forms the only comfortable path to the naturally well-protected mountain crest. It took little effort to imagine the overwhelming power of the city, isolated atop the mountain with a commanding view of the surrounding hinterland.

The site is in its 14th season of excavations, and the city has yielded only some of its secrets. Several of the major urban structures have been unearthed, including a defensive tower at the main gate, the city’s water supply system, the decamanus maximus (the main east-west street), several intersecting lesser roads splitting the city into insulae, a basilica, forum, odeon, temples and several churches (including a cathedral), a building for the imperial cult, a bathhouse complex, and a series of impressive fortifications and walls. Much of the city has yet to be excavated, and one can only wonder what other structures lay waiting to be discovered. Needless to say, the city must have been quite impressive in its day. If one stops and imagines, it is easy to picture the bustle of the city: vendors hawking their wares, the bustle of the basilica and forum and in later periods, the ringing of the church bells. Quite the contrast to the gentle lulls of the Sea of Galilee below.


A view of the bathhouse complex. The northern room, the function of which is undetermined, lies in the foreground. The palestra and bastion are visible in the background.

My work was spent split between the bathhouse and the nearby bastion. I was able to work with a small team in the bastion complex for a portion of the season in collusion with the bathhouse supervisor and under the auspices of the director, Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University. The bastion was built adjacent to the bathhouse on the southern cliff of the city, and comprised of a series of five vaulted rooms, each roughly 50 m2, which would have formed an imposing defensive structure that overlooked the road on the southern side of the mountain that led up to the city. A poterna found in a tower built in between the vaulted rooms, while another opening was a bit more confusing. Dr. Eisenberg suspects that within the fourth of the fifth rooms/chambers, a large ballista was positioned to defend the road. If so, this would have deep implications on the type and age of Roman fortifications in this region of Judea. We hoped to find evidence to validate his hypothesis, but we were only able to partially excavate the bastion and found secondary depositions, comprising of collapsed ashlars, columns, pottery, tesserae, glass, coins and nails.

The other portion of time was spent excavating the room north of the palestra and the natatio in the bath complex and provided yet another mystery.


A view of the natatio, with the circular staircase exposed on the eastern end. The water channel is visible on the right.

Much time was spent digging through layers of ancient trash heaps in a room which had bizarre architectural features, including a column which served no apparent purpose, stairs which led to an unknown area, and deep channels which abruptly dead-ended. We soon uncovered what appears to be the furnace for the caldarium, though the stoking channel was much deeper than expected. The furnace was blocked up, leaving us to ponder was lay inside. We do not yet know the contents or purpose of this mysterious room, and only time and further excavating will allow us to answer such perplexing questions. Further work in the bathhouse revealed the rest of the pool (natatio) near the palestra, the walls of the structure and a series of water channels. Work was done by a team of conservationists to preserve the plaster which still partially adorned the pool walls, and the beautiful lime stone pavers of the pool were revealed. If only it were filled with water to beat the Israeli heat!


A photo of me on the dig.

My time spent at Hippos was incredibly rewarding, with a multinational team filled with lovely people who really enjoy their work at the site. This season answered some questions, but as archaeology so often does, immediately asked more. The bastion still poses problems and the evidence for the ballista remains to be found. The northern portion of the bathhouse still remains to be explained, but nevertheless it appears that the furnace to the caldarium has been uncovered. I hope to return to the site and engage in future excavations. I hope to once again have the breeze from the Sea of Galilee and the warm sun of Israeli touch my face.



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