Heritage Fellow’s Mysterious Find at Khirbat Ataruz

By: Christine Chitwood, 2012 Heritage Fellow

Ever since I decided to embark on the adventure of archaeological studies, I have been told by professors that, “it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”  With this simple phrase, I was satisfied to participate in past field excavations, as well as my current excavation at Khirbat Ataruz, funded partly by my acceptance of the 2012 Heritage Fellowship. It wasn’t until the season was in full swing, that I discovered that sometimes, it isn’t even what you find out that makes archaeology so rewarding.

Ataruz is a site situated along the Dead Sea, known to scholars for its Iron Age inhabitants and large temple complex, and known to local people as the Kingdom of the mischievous and dangerous jinn.  Under the direction of Dr. Chang Ho Ji, as well as that of my field supervisor, Dr. Robert Bates, my responsibility for this season’s excavation was to open a square on the north side of the site, where evidence of walled structures could be seen from the surface level, suggesting a relationship with the previously excavated temple complex.  Immediately after removing .1m of topsoil from a 2x2m probe of my square, it was evident that I was indeed excavating part of a wall, which I named wall 5.  Only three days later and .5m down, I had discovered two more walls in the eastern portion of my square, as well as a large amount of pottery, and a few lithic objects.  After digging 1 meter down on the eastern side of my square without finding a floor to the walled area, I began excavating on the western side of my square, adjacent to  wall.  It was in this western part of my square that I made a surprising, yet baffling discovery.

The monotonous work of rubble removal is well known to most archaeologists, especially those familiar with architectural loci, where walls are unfortunately often discovered only partially intact.  It was in this stratigraphy that I was currently excavating, rock by rock, when an organization of flat stones peaked the interests of Dr. Bates and me.  Instructing my fellow workers to carefully trowel along the edges of the stones, it was then that we discovered the handle and body of a rather large storage jar, situated beside Wall 5. From the very initial discovery of the fully intact handle, I was ecstatic.  Usually handles are found broken down the middle, or at the very joint to the body.  It was only after we started troweling around this area that we realized that we didn’t just have the handle to a large storage jar, we had nearly a whole, though broken, form, that began to reveal quite a baffling story.  As the heat of the day began to set in, the other workers and I crouched around the storage jar installation, peeling back layer by layer the soil around, and inside.  As we began to excavate the inside of the jar, we noticed that it had been lined completely around the inside with stones.  At first we suggested that the stones had fallen into the jar (demonstrated in the initial lack of rims) but after removing several of the stones inside the jar, the rims were found, placed perhaps, purposefully inside the jar.  Further perplexing was the second “ring” of pottery sherds located within the jar, suggesting that the storage jar contained not only the stone lining, but a second vessel as well. We sifted the contents of the jar, which had no significant material, and decided that because the jar cut so deep into the phase I was currently excavating, it was best to remove the loose pieces of the vessel, and leave the remaining bottom levels of the jar for further excavation after bringing down the rest of the square to the same phase.  Anticipation began to mount as we finally prepared the square for the climatic removal of the remaining contents of the jar.  Would there be a burial? Perhaps a figurine, hidden beneath the stone lining? Working diligently with a trowel and brush, I carefully peeled back and sifted the soil.  As my field supervisor and other workers watched, we finally reached the bottom of the vessel.  Nothing. Not even a bone fragment, or trace of ash.  What was revealed, however, was the beautifully crafted, and completely intact base of the jar.  This discovery alone was appreciated, even if it did leave some confusion hanging in the air.

So, back to the saying, “it’s not what you find,” I’d like to suggest that maybe, sometimes it is what you find.  Since this mysteriously lined jar seems to provide little evidence as to why it was situated in such a manner, it must be appreciated at first exposure as a tremendously exciting discovery.  We as excavators and archaeologists should take time to appreciate what we find, after all, it requires a tremendous amount of work to complete an excavation season.  We’ll leave the “finding out” part for later, when the context of this storage jar can reveal more details about the historical significance of my excavated wall area, and the Iron Age stories of the people living at Khirbat Ataruz.


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