By: Tristan Barako
In the spring of 1967, a team of archaeologists led by the late Paul Lapp concluded excavations at the small Iron Age site of Tell er-Rumeith in northern Jordan. Nearly 50 years later, his widow, Nancy Lapp, and I published the final report of Rumeith in the ASOR Archaeological Report Series. In the intervening years, much has happened to the site’s artifacts and field notes, and I have learned much about problems publishing an old excavation. But the reward has been revealing an important site, that tells us much about a poorly understood time and place.
Tell er-Rumeith is in the northern part of modern-day Jordan, not far from the Syrian border. There was much to commend the site in ancient times. It was located in the land of Gilead, perhaps the most fertile part of the Transjordan. Rumeith was also situated near the junction of two major overland routes: the King’s Highway, which connected Amman to Damascus, and a secondary east-west road. From the 10-meter-high summit, one has commanding views of the surrounding Irbid Plain. These geographic and environmental features must have been appealing to the regional powers of the Iron Age—namely, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram-Damascus—which vied for control of Gilead (and most likely Rumeith) for the better part of two centuries.
The Six Day War broke out less than a month after Lapp’s excavation ended. Fortunately, most of the finds and field notes made their way safely to Jerusalem soon after hostilities ended. But one team member, Susan Culp, completely disappeared after the war, apparently taking with her the notebooks from the squares she supervised, which included the critical area of the eastern gate (I’d be very interested in hearing from any reader who may know what happened to her). A year later, in 1968, Lapp joined the faculty at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and brought with him the Rumeith field notes, whereas the pottery and other finds remained in Jerusalem. Tragedy struck two years later when Paul Lapp drowned, carried away by a strong undertow while swimming off the coast of Cyprus.
In 1973, the Rumeith artifacts were transferred back to Jordan and stored in the Amman Museum on open shelves, mixed in with excavation materials from several other sites. Vessels were broken, reconstructed vessels re-broken, and artifact labels lost or rendered unreadable. Thankfully, Nancy Lapp inventoried the artifacts several times throughout the years; if not for her extraordinary efforts, the excavations at Rumeith would almost certainly have never seen the light of day. Then in 2001, she succeeded in having most of the artifacts shipped to Pittsburgh. The pace of Rumeith’s publication now quickened considerably.
My involvement with Rumeith began in 2005 when I received a generous grant from the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications to analyze and publish the site’s Iron Age stratigraphy and pottery. Even when working at a site with a well-trained team, sound excavation methodologies, and cutting-edge technologies, it can be difficult to disentangle and reconstruct the layers of an ancient settlement from the paltry remains that survive. It is considerably harder to do based only on an incomplete set of notes, drawings, and photos of those remains. And as strange as it may seem, I’ve only visited the site once. Not only was Rumeith hard to find—a modern building cuts into its northern slope and a Bedouin camp was on its summit — but there isn’t much to see when you get there: five decades of erosion have almost completely filled in all the excavation areas.
In terms of the pottery, most of it had been well labeled, organized, and when possible, pieced back together. I was fortunate also in that all the sherds were temporarily loaned to the Harvard Semitic Museum, from where I brought them to my basement for a period of intense—and much to my wife’s chagrin—prolonged study. The following brief description of Rumeith’s settlement history is based on my interpretation of the Iron Age stratigraphy and pottery. This interpretation is similar in many, but not all, respects, to that of the site’s excavators.
Rumeith was first settled in the late tenth century BC (Stratum VIII) as a very small— only about a quarter acre in size—but well-fortified site, surrounded by a well-preserved, meter-thick, mud-brick wall. This settlement was thoroughly destroyed about the year 900 BCE, possibly by the emergent kingdom of Aram-Damascus to the north. Over it, a much larger settlement (Stratum VII) was built. The old mud-brick defense wall was reused and encircled by an equally thick stone wall. Then the inhabitants expanded even further by building houses outside the defense walls, effectively doubling the size of the site (Stratum VIIB).
To get a better understanding of the topography, I turned to Google Earth, and noticed something strange: a depression around the base of the mound, surrounded by a circular ridge, both of which appear to be man-made. I suspected an outer defense wall, but unable to return to the site, couldn’t investigate further. Fortunately, shortly before the final publication came out last year, three Israeli archaeologists (i.e., Israel Finkelstein, Oded Lipschits, and Omer Sergi) wrote an article about Rumeith and strengthened my suspicion.
Through a combination of looking at satellite imagery and walking the site, they detected a dry moat (= depression) and an outer rampart (= ridge). And when I checked the field notes and photos from a probe in the area of the moat/depression, sure enough there were clear signs of the bedrock having been cut away step-wise. This new and improved understanding of Rumeith—needless to say, Lapp’s team didn’t have Google Earth—means the site was much bigger than originally thought. Altogether it covered an area of more than seven acres, which may not sound like much, but it’s nearly 30 times the size of the initial settlement!
All along the inner defense wall on the summit there was a thick layer of ash and burnt mud-brick debris, on top of which were smashed boulders from the wall. It is tempting to view this massive destruction, of a much larger and well-fortified Rumeith, against the backdrop of the Israelite-Aramean rivalry, which was heating up in the middle of the ninth century BCE. The Second Book of Kings describes a number of battles centered on Ramoth-gilead, with the city apparently changing hands multiple times at this time. The next, and final, Iron Age settlement at Rumeith (Stratum VI) was much smaller with less impressive architecture. It too was destroyed, most likely in 733 BCE by a Neo-Assyrian army led by king Tiglath-pileser III. This really marked the end of Tell er-Rumeith. Subsequent periods (i.e., Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine) are represented by pottery, but no architecture, bearing witness only to minor activity on or near the site.
Tell er-Rumeith provides valuable information about a time and place poorly understood relative to the immediately surrounding regions (especially southern Syria). They reveal a small, yet well-fortified, site on the border of the kingdoms of Israel and Aram-Damascus, both at the peak of their power during the latter part of the tenth, ninth, and beginning of the eighth centuries BCE. The stratigraphy of Rumeith can also be correlated with military events in the region, as known especially from biblical texts. The nearly 50-year path from excavation to publication has been long, filled with many obstacles, and often frustrating; but thanks to the efforts of too many to name here, the results can now be used by the scholarly community to form a slightly more complete picture of the ancient Near East.
Tristan Barako is Research Development Specialist in the Office of Research Development at Brown University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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