The Gamla Excavations Final Report, The Rest of the Story

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Danny Syon

The importance of Gamla lies in that it is one of very few sites described in detail by the contemporaneous historian Flavius Josephus in connection with the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE), and the fact that it was never resettled after 67 CE. Extensive excavations have yielded vast amounts of information related to the war against the Romans that enable the resurrection of life in a Jewish town of the period. The appearance of the third volume of the final report on Shmarya Gutmann’s excavations at Gamla is an opportune moment to reflect on the unusual conception and birth of this project.

Shmarya Gutmann, participated in Yigael Yadin’s pioneering excavations at Masada, uncovering there the dramatic remains of Jewish zealots. Gutmann was drawn to Gamla because he considered it the ‘missing link’ in the archaeology of the First Jewish Revolt. Born in Scotland, Gutmann came to Ottoman Palestine in 1912 with his parents at the age of three. As an adult he was deeply involved in high level intelligence and diplomatic work in the years before and after the creation of Israel. Though he had climbed Masada in 1932, field archaeology was a pursuit that he came to later in life.

View of Gamla (Courtesy Danny Syon)

Shmarya Guttman (Courtesy Danny Syon)

Gamla is a located on a camel hump shaped hill – hence its name, from the Semitic word for camel – in the lower Golan Heights. It was inhabited during the Early Bronze Age. Protected on three sides by steep ravines, the site was defended on the east by an immense wall. The site was not settled again until the Hellenistic period. The Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus annexed Gamla to his state in 81 BCE, and in 66 CE Flavius Josephus — commander of Jewish forces in the Galilee — fortified the site against the Romans.

Aerial view of the synagogue and city wall (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

View of Gamla showing steep slope (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

View of Gamla showing steep slope (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Josephus, probably an eyewitness, described the siege of Gamla by three Roman legions in painful detail; after an unsuccessful attack, a second succeeded, in which the Jewish defenders were eventually slaughtered, along with thousands of women and children, many of whom perished in an attempt to flee down the steep northern slope. Based on Josephus’ ambiguous words, this act that has been interpreted by many as a collective suicide.. He himself survived the rebellion by surrendering to Rome at Yodfat in 67 CE, becoming a slave, then a citizen and historian.

Gutmann was a man of vision, who could reconstruct in his mind’s eye the events of the siege, and his sights were long set on Gamla. With his charisma succeeded in motivating armies of volunteers to dig the site for 14 seasons (1976–1989), each lasting about five months. This charisma is responsible for the fact that, just out of engineering school, I became an archaeologist.

But Gutmann was not a man of paperwork. The final publication was in fact made possible by the meticulous record keeping of Zvi Yavor, who from day one took on this task and continued till the last season, and that of David Goren, who supervised an area. We formed Gutmann’s core team, and we received important help from Department of Antiquities (now the Israel Antiquities Authority) surveyor Michael Feist, who insisted on coming to Gamla even when we were not ready for him. This resulted in a huge number of plans that accumulated that were very important—if somewhat disorganized— for the architectural report.

Gutmann’s drive was first of all to find remains associated with the war. As a result, he insisted on sifting every single bucket of dirt, a decision that paid off in the quantity and diversity of the finds presented in the final publication. In fact, some chapters, such as the pottery, military equipment and weaponry, the limestone vessels, the coins and the jewelry are expected to be important references for years to come.

Sifting (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Railroad constructed to move excavated dirt (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Roman military equipment (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Ballista balls (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Arrowhead in situ (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Dice (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Silver hoard in situ (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

Spouts of Herodian lamps (Courtesy of Danny Syon)

But Gutmann had to be practically bullied into publishing preliminary reports, which appeared in three modest books in Hebrew and short yearly reports in Excavations and Surveys in Israel, published by the Department of Antiquities. I therefore decided to take on preparing and publishing the final report, even though at the time I had no degree in archaeology, no professional home and no idea how I was going to pull this off. I knew that in order to find good contributors I would need scholars of high reputation to write key reports.

I found these two ‘anchor’ scholars at Caesarea, where I participated during the 1980s in the underwater excavations led by Avner Raban from the University of Haifa, in addition to my time at Gamla. These were Andrea Berlin, who agreed to study the pottery during a casual chat as I drove her to the airport, and Jodi Magness, who agreed to take on the military equipment. My friendship with these admirable scholars is still strong as is my appreciation of their important contributions.

Huge quantities of pottery were housed partly in the basement of the Golan archaeological museum in Qaẓrin and partly in an apartment provided for free by the Qaẓrin local council, headed by Sami Bar-Lev, who had been involved in archaeology himself and had a soft spot for Gutmann. Berlin spent several summers living in this apartment with her baby son and worked on the material. Indeed, the first volume to appear in 2006 was Gamla I: The Pottery of the Second Temple Period.

During the last excavation years, Goren invited Shimon Gibson to study the soft limestone vessels and I asked several scholars to study other finds. The reports on the architecture and stratigraphy naturally went to Yavor and Goren. Yavor got up the eastern and western areas, inhabited continuously from the first century BCE to the fall of Gamla in 67 CE, while Goren got the enigmatic Hasmonean area (area B), which was totally abandoned for an unknown reason at the very end of the first century BCE, while life went on either side of it.

Meanwhile I obtained a position with the Israel Antiquities Authority and had a professional base and also obtained my Ph.D. from Hebrew University. A three-year grant from the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications enabled me to take time to coordinate and edit the various reports that started to come in and also helped support Yavor and Goren, who otherwise could not have finished their reports. An additional grant from the Yad Hanadiv foundation, which I received through the Israel Antiquities Authority, enabled me to solicit the talents of three young scholars to study and publish the scale weights, loom weights, spindle whorls, stucco fragments and worked bone implements.

A fourth report on the lamps of Gamla is still due, co-written by Shulamit Terem and David Adan-Bayewitz, as is a full study of the Early Bronze Age pottery by Yitzhak Paz. It is hoped that the fresco fragments will be published in the foreseeable future, while many metal artifacts still await a redeemer. All the Gamla volumes will become fundamental references documenting Jewish life in the Roman period, and the Roman military that put an end to the site.

The fact that it took 30 years from conception to publication is due to innumerable factors that I would simply call ‘facts of life’. Delays, revisions, lost manuscripts and sabbaticals of 31 authors all contributed, as did the meticulous style editing of the Israel Antiquities Authority publication department. But the story of the Gamla excavation is one of perseverance, something that Gutmann himself, and the defenders of Gamla, both embodied.

Danny Syon is Head of the Scientific Assessment branch of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

For Further Reading

The contents of the Gamla Final Publications can be found in the following links:

Gamla I (downloadable in low resolution)

Gamla II (table of contents and foreword)

Gamla III, Part 1 (table of contents and foreword)

Gamla III, Part 2 (table of contents and foreword)

Select chapters are available for download on my Academia.edu page

The volumes can be obtained directly from the Israel Antiquities Authority



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