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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Digging into the Past

"Saucer" oil lamps: Hellenistic, left and Crusader period, right, above and below.

Book titles can sometimes be a source of confusion. The title of the first book I wrote, "Crusader Archaeology", might be misleading, although anyone picking it up from the shelf realises pretty quickly (if not by leafing through, at least from its subtitle) that it involves an examination of archaeological evidence of the Crusader period, and is not by any means intended as a handbook for crusaders who might wish to take up archaeology as an alternative profession (in which case it would have reached the market a bit too late). Such possible confusion might after all be understood if next to it on the shelf was a book titled, say, "Amateur Archaeology" which would surely not be about artefacts used by amateurs, or one on "Digital Archaeology" which would hardly be describing the uncovering in excavations of digital information (though perhaps that might be the case in the future). Nor, to clarify the matter for those who are not acquainted with it, does my book discuss archaeological projects carried out by crusaders. Few of them would have had the inclination or indeed the leisure to take up archaeology, a career that in the Middle Ages, one suspects, would have been regarded as rather less essential than crossbow-maker or cesspit cleaner.

It might then come as a surprise to learn that not only were crusaders sometimes involved in archaeology, but that they even occasionally received divine support for their efforts (which is rather more than I have managed in my career). Here is what the German crusader and chronicler, Oliver of Paderborn wrote about archaeological work carried out at 'Atlit in the winter of 1217-1218:

"...the Templars dug across the promontory, working for six weeks until they finally reached the initial foundations where they discovered an ancient wall that was long and thick. They even found money there in coins unknown to modern times, assembled there by the generosity of the son of God to alleviate the expense and the efforts of the soldiers. Later, as they were removing sand from a more advanced part where they were digging, they came across another, shorter wall. On the flat area between the walls generous springs of fresh water were bubbling up. The Lord provided quantities of stone and mortar."*

Such discoveries must have been quite commonplace in the Crusader period when new building was taking place, as it so often was, over the ruins of ancient remains. Making use of such things as could be made use of, is apparent in the frequent incorporation of ancient spolia in crusader building. Occasionally, "archaeological" discoveries were of even greater value than simply providing building materials. They may even have had some influence on medieval technology. Two examples from the realm of pottery come to mind.

In around the twelfth century potters in the kingdom of Jerusalem began to manufacture certain vessels that are remarkably similar in form, material, manufacturing technique and in some cases decoration, to vessels that had disappeared from the region many hundreds, even thousands of years earlier. This might perhaps be coincidence, but the similarities are so striking that one can easily imagine a potter being shown these long-lost and now rediscovered vessels and thinking - what a good idea! - and then going ahead and producing his own interpretation, in a medieval version of the "retro" trend that we encounter today.

One example of this is of a type of coarsely made pottery produced without the use of a potter's wheel, and hence unsymmetrical, thick-walled, unevenly fired in a simple low-tech kiln at a low temperature and decorated with basic earth colours in child-like, rough, geometric patterns. For all their primitive appearance, these vessels have a certain charm. But perhaps of greater interest, being technologically simple they could be easily manufactured anywhere and by almost anyone, and as a result they became ubiquitous in the Middle East after the fall of the crusader state and the destruction of the urban centres and their industries, and they survived right up to the mid-twentieth century as a local village industry. Why they appeared in the twelfth century when the high-tech glazed wares were abundantly available remains a mystery, but no less mysterious is the similarity they bear to pottery that was being produced in the region two to over three thousand years before, in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. The similarity is remarkable from every aspect - technology, material, form and decoration.

No less remarkable is the return of the 'saucer' oil lamp (illustrated above). Saucer lamps had first appeared in the Bronze Age. They were simply saucers to which, before they had hardened and were fired, the potter gave a good pinch to one side, forming a nozzle for a wick. Their use in the Middle East continued through the Iron Age and the Persian period and into the Hellenistic period when the potters tended to make the pinch closer to the centre of the lamp so that it became largely closed. By the Roman period they had entirely disappeared, being replaced by completely closed lamps made from two separate pieces; bowl and covering, a type that evolved in form over the next thousand years. And then, quite suddenly in the Crusader period the old saucer lamp made a comeback. It not only reappeared, but it evolved; a handle was sometimes added, a stand, sometimes both, sometimes a small interior bowl form appeared within the saucer to better contain the oil, and sometimes this inner bowl was given a dome-like covering and became what, for some obscure reason is now referred to as a 'beehive' lamp. And they were occasionally decorated with a coloured lead, tin or alkaline-based glaze.

Could this return to forms and techniques of a distant past be entirely coincidental, or perhaps might it be more realistic to see these reappearances as the gifts of the long unnoticed medieval profession of archaeology?

*Oliver of Paderborn, Historia Damiatina, quoted from The Templars. Selected Sources Translated and Annotated, Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, New York, 2002, p. 83.

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