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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Seeing the Obvious

Sgraffito decorated bowls of Port St Symeon Ware from Acre displaying the emblem of the Teutonic Order

Sometimes it is difficult to see what is right in front of us. In 1991, a computer programmer named Tom Baccei and an artist named Cheri Smith created the first colour, random-dot autostereograms. Autostereograms are two-dimensional patterns consisting of repeated forms that, when those that each eye observes separately converge, enable the viewer to see hidden three-dimensional objects within them. Marketed as "Magic Eye", these images were highly popular for a time. They were also highly frustrating for those who were unable to see in them what everyone else saw: hidden pirate ships, dinosaurs and undersea creatures.

It is somewhat frustrating for the archaeologist who spends weeks at a time observing and trying to understand what he is working on, when a visitor, a lay person or fellow archaeologist, arrives on the scene, takes a summary look, and then remarks: "Oh. I see you have found such and such", and up to that point you had no idea that indeed that was what you had found, though with the visitor's statement it suddenly became blatantly obvious. This is particularly disconcerting when the visitor is not an archaeologist. Such an embarrassing situation happened to me once, and I admit that my precipitous reaction was to mumble disingenuously: "Yes... we have...", as if I had known all along.

At the conclusion of two seasons of excavations in the coastal town of Acre in 2000, I considered the evidence that we had recovered from the surviving meagre foundations of thirteenth century buildings. There was not a great deal to show that these were, as we had hoped to demonstrate, the remains of headquarters of the Teutonic knights. They had clearly once been monumental buildings, they were indeed of thirteenth century date, they had been destroyed in the conflagration and dismantling of 1291, and they were in more-or-less the right location to be the compound of the German order. Among the material finds were some conical-shaped ceramic vessels, moulds used in the refining of cane sugar, an industry that the Teutonic order was known to have been involved in. We also had found a number of coarse, unglazed and undecorated bowls and jugs of a type found only in military order sites. Everything pointed to this indeed being the compound of the German order. But, with all these indications, there was still no direct proof. The case we had made was reasonable, but not indisputable.

Among the many material finds that we recovered was an assemblage of glazed and decorated ceramic vessels, mostly imports from the kingdom of Cyprus, southern Italy and the principality of Antioch. Four or five years after the excavations, I took a tray of these vessels from my office at the university in Haifa to a classroom on the other side of the campus in order to use them in a class I was about to give. I was half way across campus when, casually looking at what the tray contained - objects that I had handled and examined numerous times previously - the realisation suddenly struck me. Two of the vessels I was carrying prominently displayed the very proof that we had been looking for in the excavations and had seemingly failed to find. They exhibited the two forms of the emblem adopted by the German order. On one bowl was an isosceles triangle containing the letter "T". The other bowl displayed a circular shield or letter "O" also containing the "T", the combination of O-T standing for Ordo Teutonicus - the Teutonic Order. Both of these forms of the German order's emblem are know from their other sites in the Latin East and in the West. It was almost as if these bowls were shouting at me: "Adrian... open your eyes!" What I had in my hands what no less than the equivalent of an inscription saying: "THIS IS THE COMPOUND OF THE GERMAN ORDER".

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