The Finnish Jabal Haroun Project 1999

by Jaakko Frösén and Zbigniew T. Fiema

The second fieldwork season of the Finnish Jabal Haroun Project (FJHP) directed by Prof. Jaakko Frösén, University of Helsinki, has taken place between August 1 and September 23, 1999. Scholars and students from the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology have participated in the fieldwork, as well as scholars from the United States and Sweden. The area of archaeological investigation focusses on Jabal Haroun (the Mountain of Aaron) located ca 5 km SW of Petra in southern Jordan. The significance attached to this place derives from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, further attested by some Byzantine and Arab sources, which consider the top of the mountain to be a burial place of Aaron, brother of Moses. Furthermore, one of the 6th century A.D. documents from among the recently discovered Petra Papyri also confirms the veneration of Aaron in the Petra area during the Byzantine period.

The main focus of project's scholarly attention is a ruined architectural complex on the plateau situated ca 70 m below the mountain¹s summit, already in the past considered to have been a Byzantine monastery. The first two seasons of the FJHP fieldwork largely confirm this identification. It is now certain that the complex includes a church and a chapel contained in what appears to have been a Byzantine pilgrimage center of Saint Aaron. Other structures at the site, to be investigated in the future, should represent monastic and/or pilgrimage infrastructure.

The 1999 season activities followed the multidisciplinary investigative program already established in 1998. In addition to the excavation and survey, these included the further refinement of cartographic techniques employed last year, i.e., the electronic gathering of topographical and locational information for the project's archaeological database, digital photography and photogrammetry, a computer-generated modelling of the excavation site and the survey areas, and the improvement of the already existent 3D image of the mountain and its environs.

The excavation activity concentrated on the site of the Byzantine church in order to expose the representative parts of the church proper and to gain basic knowledge of the general stratigraphy and history of the site. The excavations provided a substantial amount of information which will be now properly studied and assessed. While the relative chronology of the construction, use and destruction or abandonment periods at the site is relatively well established, the dating of these periods will be proposed after the ceramic material is fully analyzed. It is, however, certain that the church's existence continued throughout the Byzantine and into the Umayyad period, i.e., at least in the 7th century A.D., if not later.

The pre-Byzantine period at the site is known only from the ceramics, and few architectural elements later reused, indicating, however, that there probably existed a Nabataean-Roman structure at the site. The Byzantine church - a tripartite monoapsidal basilica with two lateral pastophoria - was most probably built in the 5th or the early 6th century A.D. Marble floor was laid out throughout the church, and the apse had a two-tiered synthronon installation. An elevated rectangular bema, probably furnished with marble screens, was situated in the front of the apse. Initially, the church may or may not have been preceded by a narthex. This early phase was seemingly ended by a seismic disaster. Following that the church was restored but also subdivided by a wall into the eastern and western parts. The eastern part retained its ecclesiastical function but the internal colonnades were removed and replaced by free-standing pillars supporting architraves or arches. The western part appears to have been turned into an open court (atrium), most probably with a peristyle portico on all four sides and a new combined sandstone/marble floor. Throughout this phase numerous changes and modifications took place in the bema area. Whether the end of this phase also witnessed a destruction is less certain but this remains a distinct possibility. Resulting changes in the eastern part of the original church included the replacement of the pillars by pilasters and the arches which spanned the nave and side aisles. Additionally, the inter-pilaster spaces were walled up. A massive buttress was built on the atrium's side against the partitioning wall. Secondary walls built directly on the original pavement of the church may belong to this or later phases. It is uncertain for how long the structure still retained its ecclesiastical function. However, it seems that some spaces within the church were temporarily or casually occupied during later periods, as exemplified by ash deposits, fireplaces, and the abundance of bone in strata above the marble floor. Substantial stone tumbles, including the collapsed arches, documented in every excavated square, had definitely terminated the occupation in the church area.

Of particular interest is a mosaic floor situated in the room preceding the church proper and considered to be a narthex. Stratigraphic analysis implies that the mosaic is later than the earliest phase of the church¹s existence. Originally, the mosaic featured an almost symmetrical arrangement of designs on both sides of the central door to the basilica. The designs included humans and animals (lions, wild boar? hunting dog or panther, gazelle, horse, birds), the former involved in hunting combat with some animals. The mosaic features a colorful border band of three intertwined bundles or chevrons, as well as some separate intricate geometric designs. Except for the entire chevron pattern, geometric designs, and the ocassional fragments of human or animal bodies, the designs are not preserved since the mosaic was heavily altered by iconoclastic activities. The iconoclasts had removed not only almost all faces but also main parts of human and animal bodies, and replaced them with generally plain large-size tesserae. However while the replacement was done carefully, the removal was not, thus the preserved details allow for an overall reconstruction.

An intensive archaeological survey was conducted in the area west and southwest of the mountain. Additionally, soundings and clearance activities were also conducted in the area explored last year. The survey involved a total coverage (systematic tract-walking and collecting all lithic and ceramic surface material) of the area estimated to be ca 235 000 square meters. Particular attention was paid to the configuration of the terrain, the geomorphology of the area, and the location of major water catchment and watershed areas. The majority of the structures and installations that were located and recorded consist of impressive stone barrages built across the main wadis and their tributaries, which served to slow down runoff water and to keep fertile surface soil in small terrace fields. Undoubtedly, the Nabataean period (1st century B.C.-2nd century A.D.) witnessed the most intensive irrigation-enhanced agricultural production in the area, but the water-related installations were also used during the Byzantine period and later. Additionally, a considerable number of small dwelling and camp sites dating from the Middle Paleolithic up to the present was recorded. Among the most interesting sites are a Nabataean/Roman watchtower, possible remains of an ancient road to Petra, the ruins of a small Nabataean fortlet or a caravanserai, a possible cultic site, and a lime-burning kiln. Soil samples were collected for macrofossil and phosphorus analyses. In total, 20 major sites were recorded in 19 tracts, including more than 120 barrages and terrace walls.