An unprecedented discovery in Zaarour: a Byzantine village at 1,400 meters
A luxurious building dating back to the 5th century, featuring Roman thermal baths and two large winepresses unlike any others in Lebanon, was discovered in the Al Jawzeh area, in the region of Zaarour, buried under layers of remains from the Medieval period.
It is an exceptional discovery by the archaeological mission of the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO): a village dating back to the Byzantine era in Al Jawzeh, in the Zaarour region, at an altitude of 1,400 meters, 45 kilometers to the east of Beirut. “Al Jawzeh is an exceptional archeological site in the Lebanese mountains,” said the two archaeologists Lina Nacouzi and Dominique Pieri during a conference held in the American University of Beirut’s Archeological Museum. Lina Nacouzi, an IFPO research associate, and Dominique Pieri, Head of Archeology and the Ancient History Department at the IFPO, have been co-leading the Al Jawzeh mission since 2012.
A unique character
The Byzantine village could be the remains of a rich estate from the 5th century, surrounding an imposing building with a monumental appearance. “The rectangular-shaped building was meticulously carved and executed; its stone blocks are well cut and squared and the walls are at least one meter wide”, said the two specialists. On a mound overlooking the building, a necropolis of six monolithic sarcophaguses dominates the skyline. Collective tombs (called communal tombs), containing up to 11 skeletons, were unearthed from the site.
To the east of the site, there are the remains of a limestone quarry, stone from which was used to carve the sarcophaguses and in the construction of the large building and the village houses. In the center of the site appears a doline, a natural depression where fertile soil had accumulated over time and had made the area suitable for agriculture. An inscription of the Roman emperor Hadrian, discovered in the immediate vicinity of the site, indicates that a forest had covered the surrounding slopes. “This inscription also means that an ancient road was connecting the village to the rest of the country. In fact, it is very close to the current route leading from Sannine to the Bekaa valley,” explained Lina Nacouzi. “Water, fertile land and wood: all the components needed for a human settlement that could live in total self-sufficiency,” she said.
Maximos and the Roman baths
The study of the building revealed an opulent residence. Dominique Pieri noted that fragments of mosaic and marble were uncovered, as well as “ceramics imported from Asia Minor, the Black Sea, North Africa and Egypt”. Nacouzi pointed out a “rather peculiar thing: the building was covered with roofing tiles. They are stamped with the name of Maximos, with two crosses engraved on both sides of the name.” The specialists were all the more surprised to discover, right next to the large building, the remains of small Roman-style baths. “They are unusual in rural areas,” they said, adding that the caldarium system was almost intact, while the frigidarium was quite well preserved.
600 to 800 amphorae of wine per season
During the archeological excavations, the IFPO team discovered a winepress on the ground floor of the building. The installation includes four grape-crushers (the juice was extracted by crushing grapes barefoot), and two 1.20-meter-deep collecting basins that received the juice after it had been filtered through settling tanks, before it was stored in large jars. “This structure is not common. Winepresses usually have only one grape-crusher and one basin. However, the site certainly had a particularly important production, since the basins have a capacity of two cubic meters each. In total, these four cubic meters could fill up to 600-800 wine amphorae per season, from a single winepress! This implies that in the Byzantine period, winemaking was the main activity of the village”, said Mr. Pieri, adding that another winepress, constructed in exactly the same way, was discovered in a neighboring building located on the opposite side of the main building. There may be other presses to discover.
Workshops for iron-ore reduction and ceramics
Abandoned during the 7th century, the village was reoccupied between the 12th and the 15th centuries. At that time, the inhabitants, who were living in single-room houses, had focused on iron mining and production. They built their workshops on the ruins of the Byzantine monumental building, after dividing the space through several partitions. “A furnace was unearthed and we suspect the existence of two others,” said Lina Nacouzi who started exploring several sites in the Metn region, particularly in Zaarour, Mrouj, Marjaba, Baskinta and Bteghrine, in 2002. She noted that iron slag had been found on the site and in the surrounding area. “They are generally evidence of the Medieval occupation. However, their dating is confirmed by the ceramics,” she said.
The site revealed a significant quantity of ceramic items. “These are often fragments, but there is also a series of complete objects from the Byzantine era, such as oil lamps, jugs, large storing jars and items used in food preparation or as tableware. All these items lead us to think that during the Byzantine period, the residents of the village were adopting an urban lifestyle,” said Mr. Pieri. From the Medieval era, glazed ceramics and a fairly wide variety of colorful potteries, mostly made in Beirut, were found on the site.
The two archeologists also highlighted the existence of some traces from pre-Byzantine eras, which were identified by pottery fragments dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as Hellenistic and Roman times. “But we are unable now to associate them with specific levels or structures. They are just indicators at the moment,” they said.
A multidisciplinary team
The IFPO’s mission is a joint Franco-Lebanese effort that includes archeologists from the Lebanese University, the University of Kaslik (USEK), Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), as well as researchers from France’s CNRS and the Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University. A multidisciplinary team contributes to a better understanding of site history; it is composed of a geomorphologist, an archaeozoologist, an archaeobotanist (to re-create the vegetation), an archaeometallurgist to spot the mines in the surrounding areas and to study how the furnaces would have operated and the manufacturing methods used to create the iron tools, and an anthropologist to examine the human remains. A specialist in glass objects and a numismatist are also part of the team. In the field, a topographer uses a drone to draw plans, take aerial views and generate 3D images. “His work allows us to display the site in three dimensions and to reconstitute the building as it was before,” explained the two archaeologists. The excavations are supported by France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the high-end laboratory ResMed and the Middle East Office of the Francophone University Agency (AUF).
Before the 1990s, it was believed that the mountain was exclusively devoted to the worship of gods. The excavations at Yanouh, in the upper valley of Nahr Ibrahim, which uncovered the oldest settlement on the mountain, one that dated to the dawn of the 3rd millennium BC (Early Bronze Age II), at Chhim (6th century BC) and recently at Al Jawzeh, prove that Lebanon’s highlands were inhabited for a long time.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 12th of February)