TALL AL-UMAYRI, Jordan: A 3,500 year old temple from the Late Bronze Age has been discovered at Tall al-Umayri just south of Amman.
The walls and cultic shrine of a temple dating from about 1,500 BC were uncovered at the end of July at the Bronze and Iron Age archaeological site by excavators working for the Madaba Plains Project and the Jordan Department of Antiquities.
Towering 3 meters above the heads of the excavators, the walls of the temple created four rooms. In the largest room, about 5 by 8 meters in size, was a whitewashed niche with a smooth, dome-shaped standing stone in the center flanked by four smaller stones, two on each side.
Working in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and its Director-General, Fawwaz al-Khraysheh, the excavators found an antechamber east of the large main room. Two other rooms were attached on the southern side.
The discovery is particularly exciting because the Late Bronze Age has yielded few structures of any kind in the central hills of Jordan and because it is one of the best preserved buildings and areas of worship that has been found. It contributes to the belief that there were more settled inhabitants in the area at the time than previously thought.
In the main room the bottom of the cultic niche was over a meter above the floor of the room, forcing worshippers to look upward, the common stance of prayer in antiquity, as depicted in ancient artwork on seals and in tombs.
According to the excavators, the smooth stones of the niche are unlike any other stones at the site and probably represented deities in the ancient world. The large central stone likely indicates the main deity of the temple, while the four other stones suggest associated, but minor deities, perhaps the children of the main god.
The major deity of the region at that time was a god named Il (or El). It is the same word as the Arabic word for God, Allah. To an ancient, Il was the father of the gods, but, stress the excavators, "we do not know for certain who the standing stones represent or the beliefs associated with them."
Within the niche and above the stones to the right the excavators found several ceramic vessels, probably containing votive gifts for the gods. Research has only begun on the discovery and many more pieces of the puzzle need to fit together before the excavators can tell the full story. To preserve the mud-brick and whitewash from destruction the diggers will cover the niche until 2006 when restoration for public viewing can be properly accomplished.
The Madaba Plains Project (MPP) goes back to the late 1960s and has excavated at sites like Tall Hisban, Tall al-Umayri, Tall Jalul, Tall Jawa and smaller sites around the central part of Jordan. It is a large and complex organization, which involves numerous institutions and, this summer, over 100 participants from around the world. Following the initial excavations at Tall Hisban (1968-1978), the MPP came to Tall al-Umayri in 1984.
Archaeologists thought the building itself, which has been excavated for several years, was a palace because of the size of the walls and number of rooms. They only came across the top of a rounded standing stone two weeks ago, and only last week they excavated the entire cultic or votive niche and all the other standing stones and unearthed the ceramic vessels in it.
Larry G. Herr is Professor of Archaeology at Canadian University College in Alberta, Canada. Douglas R. Clark is Executive Director at The American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston. Both are directors of the Madaba Plains Project. They contributed this report to The Daily Star. For more information go to www.wwc.edu/mpp