Lebanon News

Baalbek excavations unearth Roman-era treasures

BEIRUT/BAALBEK: A pair of beetle-shaped gold earrings, finger-sized glass flasks, glass and bronze rings, scattered gold leafs - some twisted into the shape of a mouth or eyes - iron nails, and remains of skeletons were just some of the "treasures" recently unearthed in Baalbek from Roman-era burial caves - each piece carrying its own tale from the past.

Burial sites and the artifacts found within have been the "most critical records of the past," - shedding light on long lost practices and traditions.

"We just keep dipping into a paradise of treasures from the Roman-era," said archaeologist Khaled al-Rifai, who heads the archeological team sent by the "General Antiques Department" to accompany the construction company working on a sewage network in Baalbek because of its archaeological importance, and who have been making headlines this month with their series of discoveries of Roman-era treasures dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD.

The latest find was announced on Wednesday, where a "5-by-4-meter rectangular shaped Roman tomb" near the north entrance of the city was unearthed.

"Each burial site has its own story, and there is no uniform design, in the same way each person designs his home to his own preferences, people in the past designed their tombs according to their status and location," said Rifai, explaining that this tomb had a "pillar" in the center, indicating that the building blocks in that location were weak and needed support.

Like the Greeks and Egyptians before them, the Romans commonly used bronze. It comes as "no surprise" to find bronze accessories and artifacts in Roman burial sites.

In this particular excavation a pair of bronze earrings, bronze rings, and bronze coins, along with broken and corroded bronze pieces were found scattered about the tomb.

"The coins discovered are very significant as they will have a date on them and will help us pinpoint the exact date the tomb" was built, said Rifai.

Besides the treasures, several skeletal remains were found, indicating the tomb was used "more than once," contrary to the more "exclusive underground tomb" found earlier this month in Kayal 4 kilometers from the Baalbek ruins in northeastern Lebanon, and 100 meters underground, unearthed by laborers working on the infrastructure of a sewage canal network.

"It is the first time we find an intact and closed Roman tomb that appears untouched by notorious grave robbers who have stolen pieces of our history," said Rifai in regards to the underground tomb where most of artifacts found were made of gold.

"This particular burial place is rare in its structure as it lacks the usual arches that are common in graves of that era, and it is more like a perfectly squared box," he said.

The team also unearthed two skeletal remains, apparently remnants of bodies buried in a wooden Roman sarcophagus of which only the iron nails survived. Rifai wouldn't elaborate anymore on the skeletons until they have been further analyzed in specialized DNA labs.

"Romans loved gold, and one of their burial practices was to be buried with some golden artifacts, and the more gold found in their grave, the wealthier the deceased was in life," he said.

Seventy-nine gold leafs - thin circular sheets of gold - were found fashioned into various shapes, such as a mouth, eyes and nose, and placed "almost like a mask" on the deceased's face as an "honorary gesture of the person's most cherished senses," along with placing the head upon a pillow of gold leafs in the shape of plants and flowers.

A pair of gold earrings shaped like beetles - thought to be "lucky" if not "holy" insects - were also found, implying perhaps one if not both of the skeletons found belonged to a female.

 "The Romans, like many of the former civilizations, placed great importance on how one "looked" as one passes on to the afterlife, and hence many decorative artifacts were buried along with them," said Rifai.

The Romans apparently didn't just like to "look" nice, they also liked to "smell" nice during their passage.

"There were 11 finger-sized glass flasks found that may have contained ointments or perfumes to accompany the deceased on their journey," said Rifai.

But there is also another possibly, added Rifai, where there is a myth that the flasks contained "tears" collected during the funeral from the attendees, and "the more flasks, the more people cried and well, the more the person was loved."

Missing from the grave are coins usually used symbolically as the means for "paying for the journey to the afterlife."

One of the more unusual discoveries was the glass ring, which, while not as valuable as the gold artifacts, is a rare find and "remains a mystery."

"It is of white glass and it is the first of its kind as rings are usually made of bronze, and I suspect there is a nice story behind it that we still have to discover," said Rifai.

As for the scandal of an archeological basin being stolen from Baalbek, Rifai said it is all a misunderstanding.

"The basin in question is a cultural Arab piece from one of the old houses near the cave, and is not an antique as it is not even a 100 years old. There are hundreds of them in Baalbek used as flower pots or even in washrooms," he said, criticizing the media for misleading the readers and for "making a fuss over a common piece of pottery."

Nonetheless, Culture Minister Tarek Mitri, vowed to "search for the stolen basin, along with extra security to be stationed at the burial site."

In addition to the burial site, three 8-meter-long colorful Mosaic floors from the Arab conquest era were also found nearby within days of the burial site's discovery, in the Khaleel Mitran Saha.

Mitri said the find is "well guarded" will eventually be turned into a "special archeological open garden for tourists."

"We are lucky to have an almost abundant wealth of treasures in Lebanon, and have to do everything to protect and preserve them all," said Mitri.





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