(January 31, 1998)


The Secrets Come Tumblin' Down
by Manuela Evangelista

For the first time ever, Palestinians can excavate their own archeological sites, the ones passed under the control of the Palestinian National Authority after the Oslo agreements in 1993 with Israel. The first round of digs, along with an Italian team, is in Jericho, the world's oldest city. In this interview, Nicoḷ Marchetti, a member of the Italian mission, explains how it went.

After almost 50 years the Palestinians are back digging at the archeological sites turned over to them in 1993 after the Oslo agreements, which established the creation of the Palestinian National Authority. Excavation begins at the "world's oldest city", Jericho. Located west of the valley of the Jordan, Jericho is certainly the most beautiful, but also the most complex, of those which have come under Palestinian control. The new excavation season has begun, thanks to a joint project by the resurrected Palestinian Antiquities Department, coordinated by the director Hamdan Taha, and the University of Rome "La Sapienza", coordinated by Paolo Matthiae, the same archeologist who uncovered another jewel in 1964: Ebla, in Syria. Galileo talked about the excavation with Nicoḷ Marchetti, one of the directors of the Jericho archeological mission's Italian group.

Dr. Marchetti, tell us about this first excavation experience with the Palestinian archeologists?

"These excavations are very important for the Department of Antiquities. It's the first international project in Palestine, and the first time there are Palestinians digging on their own sites. The amazing thing is that all these experts have come back from abroad since 1994, and with really slim means they put the department together, where 10 people now work. Up until that point, Palestinians were forced to study and work abroad. Just think of Hamdan Taha, the general director of the department, who did his doctorate in Berlin, or the chief architect, who studied in Italy. This put us in conditions to work almost as if they were European colleagues."

The Palestinians decided to start their work in Jericho. Why there?

"Jericho is doubtlessly the main site in the entire southern Jordan valley. It's an oasis famous for the Springs of Elyseum, mentioned 101 times in the Bible as a symbol of earthly Paradise. It has been occupied since the earliest times: back to the first neolithic society, which settled there about 10,000 BC, and the city was active until 1500 BC. Later, the site was of less importance, but up until then it was a very important center."

Of this long timeline, which part are you exploring?

"We are investigating the period of the last major phase of occupation of the city, the one which took place in the bronze age, which ran from 3000 to 1550 BC. It is the same time that Ebla flourished. The two cities lived similar events; Syro-Philistine archeology is called so because of the unity which marks it. They have the same economic and historical phenomena in common. Jericho was abandoned in 1550, just like Ebla was in 1600. Excavating bronze age Jericho is old hat for us, since we are students of the discoverer of Ebla."

Are you pleased with the results of the first campaign?

"We opened three main dig areas, plus a back-up. In Area B, we found a huge building dating back to the 3rd millenium BC. It may have been a barracks, but it's hard to be sure, since we've only dug two rooms for now. One was the fireplace, and in fact we found ceramic pots crushed by falling bricks. Probably the building was destroyed in a big fire. We then traced the perimeter of the city between 2500 and 2300 BC, thanks to the identification of a section of the wall 15m long. We then ran into another wall, from the middel bronze age, between 2000 and 1550 BC, made of bricks. It's up to five meters thick and built on top of an earthpile, something hitherto unseen. In Jericho, the earthpiles were huge, up to 18 meters high. It's odd to find a wall such as this on top of one of them. In area A, at the bottom of the earthpiles, we found a section of cyclopic wall, with blocks weighing up to two tons. The most interesting discovery was that this wall left a huge building outside the city. The fact that we found a building outside the wall tells us that city must have been bigger than we had thought. The next dig will go further into the suspected barracks. We also want to excavate the necropolis: we know where it is, and that it's full of finds."

Besides the scientific results, what was the cultural value of this first mission?

"Joint missions are nothing new, in the sense that you might find, at a site, one hole with Jordanians and 20 holes with Americans digging in them. After the work, usually it's the Americans who explain to the Jordanians what they've found. In contrast, we always worked together, Palestinian and Italian in the same hole. It was an experience that helped us appreciate the enormous worth of our colleagues. Sure, there are some cultural differences, but in the end it all worked out. The Palestinian archeologists feel strongly their responsibility for the amazing patrimony which has come under their control. They also are competing with the Israelis, who are far more numerous and better equipped. Our project also aimed to train new Palestinian archeologists, and it seems that it has in part succeeded. For example, not far from our dig, the locals accidently found a Roman villa from the Qumran period, and two important things happened. First, the locals came to tell us about it, and this meant that they had become more sensitive about protecting archeological finds. Even more important, the villa was entrusted to a young man who had been digging with us for a month, and he is now in charge of this new site."

Despite hundreds of deaths directly due to the cloud, and uncalculable damage to the ecosystem, this unprecedented ecological crisis received much less attention than the financial meltdown in the same region. "In any case, the economies won't hold up long if the natural environment which sustains them is in worse health," writes Brown. "This is a recurrent theme in the State of the World, but is given particular prominence in this report." Many essays, in fact, are devoted to the complicated relationship between forests, wild animals, other natural systems and the human communities which depend on them. In the final chapter, the Washington institute explores the possibility of creating an economy no longer based on indiscriminate pollution of the atmosphere, the clearcutting of forests, and the unsustainable exploitation of water resources. "An economy of this sort is not only realizable, we believe, but in the end it may be cheaper, and more productive, than the one we live in today." The growth in wind power business - about 25 percent each year, one of the most dynamic sectors of the global economy - may well be one sign in this direction.

Translation by Jonathan Chaloff