A new and fascinating discovery at the University of Haifa’s 13th season of excavations at Israel’s ancient site of Sussita-Hippos: the image of an inhabitant of the city, most probably from the Roman period (circa 3rd century C.E.), chiseled in a burial stone. “I lifted a stone that was covering a piece of embossed basalt and realized that a face from Sussita was gazing out of the stone,” described Dr. Michael Eisenberg who is heading the excavations. As with many archaeological findings, it was a surprising discovery in a surprising location.
The University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology is conducting its 13th archaeological season at Sussita, a city established in the 2nd century B.C.E. and destroyed in the great earthquake of 749 C.E., and continues to reveal great treasures: the Roman bathhouse pool, the city’s refuse heap - an informative source on eating habits 1,700 years ago, and of course, a portrait of a local “Sussitian”. It seems, however, that the most surprising discovery at this season was uncovered in the ancient workshop quarters, where a new and previously unknown change in this town and perhaps the entire region was revealed for the first time.
As with any good archaeological story, the most impressive finding was unearthed purely by chance. Before the season was officially underway, the researchers began digging at the “Tal Fortress”, a small structure that served to protect the main entrance leading to Sussita. “We were unearthing another one of the later walls around the fortress when colleagues stopped in their tracks with amazement. I lifted the stone that was covering a piece of embossed basalt and realized that a face from Sussita was gazing out of the stone,” Dr. Eisenberg described of the moment the stone was found. After extracting the stone, the researchers realized that this was a basalt burial stone on which a man’s portrait was embossed and alongside it a short Greek inscription. According to Dr. Eisenberg, the stone originated without a doubt from the cemetery nearby, where it would have stood over a grave in an aedicula representing the image of the deceased. Some time later the stone was removed to be used in constructing the fortress walls. “The embossed stone is the work of a local craftsman, which is characteristic of the later Roman period, around the 3rd century C.E. in this region. Even if we are still far from exposing the portrait of the ancient city of Sussita itself, the first portrait of a “Sussitian” is now in our hands and we hope that we will even be able to decipher his name, notes Dr. Eisenberg.
An additional archaeological treasure that also brought great excitement to this team of researchers, was uncovering the local dumping grounds. For archaeologists, the few dozen cubic meters of layered garbage provide an unequaled opportunity to get a glimpse of everyday life in the city, and particularly of its eating habits. “We found burnt kernels, thousands of animal bones, thousands of clay shards, parts of glass goblets, and more. The garbage cannot lie,” said Dr. Eisenberg, who is now waiting for the results of the Zinman Institute’s lab analysis of the findings to learn more in depth about the local culinary preferences and vessels that were used to serve up meals and beverages.
Also uncovered this season at Sussita were the pool that served the Roman bathhouse users, and the team has worked at uncovering more of the Roman basilica - the town’s trade center.
But the most surprising finding at this season has been in the city’s western residential quarters, where after conducting laborious hours extracting hundreds of basalt stones, the researchers found themselves looking down on the workshop quarters. What the team did not expect to find was evidence that this area was already deserted before the earthquake of 749, when the town was completely destroyed. “Now we will be trying to understand why this area was abandoned so early in the history of Sussita,” said Dr. Eisenberg.
More than 1,200 years after its destruction, Sussita is now revealing its glories as one of the cosmopolitan Decapolis cities. Participants in the 13th-season of excavations came from a dozen countries, including a delegation from the University of Concordia, St. Paul (Minnesota, USA), headed by Prof. Mark Schuler. Also participating were volunteers from Israel’s Jordan Valley and Golan regions, volunteers from other countries, students from the University of Haifa’s Department of Archaeology, and students from the Conservation Studies department at Western Galilee College.
Sussita was founded in the 2nd century B.C.E. on a hilltop east of the Lake of Galilee, by the Seleucids, who were then governing the land of Israel. The ancient city is now part of the Sussita National Park and Reserve, supervised by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The city was inhabited during the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad periods, until its destruction in the earthquake of 749. Along with Beit Shean and other cities east of the Jordan River, Sussita was part of the geocultural centers of the Decapolis region, whose inhabitants considered themselves culturally Greek, amid surrounding villages and towns that were populated by Semitic communities - Jews, Nabateans, and Phoenicians.