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Australian archaeologist unravelling origins of ancient city of Pella

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Mar 30,2017 - Last updated at Mar 30,2017

Stephen Bourke

AMMAN — Exploring Pella and its occupation from the prehistoric to the Ottoman period is an integral part of the research conducted by local and international scholars. With more than three decades of involvement, an Australian archaeologist has been continuing excavation at the ruins to “see what was there”. 

“The University of Sydney’s work at Pella, around 130km northwest of Amman, began in 1979, and our first six years research was aimed at ‘seeing what was there’ — assessing the archaeological record at Pella, and gaining a rough idea of all the periods of occupation, and where the major potential excavation areas should lie,” Professor Stephen Bourke said.

Initially The University of Sydney laid out a large 30 x 70m trench on the eastern side of the mound, and The College of Wooster laid out a 15 x 60m trench on the west side of the mound, the archaeologist explained, noting that these were intended to sample the full range of occupation, reducing the area as the trenches got deeper. 

“As it turned out, The University of Sydney got through to sterile soils only in 1994, sampling a full sequence from Neolithic [ca. 6000 BC] through to Mamluk [ca. 1500 AD]. The College of Wooster reached the Middle Bronze Age [ca. 1600 BC] by the time they ceased work in 1985,” Bourke said.

His initial involvement was as a team physical anthropologist in the 1980/81 field season, he recalled, adding that over the course of the next five years he did pretty much every job going: “I was a registrar [managing the finds processing post-excavation], a trench supervisor [initially] and then an area supervisor [responsible for several trenches] and finally a co-director from the late 1980s, before becoming director in 1992.”

“Pella was my first dig in Jordan. Subsequently, in the 1980s I worked in southern Jordan with the Edom Survey [Council for the British Research in Levant-CBRL], and in eastern Jordan with the Azraq Project [CBRL], and the Wadi Ennoqiyeh Survey [Institut français du Proche-Orient and with the Jerash Pottery Project [The University of Sydney], before leading four seasons of new work at Teleilat Ghassul [The University of Sydney] in the 1990s,” the scholar emphasised.

“The six architectural phases of the Migdol temple represent perhaps a thousand years [1800-800 BC] of religious architecture and cult practice on the one site. There were many finds, including ceramic cult stands and figurines, Egyptian fine-stone statue fragments, scarabs and cylinder seals, faience and glazed ceramic vessels, gold and lapis lazuli jewellery and many ceramic vessels in a variety of forms,” Bourke explained.

During the period when Christianity was first emerging, the Acts of the Apostles recount that “an angel” told the Christians to flee Jerusalem as it was doomed to destruction, the expert said.

“Why the early Christians chose Pella remains unclear. I have speculated that as the original community was clustered in the Galilee, but nonetheless had to make regular trips to Jerusalem for pilgrimage/offering duties, they would have likely come south down the valley. A first day’s travel stopping point would have been around Pella. Over time, guest-friendships may have grown up between kin-groups and regular non-kin visitors,” Bourke argued.

As Galilee would have been barred to the community in winter-66/67AD as it was under severe Roman attack, Pella may have been a convenient refuge for a small, persecuted community looking for a safe haven, he noted.

Regarding the origin of the name of the site, the archaeologist thought that the ancient name of the site was probably something like “Pihili or Pehelli.” 

“This name probably survived in some form into the Late Iron/Early Hellenistic periods [ca. 500-300 BC]. If we assume Hellenistic ‘renaming’ was on the ‘sounds something like’ rule, then Pehelli sounded a bit like [the site of] ‘Pella’ in Macedon.”

“However, for some of us this is a weak explanation and we suspect something further is going on: when the Ptolemies and Seleucids renamed things they tended to name them after dynastic personal names [Ptolemais, Arsinoe, Seleucia, Demetrias etc], never royal capitals in the Macedonian homeland. 

“So why then rename Pehelli as Pella? Some have speculated it is because Pehelli was a previous royal centre and was renamed unusually, to denote this recognised status. But which royal capital and which kingdom? We don’t have an answer yet, although possibilities abound,” the archaeologist underlined.

The research team from the University of Sydney hopes to return to Pella in early 2019 for another six weeks of excavation, according to Bourke,  “continuing the exploration of the various phases of urban life stretching from the first [Early Bronze Age] through to the most recent [Mamluk/Ottoman], while concentrating on the western reaches of the Bronze Age palace [ca. 1700 BC] and what we call the Iron Age ‘Civic Building’ [ca. 900-800 BC], which more and more I suspect is a palace itself”. 

“I expect that the current aims to expose the Bronze and Iron Age palaces will take another 10 years to complete. I’d hope to survive in the job that long, but who can say? Of course, each year, our plans are crafted to match financial resources and available staff, all of which will be much clearer around March next year, when planning for Pella 2019 will commence in earnest,” he said. 

Bourke’s involvement in archeological work in Jordan has spanned several decades, but  he plans to spend some time relaxing in between his busy schedule. 


“For now, I’m going to have a little rest, and read a few good books, in between the students and the lectures,” Bourke concluded.

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