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Swiss archaeologist explores interior decoration at Petra archaeological sites

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Aug 07,2017 - Last updated at Aug 07,2017

Ulrich Bellwald

AMMAN — The archaeological results of the excavation combined with the location of the “Baroque Room” lead to the conclusion that it must have been built at the end of the main construction phase of Petra’s Great Temple and its surrounding walkways at the very end of the 1st century BC, said Swiss archaeologist, architect and restorer Ulrich Bellwald.

According to the scholar, the dating of the room itself does not yet include any precise evidence of the interior decoration’s dates, which could “easily be an addition of a later period”. 

“As no clear archaeological evidence [such as pottery shards among the aggregates of the plasters] for dating the interior decoration could be found, similar stucco — a material used as decorative coating for walls and ceilings — ceilings from other excavations have to be consulted for technological and stylistic comparisons,” Bellwald said.

The stucco decorations and mural paintings discovered in Petra in the mansion on EzZhantur and in the corridors of the Great Temple have shown “very clearly that, despite an undeniable Roman influence, Nabataean interior decorations may not be integrated easily into the well-established succession of the four Roman-Pompeian styles”, the scholar told The Jordan Times in recent e-mail interview. 

He added that mural paintings in the lower zone and the stucco decorations in the upper zone in the Room 1 of the mansion at Ez-Zhantur show the unique Nabataean style for interior decoration. 

Similarly independent style of Nabataean design characterises the stucco ceiling from the Baroque Room of the Great Temple, as it may well be shown by a comparison with the ceilings excavated in the Casa di Augusto at the southern slope of Palatine hill in Rome, dated to 36-28 BC, the Swiss expert said.

The best preserved ceilings, Bellwald continued, were found at the eastern side of the peristylium (series of columns enclosing the court or surrounding the building), adjacent to the great oikos — area built around paved peristyles with gender segregated spaces — and the ramp leading up to the temple of Apollo.

Different from the ceilings in the Casa di Augusto, the coffers in the Baroque Room’s ceiling were not decorated with ornamental or figural paintings, but with free hand modelled vine leafs and grapes, Bellwald said, adding that, besides these differences in style and design, many of the molded stucco elements of the ceilings from the Casa di Augusto are very similar to the elements found in the ceiling of the Baroque Room. 

“The Hellenistic art and architecture of Ptolemaic Alexandria has undeniably influenced Nabataean art and architecture, as it has already been stated in several publications. This influence may even be noticed in the ceiling from the Baroque Room,” Bellwald noted. 

According to him, there is a striking similarity between interior decorations from the Herodian palace at Masada, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, and the Baroque Room in Petra.

Completely identical stucco elements have been found in other Herodian palaces, especially in the third winter palace at Jericho, in the lower Herodion in Bethlehem, the scholar explained, adding that “as in the ceiling from the Baroque Room, the molded stucco elements from all the Herodian palaces as well as the ones from the Casa di Augusto were left unpainted, using the white polished surface as a colour itself.”

Later stucco decorations found in Petra are characterised by richly painted and gilded surfaces, he pointed out. 

“All ceiling fragments from the Herodian palaces are showing the same characteristics illustrating the construction process, such as the prints of the canes of reed, the strings and the ropes,” Bellwald underlined. 

The correspondence with the fragments found in the various Herodian palaces “is so perfect” that it may even lead to the conclusion that the same craftsmen who worked in the Herodian palaces were working in the Baroque room, the researcher said.

“The decorations of the Herodian palaces are well dated; the northern palace at Masada was built around 25 BC, the third winter palace at Jericho around 20 BC and the lower Herodian at Bethlehem 14-10 BC,” he said.

 

As the decoration of the Baroque Room must have been Executed at the very end of the main construction phase of the Great Temple, it may be concluded that this happened most probably immediately after the accomplishment of the decoration in the lower Herodian, in the last decade of the 1st century BC, the expert concluded.

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