Pottery found buried under ashes and stone from the fiery destruction of a 4500-year-old Canaanite citadel palace in Khirbet al-Batrawy, Jordan. Lorenzo Nigro

Archaeologists find 'snapshot' of 4,500-year-old Canaanite citadel's last hours

As the ceiling of the blazing Canaanite palace collapsed, foods, jewelry, axes and treasures were buried, and beautifully preserved, under ash and blackened stone.

Excavations inside a 4,500-year-old citadel Khirbet al-Batrawy, located in the fringes of the black desert in northeastern Jordan, have uncovered a rich layer of archaeological finds beneath a destruction layer of ash and rock that, ironically, protected the antiquities from the final conflagration. Among the discoveries are prestige items in excellent condition, that the archaeologists believe have belonged to the rock-fortress chieftain of the palace.

Four copper axes, a bearskin and a highly decorated drinking cup were found inside a pillared hall of the vast ruined palace, along with dozens of ceramic pots, jars, cups and storage vessels that apparently served as feasting vessels.

Massive fortifications

The citadel of Khirbet al-Batrawy sits on top of a naturally fortified triangle hill overlooking the fertile and well-watered Zarqa River valley in north-central Jordan.

The city rose to prominence in the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.E., largely due to its strategic location at the intersection of two important trading routes: a northeastern one leading into the Arabian Desert and Mesopotamia, and a southern route passing by the Gulf of Aqaba to the Sinai and the Arabian peninsula.

Matthew Neale Dalton Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East

It was the period of 4th, 5th and 6th dynasties in Egypt (around 2600-2100 B.C.E.), a time of brisk trading – under watchful Egyptian control – of salt, copper, bitumen and sulfur, as well as gems, spices and exotic goods, a trade that played an important role in the development of the region. (Newly discovered harbors in the Red Sea dating to the 4th dynasty suggest there was also a southern route crossing the Sinai Desert to the copper mines of Timna as well.)

Now excavations undertaken by the La Sapienza University and the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom have uncovered an impressive citadel heavily fortified with mud-brick walls, towers and gates, sitting on three-meter high stone foundations. On top of the hill stood a huge palace-citadel complex, 2,000 square meters in area, intricately structured with wings, halls, courtyards and passageways.

The archaeological team believes this fortified palace may have been the heart of a territorial state. However, in 2300 B.C.E., the citadel came to a violent end, and was reduced to a heap of smoking ruins. “Raiders from the desert, possibly the vanguard of the Amorites, were behind the attack,” postulates Prof. Lorenzo Nigro, head of the excavations.

The ceilings of the palace collapsed in the blaze, burying all under a thick layer of ash and burnt bricks, carbonized beams and combusted stones – and leaving the archaeologists with a snapshot of the besieged citadel's final hours.

Copper arrowheads, carnelian beads and fragments of a potter's wheels were found, along with large quantities of ceramic storage jars containing barley, beer, red ochre and animal fat, as were a large amount of intact pottery vessels, some decorated with snake and scorpion motifs, and imported vases.

Lorenzo Nigro

Tools and objects made of copper, clay, wood, bone, sea-shell, leather and textile demonstrate the brisk flow of goods passing through the palace.

Palace of the Copper Axes

The excavators found the remains of a particularly intriguing rectangular hall, whose roof had been supported by four wooden pillars. Finely plastered hallways led to the main hall - which had a surprise inside.

More then 20 pithoi (storage jars), with a storage capacity of 150 liters were arrayed along the sides of the hall, as well as a large number of smaller vessels, such as red-polished jugs and juglets.

Nigro has a theory about the collection of so many assets in one place. “The hall was a dining hall, where all precious items had been gathered in the days of the final siege of the city,” he told Haaretz.

Lorenzo Nigro

The four copper axes were found at the base of a pillar, wrapped in a rag that left a textile impression on their blades, earning the building the sobriquet of “Palace of the Copper Axes.”

A bear paw was also found nearby, which the zoo-archaeologist F. Alhaique thinks belonged to a bearskin probably used for clothing in the freezing desert winter and windy hills of Batrawy. (There are native bears in the Middle East, such as the honey colored Syrian bear and the desert can get very cold at night, especially in winter.)

A double-handled vessel with a spherical body and a squat grooved pedestal set apart from the ceramic assemblages was also found a few centimeters from the pillar.

“They may hint at the establishment of a 'code' of power: the axes and the bearskin are connected with the idea of a military leader, while the unique ceremonial vessel, which stands out from the others in terms of shape, décor and its base, is possibly related to feasting with this ruler in palace,” Nigro speculates.

Whatever symbols of power these items constituted, they seem to have been of little avail. The palace was deserted before the final attack, as we know because no human remains were found amid the destruction debris, but only animal bones.

Lorenzo Nigro

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