Israel sits smack on a yawning fault in the Earth’s crust stretching 6,000 kilometers from Syria in the north to south-east Africa. The nations straddling this crack in the crust, the Great Rift Valley, are prone to earthquakes and now archaeologists have uncovered fresh evidence of a big one that shook the land in the year 363 CE – from which the ancient town of Hippos-Sussita never fully recovered.
In the latest excavation season, an international team of archaeologists led by Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa found a number of crushed skeletons, including that of a woman with a gold dove-shaped pendant, lying under the tiles of a collapsed roof at Hippos-Sussita. They also found evidence that the quake destroyed not only the basilica (which back then meant a roofed civilian building, not a church) and also the city’s huge Roman bathhouse. In the remains of the bathhouse, they found a large muscular-looking marble leg of a man leaning against a tree, as well as artillery ammunition.
This season the Canadians in the team also found evidence that a colonnaded street passed through the city, stretching 600 meters from east to west. The archaeologists are still excavating the bastion, the main defense post of the Roman-period city, notably the fortified position of a huge catapult that propelled “ballista” stones. The catapult arm was apparently eight meters long, say the archaeologists, who have found a number of projectiles that would fit the massive machine, as well as smaller balls that were used on smaller ballista machines. The smaller ones weren’t using pebbles: They could launch rock balls “slightly smaller than soccer balls” as far as 350 meters. Still impressive.
The team, under senior area supervisor Haim Shkolnik, also found a superb marble sculpture of a muscular right leg leaning on a tree. There’s no telling who it was: “It could be the sculpture of a god or an athlete; it was more than two meters tall. We hope to find more parts of the sculpture in the coming seasons to shed some light on his identity,” says Eisenberg.
Lying waste for 20 years
The freshly discovered skeletons have yet to undergo anthropological examination: Not much else can be said about them at this stage, certainly not the religious affiliation of the people. Judging by the prevailing practices in the region, they could have been Christian, Jewish or pagan, says Eisenberg.
What can be said is that other cities such as Tiberias and Beit Shean went on to bigger and better things after being all but destroyed in that very same earthquake in 363 CE – but not Hippos-Sussita. Life there did continue until a final quake on January 8 in the year 749 destroyed the city once and for all. But the interim version of Hippos-Sussita was a far cry from the first.
“An earthquake or any other natural disaster isn’t enough to stop life in a flourishing city, unless they are totally devastating like the case of Pompeii,” explains Eisenberg. “It usually takes other circumstances for that to happen.”
An archaeological smoking gun shows that Sussita stood desolate for some 20 years before being rebuilt in a lesser version. Coins found sandwiched in the debris were dated to 362 or earlier; other coins found in the next layer above that were dated from 383 and later, Eisenberg notes.
Thus for some 20 years, either nobody dropped any coins – or the land lay waste.
Anyway, Hippos-Sussita did stagger back to its feet, but not as a vibrant city with a basilica and huge bathhouse. These were never rebuilt, says Eisenberg. It became an industrial town.
Sussita had been a huge city for the first Christians, who maintained a bishop in the town from the year 359 CE. It was the capital of the whole region – but its stature was eroding even during the Byzantine era, well before the early Islamic era began.
“It wasn’t a problem of freedom of worship,” says Eisenberg; the town – no longer a city – had plenty of churches. But they were smaller. Much of the old town had been abandoned and did not arise anew. Another structure not rebuilt was the roofed odeon – a small theater housing up to 500 people for poetry readings and the like, says Eisenberg.
Instead of great urban monuments, the second Sussita had become an industrial town making olive oil, wine, and baked goods, the archaeologists learned during the last two excavating seasons. By the first half of the 8th century, the relative impoverishment was evident, he says.
The Roman basilica, a civilian administration edifice, dated from the end of the 1st century. It was a huge roofed structure that housed commerce, shops, money changers and was also where the town magistrate sat but it had no religious significance. “During the Byzantine era, part of the basilica structures would be turned into churches,” which created a great deal of confusion about the term itself, Eisenberg says.
As for the affiliation of the people whose remains have now been found after nearly 2,000 years, that’s anybody’s guess. “It was the start of the Christian era in our area,” says Eisenberg, but the town and whole region now called the Golan Heights could well have been peopled by a mix of Jews, Christians and pagans, who still abounded at the time.
Anyway, Sussita was to become very Christian until its final destruction in another great earthquake, in 749. As the town weakened, there just was not enough force to rebuild it and possibly, there was no need. The second quake in 749 CE had been the straw that broke the camel’s back.