Two years ago, it still did not seem completely real: Satellite photos and ground-penetrating radar images marked out for archaeologists the location of the permanent camp of the Roman legion that ruled all of northern Israel almost 2,000 years ago. The camp, near Kibbutz Megiddo, was discovered under a broad field used for farming located between the archaeological site of Tel Megiddo, where 24 layers of human settlement have been uncovered, and the village of Otnai, which was discovered under the grounds of the Megiddo Prison and includes one of the earliest churches ever uncovered.
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Last winter’s heavy rains exposed part of the camp, which housed about 5,000 Roman soldiers, at the site known as Legio; and today parts of the streets running through the camp can be identified, as well as the orderly arrangement of the water pipes in the middle of the streets and the sewerage channels on both sides of them. The excavations also uncovered parts of the large bath house that was part of the home of the commander of the camp, which is paved with tiles bearing the stamp of the legion that was camped nearby.
Archaeologist Yotam Tepper, codirector of the excavation together with archaeologists Jonathan David and Matthew Adams, said the findings clearly show the commander’s importance and wealth.
The excavation is being carried out by the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research with the cooperation of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as part of the broader Jezreel Valley Regional Project;
In the second century of the Common Era the Legio Secunda Traiana, or Trajan’s Second Legion – named after the emperor himself – arrived at the site, which became the Roman military headquarters for the entire north. The legion built a permanent camp, and 20 years later it was replaced by the Legio VI Ferrata – the Sixth Ironclad Legion, which stayed in the area for about 200 years in a camp that spread over some 150 dunams (about 37 acres), said Tepper.
As opposed to what is commonly thought, there was also a good side to the military rule over the region: “The soldiers of the Roman legion did not only rape and loot, they also built and paved [roads],” Tepper said.
The legion had engineering and technology units that helped develop the country, he noted. They were the masters of water and sewerage systems. The Roman army, like the American army today, brought new technologies with them, he said. “The residents of the village of Otnai used twisting paths that were washed away in the winter, and the Romans arranged roads eight meters wide for them for use throughout the year.”
This Roman exactitude can be seen clearly at the site in the water system and the roads, says Tepper. The site was a major way station on the road between Beit She’an and Caesarea, and the original Megiddo junction was at its center, not far from today’s modern intersection.
There was a close relationship between Otnai and the legion camp, and the families of Christian soldiers lived in the village, alongside Jewish and Samaritan residents, with everyone keeping their own traditions. The prayer hall in the village, with a mosaic floor, was funded by one of the officers from the camp.
The camp is similar to legion camps in the western part of the Roman Empire, which were usually built on the same model, and previous excavations of such camps aided the archaeologists in building their picture of where to dig. There are no other similar camps in Israel, Tepper noted, though there is the camp of the 10th Legion in Jerusalem, but this is buried under seven other layers of archaeological finds from different periods.
“The most important finding in this dig was to understand the camp itself,” said Tepper.
In archaeological terms, what is good about the site is that nothing was ever built over it later, which made the excavations far simpler and straightforward. The nearby Roman-Byzantine city was built later on the nearby hills and not on the lower fields.
When the legion finally abandoned the camp, they did so in an orderly fashion, which also makes this site rather exceptional. It means there were very few finds accidently left behind, and almost everything was removed except for the buildings, roads and infrastructure. But the archaeologists still found a number of small items such as oil lamps, coins, metal tools, chiseled stone table legs in the form of panthers, and pieces of Roman armor.