Four years after starting to dig up an ancient Roman outpost in southern Jordan, a team of archaeologists from Tennessee found a unique, and well-preserved, inscription on a rock - revealing that the site is the previously unknown base of a Roman infantry unit involved in crushing the Bar-Kochba rebellion.
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The outpost, 'Ayn Gharandal, lies beneath the dunes around 70 km north of present-day Aqaba, the Jordanian resort city on the Red Sea, and 40 km southwest of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. Its location near a spring-fed oasis between these two famous cities made it an important point along an ancient trade route between the Middle East and the furthest reaches of Rome’s empire.
Evidence of stops on this trade route can be seen throughout Israel’s Negev desert, in the ruins of ancient towns and way-stations, surrounded with the ubiquitous smooth, rusty-orange colored Nabatean pottery sherds. The 'Ayn Gharandal excavation is being directed by Robert Darby, lecturer in art history and Erin Darby, assistant professor at the Department of Religious Studies, both at the in University of Tennessee Knoxville.
The inscription, Latin with traces of red paint, was on the collapsed gate of the Roman fort that the team uncovered. The block was also decorated with laurel branches and a wreath, common symbols of victory in Roman art.
The directors describe finding the more than 500-pound stone as “quite a thing to witness”. So was the discovery of the inscription on the rock, it seems. It took a lot of effort to lift the thing and while about it, since it was covered in sand, one of the workers started brushing the rock with his hand, ignoring the director telling him to cut it out before he could cause damage. But the imprudent act uncovered writing on the slab that caused a sensation throughout the camp.
A dream find
“This is the type of find archaeologists dream of making - a monumental inscription,” Erin Darby says. “This inscription allows us to fill in some gaps in Roman history. Findings like this don’t happen often.”
In fact very few Late Roman building inscriptions have been found at forts in the region, and this is the only one uncovered through archaeological excavation.
Several ancient structures, including a well-preserved Roman bathhouse, have been found at 'Ayn Gharandal. However, the site is dominated by a Late Roman fort about 40 by 40 square meters in area. It is similar to other Late Roman military sites in the region and fits in perfectly with Rome’s imperial presence in the Near East in the late 3rd to early 4th centuries, with the reign of the emperor Diocletian and his three co-rulers, known as the Tetrarchy. However, the ruler who actually wielded the infantry unit against the Jewish rebels was Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 117 to 138.
Their activities were documented by ancient authors such as Eusebius of Caesarea, Ammianus Marcellinus, and John Malalas, all of which spoke of the Late Roman armies' building activity in the East. But this one was unique its dedicatory rock.
The inscription says that the fort was dedicated to four co-ruling Roman emperors: Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius I, the Tetrarchs, who ruled between 293 and 305 A.D.
It also reveals that the infantry unit stationed at the fort was the Cohors II Galatarum, or the Second Cohort of Galatians. It had been established by the emperor Trajan, and is known to have been instrumental to Rome’s victory in the Jewish Wars and in crushing Bar Kochba’s rebellion.
Ancient sources place the unit at a site called "Arieldela," whose location had remained a mystery until this discovery.
Suppressing the revolt
“Roman military documents from this region suggest that the Cohors II Galatarum was originally brought to Israel to help suppress the second-century Jewish uprising known as the Bar Kochba Revolt,” says Robert Darby. “The inscription indicates that this garrison remained in the area and was subsequently transferred to the outer frontier of the empire, located in what is now modern Jordan.”
The inscription has been removed from the site for conservation at the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. It will be unveiled to the public this upcoming June in Jordan.