How Hominins Predating Humankind Doomed the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin

Prehistoric Israel was thronged with hominins who made stone tools and left behind heaps of knapping waste. Enter the Romans and then Saladin

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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A modern-day recreation of the Battle of Hattin from 1187.
A modern-day recreation of the Battle of Hattin from 1187.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

On July 4, 1187, a force of Franks defending the Crusader kingdom in Israel were crushed by the Muslim army led by Saladin. Almost a thousand years on, a paper by a team of Israeli archaeologists proposes an unexpected factor behind the rout of the Crusaders in the Battle of Hattin.

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The seeds for the Christian loss were sown in the early and middle Paleolithic, hundreds of thousands of years before the fateful battle in the Lower Galilee that doomed the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, postulate archaeologists – the husband-and-wife team of Rafi Lewis and Rona Avissar Lewis, with Meir Finkel – in a paper published in “Landscapes,” a leading journal of landscape archaeology.

The Landscape of Hattin Project is under the academic sponsorship of the University of Haifa.

Volcanic soil and weird mounds

The land that is today Israel has been occupied since time immemorial. It was one of the avenues by which archaic humans spread from Africa to the rest of the world. Hominin remains are found throughout Israel. Not many skeletons remain after hundreds of thousands of years, but their stone tools abound.

Centuries after the Battle of Hattin, a Scottish explorer named William Rae Wilson visited the Galilee in the early 19th century and evocatively described its black soil (the result of volcanism millions of years ago) and heaps of stones. He assumed the mounds were grave markers. But subsequent exploration found no evidence that casualties of battle had been buried there. Now we know that at least some of these rock piles are relatively modern, created in recent millennia simply by clearing rocks from farmland; many date to the Roman period; and many were identified as flint extraction and knapping waste “tailing piles” from the Lower and Middle Paleolithic.

A modern-day recreation of the Battle of Hattin from 1187.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Tailing piles are organized mounds of limestone waste from long-term prehistoric quarrying for flint (which occurs as nodules within limestone); flint waste of stone tool manufacture; and tool rejects. In the piles, archaeologists have also found basalt wedges that were probably used to widen natural cracks in the rock, Tel Aviv University professors Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai said in 2011. The tailing piles can be as high as 5 meters (over 16 feet), they added.

The tailing piles are the earliest example of extensive human interference in the landscape – humanoid landscaping, the archaeologists tell Haaretz.

In doctoral research under Barkai, Gopher and Erez Ben-Yosef’s supervision, Finkel showed that a geological exposure that appears as a “strip” along northeastern Israel was practically a “flint depot” in prehistoric times. Based on the geochemical fingerprint of the flint, Finkel and his colleagues could even show export of the flint from these “industrial areas.”

The Horns of Hattim in the Lower Galilee, where the Crusaders met their waterloo.Credit: AVRAM GRAICER/Wikimedia

The tailing piles were dated to the early and middle Paleolithic largely based on the type of tools found in them, such as hand axes, large flakes and Levallois-type cores. (It bears adding that in one of these “industrial areas,” Dishon, the archaeologists identified tailing piles from later times: stone tools would go out of fashion only after the Chalcolithic. The advent of metallurgy would take a very long time to produce practical implements that simple households could afford.)

How exactly did these heaps of stones, created by hominins peoples who existed before Homo sapiens, change the outcome of the Battle of Hattin?

Enter Saladin

That last fateful clash between Saladin and the Franks happened in the Plain of Hattin, to the west of the extinct double-cone volcano (which is why it’s known as the “Horns of Hattin.” It’s so eroded that “Bumps of Hattin” might be more apt).

By the time of that battle, the area had become part of a gridded Roman-era system of fields stretching from Nazareth in the west to the Sea of Galilee in the east. Boundary walls and terraces from that time can be seen to this very day.

A modern-day recreation of the Battle of Hattin from 1187.Credit: Gil Eliahu
The Plain of Hattin: how the Crusaders were hemmed in and trappedCredit: Courtesy of the University of Haifa

As befits the Romans, the Galilee also featured a planned system of stone-paved roads, which were built in coordination with the boundaries of the fields, as the archaeologists describe. Pottery evidence shows the grid-pattern of the fields and roads that were built together in the second century.

The Roman fencing works were founded on the prehistoric flint tailing piles, the authors argue. “When it came to landscaping planning, Roman engineers often used preexisting elements in landscapes,” they write. The Romans did much the same, building terraces for farming in central Israel based on ancient terraces built hundreds of years earlier, for example.

And how did this landscape manipulated by the Romans based on prehistoric piles of rocks affect the fight? By constraining the maneuvers of the Frankish fighters, the authors contend. It enabled the Muslim army led by Saladin to trap the enemy in the Plain of Hattin, surrounded on three sides by natural and man-made barriers.

“The Plain of Hattin was a closed area because of the steep slopes to the north and the Horns of Hattin volcano in the east, which was surrounded by massive walls from the late Bronze Age [14th century B.C.E.] and the Iron Age [10th to eighth century B.C.E.],” the archaeologists elaborate. Also, the field system to the south was almost like a fishing net of stone walls and terraces.

A map of the Near East in 1135, between the First and Second Crusades.Credit: MapMaster

On the Plain of Hattin

In their paper, the archaeologists evocatively recap the ferocious battle, which began on July 3, 1187 – a blistering hot day. The Frankish forces set off from camp at the spring of Tzipori (Sepphoris), heading eastward for Tiberias, which Saladin had captured the day before. The Christian and Muslim forces met and clashed in the valley of Tur’an and the Franks lost their rear guard.

The Franks subsequently spent that night by the village of Maskana – where they found themselves skirmishing through the night. At dawn on July 4, they marched onward.

There’s dispute about where the Franks were headed: for Tiberias or toward the springs of Hattin. It was certainly hot and the troops would have been tired and thirsty. In any case, roughly where Kibbutz Lavi is today, they diverted from the main road to Tiberias and at midday, under the burning sun, they entered the Plain of Hattin. And it was there that they met their ignominious end. Many died. The king, Guy of Lusignan, and a host of nobles were taken captive and later ransomed. The “True Cross” was lost, however, and captured lower ranking soldiers were enslaved.

To the untrained eye, the Plain of Hattin doesn’t seem to pose an obstacle to marching forces. Not so, the archaeologists contend. Given the topographical challenges posed by the volcano and walls predating the battle by thousands of years, as they headed eastward toward Tiberias the Crusader forces had to bypass the volcano, trudging along the Roman road, which was surrounded by field walls, terraces and rock piles. The average height of these features was 1.4 meters, the archaeologists say – a high obstacle for a group of armored men on horses.

The Horns of Hattin. Not quite as impressive as they once were.Credit: Ondej vek

The Frankish fighting method depended on coordinated charges by groups of mounted knights, the archaeologists explain. When charging, the riders would break through a ring of foot soldiers protecting them and their steeds from arrows. The efficacy of the charge depended on the amount of mounted fighters falling upon the enemy; the more horses linked together, the better.

But at Hattin, movement was indeed constrained: to bypass the volcano, the Frankish knights had to ride in single file, rendering them vulnerable to blockage of their narrow path – and ambush.

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Since the prehistoric flint extraction and knapping tailing piles predated the Romans and were the foundation on which the Roman roads and field system were based, Lewis, Avissar Lewis and Finkel contend that these piles were significant to the Crusaders’ defeat at the Battle of Hattin. Maybe the Frankish leadership was indeed partly to blame for the debacle, but it was the landscape – a heritage from before our species even set foot on the land – that enabled the Muslim forces to manipulate the Frankish forces, frustrating their drive for the springs of Hattin and Tiberias.

The site of the Battle of Hattin. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Haifa

Hemmed in by the steep slopes descending to the Arbel Valley on the north side, the volcano with the stone walls surrounding it to the east and the field system to the south, the Plain of Hattin became a trap. And so the Kingdom of Jerusalem was lost forever more, thanks in part to early humans creating great piles of their stone-knapping waste.

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