Jordan's Milk and Honey

Margaret Jervis on a new exhibition at the British Museum on the Egyptian empire.

New-found treasures of the later dynasties of the Egyptian empire in the twelfth century BC can be seen in a special exhibition entitled 'Digging in Jordan' which opens this month at the British Museum.

The British Museum's excavations at Tell es Sa'ideyeh, just east of the Jordan river, furnish a rich insight into the opulence of a period of transition just prior to the rise of the Israelites.

Fighting off the incursions of the Sea Peoples, the name given by the Egyptians to the cultural rotavators of the east and west Mediterranean, Egypt embarked on a radical restructuring and rationalisation of its empire in Canaan.

At the instigation of Ramesses II around the hypothetical period of the exodus, cities were abandoned with local inhabitants retreating to pastoral subsistence in the hill country, while strategically important outposts were strengthened which, for a fleeting moment of history, flourished.

Perhaps comparable to a Birmingham of the late Bronze Age, the inland city at Tell es Sa'ideyeh briefly enjoyed frenetic prosperity as a metal bashing, craft and distribution centre to service ailing Egypt.

Project director Dr Jonathan Tubb, who has been uncovering remains at Tell es Sa'ideyeh since 1985, says the findings demonstrate the resilience of the New Kingdom Egyptian empire in the face of ever worsening domestic conditions. 'This is the only site of its kind east of the River Jordan and shows how far Egypt had to stretch to satisfy its needs for food supplies,' he says.

The site also provides intriguing evidence of the inland presence of the Sea Peoples, who are linked with Mycaenae and the tales of Homer.

'There seem to have been groups of Sea Peoples working for the Egyptians performing specialised metalworking. We have found a significant number of coffins consisting of two jars shoulder to shoulder. This type of burial is unusual and indicative of a south-west Anatolian or Aegean origin related to, but distinct from, the Philistine coffins of the coast,' says Dr Tubb.

The disruptive effect of the Sea Peoples destroyed the Egyptian empire by around 1150 BC. But the onset of the Dark Ages was a period of synthesis leading to the emergence of classical Greece in the west and the biblical foundations of Judaism in the east.

With an increasing number of Canaanite ex-city dwellers, known as hapiru (meaning dispossessed) gathering in the hills, Egypt's need to protect the Jordan valley food supplies fostered a siege mentality at Tell es Sa'ideyeh with its city walls a massive six metres thick.

As with many other sites in Canaan, its final demise was not due to direct attack, but to the growing fear of isolation as military and trade routes were cut off by the marauding Philistines to the south-west.

At the same time elements of the refugee hapiru, including the people of the Exodus, began to organise, eventually cohering to become known as the Hebrews. As the Egyptians retreated from the interior, cities were re-occupied by the Hebrews forming a nation by the time of Saul around 1000 BC. This habit of squatting, combined with their nomadic past, proscription of graven images and the rudimentary aesthetic qualities of their artefacts render the Hebrews a poor subject for archaeological study, though as a people they come alive through their literature and history recorded in the Bible.

By contrast the inner lives of the people at Tell es Sa'ideyeh are invisible, though evidence of their opulent lifestyle abounds. Jewellery, metalwork and weaponry which Dr Tubb describes as 'outstanding and of immediate museum worthiness' are on display at the exhibition, together with photographs of the buildings and architectural structure of the site, which included a sophisticated water supply system similar to those found in mainland Greece.

The project team is well aware of the limitations of archaeology in reconstructing the past. Abjuring any conjecture in superimposing retrospective images on the people of Tell es Sa'ideyeh, the exhibition highlights the process of excavation and its agents: 'We wanted to give archaeology a human face, with pictures of the team and opportunity to see the tools of the trade', says Dr Tubb.

The twenty-strong archaeological team has a complement of eighty unskilled workers, but there are no prospects for untrained British volunteers. 'We only employ local workers', he says.

But all is not lost for the amateur smitten by the enduring romance of piecing together the shreds of ancient history. There are regular opportunities for volunteers on digs abroad says Dr Tubb. Listings can be Sound in the booklet produced by the organisation Archaeology Abroad.

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