Archaeology Magazine

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Expanding the Story

New discoveries are overturning long-held assumptions and revealing previously ignored complexities at the desert castle of Khirbet al-Mafjar


Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Khirbet Bathouse Mosaic 

In 1935, Dmitri Baramki, a young archaeologist working for the British administration in his native Palestine, began excavating three dirt mounds outside the ancient city of Jericho 25 miles east of Jerusalem. Baramki was concerned that important evidence of a Byzantine church or monastery inside the mounds was being destroyed by the locals’ habit of pilfering and reusing the ancient stones for building material. However, he soon realized that what he had found was not a Christian religious building at all, but instead, the remains of an eighth-century Islamic palace.


Though much of the palace complex was in shambles, likely destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 747, Baramki’s team nevertheless unearthed detailed mosaics and stuccowork of the highest quality that once had decorated the palace’s walls and floors. Baramki also discovered a white marble ostracon inscribed in ink in Arabic reading “Hisham, commander of the faithful.” The phrase is probably the opening of a letter, and is the only writing found at the site. Local residents, who had previously called the mounds Khirbet al-Mafjar, “Ruins of Flowing Water,” for their location near an aqueduct, began referring to them as “Hisham’s Palace.” Soon archaeologists concluded that the palace had been built during the reign of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the tenth Umayyad caliph (r. A.D. 724-743), Islam’s chief religious and political leader.


Khirbet Inscription Hisham

The Umayyads were a merchant family from Syria who converted to Islam in 627. Islam’s founder, Muhammad, died in 632 without leaving a clear system of succession, ushering in a period of strife. By 661 the Umayyads had ascended to the caliphate, having won the first of many wars fought for leadership of the religion and its growing sphere of influence. The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, moved the caliphate’s capital from Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia, to Damascus, in modern-day Syria, where the family already had high standing, thereby boosting the power and legitimacy of the new leader. For 89 years the Umayyads reigned over an empire stretching from India to Spain. Their fragile hold on power was constantly threatened by various groups claiming rights to the caliphate, and they ultimately lost several key military battles to the Abbasid Dynasty, who finally wrested away control in 750.


Robert W. Hamilton was the head of the British Mandate for Palestine’s Department of Antiquities who oversaw Baramki’s excavations at Khirbet al-Mafjar and eventually joined him at the dig in the later 1940s. The sumptuous nature of the palace, much more extensively decorated than other Umayyad desert compounds found across the Middle East, could, thought Hamilton, only be fully explained by linking it to one particular short-lived caliph—a nephew of Hisham named Walid ibn Yazid, known from later Islamic writers for his love of music, wine, and women. “It existed for reasons which must be sought not in the realm of public affairs but in that of personal pleasure,” Hamilton wrote in his 1959 book, Khirbat al-Mafjar: An Arabian Mansion in the Jordan Valley. In another book, Walid and His Friends, Hamilton relates a story from the tenth-century text of Islamic historian Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani about Walid bathing in a tub of wine, and then emerging intoxicated with the level of wine in the tub significantly lowered. Al-Isfahani does not mention where this episode took place, but Hamilton writes that it occurred in the palace’s bathhouse.

Khirbet Excavation Stables
The Palace’s Other Lives

Samhain Revival

Looking for the roots of Halloween in Ireland’s Boyne Valley


Monday, October 17, 2016

Samhain Ireland Tlachtga excavation


It is the night of October 31, and hundreds of people have gathered at the Hill of Ward, once known as Tlachtga, in County Meath, Ireland. Some wear robes and masks and carry torches and banners emblazoned with spiritual symbols. It is all part of a revival of the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”) that includes processions, chanting, and storytelling. “Let’s raise our voices together and call back Tlachtga from the mist of time,” proclaims Deborah Snowwolf Conlon, one of the festival’s organizers. It is a contemporary celebration repeated annually, of a piece with countless other seasonal celebrations across the world that have roots both modern and ancient. In this case, neither the choice of site nor date is incidental: The Hill of Ward was one of the main spiritual centers for the ancient Celts, and Samhain was first celebrated at the same time of year millennia ago. New archaeological work is looking closely at the history of the Hill of Ward, which until recently had been overlooked in Ireland’s archaeologically rich Boyne Valley. Researchers are hoping to discover how its use and value evolved over the centuries—along with the traditional rites and celebrations that eventually led to the modern festival of Halloween.


Only 30 miles north of Dublin, the Boyne Valley is the location of one of the world’s most important arrays of prehistoric sites. It includes the well-known “passage tombs” of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, which at around 5,500 years old predate even the pyramids of Egypt. The Hill of Tara, the traditional seat of the ancient High Kings of Ireland, is also nearby. Among them sits the relatively modest Hill of Ward, on privately owned farmland, with striking views across the valley. The site today consists of four concentric earthworks that enclose an area roughly 500 feet in diameter, with some of the banks either partially or completely destroyed. Though some archaeological survey work was done at the Hill of Ward in the 1930s, the site was virtually untouched until summer 2014, when a team led by Stephen Davis of University College Dublin began excavations.


Using lidar and geophysical tools, Davis and his team have determined that the Hill of Ward was built in three distinct phases over many centuries. The first phase was constructed during the Bronze Age (1200–800 B.C.), while the last dates to the late Iron Age, around the time of Ireland’s conversion to Christianity (A.D. 400–520). “The middle phase, or physical center, of the monument, which itself was built in multiple stages,” explains Davis, “is proving the most mysterious.” Much of the excavation work done to date at the Hill of Ward has focused on this middle phase, which is providing tantalizing clues into the ritual roles it may have played throughout the centuries.