SIDON, Lebanon: When archaeologist Claude Serhal and her team began excavating the Sidon archaeological site thought to be the famed “pleasure garden of the Persians,” her colleagues at the British Museum anticipated the dig would take two years.
Some 17 years later, Serhal is still digging. There is no trace of the Persian pleasure garden, but the discoveries at the Sidon site are altering long-held global views on the history of the Levant region.
Located on land expropriated by Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities in the 1950s, the excavations in Sidon have uncovered traces of successive civilizations, from the third millennium B.C. through to the Crusader period.
In the old apartment that serves as the dig’s headquarters, trestle tables are covered with shards of pottery. Some of the more complete vessels have been roughly reconstructed; the pieces glued together, leaving jagged holes where fragments have yet to be found. Black plastic crates line the walls from floor to ceiling, labeled with intriguing inscriptions: “East Greek Markings,” “Loom weight and spindle whorl.”
Sidon is mentioned in the Old Testament 35 times and referenced in ancient documents from around the Mediterranean, but until the town’s excavations began, much of the local history was based on conjecture. Now material evidence attests to the day-to-day life of the city’s inhabitants, showing what they wore, what they ate and how they worshipped.
“This site has changed global views on many things,” Serhal says. “People [used to think] that during the Phoenician period [trading] started in the Mediterranean, but this site has shown that it started far earlier than that. … And the amount of contact that we had, the scope of the contact, is far larger than we ever knew it was.
“In terms of highlights,” she adds, “what comes to mind would be the earliest and most ancient export from Crete ever found on the whole of the Levantine coast – a complete cup from the Messara plain.”
Carbon dated to between 1984 and 1859 B.C., the cup is the earliest Minoan import found in the Levant to date, predating those found at other sites, including Beirut and Byblos.
“In terms of inscriptions, we found a cuneiform tablet,” Serhal continues. “Cuneiform is used in Mesopotamia, always through to be something that was used by the kings and courtiers writing to the king.
“Not at all. It was an order for wood – three beds – in cuneiform. And it was a local cuneiform. We were able to know that by the fabric on which it was written, meaning that cuneiform was used in everyday life in Sidon in the 14th century B.C.”
Sidon is the second urban dig to be conducted in Lebanon, after the Beirut Tal was excavated during the 1990s. “What is astonishing here is the continuity,” Serhal says. “The same alignment for millennia. … I think we were on the acropolis, if you want, because this is the old Tal of Sidon. … Everything here is more or less ritual. It’s like the idea of the Roman temple that becomes the church, that becomes the mosque. The third millennium temple becomes a second millennium temple.”
Once she realized the importance of the site, she was convinced that a museum needed to be built to share her findings with the public. Construction began last November, and the framework at the west end of the site has already reached three stories.
Of the most significant objects found on site, 1,400 will be housed in the upper section. Beneath it, an enormous roof will protect the 1,600-square-meter dig, through which visitors will be invited to walk.
“When you take the lift down, you are going to walk on a little platform just above the earth and you will have a journey into time,” Serhal says. “You will start at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. and you will end up in the Crusader period.
“Over the years, we have videoed the way we found the artifacts, meaning that you will see the object upstairs, and then by walking the path of the archaeologist you will see it being excavated.”
The aim of the museum is not only to show valuable objects, such as statuary and jewelry, but to show how archaeologists reconstruct the day-to-day lives of citizens.
“The analysis and the type of excavation that we are conducting is different, so of course the museum is also different,” Serhal explains. “The animal bones, for example. They used to throw them away. We [analyze them]. … It showed us that in the third millennium B.C. we had wild animals in Sidon. We had lions, hippopotami and bears. So you see that we had a forestation.
“We have textiles from burials – imagine, second millennium B.C. textiles, preserved because they were completely calcified – and we were able to see that the knot was Egyptian. The scope is enormous. … We are building a story that is different to what has already been presented to people.”
Items on display will include the skeletons of some of the animals killed by hunters, as well as wheat and barley dating from 2,500 B.C.
“We have become international, not because of the size, not because there are much larger areas that have been excavated, but because of the quality of the work,” Serhal says. “We are in every international conference, everywhere.
“For example we are now doing DNA testing on all our burials – 245 burials to date, in Oxford and in Vienna. It’s an extraordinary exposure for the country. … We knew about Palestine. We knew about Syria. And the link is us.”
Serhal hopes that the museum will also change perspectives closer to home.
“It’s very important in Lebanon, because there is a lack of education,” she says. “For [most] people archaeology means treasure. … They ask you how much it costs, and all they want to do is sell it. … There is a whole perception on the part of the young generation that needs to be changed, and I think it will be instrumental in doing that.”
Serhal is reluctant to give a firm date by which the museum will be finished, but says that the artifacts have already been selected and cataloged and are ready for display. Tailor-made vitrines are being prepared by a specialist company in France.
In the meantime, excavations will continue until the museum is complete – which she hopes will be within the next three years.
“My duty is to leave something from each time period,” says Serhal, who is preparing the excavate the south side of the site this summer.
“I will probably want to excavate further than the Iron Age, for example, but I will leave Iron Age there, because what I’m trying to do here is really have it ready to visualize for people that they are actually going up in time.”
Serhal believes the sacrifice is worth it.
“It’s going to change the vision of Sidon,” she says. “I think it’s going to be a new era.”