How To See Palestine: An ABC of Occupation

J is for Jericho

A ‘tell’ is the name for an archaeological mound created by an abandoned human occupation. In Tell es Sultan, just outside Jericho, the British architect Kathleen M. Kenyon excavated human settlements reaching back to 10,000 BCE. That’s the very beginning of the Holocene, meaning the 'new recent' epoch, the now concluded window in the Earth system in which stable climatic conditions allowed for settled agriculture and what we call civilization, living in cities.

Kenyon’s signature 'stratigraphic' style allows us to see the unfolding of human possibility from that early period, via the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to the Romans. Her vertical method emphasizes visualizing these changes over time, rather than allowing for a horizontal exploration of how people lived in any one epoch. Everything changes. An urban civilization fell c. 2530 BCE. It was not restored until 1900 BCE.

We mostly do that now, live in cities. The trash, carbon dioxide and other pollutants created in that settlement have ushered in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, meaning the 'new human.' Geologists debate exactly when it began. Some see it as being just another way to say the Holocene, so that this trench would also be its beginning.

The Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), which is itself the largest scientific organization within the International Union of Geological Sciences, favors a more recent moment, about 1950 when nuclear fallout became measurable worldwide. The first nuclear device was detonated in the New Mexico desert in 1945 in land that looks much like the Jericho desert. That would be the global Nakba (catastrophe), followed by the local example in Palestine in 1948.

Kenyon's dig began in 1952, looking at the beginning of the Holocene from the first moments of the Anthropocene. She reported that a permanent spring rose at Jericho and that 

The soil of the Jordan Valley is very fertile with irrigation, and the abundant water supply, coupled with the fertility of the soil and a sub-tropical climate, provided conditions very favourable to primitive agriculture 

The spring is gone now, as is the water, tapped by the regime upstream. It's dry and dusty now, hard to visualize as a cradle of civilization. Not long ago, it was easy to do that.

In her book Digging Up Jericho, published in 1957, it turns out that Tell es Sultan bordered on a major Palestinian refugee camp known as 'Ein-as-Sultan, which sheltered about 20,000 people until the 1967 war drove most of them away. The refugees worked on the dig, being paid about half what a British servant of the period would have received. They also dug into the tel themselves, using its clay soil for building bricks. In so doing, they accidentally discovered tomb sites that Kenyon's vertical method would have ignored. It's only from these tombs that we have a sense of how the people lived, not just when their cities rose and fell.

These were farmers, harvesting crops and keeping animals. They had rush mats laid over plaster floors in spacious dwellings. In 8350 BCE. We have not come so far since then. Their surviving art is in the form of evocative portrait skulls. The makers took a human skull, coated it with plaster to form a face and sometimes added 'eyes' in the form of cowrie shells.
These should be the point at which any survey course of the history of art begins and I had never heard of them before--perhaps that's my ignorance to be sure. 

The city of the earliest time had a dramatic wall.

It's far too early to be Joshua's wall of course but Kenyon and others interpreted it as a defensive structure because Anthropocene minds see war everywhere. Later archaeologists pointed out that the wall didn't go all the way around the city and proposed that it was built to protect against flooding from the nearby wadi. Even then, the water got in sometimes as layers of silt reveal. Human history seems very brief here, a window between floods, a journey from a moment where the only risk was a winter storm to the present permanent counterinsurgency with its 'see something, say something' culture.

Of course, there's no mention of the Palestinian involvement in the dig at the site today or that the objects it uncovered are mostly in Jordan. Like much of the rest of Palestine, it's dressed up to allow tourist to say that they saw Biblical sites, in this case Jericho. And the 1936 British excavation during the Mandate period had claimed that the walls were confirmation of the Bible story. The big white tourist buses duly arrive and take a look at what they mistakenly believe to be the fallen walls of Jericho and leave.

Look up at the mountains above, which Kenyon called the mountains of Moab and Gilead, and you realize what a mote in the eye of geological time these little ripples have been. No occupation lasts forever, even the human occupation of the Earth.

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