The Phoenicians live again

Tanit bulla from Kedesh

Tanit bulla from Kedesh

The lecture, given to the Toronto branch of the Archaeological Institute of America, was entitled, “In Search of the Last of the Phoenicians,” which conveys some idea of Dr. Sharon Herbert’s wry sense of humour and her cheerful attitude toward her work. Because of course the “last” Phoenicians are still alive today, in Lebanon, and the lecture title was only a play on a famous book title.

But the Phoenicians as we think of them — the descendants of the biblical Canaanites; seafarers and traders whose alphabet became the basis of almost all modern western alphabets and probably some north African — did seem to drop out of both the literary and archaeological record after the conquests of Alexander the Great. There’s a rather large gap, to put it mildly, between the 4th century BCE and the present day, between the Phoenicians of old and their modern descendants.

But that’s where University of Michigan archaeologist Sharon Herbert’s cheerful attitude comes in, because her digs in northern Israel have been astoundingly successful, rewriting a little history, and finding more traces of the Phoenicians on top of that.

It was when she and others were excavating at Tel Anafa, discovering a Hellenic complex beneath the ruins of Roman sheds, that Herbert realized there were elements to the building and its decoration that didn’t quite ring true to a Hellenic style. For one thing, they found pottery bearing the stamp of a Phoenician craftsman. And they unearthed a large public bath with stuccoed walls and a mosaic floor, and realized it was in a Punic style. That’s Punic, as in — Phoenician. And the closest parallel to such a place that had previously been found was in a suburb of ancient Carthage — the Phoenician colony.

What Herbert surmised was that this had been the home of a Phoenician family living in the Greek milieu of the day, yet also maintaining their historical ethnic identity and heritage. But she and her team could get a clearer picture by moving across the valley to Tel Kedesh (one of several ancient places that bore that name), a site they knew for sure had once been under the influence of the Phoenicians. If they found similar buildings or artifacts there, they would know they’d found at least some people retaining their ancient identity even as late as the 2nd century BCE.

And so it transpired. Further digs at this larger site found not only the Phoenicians, but Persians as well. Later history had been aware of one Persian administrative centre when the empire had controlled this part of the world, but that had been farther south. Now Herbert’s team found what is currently known as the PHAB — Persian Hellenic Administrative Building — the site of the northern Persian administrative centre, its walls providing the foundations for those of the later Hellenic edifice. The archaeologists discovered a room where documents had formerly been stored, leaving behind more than 2000 bullae, that is, impressions taken from official seals.

Even more significantly, many of those seals were carved with an “Aphrodite” that more closely resembled the Phoenician goddess Ashtarte-Tanit than any Greek goddess. And these seals bore an inscription meaning, “He who is over the land.” Which meant that the Governor at this administrative centre identified himself in some way with the power of the Phoenicians. They still had that much of an identity.

It only stands to reason, says Herbert. As she puts it, “The Greeks didn’t do genocide,” so the Phoenicians simply remained in their ancient land, gradually becoming assimilated into the overlying culture, yet retaining some memory of who they had always been.

We in the audience followed raptly as Herbert described her own history of archaeological discovery, in both words and slides. And for just a little while, the immaterial shades of the ancient Phoenicians took on more substance as their lives once again intersected the flow of living time.

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