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Looking for Kings and Finding Eggplants

Adi Nemia-Cohen, Edna Assis |10/08/2021|181
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For over three years, Oriya Amichay came to the Givati Parking Lot, next to the Dung Gate.  Hidden there is the largest excavation in Jerusalem in recent years.  

In the Givati parking lot, part of the archaeological site of the City of David, remains from many periods have been found since 2007: First Temple Period, Iron Age, Second Temple Period, Roman and Byzantine Periods, and even Early Islamic Period.  Among the many important finds from the site was a market from the Abbasid Period, including important organic materials which shed light on the daily life and menu of Jerusalem’s residents in the 9th century CE.  

We met with Oriya Amichay, archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who wrote her masters thesis on “Diet and Trade in Early-Islamic Period Jerusalem, Based on Plant Remains from the Abbasid Market, City of David” (2014), and we asked about the excavation and why trash heaps are the hottest finds around!

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 ?The excavation in the Givati Parking Lot, it’s so dusty, how do you begin to look for botanical finds?  And what do they look like

We found pits in the area that was excavated from the Abbasid period. Because we didn’t find buildings and architecture, the assumption is that this complex was used as a market - not one built of stone, but containing stalls - and leaving no remains, except for some flimsy walls.  However, even though we didn’t find impressive walls as part of the complex, we found pits.  And in the pits, were discovered a wealth of organic remains - amazing because in Jerusalem’s climate, no organic finds had been previously found ! In the entire land of Israel, there are almost no organic materials preserved in this fashion, with the exception of organic material that was burnt, or initially dried (like seeds).  One hypothesis is that the plants underwent a chemical process and produced a sort of “fossilization” or “calcification”, a sort of compost that didn’t decay.   There are all kinds of hypotheses about how this happened, but they cannot be proven at this stage.

When did you realize that you were talking about organic material?

The finds in the excavation were immediately apparent to the eye; it was apparent from the first moment that we found something different, and from that point identification was easy.  The organic material was mixed with pottery sherds and many broken, crushed eggshells and bones.  The remains were dated to between 850-1000 CE.

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Photos of archaeobotanical finds (clockwise): Olive (Olea europaea var. souri), Eggplant (Solanum melongena), Syrian Pear (Pyrus syriaca), Apple (Malus domestica). (From the MA thesis of Oriya Amichay)

? So you understood that you had made a stunning discovery!  How did you begin to identify and evaluate what the finds were

In archaeology, one always keeps future research in mind - which new technologies will develop and how can we examine and excavate differently; and therefore, you need to plan now, for tomorrow.  We excavated in 20 cm layers, in order to know if there was a different preservation method.  We divided the pit into layers, and also made models from the center of the pit and from the edges of the pit.  But we didn’t find anything significant.  We gathered the material, and then  it was very difficult to separate all the material that we found.  We took 2 liters from every sample, and analyzed the remains over the course of a year - again, a process taking a lot of time and lots of hard work.  We sifted the material through 5 sieves of different sizes - we are speaking of differences of millimeters.  In the wet sifting it was possible to identify the seeds which look like small stones.  After we sifted the seeds, we began the process of separation and identification.  

How can you identify seeds? 

The laboratory work is done with a microscope, to identify similar seeds.  We are speaking of a Sisyphean task.  Raw ingredients look the same with only very slight differences.  So strawberry seeds are not similar to grains, and don’t look like nightshades, but then you need to compare the seeds to another 600 kinds.  Of course in work like this, we are assisted by specialists and also other colleagues, and in the end, we don’t identify everything.  

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In our series “Eating in Jerusalem”, we wrote about the discovery of eggplant seeds because we believed it is important for understanding the changing agriculture and ingredients in Israel. What else did you discover?

The discovery of eggplant was very amazing, something special.  Most of the seeds which were in the organic remains were already known from the Early Moslem Period, but the eggplant was the new discovery associated with my research.  It was fun to uncover something new and it made the research “juicy”.  Generally it was exciting to find plants which continue to be used until today, like fennel.  Besides food, in the organic finds we also discovered Cordia sinensis, a non-edible plant used for building bird cages;  this sheds additional light on daily life, outside of food.  We also found a plant used as laundry soap.

In short, why should we focus on food in archaeological research?

This is daily life; and there is no other way to know that in Jerusalem, birds were caged other than through these finds.  This knowledge cannot be known through other means.  It was also interesting to discover that there is continuity of food and ingredients, and to identify the arrival of new ingredients.  For instance, the quantity of grapes that are found is very interesting.  Because we are talking about the Moslem Period, we need to ask questions like:  was there already a prohibition on wine?  Maybe we are speaking about raisins or grapes which were not crushed?  Or perhaps the prohibition on drinking wine was circumvented by grapes coming into the market in other forms?  The importance of archaeobotany is that archaeology enters the home and opens the pantry and exposes who you are and what you love, and what you love to eat.  And what makes this study even more interesting, is that we also rummage through your neighbors pantry and see who eats what.   We discover a broader, larger picture and get to know the people who lived then.  Through archaeobotany a picture is created of the person who walked in the market, and the things he bought; it exposes the woman doing laundry, and the children who ran after the birds and hunted them.  The work is slow but it completes the picture, every seed we exposed in the laboratory, adds another dimension to the picture.

Translation: Leiah Jaffe

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