Oldest known Middle Bronze Age murals in the Levant revealed by researchers from AUB and University of Tübingen

​​​​​Safa Jafari Safa, ​Office of Communications, communications@aub.edu.lb

The results of 17 years of excavation and analyses of the Tell el-Burak archaeological site, on the Mediterranean coast south of Sidon, Lebanon, have been published. The publication documents joint efforts that started in 2001 under the direction of Dr. Hélène Sader from AUB and Dr. Uwe Finkbeiner, succeeded in 2003 by Dr. Jens Kamlah from the University of Tübingen, Germany, and the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. 

The publication comprises volume 45,1 of the series Abhandlungen des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins under the title Tell el-Burak I: The Middle Bronze Age – with Chapters Related to the Mamluk Ottoman Periods (Harrassowitz), edited by Drs. Kamlah and Sader. 

Five former AUB students, Jack Nurpetlian, Nathalie Kallas, Kamal Badreshany, Lana Shehadeh, and Daisy Kamel, are contributors to the book, in addition to former students from the universities of Tübingen and Mainz, Henricke Michelau, Julia Bertsch, and Aaron Schmitt. 

“The Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project was an opportunity for AUB students to complete the fieldwork requirement for graduation,” said Dr. Sader. “Students not only learned excavation methods but also prepared reports, wrote theses on the Burak material, and some contributed to the final publication.”

The publication offers a report on the Mamluk-Ottoman occupation of the site, which presents for the first time Mamluk domestic architecture and related finds from a Lebanese rural settlement. It then focuses mainly on the discovery of a 42 x 31.5m large Middle Bronze Age palace built with square mudbricks, the first of its kind to be discovered in Lebanon. The importance of this palace resides in its building technique and its wall paintings.

The palace is a 4,000-year-old monumental building dating to ca. 1900 BCE. It consists of an upper and a lower sector which is communicated by two stairwells placed symmetrically on both sides of the central courtyard. Eighteen rooms surrounded the latter with a double row of rooms only in the western, sea-side part of the building. The fills in room 10, the largest room of the building, preserved its painted mudbrick walls to their original height (3.5m). These murals are the oldest Middle Bronze Age paintings known to date in the Levant. 

The exposed paintings on the eastern long wall show two registers separated by a band made of geometrical motifs: on the upper register is a hunting scene with two dogs chasing gazelles towards a hunter and on the lower one is a procession of people walking to the right towards a yet unexposed object or person. In the corner of this and the south short wall is a winding tree painted on top of a heap of plaster symbolizing a hill. An unidentified animal standing on its back hoofs is nibbling on it. This is a rendering of a very widespread motif in Mesopotamia and Egypt known as the Tree of Life. On the short wall is a poorly preserved scene involving squatting men. 

These wall paintings are inspired by ancient Egyptian art and they show strong similarities with the Beni Hassan tomb paintings. They demonstrate that Byblos was not the only harbor on the Lebanese coast trading with Egypt in the Middle Bronze Age, as is commonly assumed, but that Sidon had equally active trade and cultural relations with Egypt. 

According to Dr. Sader, the analysis of the painting technique revealed the presence of the oldest forerunner of fresco painting as the preliminary drawings were applied on the still wet plaster and combined with it. “The fresco painting technique may have originated and developed in the Levant long before its use in the later Minoan-Aegean paintings, namely on the island of Crete” she said.

The project was executed with the permission and support of the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities and in partnership with by the Henkel and Thyssen Foundations, the Deutscher Verein zur Erforschung Palästina, and the society of the Friends of the University of Tübingen on the German side, and by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the University Research Board of the American University of Beirut on the Lebanese side. The German Archaeological Institute funded activities requiring specialists such as the maritime, geo-physical, and geo-morphological surveys as well as the restoration and conservation of the wall paintings.

Dr. Hélène Sader is a tenured professor of archaeology at the Department of History and Archaeology of AUB. She served twice as the department’s chair (2001-04 and 2010-13) and as associate dean of FAS (2004-09). Her research interests include the archaeology and history of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, particularly the Iron Age, as well as Phoenician Epigraphy.