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Excavations at Maresha Subterranean Complex 169: Final Report, Seasons 2000–2016

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Excavations at Maresha Subterranean Complex 169: Final Report, Seasons 2000–2016

By Ian Stern (Annual of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology 11). Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press 2019. Pp. 407. $100. ISBN 9780878201792 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Since the late 19th century, Maresha has stood apart from most other Hellenistic sites in the southern Levant for its cosmopolitan character and the labyrinthine subterranean complexes quarried out of the local chalk and used as basements for the structures above. Subterranean Complex 169 (hereafter SC169) is distinctive even at Maresha for its size and the quantity and variety of its finds. Across the 21 chapters of the volume reviewed here, Stern and the other members of the Maresha team present a wide array of material, from pottery (chs. 2, 3), lamps (ch. 10), and faunal remains (ch. 11) to Aramaic and Greek inscriptions (chs. 12, 16), stamps, seals and seal impressions (chs. 6, 8), jewelry (ch. 19), game boards (ch. 9), and many others besides. While the range of finds is impressive in itself, equally impressive is the team’s publication of them within a few years of the excavation’s conclusion, ensuring that no unglamorous or onerous-to-study artifacts linger in total obscurity. Two of Stern’s claims about the significance of Maresha and SC169 are borne out by the material published here: first, that in the Hellenistic period Maresha was an especially diverse and well-connected city compared to many other inland sites of the southern Levant; and second, the likelihood that SC169 is located in the vicinity of an aboveground sanctuary. Eclectic finds of a probable cultic or votive function include, but are not limited to, Aramaic divination texts (ch. 12), Greek, Egyptian, and Idumaean-style figurines (ch. 13), circumcised chalk phalli (ch. 5), incense altars (ch. 4), and large clay cylindrical vessels called kernoi with many lamps mounted on them that are nearly unique to Maresha (ch. 10). 

Another significant trend evident across several chapters is the chronological distribution of datable finds. Maresha was abandoned in 107 BCE after an attack by John Hyrcanus I, and this provides a terminus ante quem for Hellenistic occupation of the site and a likely circumstance for the final filling of many of the subterranean complexes, most of which have a corresponding abundance of well-preserved late second-century BCE material. But while there are finds dating to the late second century BCE in SC169, much more third-century BCE material appears than in other published complexes. In “Imported Pottery and Selected Locally Made Vessels” (ch. 3), Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom notes that Attic dishes of third- and early second-century BCE date make up the bulk of a “conspicuous” quantity of black-slipped imported pottery in SC169 (41). In contrast, Eastern Sigillata A vessels that are abundant in the region late in the second century BCE and well attested elsewhere at Maresha are “relatively scarce” in SC169 (58). In “The Amphora Stamps” (ch. 17), Gerald Finkielsztejn shows that more than 61% of the stamped amphora handles from SC169 date to the final two-thirds of the third century and notes that none date later than ca. 123 BCE (298–99). In “The Coins” (ch. 18), Donald Ariel notes that an “anomalously high” percentage of coins dating to the third century BCE were found in SC169 compared to other excavated areas of Maresha and nearby sites (327). In “Oil Lamps” (ch. 10), Einat Ambar-Armon highlights that in SC169, unlike some areas at Maresha, wheelmade lamps are more abundant than moldmade lamps that are generally later in date and suggests this could indicate a conservative taste among the people who used the sanctuary near SC169 (163). But given the chronology of other datable finds, it is likely that the lamps are another indication that the fill of SC169 was richer in earlier Hellenistic debris than other areas at Maresha. The quantity and character of datable third-century BCE material is notable at an inland southern Levantine site, where recognizable third-century remains, especially imports, are generally scarce compared to those of the second century BCE. If much of the cultic and votive debris in SC169 dates to the same horizon as these datable finds and nearby Area 800 was indeed a sanctuary in intensive use at this time, it is one of the only monumental public complexes dating to the third century BCE in the southern Levant. The chronology of its founding and intensive use perhaps corresponds with the Phoenician sanctuary at Umm el-‘Amed in southern Lebanon, where a similarly diverse range of cultural influences is evidenced and monumental building was carried out in the final decades of the third century BCE.

The chronological distribution of finds and the leveled-off rather than cone-shaped fill more typical in subterranean complexes at Maresha (ix) suggests there was something unique about the deposition in SC169. Unfortunately, it was excavated under the assumption that the fill was unstratified and could not be differentiated, with the result that excavation loci were only changed annually within each chamber. Stern suggests that the presence of Iron Age and Persian sherds from each season’s excavation demonstrates that this was one mixed fill (36, 405), but such a pattern could also be the result of multiple filling episodes that each included small quantities of residual material. Given the concentrations of third-century objects noted (e.g., 299) in some spaces, the reader could wonder whether one or more fill units were deposited in the late third century BCE, perhaps in association with construction or remodeling in the sanctuary, followed by a smaller filling episode around the time Maresha was abandoned. Chapter 1 of the volume, “Introduction and Architecture,” includes only the most basic description of the architecture of the complex, for instance referring to “installations” (7, 9) that are not described further or illustrated, leaving questions about how different parts of SC169 might have been used before filling. 

Thanks to the inclusion in most chapters of a summary of related material from Maresha that was already published and the precise quantification of most finds, this volume constitutes a large and well contextualized data set. That said, as is often the case in excavation reports with contributions from many authors, there are inconsistencies in how material is presented in each chapter. A comparison of the two chapters on pottery demonstrates this issue. In “The Local Ceramic Assemblage” (ch. 2), Stern includes precise quantities of local vessels according to shape, which will be a boon to scholars who want to, for example, reconstruct patterns in dining in the Hellenistic Levant. But the interpretive value is limited because there are only 72 catalogue entries and illustrations of individual vessels to represent a total corpus of 30,153. As an example, only one of the 2,848 local fishplates is illustrated, even though this is a shape that in the Hellenistic Levant exhibits a wide range of variation in dimensions and typological detail. The paucity of specific catalogued examples is compounded by a lack of discussion of the size ranges of different shapes, which should be easy to determine from this well-preserved assemblage and would allow researchers to reach firmer conclusions about household economy and table settings. On the other hand, Heginbottom’s aforementioned chapter 3 includes detailed essays on each vessel shape and many associated catalogue entries and drawings. But precise quantities are rarely given, with more approximate terms like “well represented” (e.g., 44) often used instead, leaving the reader to wonder if the catalogued examples of shapes were the only ones found. The very different presentation styles of the chapter authors make it difficult to reconstruct the entire ceramic assemblage. It would be good to know, for instance, if the imports are well represented in relation to the thousands of local vessels tallied in Chapter 2. Another problem is the absence of detailed descriptions of the fabric of what the authors identify as local ceramic objects or associated archaeometry. The chapter on oil lamps does include some fabric descriptions (e.g., 133, 146), but it is unclear if these are the same as or different from fabrics identified in the pottery chapters. Examination of photos of various clay objects claimed to be manufactured locally ranging from moldmade bowls with smooth, shiny slip to kernoi with lumpy surfaces and inclusions visible in a small photograph suggests that—at the very least—local potters and figurine makers were using several different clay recipes or sources and perhaps that Maresha’s inhabitants drew upon a wider range of regional or imported goods than is recognized here. Petrographic or chemical study of samples from Maresha and a more detailed description of fabrics and discussion of forming and firing processes would further elucidate both local economic patterns and Maresha’s connections to the outside world.

In attempting to assemble a holistic picture of an archaeological site or context, we often rely on publications of different artifact categories that are released over the span of many years, with some finds never being published at all. The volume under review is a laudable effort to create a one-stop resource for the results of an excavation soon after its conclusion. More coordination between the authors of these chapters would have made it more consistent and easier to use, but even so, the breadth of artifacts published from one context will allow for a much better understanding of this famous site.

Peter J. Stone
Department of History
Virginia Commonwealth University

Book Review of Excavations at Maresha Subterranean Complex 169: Final Report, Seasons 2000–2016, by Ian Stern
Reviewed by Peter J. Stone
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.PStone

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