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Archaeology News



by Doug Ward

Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are a continuing challenge for the world's diplomats and heads of state.  These conflicts can also interrupt the research of the many archaeologists who work in the region.  

Such interruptions are especially frustrating for archaeologists Michael and Neathery Fuller of St. Louis Community College, whose work at Tell Tuneinir in Syria---a site on the Khabur River about twenty-five miles from the Iraqi border---has been on hold since 2001.  In the meantime, the water level in the Middle Khabur Reservoir (created by a dam on the river that was completed in 1997) slowly rises, covering parts of the site. 

The Fullers began work at Tuneinir in 1987 at the request of the Syrian government, which wanted the area to be explored before the reservoir project made such exploration impossible.  The 112-acre site is rich in artifacts representing a number of cultures and spanning a time period of nearly four millennia (2500 B.C.-1400 A.D.).  Fifteen seasons of research at the site have uncovered only a small fraction of the wealth of information buried there.    

On October 5, 2004, Michael Fuller lectured at Miami University about one fascinating aspect of his work at Tuneinir:  the discovery and investigation of a Christian monastery that flourished there from about 400-1400 A.D.  Fuller's team began excavating this part of Tell Tuneinir after a local farmer plowed up fragments of a large stucco panel decorated with a cross.  Several seasons of investigation have established the existence of a church, a wine press, and pottery kilns at the site.  With help from local Christian clergy in interpreting inscriptions (in Aramaic and Syriac) and other evidence, the Fullers have been able to piece together a rough outline of the history and activities of the monastery, which may have been called Deir Nuah (“the monastery of Noah”).               

The original chapel for the monastery was apparently built in about 400 A.D. with the help of materials from an abandoned Roman watch tower.  A major expansion of the building was carried out in the tenth century A.D., perhaps in the anticipation that Jesus would return in around 1000 A.D.  In the expanded church the haikal (“temple room”) containing the altar was on the east side, and there was a baptistery just south of the haikal.  The nave (main sanctuary) lay west of the haikal and was divided into two sections.  At times when both men and women worshipped there, it would have been customary for the men to be in the eastern section, nearest the haikal, and for the women to be in the western section.  (A mud brick church with a similar two-part sanctuary has been found elsewhere at the Tell Tuneinir site.) 

Just to the southwest of the nave was the original chapel, which was used as a mortuary chapel and storage place for relics.  One prized relic of the monastery was a tooth of Saint Febronia, a much-revered female Syrian saint.  (A container for the tooth has been found at the site.)

North of the haikal was a refectory (dining hall) in which up to thirty people could have been seated.  A winepress was located to the north of the nave.  Tax records found at the site indicated that the monastery produced several varieties of wine in addition to sacramental wine.  For example, there was “wine for a hacking cough” and “wine for the blue disease.” (The “blue disease'' is thought to be an eye affliction of some kind.)

The art that adorned the church included crosses and geometrical figures---rosettes, for example.  Absent at the site of the monastery church and the nearby mud brick church were any likenesses of people, reflecting the fact that these Syrian Christians did not believe that their worship should include such images.

In about 1050 A.D. the monastery was attacked by the Seljuks.  Remains of martyrs who experienced torture and violent deaths have been found at the site.  After this attack the damaged monastery remained in use until a second attack by the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane in 1401 A.D.    

Much more history remains to be unearthed at Tell Tuneinir.  Circumstances permitting, the Fullers hope to conduct further research there in 2005.    

Issue 18