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Goals | 1993 Results | The Temple

The first year of archaeological survey and excavation of the Great Temple at Petra in Jordan was conducted under the auspices of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities as part of an on-going research project at the site. These archaeological investigations were conducted from July 23 to August 25, 1993 under the direction of Professor Martha Sharp Joukowsky, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.

The staff was comprised of Amy Grey, Assistant Director and Draftsperson, Douglas Pitney, Engineer, Architect-Surveyor, Geoffrey Bilder, Computer Analyst, Pia Ward, Photographer, Senior Archaeologists Erika Schluntz, David Thorpe, Meredith Chesson, Nadine Shubailat, Elizabeth Smolenski, and Archaeological Assistants Elizabeth Payne and Peter G. Lund.

The Great Temple was opened to exploratory research in 1993. This season consisted of historic research, archaeological testing by the excavation of the temple stylobate and the examination of other architectural components, such as the Propylaeum and other in situ features in the Lower Temenos. Fieldwork also consisted of field reconnaissance, site survey, mapping, and the ancient landscape and its drainage. Ricardo J. Elia, a consultant for the Petra Great Temple expedition, spent two weeks examining questions of site preservation and management.


The goals of the 1993 season were to:
  1. Investigate and assess the nature, extent and depth of deposit;
  2. Identify specific areas of the Great Temple precinct;
  3. Provide recommendations for the management of cultural resources;
  4. Assess the potential of the site for further research, and to recommend, if warranted, an additional multi-year excavation and research project;
  5. Interpret the Petra Great Temple through publication for the people of Jordan and scholars.

1993 Results

First, once site datum and sub-datum points were re-established, the survey both topographic and the in situ positions of architectural components were acquired in relation to set points with absolute elevations. A grid system was established across the site and excavations were conducted in accordance with this grid with maps generated on various scales of 1:100 and 1:50.

Second, a detailed archaeological site plan was compiled to include standing features such as fallen columns and walls. It has been observed that the temple and its precinct cover some 7560 meters square — a north-south length of 113 meters by an east-west width of 55.5 meters.

Third, the five main areas were identified as those listed previously:

  1. Propylaea Steps
  2. Lower Temenos
  3. Grand Stairway
  4. Upper Temenos
  5. Great Temple

Fourth, excavations were conducted along the north temple stylobate wall consisting of four irregularly-sized trenches (Trenches 1-4) positioned between fallen column drums, so that the character of the Great Temple stylobate and its foundations might be ascertained. Beyond and to the north of the temple itself, and of great interest, was initially determined to be a four-branched subterranean canalization system positioned under the floor of a disturbed portion of the hexagonal pavement in Trench 1. One branch was located to the north, another to the west, and the other two to the southeast and southwest. Constructed with ashlar blocks, it extended to a distance of more than five meters in each direction and in the southwest it took a dramatic curve and sloped downward to what appeared to have been a stepped area. Unfortunately time restrictions during this season precluded our study of this area.

All elevations were recorded by electronic distance measuring equipment (EDM) and scaled plan drawings were made of all deposits and architectural features. Whenever possible, vertical balks were recorded by section drawings.

Fifth, scaled plan drawings were prepared of all deposits and architectural features and vertical balks were recorded with both black-and-while print and color slide photography.

Sixth, all information was recorded on standardized field forms for computer entry.

Seventh, analysis was made of the preserved architectural elements including the sandstone column drums lying on the site (which in some cases obstructed our analysis of the area). The in situ positions of approximately 2500 architectural components were recorded, numbered, cataloged, photographed and drawn, and those that interfered with our analysis of the area were removed to prepared lapidaries. In the main these were elements of temple construction - isodomic ashlar sandstone blocks with the characteristic oblique 45 degrees sometimes coarse surface dressing, characteristic of Nabataean ashlar construction technique.

Eighth, all recovered portable artifacts were removed to the field laboratory of Nazzal's Camp (now the J. L. Burckhardt Archaeological Center) for processing, study, and storage. A data-base computer program was used for their inventory to determine their artifact material, function, shape, and whenever possible, their date of manufacture. All cultural materials (excluding ceramic body sherds with no distinguishing characteristics) were retained for future study. The data base allowed for the production of summary tables, study and graphs of the artifact assemblage.

It was assumed that we would be overwhelmed by our artifact recovery, so characteristic of Petra sites. We did not, however, find this to be the case, with the exception of decorative architectural fragments used for the embellishments of capitals and entablatures. Elements of carefully carved floral capitals abounded with a rich and lively ornamentation of acanthus leaves interspersed with vegetal elements, including detailed renditions of pomegranates, poppies, pine cones, grape clusters, hibiscus petals, and other fruits. This deeply incised ornamentation clearly demonstrates the Nabataean aesthetic sense for light and shadow.

Ninth, our excavations determined the general sequence or phases of the temple.

Eight phases were tentatively identified. These have been modified by subsequent excavations.

Problem: Throughout our work, our understanding of the stratigraphy of the temple site itself has been hampered by the lack of dateable materials. Thus our conclusions must remain tentative until they can be backed-up by more sealed archaeological contexts. On the basis of the stylistics of the floral decoration, especially on the limestone capitals and elements of the entablature, the Petra Great Temple iconography appears to be similar to those of the al-Khazneh. Tentatively the evidence suggests the temple was constructed sometime at the beginning of the first century CE by the Nabataeans who combined their native traditions with the classical spirit.

In 64-63 CE, however, the Nabataeans were conquered by the Roman general Pompey, whose policy was to restore the cities taken by the Jews. However, he retained an independent Nabataea, although the area was taxed by the Romans and served as a buffer territory against desert tribes. Completely subsumed by the Romans under the Emperor Trajan in 106 CE, Petra and Nabataea then became part of the Roman province known as Arabia Petraea with its capital at Petra. Thus in the second century CE, Petra entered into the Roman world, and we assume that the temple was recycled and continued to serve as one of the principal monuments of the city. It may be that at some point during this time, the white hexagonal pavement was constructed to embellish the entrance, a new stairway to the temple was constructed, modifying the drainage, and there may have been other structural changes as well, which at this point in our investigations are not clearly defined. In 131 CE Hadrian, the Roman emperor, visited the site and named it after himself, Hadriane Petra. As we know, the city continued to flourish during the Roman period, with a Triumphal Arch spanning the Siq, and tomb structures either carved out of the living rock or built free-standing. Under Roman rule, Roman Classical monuments abounded, many with Nabataean overtones.

By 313 CE, Christianity had become a state-recognized religion. In 330 CE, the Emperor Constantine established the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople. Although the 363 CE earthquake destroyed half of the city, it appears that Petra retained its urban vitality into late antiquity, when it was the seat of a Byzantine bishopric. Up to this point we have no evidence to suggest the temple continued to function as sacred space. What is clear is that the temple structure was devastated by an earthquake that all but brought the city to ruin and abandonment.

Tenth, we were able to obtain more precise information regarding the plan of the Temple, and to gain a better understanding of its architectural components (described infra).

The Great Temple - 1993

As was mentioned previously, the Great Temple complex covers some 7650 square meters - north-south 135 meters by approximately 56 meters east-west.

The Lower Propylaeum Stairs leading to the south from the Colonnaded Street were cleaned and its lowest courses were consolidated. From the initial analysis it was ascertained that these stairs were constructed later than the temple, for in their present state they appear to be positioned at an oblique angle both to the street and to the temple itself; they also appear to have been modified when the Colonnaded Street was constructed in 76 CE. The original large ashlars positioned to the west we posit are synchronous with the temple, but they are abutted by the placement of this later stairway and are not bonded to it. What access there was from this main artery of the city may be found should the Propylaea entrance undergo excavation.

Regarding the temple itself, from our excavation of the east-west stylobate and crepidoma, the temple stylobate itself measures approximately 28 meters (east-west), and we assume the temple itself to be some 42 meters in length, if not more. The bottom of the crepidoma or podium was reached at approximately 1.50 meters below the stylobate edge at the northwest temple corner where a floor bedding of small hexagonal pavers was uncovered, but virgin soil was not reached.

Our preliminary analysis was that the temple is tetrastyle in antis, with widely-spaced central columns at the entrance (7.5 meters) with the two end columns located about five meters to the east and west respectively. On the east & west these porch columns were framed by anta walls. 4.40 metres from the end porch columns & the anta. A stairway was constructed into the stylobate leading from its level into a broad Pronaos, located some 7.5 meters in depth. The naos has two columns positioned at its entrance which have the same diameter, 1.50 meters, as those of the temple entrance. These columns, however, are larger than those that surround the cella and the temple rear. The naos or cella measurements are approximate: its north-south length is 28 meters by 18 meters in width. to the rear of the temple are six columns and eight are located along each of its east and west flanks. (Of the 22 columns which hypothetically decorated the naos, only 12 were then known from their original in situ positions.)

From our measurements of the front columns (the shaft plus the base and the capitals recovered), they stood 19 meters in height. Added to this would have been the superstructure including the pediment and the entablature (i.e., the architrave or epistyle frieze, and cornice), which hypothetically places the height of this colossal edifice from19 to 20 meters.

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