With his snow white Old Testament-style beard, floppy hat and intense, inquisitive gaze, Patrick McGovern cuts an unlikely figure for someone likened to Indiana Jones.
But rather than snatching mysterious ancient relics from Amazonian head hunters and avaricious Nazis, McGovern’s archaeological specialty is of a far more convivial nature. As scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, he explores the roots of ancient alcohol production, and is recognized as the world’s leading expert in what is a relatively new field of science.
Lebanon, of course, is dripping with ancient history. We are all familiar with the Baalbek temples, the Phoenician port of Byblos, the Umayyad palace in Anjar, the Roman hippodrome in Tyre and the Crusader castles that dot the Levantine landscape. But a recent two-day tour around Lebanon with McGovern illustrated the richness of Lebanon’s archaeological past, and underlined how it often goes unnoticed, unappreciated or is squandered through neglect or indifference.
We began in Baalbek, where McGovern wanted to examine the carvings on the massive entrance to the Temple of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, for evidence of poppies believed to have been added to ancient wines.
“There are no texts that say they added opium to wine, but the association of wine and poppies suggests that there might be something to it,” McGovern said.
Certainly, the carvings of poppies, along with sheaves of barley and vine leaves, are unmistakable on the sides of the temple’s entrance. McGovern has identified compounds from the residues of ancient wines to find the herbs and spices used as flavorings. An analysis of a consignment of 700 jars of Palestinian wine delivered to the Egyptian King Scorpion I in 3150 BC showed traces of coriander, mint and cumin.
From Baalbek, we headed to Sidon and the Phoenician temple of Eshmun. At first glance, the site is a jumble of stone blocks smothered in shrubbery and weeds. But with McGovern as my guide, details began to emerge. Carved from solid rock “in the Egyptian style” was the throne of Astarte, the Canaanite goddess of fertility. On either side were two easily missed carved sphinxes. The throne was positioned above conduits that fed the waters of a natural spring into a limpid pool lined with pungent flowers and green weeds. It was here that the Phoenicians would come for healing, buying flavored wine and herbs from the shops of apothecaries lining the narrow lane leading to the pool.
McGovern wanted to visit another well-known site in Sidon: the “Murex hill,” a man-made mound consisting of countless millions of shells from the eponymous sea snail, cultivated by the Phoenicians.
Finding the location of the hill was easy enough. Half of it is covered by a cemetery. As for the other half, a caretaker at the cemetery told us: “It’s gone.”
“Yes, they dug it out about 10 years ago,” he said.
The seaward side of the hill had been removed to make way for a building, the foundations of which had been completed, but further work had ended sometime ago judging from the rust on the steel rebar poking out from the concrete. Behind the structure was a cliff of crumbling dirt and weeds some 50 meters high. On drawing closer, however, we suddenly realized we were looking at countless white murex shells. McGovern picked one up and explained how the Phoenicians would get pigment from the snail by extracting a gland that, on exposure to sunlight, turned intense purple. It took 10,000 murex shells to make just one gram of the coveted dye. “This is one of the largest known Phoenician garbage dumps ever discovered and it has never been excavated,” McGovern said.
We drove from Sidon to Sarafand, site of ancient Sarepta, “one of the best preserved Phoenician sites that has ever been excavated in the homeland of the Phoenicians,” said McGovern.
It had been 35 years since McGovern was last in Sarafand, working on a dig by the beach. His memory was hazy, and it took an older local who remembered the “archaeologique” to show us the former dig site. There was no evidence it had ever existed, however, smothered as it was by a thicket of bamboos and banana groves. Again, it took McGovern’s historical eye to transform what appeared to be a typical Lebanese beach into an important Phoenician harbor.
The flat sloped rock children fished and dived from was a Phoenician causeway. Even the flattish red pebbles that littered the beach were relics of the past — not stones, but Iron Age pottery shards.
Sarepta’s modern-day inhabitants seemed to have no knowledge of the historical importance of their surroundings, and the Lebanese authorities have shown no apparent interest in resuming the excavations that ended with the outbreak of the civil war in 1975.
“Being here gives you a sense of how fleeting time is,” McGovern reflected. “We put in a lot of effort here and it seemed so interesting and absorbing at the time. But no one seems to care anymore.”
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London