Underneath Beirut, a Prehistoric Home Leaves Clues to Past

Beirut has a wealth of ancient sites, some of which date from the beginning of the prehistoric era 600,000 years ago. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Joanne Bajjaly

Published Monday, November 5, 2012

One of the oldest dwellings in Beirut has been discovered in the Sofil area of Achrafieh, a neighborhood currently at the center of a heated debate between activists, developers, and the government about the importance of historical preservation in the city.

The structure appears to be a stone house built in the 4th millennium BC, according to Corine Yazbeck, a professor of archaeology at the Lebanese University.

“The building is rectangular and built in a very smart way,” she said. “The remains of the walls are one meter high, its roof was suspended on wooden scaffolding with a pillar in the middle. Archaeologists have found the base of the pillar in the floor, which is made of hardened earth.”

According to Yazbeck, the excavation was carried out by Hadi Shuweiri under the supervision of the General Directorate for Antiquities.

Through careful study, experts were able to make educated guesses about how the room was used, unlocking new insights into an ancient culture. One of the corners was used for polishing flint, while in the corner opposite a kiln once stood. In one area, archaeologists found a large number of broken pieces of terracotta.

Yazbeck explained that until now, houses from this period had only been found in Jbeil and al-Dikirman. She believes that Beirut has a wealth of ancient sites, some of which date from the beginning of the prehistoric era 600,000 years ago.

The excavations underway in the city allow us to imagine what this stretch of coast might have been like hundreds of thousands of years ago.

“The ground level was about 20 meters lower than it is now,” Yazbeck explained. “The area was green, perhaps not with trees, but with plenty of streams and animals. Flint was available throughout the coast, and ancient man found everything he wanted.”

“They moved in groups looking for fishing locations, food, and clothing,” she continued. “The abundance of flint pieces shows that there was a large number of nomadic groups. When man began to settle, he built homes in the Beirut area and buried his loved ones in its soil. The discoveries made in such small pieces of land like this one are an indication of how widespread settlement was during this period.”

Other discoveries have confirmed the importance of the capital city in archaeological terms. At the Bishara al-Khoury intersection, another team of archaeologists found the remains of a 7,000-year-old dwelling.

“During that period, man had started to settle, build houses, and domesticate animals,” Yazbeck said. “What the team, led by Fadi Beyno, found were the remains of a house belonging to herdsmen, and they did not build houses entirely out of stones; they also used wood.”

A few meters from the herdsmen’s house, the team discovered a young man’s grave from the same period dug in the sand. They were unable to complete the excavation, however, because it extended under a nearby mosque.

Flint and other artifacts found in downtown Beirut indicate it was a center for fishing 250,000 years ago, suggesting the area was inhabited from very early in human history.

In the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, a team of archaeologists found a collection of some 500 fragments of polished flint dating from 50,000 to 90,000 years ago. The find was so important that the student in charge of the excavation decided to write her graduate thesis on it.

The Gemmayzeh site is considered unique, said Yazbeck, because it offers compelling evidence of the coexistence of two different types of early humans – homo sapiens, from which modern humans evolved, and neanderthals, considered either a species or subspecies of the Homo genus that later went extinct.

This can be seen in the flint pieces which appear to have been made by both groups. Unfortunately, the highly oxidized sediments in the city do not allow for the preservation of the remains of either species.

These and other recent finds have shed new light on Beirut’s ancient history, but preservation poses a challenge, especially in a densely populated and evolving city like Beirut.

Luckily, Dr. Asad Sayf from the General Directorate for Antiquities told Al-Akhbar that they have just completed negotiations with the owner of the Achrafiye plot where the prehistoric stone house was discovered, and the property will now be highlighted for visitors to come and have a peek into Beirut’s ancient past.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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