The West church is one of the most recognizable structures at Umm al-Jimal, with a series of four impressive arches running perpendicular to the city’s busiest road. During the height of the Byzantine world, this church was an impressive space with a matching set of arches on both the north and south sides of the church separating the nave from the aisles. Smaller rooms on the east side running next to the apse served as storage areas for the church, and one of the heavy basalt doors closing off this area still functions. The floor was covered by patterned mosaics in white and red limestone contrasted with black basalt tesserae, and the altar and chancel were separated from the congregation by a waist-high limestone altar screen. This area, the chancel, was the space where my trench was dug, and the reason for excavating that area stemmed from a desire to gain knowledge about the construction of the altar screen and chancel in relation to the rest of the church. This area was also a beneficial location to choose because it encompassed and expanded upon two areas of disturbance: a prior archaeological trench from an earlier field season and a looters pit that was dug next to the basalt step-stone into the apse.
There are sixteen churches within the ruins of Umm al-Jimal, and each has its own unique character and orientation to the ancient village. During the 2019 field season, two trenches were excavated in the West church as part of the Churches Project. The West church is a freestanding building which would not have been attached to other structures during the days of the Byzantine east. However, other churches do not fit this same pattern. The Southwest church, where two other trenches were excavated this season, was attached to local houses and perhaps even animal stables, but doors within the church itself would have given access to the road and the broader community. The Julianos church is unlike either of those already mentioned. This church would have been more exclusive, as it was built off a courtyard accessible to only a handful of houses, with no door leading to the street and outside world.
In addition, my work at the West church was an attempt to clarify the patterns of construction within the church itself, considering dates of pottery and plaster samples as well as layering of material to get a better understanding of contemporary construction during each era of the church’s useful life. Was the chancel and altar screen built during the original construction, or did they come later? Did the different plaster layers I encountered constitute multiple floors or only one?
Answering the question of the relationship of the churches within the broader community will be an ongoing search, with coordination of information from the three churches mentioned combined with future research. But the questions regarding construction in the West church are much closer to having an answer. In my trench, U.09, there is evidence for two floors, and quite possible the hand-sized flat basalt stones found served as a third. The first floor was a rough mosaic laid on a foundation of gray plaster. It seems entirely possible that this floor was consistent throughout the church, with the stones for the altar screen being laid later when the next floor was constructed. Thus, the chancel may well have been a later construction than the main body of the church. Over time, the tesserae of this original floor became loose and the plaster began to crumble. At that point, those constructing the new floor likely dug down to add a stabilizing rocky layer directly underneath where they would lay the large rectangular stone between the chancel and the apse as well as the basalt altar screen stones, laid a bed of dirt upon which they affixed the basalt paver stones, and added a rocky dirt mixture to give the floor more height. The final two layers of plaster were then set, with a rougher gray mixture serving as a foundation for the harder white mix which was used to affix the mosaic. Alternatively, the basalt pavers themselves may have been used for a time as the floor, with the layers used to construct the mosaic coming later. Curiously, there was also a mysterious depression of plaster and the same mosaic as can be seen in a few spots from the final floor, thought this depression was found much closer to the old mosaic layer. It is likely that the head-sized rocks and dirt laid as a foundation for the basalt step into the apse settled over time, causing the plaster to recede. It may have also been that this event was the result of much later settling from a looter’s pit that was dug directly next to this space then filled with boulders and backfilled with dirt.
The West church is full of clues that indicate how people of the past behaved. During Byzantine times, the entire space functioned as a community church which would have boasted of intricate mosaic floors and smoothly plastered walls. The chancel itself was later separated from the apse, and the apse was likely used as a residential area. Like us, those who once lived at Umm al-Jimal desired beautiful spaces, and they changed over time as trends changed and old materials failed. The mundane needs to replace a floor that had crumbled is documented in the soil, and through the simple process of wear and replacement, we can relate through our own attempts of modern remodeling. Perhaps a wealthy church member donated the money to create this update, or perhaps a public fund was created to commit the community to such a renewal of beauty. It may have been that individual member’s generosity was a social overture, meant to display wealth and power in a very public space. Throughout the process of this excavation, I have been able to connect across the generations to people who thought and behaved so much as we do today.