Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Cattle Save Sculpture Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Dioscouroi recovered from Dharih (Courtesy François Villeneuve) [LARGER IMAGE]

A barn full of cows and their dung cushioned the collapse of a Roman temple at Dharih, Jordan, around the eighth century A.D. Thanks to the cows--whose crushed skeletons were found beneath the blocks--sculptures of Medusa heads and vine leaves, and busts of Hermes, Pan, and the Dioscouroi, were relatively intact when recovered by François Villeneuve of Paris' École Normale Supérieure and Zeidun al-Muheisen of Yarmuk University in Jordan.

Excavation of the temple has raised questions about early Christian attitudes toward pagan images. Villeneuve and al-Muheisen initially presumed that iconoclastic fervor after A.D. 750 would have doomed any figural sculpture on the temple. Although the deities display Greco-Roman attributes, their frontal pose and large oval eyes are stylistically Nabatean, recalling oriental gods. It is uncertain whether these pagan deities, which still decorated the temple in the sixth century A.D. after its conversion into a church, had lost all significance for early Christian worshipers. How the church was used is also unclear. An undecorated cultic platform inside the temple contrasts with its ornate facade, which may suggest more orthodox ritual practice inside the sanctuary and more ecumenical worship outside. Excavation will continue through 2004.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America