Nov 28, 2021

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For the first time, a Crusader encampment has been discovered by archaeologists in Israel. The find, described in the book, Settlement and Crusade in the Thirteenth Century, was found in ancient Tzippori in Galilee. The book sheds new light on formerly less explored aspects of the crusading movement and the Latin East during the thirteenth century.

The Crusades were a series of religious wars initiated, supported, and sometimes directed by the Latin Church in the medieval period. The best known of these Crusades are those to the Holy Land in the period between 1095 and 1291 that were intended to recover Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Islamic rule. 

The Crusaders succeeded in establishing their rule over areas of the region, an achievement that was historically documented and also attested to by the remains of castles and fortresses however very little remains to testify moments of transitions, such as battles and encampments. 

A new archaeological site was discovered during the construction of Route 79 that connects the coast with Nazareth. The site was identified as the site where the Frankish Crusader troops encamped for two months in 1187, preparing for the Battle of Hattin. There, the army led by  Ayyubid Sultan Saladin crushed them, ending the Catholic occupation of the Holy Land and ushering in the Muslim rule of the region. 

Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists Nimrod Getzov and Ianir Milevski from the Prehistory Department conducted the required salvage excavation.

“The area along Route 79 was known as the site of the Frankish encampment ahead of the battle of Hattin in 1187, as well as for other encampments by both the Crusaders and the Muslims during a period of 125 years,” said Dr. Rafael Lewis, a senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a researcher at Haifa University. “For this reason, I was brought on board to focus on the remains from that era. It was a very exceptional opportunity to study a medieval encampment and to understand their material culture and archaeology.”

The archaeologists unearthed hundreds of metal artifacts and were able to study their relations to the landscape. The artifacts showed for the first time how the Crusader armies lived while they were in the field. These finds included coins, needles, arrowheads and objects used to care for horses: bridles, harness fittings, a currycomb, horseshoes, and horseshoe nails made both in Europe and closer to the campsite.

“Changing those nails probably represented the main activity in the camp,” Lewis tells the Jerusalem Post. “Nobody wanted to find himself in the battle on a horse with a broken shoe.”

There were surprisingly few items for everyday and domestic use, such as cooking pots. Lewis speculates that these materials were moved to castles and other fortifications after the encampments were no longer needed.

Researchers did, however, find a large quantity of “aristocratic artifacts”—gilded buckles and hairpins, manufactured in the European style and likely used by knights and other elite members of the Crusader armies.

No stone or wooden structures built by Crusaders were found at the site. Since, according to historical documents, Crusader knights lived in tents and were prepared to go into combat at a moment’s notice. The Crusader camp was built on top of a camp used by Roman Crusaders a millennium earlier. Archaeologists also found remains of previous populations at the site.

“We used a discipline known as ‘artifact distribution analysis’,” Dr. Lewis explained. “We started by reconstructing the landscape as it approximately looked like at the time; we considered where the artifacts were found, and compared what we learned to historical records.”

Using this technique the researchers concluded that despite fighting under one king, the Crusaders at the location did not serve in a centralized army. Different groups of knights would fight together, each having their own camp and each following the orders of their individual commanders.

The researchers hope to use their findings to expand their research of that period to other sites.

“I’m intrigued to understand more about Crusader encampments,” Lewis said. “I believe that the study of military camps has the potential to allow us to understand much more about the period and its culture.”