Archaeological Evidence Supports Medieval Accounts Of A Five-Week Siege During First Crusade

Stained glass windows depicting the First Crusade. jorisovo/Shutterstock.com

This week, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte have announced the most recent findings of excavation work taking place in Mount Zion, Jerusalem: a previously rumored but never-before-seen trench, 17 meters wide by 4 meters deep. They say it is the moat-trench built by the Fatimid defenders of Jerusalem in 1099 to stave off European attackers. 

The First Crusade, called for by Pope Urban II in 1095, was the first of many attempts by western European forces to recapture the Holy Land (Levant) and Jerusalem from Islamic control. The First Crusaders stormed Jerusalem in 1099 after a bloody and barbaric campaign fought from both sides of the city, and were ultimately successful, re-capturing and establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The general gist of the story is well-understood – they came, saw, and conquered, committing various acts of atrocity and leaving a bloody trail in their wake. But many of the details (documented by contemporary chroniclers) are unsubstantiated and until now, there hasn't been any hard archaeological evidence to support an account of a five-week siege on the southern side of the city as told by Peter Tudebode, a Poitevin priest traveling in the army of Raymond of Saint-Gilles. 

According to the writings of Tudebode, Raymond of Saint-Gilles' army took position on Mount Zion to attack the city's southern wall, where a trench blocked their path. Raymond plied soldiers with gold dinars to fill in the ditch at nighttime and the army was eventually able to proceed with a siege tower. But by this point, it was too late and the defenders won.

In addition to the ditch itself, the team has unearthed artifacts from the siege. These include arrowheads, Crusader bronze cross pendants, fragments of Chinese celadon ware pottery, and a single piece of Egyptian-style gold jewelry – most probably a souvenir from the conquest, the researchers say. The archaeologists have also discovered an (unrelated) Fatamid structure, damaged from earthquake activity, that was likely already a ruin by the time of the assault.

An earpiece, likely of Egyptian manufacture, is apparent loot from the First Crusade sack of Jerusalem. Credit: Virginia Withers

"There was, apparently, an extramural quarter of scattered buildings, outside the city to the south, and we excavated a building that was in a ruinous state, possibly damaged by the earthquake of 1033," Shimon Gibson, a professor of history at UNC Charlotte, said in a statement.

"You can imagine the Crusaders coming at and attacking the city from the south and they find the ditch and this ruined building, and they made use of it for cover, and that explains some of the arrowheads [found scattered on the building floor] because they would have been raining down upon them."

Handy for the archaeologists, the trench was sealed with a burnt layer containing 12th-century coins. These coins can be traced to King Baldwin III (1129–1163), an early crusader king who burned large swathes of the city in 1153 during a civil war against his mother. Therefore, dating the ditch to the period before.

"The ditch got filled in and it disappeared – to such an extent that a lot of archaeologists who had been working at different points in time believed that maybe this ditch was a figment of the chroniclers' imaginations," Gibson explained.

"That's why this discovery is so important – for the first time, we can confirm details that appear in major historical texts."

"This is enormously important for Crusader scholarship," Rafi Lewis, a faculty member at the University of Haifa and Ashkelon Academic College, added, "because not only do we have the remains of the ditch that we only knew about from the sources but we also have the remains of the frontline battle itself."

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