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We’re pleased to welcome Ashley Cowie. a Scottish historian, author and filmmaker, for this guest post about one of his experiences – The Editor
This unremarkable lump of broken pottery is a 1700 hundred year old religious artefact, last touched by a follower of a mystical and rebellious cult that worshiped Jesus Christ. This is the story of how I had a human mule smuggle it out of an Israeli maximum security prison.
In August 2012 I was filming a documentary in northern Israel at Megiddo. Renowned for its historical, geographical, and theological importance, during the Bronze Age it was an important Canaanite city-state and by the Iron Age it was a royal city in the Kingdom of Israel. Excavations have unearthed over 26 layers of ruins and the primary reason Megiddo was so important was it’s strategic location at the head of a pass through the Camel Ridge, overlooking the Jezreel Valley from the west. Tel Migiddo rises from the fields like a sentinel. He who controlled the hill of Tel Megiddo was the one who collected the tax on spices and other valuable imports coming into Israel from the north.
In Greek, Tel Megiddo means Armageddon and this ancient landscape is central in biblical prophesy. Some Evangelical Christians still believe this to be the site of the final battle between Jesus Christ and Satan at the End of Days, as outlined in the Book of Revelation.
After I filmed an interview with archaeologist Norma Franklin we headed to our second location at the base of Tel Megiddo to film the next scene. Megiddo church is a unique archaeological site which includes the foundations of the oldest Christian church ever discovered, dating to the 3rd century AD, a time when Christians were still persecuted by the Roman Empire. This church was once situated in the ancient city of Legio but is now inside the precinct of Megiddo maximum security prison.
Before being permitted to enter the prison my entire film crew, fixers and all of our equipment and jeeps under-went strict search procedures. After passing a barrage of guard dogs and lines of guards boasting a phenomenal range of American built semi-automatic guns, all day we rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most feared international terrorists. We were absolutely not allowed to see the prisoners as their identities must be kept secret.
The foundations of Megiddo church within the precinct of Megiddo maximum security prison
We often struggled with the irony that the oldest Christian church in the world is located within the grounds of a maximum security prison. We were there to film a very well preserved mosaic which features geometrical figures and images of fish, an early Christian symbol for Jesus Christ. I was going to count the numbers of tiles used to compose the fish symbol to interpret the numbers in relation to the numerical systems in relevant Biblical passages. However, the mosaic was not he only feature I desperately wanted in my documentary. I wanted the altar.
Think about all the hundreds of millions of people who pay homage to Christian altars every year? For me to have touched and interacted with the oldest one in the world, is something I really wanted to do and get on film. That kind of thing only happens once in a life time. And whether you are a believer or an Atheist, such moments are important life events which you can brag about at dinner parties.
We filmed my interview with the leading site archaeologist and after he showed me the architectural ruins I asked him to take me to the altar. He quickly replied “Ah, yes, the altar. Don’t you know? We recently covered it as part of routine maintenance”.We were utterly astounded. The producers face palmed and the budget guy nearly fainted. We had of course clearly built filming the altar into the permission agreement but the archaeologist maintained a steely cold nothingness on his face. It might have got awkward for him, but when you have 10 armed snipers in gun towers you command a degree of authority. There is only so much of a stink one can create in such precarious situations.
Basically, the Israeli prison authorities had a change of heart about letting me publicize the altar. Feeling dejected and sore we packed up our gear and left the prison grounds.
Megiddo Church altar covered in sand bags before our arrival
Earlier in the day while we were picking through he dig site this fragment of pale pottery peaking above the dark top soil caught my eye. I picked it up innocently with the honest intention of asking the archaeologists exactly what it was. We begin filming at that moment so it popped into Kinga Phillips (Field Producers) bag and forgot all about it.
When we left the prison several hours later we were all searched again, as these objects can hold substantial value on the black market. But the Kinga Phillips, being female, sailed through the security check, with the artifact stashed in her bag. After an hour or two in the crew bus she found it in her bag and I immediately confessed. Expectedly, Kinga she freaked out. She had basically been a mule and smuggled an ancient artifact out of a maximum security prison. Were we about to drive all the way back and go through the security drama – to return a piece of pottery? Ten people had flown eight thousand miles across the world to be robbed, we weren’t going back to return a piece of clay. We soon rationalized that this was a case of failing to return something, rather than intentionally stealing it. The artifact is safe in my private collection of very rare old things, for now. But I imagine I will get a ‘call’ from Mossad pretty soon, and I will no-doubt return it.
The artifact is part of an urn handle measuring 4 inches (10.16 cms) long by 2 inches (5.08 cms) thick. Its outer face features a series of 10 horizontal marks. I figured out that these were executed to either smooth off a rough edge or to increase grip. In a social context this artifact, being discovered at a church, might have belonged to the vessel which was used to deliver water to the font, to become holy.
It often mesmerizes me to think that the last person to have touched this clay artifact before me, risked their life belonging to a highly mystical, rebellious religious sect, who worshiped a little known of character called Jesus Christ, who had died two centuries years earlier. Little did the person who discarded this fragment know that their children’s struggle would shape their fringe cult into what would become the most dominant, controversial, resilient and lasting religion the world has ever witnessed. Drop me a line if you would like further information on this artifact or any aspect of the Tel Megiddo dig.
Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker. He explores the world filming, writing and blogging about lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and arts, the origins of legends and myths, architecture, symbols, artefacts and treasures.
Visiting a battlefield can give you a far richer experience than just reading what happened there. It gives a greater depth to the story, and you can strive to visualize what the hills, fields and woods looked like when covered with armed men. Over the years, the Discerning History team has had the opportunity to visit many of battlefields from the American War for Independence. Here’s our picks for the best Revolutionary War battlefields to visit. We have chosen them based on the beauty of the location, how much they enhance your understanding of the battle, how well the landscape has been preserved and how important the original event was.
After the British army under William Howe captured Philadelphia in 1777, George Washington mounted an attack on a British outpost at Germantown. After hours of fierce fighting, his army eventually retreated from the field. Although there is no park or museum commemorating the battle, several buildings from the time still stand. Most interesting is the Chew House, a strong stone building in which a group of regulars took shelter and beat back attacks from the Continental forces for several hours.
9. Gilford Court House
In the Battle of Gilford Court House, under 2,000 British solders under Lord Cornwallis defeated an American army under Nathanael Greene over twice their size. The British quickly pushed through three Americans lines, and won the battle in only ninety minutes. But they suffered very heavy casualties along the way, with about 25% killed, wounded or captured. The wooded battlefield is preserved today by the National Park Service. There is a road which you can drive or walk to take a tour of the site. You will find commemorative monuments and markers explaining the story of the battle.
Washington’s surprise victory at Trenton is one of the classic stories of the American Revolution, but the battle of Princeton is less well known. Just days later, the Continentals attacked the British garrison at Princeton. The battle was hard fought, at one point the patriot militia began to falter, and Washington himself rallied them. But at length the British collapsed, and the day was won. The battlefield is better preserved than many from this war. It is commemorated by several monuments, and a state park contains some important sites including the Clarke House, which was standing at the time of the battle. Also of interest is Nassau Hall at Princeton University, at which Alexander Hamilton fired American cannon to drive out some British who had taken refuge inside.
7. Fort Ninety Six
The small village of Ninety Six was an important Loyalist stronghold in South Carolina. In 1780 the British built a palisade and several redoubts to defend the place. The next year it was besieged by the American army under Nathanael Greene. For nearly a month he tried to capture it from the smaller force of loyalists. The Patriots successfully stormed one redoubt and fought fiercely for the large Star Redoubt, but they were eventually driven off by hand to hand fighting. Greene quickly retreated, as a relieving British force was close at hand. Today the National Park Services maintains the old site of the town of Ninety Six, as well as the earthworks and a reconstructed stockade.
Daniel Morgan’s stunning victory at Cowpens, South Carolina, was a critical battle for the American cause. Morgan handled his mix of militia and Continentals ably in what was arguably the war’s greatest tactics. When they fell back, the British were convinced that the battle was won, leaving them unprepared for a double envelopment from the Patriots. More than a thousand British were casualties, compared with about 150 Americans. Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service. Walk the battlefield trail to see the positions of the troops, and get a sense of the scale of the fighting.
5. King’s Mountain
King’s Mountain, in north-central South Carolina, was a crucial victory for the Americans in the southern theater. The loyalists under Patrick Ferguson were defeated by a force of patriots, many of them “over mountain men” who came from the settlements on the other side of the Applacian Mountains. It is easy to get a sense of the fighting today, as you walk around the top of the mountain where the loyalists made their stand, and imagine the patriots charging up the steep sides, studded with rocks and trees.
4. Fort Ticonderoga
Fort Ticonderoga is the best and most important fort surviving from the American Revolution. It was built by the French during the French and Indian War, and saw two battles during that war. Its dramatic capture by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys was one of the patriots’ early successes. The fort later fell into British hands, and they defended it against an American attack in 1777. Ticonderoga was restored in 1909. Today it is an excellent site to visit, and costumed guides do cannon firing demonstrations.
3. Lexington and Concord
It was the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts that began the American Revolution. The victory at Concord later that day was pivotal to the American cause, as it showed that the colonial militia could defeat the regulars. Lexington is a great place to visit today, and while walking around across the green and through the period houses and taverns around it you can really get a sense of how the fighting progressed. The landscape along “Battle Road,” from Lexington to Concord, looks much like it did in 1775. Also interesting is the reconstructed North Bridge at Concord. Walk down from the Visitor’s Center to retrace the steps of the Patriots who gave the first check to the British forces.
The capture of the British army under Lord Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, was the crowning victory of the Revolution. While the war went on for several more years, the fighting in America was effectively won. It is also one of the most interesting battlefields to visit. Many of the fortifications that were built during the siege have been reconstructed, and they have palisades and cannon to boot. Make sure to see Redoubts No. 9 and 10, which were stormed by the American and French troops near the end of the siege. You can also go into the village, where there is a battle monument and several historical homes run by the National Park Service.
Although Saratoga, in upstate New York, is one of the more remote of the battlefields of the American Revolution, it is unarguably one of the most picturesque. Standing on the bluffs next to cannons marking the artillery positions, you can look across the beautiful fields and woods down to the Hudson River. Victory in the Saratoga campaign was crucial to the American cause, as Horatio Gates’s capture of John Burgyone’s British army helped convince France to enter the war on the American side. Although virtually none of the earthworks have survived, colored stakes mark the positions of the armies. Of special note are the many artillery positions, the Neilson House which Benedict Arnold used as his headquarters, and the site redoubts which the Americans attacked during one of the battles.
Bonus: Downtown Boston
Boston, Massachusetts was arguably the most important city in America for the revolutionary cause. It was one of the main places that stood up against the authority of the British Parliament. The town itself was besieged by the Patriot forces in 1775-1776, in the longest siege ever to take place in the United States. Although the terrain has changed considerably and the sites of the battles around the town have fallen to development, you can still see many historic locations. These include monuments commemorating the battles of Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights, the Old State House, in front of which is the site of the Boston Massacre out in front, the Old South Meeting House where the Boston Tea Party was planned, the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House, and many more.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy our Top 10 Best Civil War Battlefields. What Revolutionary War sites have you visited? Which was your favorite? Comment below and let us know!