We had the opportunity in October 2014 to visit Lebanon and to go to the key site of Ksar Akil, at the ouskirts of Beirut. Ksar Akil is the reference site for the Upper Palaeolithic of the Near East.
The initial excavators of the site in the 1930s and 40s discovered a deep 23 m sequence which they divided into 36 levels. In 1938, they discovered the skeleton of a modern human (called ‘Egbert’), sadly now lost, as well as the remains of another specimen (called ‘Ethelruda’), which has been recently re-discovered.These human remains are of crucial importance in understanding when and how early modern humans occupied the region.
Lebanon of course has been affected by serious civil wars and more recently geopolitical problems and regional instability, so archaeological work there has been quite challenging.
We visited the site to look at its current status and sample sediment for dose rate contributions ahead of a renewed effort to date material using ESR dating. We found a site marooned amongst widespread earthworks and developments of the land around it.
(top) Ksar Akil during excavations in 1938 and when we visited it in October 2014.
As we arrived late in the afternoon, we could see that the area adjacent to the site had been levelled with diggers to build a new nursery complex. Workers were still there constructing a wall against what appeared was a newly-exposed sections of the site.
(Left) The extent of the developments is apparent in this photo: the Ksar Akil rockshelter is just to the right of the digger.
The valley in which the Ksar Akil sits is steep-sided, with the stream cutting at the bottom of the site still visible. Prior to the spread of the city of Beirut the area must have been an awesome location for what was a very long term human occupation which spanned millennia. Now the air is filled with dust and noise from a quarry on the other side of the valley and the tops are dominated by huge multi-story apartment complexes. Ksar Akil sits like an island in the middle of this 21st century noise. It is hard to imagine what it must once have looked like.
(right) Looking up the valley in the direction of Ksar Akil today. The site is obscured behind a scarp on the left hand side in the far distance.
Thankfully the site is protected by state law but there is no sign to alert people to the importance of the archaeology that was found here to early human origins or to warn them of the protective status it is afforded. We visited the site with our colleague Dr Corinne Yazbeck from the Lebanese University. She was quite shocked by the increased development taking place around Ksar Akil and aims to help to protect the site more effectively.
We took some samples from the exposed section to test the environmental dose rate at the site. This is important if we are to reliably use ESR dating at Ksar Akil. Contributions from radioactive elements in the sediments that surround the archaeological materials directly affect the ESR signal and therefore the radioactive contribution of Th, U and K need to be measured. We are also aiming to augment the chronology further by producing more AMS radiocarbon dates from the site using new samples collected earlier in the summer from the Naturalis Museum in Leiden.
(Top) Katerina and Corinne Yazbeck leaving the site.