We have a main street, the decumanus, now open from the main city gate all the way to the forum.
We also have that quintessential urban fixture — a street corner. A cross street or cardo is cleared of destruction fill. It leads to a church.
We have tombs, which give us tantalizing glimpses of the people who lived in this mountaintop town.
We call the latest burial site Vicki’s tomb — though Vicki Mesistrano is scarcely ready for such repose. Indeed, she’s quite animated after leading the excavation of the burial at the city gate and now leads a team digging in the forum — her foremost scholarly interest.
She took a few minutes to show me her ashlar-lined burial chamber, which yielded the remains of 20 or more individuals, stacked one atop another — all women except for an infant, two or three other children and one man, according to preliminary analysis.
We have at least two other tombs at Hippos, both in the North East Church. There an American team from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn., found human remains — but no artifacts.
From the North West Church under excavation by a Polish team came gorgeous artifacts — but no human remains. What appeared to be tombs were empty.
Vicki topped both. She has human remains as well as grave goods. “So it’s very special,” says the Argentine who is studying for her doctorate at the University of Haifa.
Her prize find is a green-blue glass vase with a delicate handle, reassembled by our on-site conservator Ewa Radziejowska of Warsaw. Vicki calls the vessel a “pilgrim flask” in which travelers to sacred Christian sites collected holy oil.
Vicki also found glass beads and a double flask that she says held eye makeup. The eye-shadow vessel and the holy-oil receptacle place this tomb solidly in the sixth century CE, she thinks.
SUN AND DUST
On the way back from Vicki’s tomb I found Ran Abramovitch in his office — an open-air desk on the decumanus maximus.
For a total of 70 days over the last three years, Ran has supervised excavation of Hippos’ main street.
With the help of a tractor, students and volunteers working in the merciless sun, he has exposed a full 250 meters from the main city gate to the forum.
One blistering midday this week, Ran stood on his decumanus welcoming weary volunteers from other squares who were heading to the bus to return to the kibbutz where they stay.
Ran invited them to walk the decumanus all the way to the city gate, rather than taking their accustomed route — a dirt path that runs parallel to the original street. “The decumanus is open!” he called out with the verve of a carnival barker.
If residents of Hippos were to return, they might contact City Hall about the street collapse over their aqueduct and the lost paving stones near the city gate. Other than that, the decumanus is in beautiful shape.
What was the hard part? “The powder,” says Ran. “All the day we work without shade. All the day, sun and dust.”
Many days it was just Ran and the tractor driver. They worked together for two weeks this year before the excavation proper began.
Wherever Ran saw a building corner fronting on the main drag, he had the tractor take a one-meter bite.
As a result, he has some interesting prospects for future excavation, including one with Hellenistic stones — possibly reused, as is always the case in Byzantine cities, but intriguing nevertheless.
If you follow Ran’s decumanus for about 200 meters to the west you will find a cross street opened by a team under Mark Schuler of Concordia, assistant dig director.
This cardo leads to what Mark believes is an urban monastic complex where we found the other burials.
The collapse of rock and dirt in the cardo was dismaying, but the tractor and hardworking students and volunteers cleared the street from the church’s atrium to the decumanus.
When the street was finally open, the little group celebrated with a ribbon- cutting ceremony.
So Hippos is stirring.
The tombs give us glimpses of its residents. You can almost see them hurrying past the street corner. “Somebody should open up a lemonade stand,” quipped a hot, weary volunteer. “They’d clean up.”
With a little imagination — and thanks to diligent staff archaeologists and dreamer volunteers — Hippos of the Decapolis is coming to life again.