Four children's hands using archaeological tools to dig up and broken pot in a fake archaeological trench.

A breath of hope – Bkaatouta Heritage Weekend!

Over the weekend of July 31st and Sunday August 1st, 2021, children from Bkaatouta, as well as other neighboring towns and villages, with some parents and four amazing volunteers, spent the weekend in the beautiful hills of Bkaatouta learning about their history and about the work of archaeologists.

Landward Research’s first project in Lebanon.

The first thing that struck me about Bkaatouta as a village is that it felt like a forgotten paradise. Nestled below the majestic peak of Mount Sannine at 1300m above sea level, surrounded by abundant terraces of fruits and two of the wealthiest villages in the region – Baskinta and Kfardebian – in Bkaatouta time seemed to stand still. Its houses were old and rugged, partially deserted, and it boasts some the oldest Lebanese immigrant families in the region. The village had just begun to develop its identity. An official municipality had just been created in 2009, accompanied by a tiny bit of social media and tourism visibility through a Facebook account since 2015.  

Landscape view of hills beyond a plateau, with green trees and shrubs on the hills and plateau. A group of people can be seen hiking in the distance.

My personal interest in Bkaatouta was triggered by an archaeological coincidence when I met Rachid Moubarak, a village activist and member of the recently created Bkaatouta municipality board. He had contacted me as a heritage expert and archaeologist to check on an ancient feature in the village, known as the Darjeh site, located in the higher part of Bkaatouta. I called Tania Zaven, the regional director of north Mount Lebanon at the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) and we agreed to coordinate.

A month later, I  drove up  to the village and went with Rachid to visit the site, thought to be an ancient wine press, in use until the early 20th century. I found three rectangular uncovered and empty rock-cut trenches – these were most probably tombs at one point during the Roman period that had been reused as part of the wine press! This re-use probably happened during the medieval period – and we identified two adjacent similar squared pits two meters apart, carved into limestone bedrock, all overlooking the village and surrounded by a large plateau. Upon investigating the site, I realized there was no archaeological stratigraphy to be excavated, and the site simply needed garbage and wild vegetation cleaning away, as well as protection and preservation. I contacted Tania once again, presented a report to the DGA and we agreed on a work strategy.

Gray stone with three rectangular cut outs. Thought to be tombs from the Roman period, reused as a wine press.

Instead of recruiting an archaeological team, we decided to do the cleaning activity together with local volunteers: Rachid, his children and some villagers. We thus planned our first “public archaeological activity” with seven volunteers, identifying, drawing, measuring, and cleaning it and taking images of the wine press. The curiosity of the children and two local guides, Rita and Anthony, and the questions they asked prompted me to begin teaching them about their heritage and what it entails, about the production of wine by their ancestors, and how this heritage belongs to them. By the end of that weekend, Rachid and I decided to realise my dream of organizing a Bkaatouta heritage weekend involving children and their families from the region, to stimulate their interest and build an attachment to their heritage, for them to feel responsible to protect and preserve what is left for generations to come.

Group of children and one adult talking. Group sat in the shade of a parasol on brown grass, on a bright sunny day.

One year after the initial discovery, this dream came true. After presenting a proposal to the DGA and setting the proper heritage participation criteria, together with Tania,  the “Bkaatouta Heritage Weekend” project was launched over a weekend  (July 31st and Sunday August 1st, 2021). The village secretary Rania el-Hajj collected the registered names and we ended up with 40 participants.

Children aged 8 and above joined from Bkaatouta, as well as other neighboring towns and villages, with a few accompanying parents and four amazing volunteers (Elie Akiki, Julie Lebnann, Takla Khoueiry, Graziella Nakad).

Nine pine trees with tall, thin, brown trunks and green leaves, at a mid distance from the camera, in a semicircle. A group of children is sat under the trees and two adults are speaking to them.

We started our activities in a beautiful location under a set of pine trees that offered the perfect shady spot for everyone. A 6-page brochure was passed out to the participants including a colorful timeline and explanation of each of the planned activities. Takla, a Lebanon Mountain Trail Association staff member and experienced education officer, started the first introductory task by asking the kids to link the first letter of their name with a historical feature in Lebanon. This was followed by an interactive explanation of the world timeline with a focus on Lebanon starting with prehistory up until the 20th century. Next, the children split into four groups and each group was named after a historical figure (Fakhr El-Dine, Julius Caesar, Tut-Ankh-Amun, and Bechara El-Khoury) and told the others about the importance of this figure with reference to the region.

Group (three children and one adult) using archaeological tools to excavate a circular object in a mock archaeological trench. Everyone is wearing a hat.

Following this, the children were taken to another neighboring spot, where they spent an hour and a half excavating in a 2 x 2 sqm fake digging trench prepared the day before and filled with sand and earth. The children began a fully focused search for hidden archaeological artefacts such as pottery sherds, ‘gems’, flint tools and stone building blocks, using trowels, brushes and small cleaning utensils to unveil their discoveries. This turned out to be the highlight of the weekend!

Four children's hands using archaeological tools to dig up and broken pot in a fake archaeological trench.

After placing each item in separate bags, the children were asked to stick the ceramic sherds together, which resulted in three complete jars and one plate previously broken purposefully for this task. Graziella, a young freshly graduated archaeologist, and Julie, an LMT project manager watched over the kids and assisted them, as they delicately worked their way through the puzzle of sherds. They were taught how to recognize the historical identity of each sherd and the importance of displaying them in museums as public property for everyone to enjoy. Later in the afternoon, the kids were taught how to write their name in Phoenician letters with Elie, another volunteer and passionate archaeologist from neighboring Kfardebian who is working for the Directorate General of Antiquities.

A terracotta pot that was broken into pieces is partly stuck back together with glue. A hand can be seen holding a piece of the pot that is yet to be stuck back on to the pot, another hand can be seen holding a yellow tube of glue.

During the 2nd day, we had an afternoon hike along Bkaatouta’s heritage trail, which extends 2km between the wine press and two other Roman sites. Anthony Freyfer, a local guide, accompanied us. The children strolled around and identified pottery sherds on the ground surface, visited the tombs and learned about their identity and historical importance. By the end of the hike right before sunset, we  returned to the pine trees and felt an insatiable amount of satisfaction for the success of this project.

Group hiking in the hills of Bkaatouta. Yellow/brown rocky ground with a path going through it and large green shrubs dotted beside it. Green hills can be seen in the distance.

The team and I were so pleased with the results that we made a promise to one another to repeat this in other villages and towns in the future. The DGA encouraged us to implement this project in Beirut as well, inviting children traumatized by the devastating explosion of August 4th 2020 to participate in identifying and studying Beirut’s archaeological and built heritage, in order to appreciate and preserve it. This will hopefully be our next targeted project in October 2021, which we all look forward to enthusiastically!

Share this post