Excavations: The American Expedition to Petra, and beyond

Philip C. Hammond (left) at the Temple of the Winged Lions with AEP team members, 1978. (ACOR, P. C. Hammond/AEP Archive.)
American Expedition to Petra (AEP) team working on the site, 1975. (ACOR, P. C. Hammond/AEP Archive.)

This page is part of a series on Petra’s Temple of the Winged Lions. To start from the beginning, click here.

European and American explorers and archaeologists first became aware of the temple’s location in the late 19th century. The pioneering survey team of R. E. Brünnow and A. von Domaszewski (1904–1909) investigated remnants of the temple and neighboring buildings in 1897–1898, although its nature and function remained a mystery until the 1970s. Modern scientific work on the temple was first carried out by the American Expedition to Petra (AEP). Following a magnetometer survey in 1973 that revealed the outline of a structure on the northern slope overlooking Wadi Musa, the AEP undertook excavations between 1974 and 2005, revealing the well-preserved outline of a temple building and the discovery of “winged lion” capitals that originally perched atop the columns within the temple’s inner sanctuary. Hammond’s team identified 12 “winged lions” columns, 34 columns and pilasters crowned with Nabataean-Corinthian capitals, and wall niches for votive and cultic objects decorating this two-story temple. Subsequently, the excavation team recovered a number of cultic objects, including the famous inscribed “Eye-Idol” that had been dedicated in the temple to the “Goddess of Hayyan Son of Nybat.”

Plan of the Temple of the Winged Lions created by Qutaiba Dassouqi, 2012. (ACOR – TWLCRM Initiative.)

In a basement room in front of the temple, over one thousand pieces of marble were found collected together in what has been described as a marble workshop; several of these have fragmentary Nabataean inscriptions. One inscription is particularly important, as it is dated to the 37th year of the reign of Aretas IV (around A.D. 27/28). Although not found in its original position, it was probably part of a dedicatory inscription installed at the temple soon after its completion, which places the construction of the temple in the first quarter of the 1st century. Archaeological materials recovered from levels below the floors of the building also support a 1st-century date for the temple’s construction.

Thousands of other artifacts—carved stone and ceramic images of deities, perforated seashells, and small copper bells, for example—were also recovered. The AEP excavations also extended to areas adjacent to the temple precinct, including a series of rooms and storage spaces that may have been used for grain processing, oil production, or the making of miniature altars. These provide some indications of the role of the temple and its personnel in daily and economic life, including in service of pilgrims and devotees, as well as in the maintenance of the temple. Most importantly, artifacts found in the temple complex may help archaeologists to understand how people made use of specific rooms and spaces, which is rare for Nabataean ritual structures in the region. International and Jordanian scholars have highlighted the enormous potential of the temple complex to contribute substantially to our understanding of Nabataean religion, culture, industry, and architecture.

Department of Antiquities representative Ahmad Lash surveys test trench 1 in the southwest quadrant, 2014. (Photo by Ghaith Faqeer.)
Inscription of Aretas IV found at the Temple of the Winged Lions, 1981. (ACOR, P.C. Hammond/AEP Archive.)

In the final years of the AEP, excavation revealed a structure on an east-west orientation farther up the slope behind the temple, consisting of a columned open courtyard surrounded by benches, within which was found the sandstone bust of a male figure. This may have served as a space for open-air gatherings and rituals. Its relationship with the Temple of the Winged Lions complex remains unclear.

Although the TWLCRM Initiative has focused mainly on documentation, conservation, and site presentation efforts, new excavations were carried out at the Temple of the Winged Lions with the Department of Antiquities in the southwest quadrant in 2014. This small-scale excavation yielded information about the earliest and latest phases of the temple’s lifecycle. There are indications of features that may predate the temple’s presumed foundation date of the early 1st century A.D. In addition, careful assessment of the fragmented masonry and debris, including painted plaster and stucco in the southwest quadrant, suggests that this area was used as a dump and reclamation area for masonry following the earthquake of A.D. 363. Sifting of the spoil heaps between 2012 and 2018 has also contributed to the wide range of artifacts already known from the site.

Next up | 3. The Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management (TWLCRM) Initiative

See also:
1. Petra’s Temple of the Winged Lions: Introduction, 4. The Temple of Winged Lions Publication Project, 5. Support for the Temple of the Winged Lions, 6. Find out more about the Temple of the Winged Lions

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