Uncovering a Roman Army Base at Legio 

8 Questions for Legio director Matthew Adams 

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones famously says, “X never, ever marks the spot.” While that is true with most archaeological excavations, it’s not true at Legio. The only full-scale Roman army base uncovered in the Eastern Mediterranean from the second–third centuries C.E., the site of Legio follows the plan of a typical Roman base. During the 2019 archaeological season, I toured Legio and asked Matthew J. Adams of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research questions about this intriguing base, occupied by the Roman Sixth Legion (Legio VI Ferrata) at the foot of Tel Megiddo (Armageddon). Along with Yotam Tepper of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Susan Cohen of Montana State University, Adams directs the excavations at Legio, part of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project (JVRP).

Megan Sauter (BHD): How long has this excavation been underway?

Matthew Adams: We’ve been digging at Legio every other year since 2013, so this is our fourth season.

MS: How many years do you plan to excavate here?

Adams: That’s a good question. We’re working on the main headquarters building here, and we need at least one more season to truly bring that to closure, maybe two. Then we’ll reassess our research goals and eventually move on to another part of the camp that interests us—maybe the barracks, maybe the commander’s residence. We’ll see. I’m not sure.

Legio volunteers excavate the sacellum

Legio volunteers excavate the sacellum, the room where the legion’s standards would have been placed. It was the most sacred space of the Roman military camp. Photo: Courtesy of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project.

MS: What caused you to choose this site?

Adams: I’ve been working at Megiddo for many years, since the ’90s. A particular discovery there of a really, really big Early Bronze Age temple led us to new questions about this important period in the region—after all, according to our previous understanding, such a temple should not be there! Trying to explain how that temple got there and what its whole story is became a priority. We realized that there was no more excavation that could be done at Megiddo to answer that, so we developed a regional survey project, called the Jezreel Valley Regional Project, which would try to get at this period at other sites and put together a more comprehensive picture of the landscape. However, that very quickly turned into a much larger project that focuses on all periods. As one of the earliest subprojects of the JVRP, we started looking at sites adjacent to Megiddo that would help develop the picture of this core part of the valley. That included the excavation of an Early Bronze Age settlement connected to the temple just across the street from us, for three seasons, and then naturally led to excavating the Roman camp here. Now we have a pretty good understanding of the long-term history of greater Megiddo, which would have included this area as well.

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MS: What have you found so far at Legio, and what do you expect to find?

Adams: Our biggest discovery was the camp itself, which we knew was in the area, but we’ve now been able to identify it on the ground. Second, focusing on the headquarters of the building has really enriched our understanding of the administration of the Roman army, at least the architecture of that administration, as it is on the ground inside these bases. We continue to work on the headquarters and expect a lot of new and exciting things. There are so many questions about these buildings, in particular of the dozens and dozens of rooms that are inside them—what are they for? What kinds of things were happening in these buildings? We know from textual sources what some of these are, but mapping these textual witnesses to the archaeological remains is one of our key goals.

MS: Have there been any surprises?

Adams: Yes, in the sense that everything is a surprise with every trowel scrape. There have been a few objects here and there that we weren’t expecting, but they’re not completely out of place. In fact, everything has been almost not surprising because of the regularities of these buildings. Once we opened a few excavation units and got a few points of data, we were able to reconstruct the general layout of the entire base and then start to target specific structures that served our research goals. As Indiana Jones says, “X never, ever marks the spot”—he’s wrong.

ceramic pipe at legio

Seth Price, Lily Nash, and Rachel Nabulsi pause a moment from their work and rest near a ceramic pipe in the Roman army base at Legio. Photo: Courtesy of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project.

MS: X never, ever marks the spot, except at Legio!

Adams: That’s right.

MS: Do you have a prize find—something that stands out above everything else—at Legio?

Adams: I think we’re excavating our prize find right now: the holy room at the back of the main headquarters building. That is really awesome. It’s such an intimate picture into the legionary base because it’s the most sacred spot. It’s the most revered place, and the architecture reflects that. I’m really excited to see how it all pans out.

MS: That is quite exciting! Beyond getting to help uncover a holy room, why should readers visit or dig at Legio?

Adams: There are a lot of great reasons to do that. Legio is really fun. I’d say we’re the most fun excavation project out there. Legio is great for a lot of people interested in the Holy Land—whether it’s the Christian Holy Land or the Old Testament Holy Land—because Legio informs Jerusalem and the relationship between the Roman army and the local population. We know we have a Jewish village and an early Christian village here in addition to the Roman army base. We’re able to tap into all of these different types of interests for people.

Evan Kelley hold marble hair found at Legio

Evan Kelley of Montana State University holds a chunk of marble hair. Found in the sacellum of the principia at Legio, the fragment belongs to a marble statue. Photo: Courtesy of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project.

MS: Final question: Would you like to highlight a standout volunteer on the project?

Adams: I can’t think of just one because most of the staff that we put together for this project was new to archaeology or very young. Many of them started out as raw volunteers during our first and second seasons and are now part of our core staff. I like to think that the team we built as a staff is the standout volunteers that we had at the very beginning, and it’s really nice to see them grow up with the project.

MS: Those are all the questions I have for you. Thank you so much for letting me take up some of your time.

This interview first appeared in Bible History Daily in January of 2020

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More on the Jezreel Valley in Bible History Daily:

St. Nicholas Ring Unearthed in Jezreel Valley Garden A landscaper working in the Jezreel Valley discovered a 700-year-old ring bearing the image of St. Nicholas.

Jewelry from the Time of the Judges Found at Megiddo Archaeologists working at the site of Megiddo in Israel’s Jezreel Valley discovered a hoard of gold, silver and bronze jewelry dating to around 1100 B.C.E. The jewelry was found wrapped in fabric and hidden inside a ceramic vessel.

Elite Canaanite Burial Discovered in the Jezreel Valley Archaeologists have discovered a 3,300-year-old anthropoid coffin with Egyptianizing features belonging to a wealthy Canaanite near Tel Shadud in the Jezreel Valley.

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