Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Hole in the Roof

Several rooms in the House XVII were restored and reused by the Druze and Masa’eid Arabs early in the 20th century. A goal of AFCP Preservation and Presentation Project is to preserve two of these to enable visitors to to see the continuity between late antique and current cultures. The problem with one of these was that there was a hole in the roof due to a slumping *corbel right inside the entry.  The danger was this roof could collapse and cause serious injury to visitors. Our initial plan was to support this slumping corbel with a permanently installed I-beam post. When we proposed this solution to our local mason Awda Masa’eid, he immediately shook his head, and said, “No, no, I can fix that easily so that it will be much safer and look just as it was.” What follows is the story of his common sense, effective solution, completed during the last two weeks of April.

* A “corbel” is a beam support created by jutting a stone out of a wall. A row of corbels form a ledge onto which ceiling and roof beams can be placed. Corbelling works well for basalt, which is strong, but not for limestone, which will more easily break from the weight of the roof beams. It is an alternative to vaulting (more expensive) and trussing (requires wood).

The hole in the roof.

Awda and his crew with Hussein Askar, the Department of Antiquities Archaeologist on the far left. Awda is on the left end of the second row, wearing the red kafiya.

First all the stones which needed to be moved were numbered. The key to the operation is 14d, which is to be cut in two (Yes, you could think of the word “operation” in the sense of “surgical procedure.” We could think of this procedure as a “corbel replacement,” not unlike a hip replacement in humans).


First the the ceiling corbels prone to collapse were shored with temporary steel posts. That’s Awda looking satisfied.

Next the roof soil and then the ceiling beams that had been supported by the slumping corbel were removed. The small hole in the roof has become a gaping maw. (The criss-cross and diagonal positioning of the ceiling beams was done that way because the Druze builders could not find beams long enough to reach from one wall to the other; these longer Roman/Byzantine-era beams had long ago been reused for other purposes.)

Next you see the facade with part of the ‘surgery’ completed. The left half of stone 14d has been replaced. What you see instead is the back end of a new, longer corbel which has been wedged into the space with chink stones and is being held in place by the weight of restored stones 1-11 above it. We’ve skipped showing the removal and the replacement process to keep the story short. Suffice it to say here that all the stones involved in this procedure were moved down and up by hand; no heavy machinery was involved.

On the inside you can see the new corbel protruding from the wall on the right, ready to carry the weight that the slumping corbel could no longer support.

Here’s another view. Part of the solution was to replace the interior facade above the corbel with more substantial stones to hold it in place. The inserted masonry is also basalt, but is discolored from the red grey soil of the collapse debris in the House XVII courtyard, from which Awda’s team took them. For now, this distinguishes the ‘new’ from the ‘old,’ though a couple of seasons of winter rains may change that.

Next, the Druze ceiling beams are replaced, with the new corbel positioned like a spider at the center of its web. Note the large amount of soil; this is used to seal and waterproof the roof, exactly as was done in the Roman to Umayyad periods.

Finally the ‘wound’ has been closed by re-leveling the soil on the roof, under which – and on which – visitors can now walk safely.

Inside, the repaired ceiling looks like it always did before the extracted corbel failed.

This was the first of a number of simple but effective solutions provided by Awda and his team, which have made the preservation process of this project efficient and successful beyond my best hopes. The most spectacular of these was the consolidation of House XVIII’s famous double windows, a story we plan to tell shortly. What we’ve learned here is this:

INCORPORATION OF LOCAL TALENT INTO THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROCESS MAKES POSSIBLE THE PERPETUATION OF A LIVING HERITAGE. We’ve been looking at building techniques that were first documented for the Stone and  Bronze Ages (think of Jawa, for example); these survived because local masons inserted them into the regional Nabataean, Greek, Roman and Byzantine building programs; and they were kept alive through their use by masons in the Islamic periods, as Umayyad, Mamluk, Ottoman and early modern passed on these ancient traditions to new generations. The fine work being done by Awda and his young assistants are still part of this cycle.


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