I’ve written before about the importance of using primary sources versus secondary sources in historical research. Basically, a primary source is created at the time of the event, while a secondary source is created later and interprets the primary source.
In this previous post, I used the example of soccer ticket stubs from the 1970s being used as primary source material. People generally think of primary sources as written documentation, but I want to present to you a piece of art, created for unknown reasons, that has been a useful source for historical and archaeological research.
In the late nineteenth century, a group of Christian settlers in Jordan moved to the town of Madaba, which had been abandoned, and began to rebuild. In 1884 they were building a Greek Orthodox church, the Church of Saint George, on the remains of an earlier church and discovered a mosaic floor. They kept the floor, but didn’t really do anything with it. It wasn’t until 1896 that this mosaic floor was first seen by a scholar.
Mosaics are durable, attested to by the number of ancient and medieval mosaics that remain around the world and throughout most cultures. But it’s not indestructible and this map is obviously not complete. Its raggedy edges and strange shape attest to the fact that much of the original mosaic was destroyed. Now known as the Madaba Map, this mosaic floor has a long history.
The mosaic is a map of the Middle East, labeled in Greek. It is the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem. Estimates put the number of stones and other pieces used to create the mosaic at about two million. It includes the Dead Sea and clearly shows significant structures in Jerusalem. The scale of Jerusalem is out-sized on the map, but that proportion is probably due to its historical and spiritual influence at the time.
Based on the buildings and roads depicted in the map, its creation has been dated to sometime between 542 and 570 CE, during the Byzantine era. About 200 years later, in 745, Madaba was largely destroyed by an earthquake, and the ruined town was abandoned. Subsequently the mosaic was further damaged by fire, moisture and activities in the church.
We don’t know the original purpose of the map, although there is speculation by historians. In my view, that’s one of the most difficult aspects of the study of history. We know the fact of the map’s existence, and we know how the map was physically created, but we don’t know why. No records exist (or have been found) that explain the motivation. But even without knowing the motivation, the map is a valuable historical resource, giving insight into life in the sixth century.
And this map, this primary historical source, is valuable in another, more physical, way. The Madaba Map shows the locations of structures and roads that no longer exist, making it an archaeological treasure trove.
In 1967 the Nea Church, whose existence was known from ancient writings, was excavated. The Madaba Map included the church, and unlike the writings, showed its exact location.
In 2010, a 1,500 year-old street depicted in the map was found about 15 feet beneath the city. This one could have been found sooner, but Israeli archaeological law states that when there is new construction in a historical area, the site must be opened for archaeological excavation. They just had to wait for new construction.
So, primary sources. One of the best things about history.