THE VOLUTE CAPITALS OF ISRAEL AND
A New Look at an Ancient Architectural Feature
Introduction & Terminology: What is a Volute Capital?
According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary1, the word "volute" simply means spiral. The term used in an architectural sense, refers to a spiral motif used as a decorative feature, especially on column capitals, friezes, etc.
The particular usage referred to in this study, the volute capital is a specific type of capital found only in Israel and Jordan, and having several distinctive features as shown in Figure 1.
The specific elements include the central triangle, the base and
abacus, the volute spirals which give this capital its name, stylized leaf (at times both above and below the volute), and concentric circles near the top of the central triangle known as an
oculus (or, plural, oculi). It should be noted that not all volute capitals have all these elements.
The discussion of volute capitals, also known as proto-Ionic or proto-Aeolic capitals, first appears in reference to Palestinian architecture shortly after G. Schumacher's excavation of Tell el-Mutesellim, Biblical Megiddo, in 1903. In his excavation Schumacher uncovered the first of these capitals, which he termed "proto-Ionic."2 Both the names proto-Ionic and proto-Aeolic have their origin in classical Greek architectural terms: Ionic from the
Ionic order of capitals and Aeolic from the Aeolic style first found in area northwestern part of Asia Minor known as Aeolis. The "proto" prefix indicates that the Palestinian examples actually pre-date any known Aeolic or Ionic examples, but tend to assume influence from the region of Asia Minor on these Palestinian forms. In general, earlier works until the 1940s and 1950s used the term proto-Ionic for these capitals, whereas more recent works since the late 1950s have used the term
proto-Aeolic. Since the extant examples from Israel and Jordan all pre-date any Greek examples by hundreds of years, it seems that the influence most likely went in the opposite direction, from Canaan-Phoenicia to Greece, rather than
vice-versa. To see more information on influence from East to West, from Syria-Palestine to
Greece. Click here!
The more descriptive and neutral term, volute capital, is used here to describe these capitals. The term "volute" itself refers to the spiral design that is the capital's most significant feature. Also the term "volute capital" is preferable because it does not have any of the geographical or ethnic associations implying a development from one culture by another, as terms such as Ionic, Aeolic, and even "proto" do. This term, volute capital, is favored by Burkhardt Wesenberg in his massive 1971 work
Kapitalle und Basen. Previously published examples of these volute capitals have been found only in Israel and Jordan, with examples found at Tel Dan, Hazor, Megiddo, Samaria, Jerusalem, and Ramat Rahel in Israel; and Ain Sara/Karak, and Mudaybic in Jordan.
The interest in volute capitals, and the connection between volute capitals and the Karak Resources Project (KRP), is due to the presence of several of these capitals at the site of Mudaybic, Jordan, the site which has been excavated by KRP since 1997. Even before the team began excavations, the capital shown in
the photo to the right was known to be at the site. Nelson Glueck had discovered the capital during his explorations of the region in 1934.3 He published a picture in his reports that shows the capital in basically the same position as the KRP team found it in 1995. The presence of recent graffiti chipped into the face of the capital did partially
deface it by 1995. Further investigation at the site has uncovered at least four and possibly five volute capitals, making this site one of the richest sites in terms of number of capitals discovered. At only three sites in Israel, Megiddo, Samaria and Ramat Rahel have more capitals been found than
In 1997, KRP began a multi-season excavation at Mudaybic, with two fields. In Field B, three squares were opened in the gate area. Two additional squares were opened in 1999 as is depicted in the plan of Mudaybic shown in
Figure 2. In 2001, three more squares were opened in
Field B. The volute capitals at Mudaybic have all been found in
The volute capitals of Mudaybic