Report from Jerusalem #70, 11th June 2015

Mummies in Chile Subject to Melting

The Museum at the University of Tatapaca in northern Chile houses a number of mummies dating back to 5000 BCE, believed to be the oldest in the world, according to the curator Mariela Santos. Over the last few years she has noticed that the mummies are melting, disintegrating and turning into a mysterious black ooze. The staff have called in a Harvard scientist Ralph Mitchell, a bacteria specialist, to investigate. He has come to the conclusion that the mummies are victims of climate change, due to the increased humidity over northern Chile in the last ten years, and the common micro-organisms have become voracious consumers of collagen, the main component of the skin of the mummies. Mitchell warned that this was the first case known to him but that the phenomenon may be increasing and affecting other valuable remains in other locations.

The mummies in question are known as the Chinchorro mummies. There are about 120 at the museum and date from a community of hunter-gatherers. They are unusual in that they include human foetuses, and the early deaths are considered to have been due to arsenic poisoning caused by drinking water poisoned by volcanic eruptions. The mummies have survived due to the arid conditions of the Atacama Desert where they were excavated. Mitchell and the museum curators are working on a solution and consider that humidity and temperature control offer the best solution. To achieve that a new museum is planned at cost of $56 million, by the Chilean government, where each mummy will be housed in its own glass cubicle with its own microclimate, and it is hoped that will save them. But Santos is not optimistic and said: “from the moment they are taken out of the ground they start deteriorating.”

Ancient Treasures of Palmyra Threatened

Islamic State fighters are in occupation of Palmyra, whose remains were designated as a UNESCO world heritage site and listed as being in danger in 2013. The fate of its antiquities remains unclear. Also known as Tadmur, Palmyra was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, and stands at the intersection of important routes to Damascus and Homs. Two weeks ago, while fighting was proceeding at two kilometres from the city Syrian antiquities Chief Abdulkarim said that the international community was not doing anything to protect the antiquities but “would weep and despair” after the damage had been done, as had happened in Iraq. In Palmyra, he said, the Roman-era colonnades, some well-preserved temples and a theatre were under direct threat from the Islamic extremists who were converging on the city.

Hasmonean Aqueduct Exposed in Jerusalem

During the construction of a sewage line in the Har Homa district to the south of Jerusalem, a section of the lower aqueduct constructed by the Hasmonean kings to distribute water throughout the city two thousand years ago, was found by archaeologist Ya’akov Billig, director of the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). According to Billig, the aqueduct had been built in open areas around the city, but due to modern expansion, it was now buried under several residential areas. The aqueduct was one of the principal sources of water for the inhabitants and was preserved for two thousand years until replaced by a piped and pumped system in modern times. Due to its historic interest, the aqueduct will be further exposed, studied and preserved by the IAA, who plan to make sections accessible and visible to the public.

Oldest Musical Image Found in Western Galilee

A cylinder seal impression of the Early Bronze Age of about 3000 BCE was identified by the IAA as the scene of a Mesopotamian wedding in which the king has sexual congress with a goddess, and the seated figures are holding a musical instrument that looks like a lyre. Yoli Shwartz of the IAA said, “the seal’s engraving includes music and dancing, a banquet, a meeting between the king and the goddess and their sexual union.” Archaeologists claim that the inscription represents the sacred marriage rite conducted by the king with a priestess, representing the goddess, and was a necessary ritual to increase fertility of the crops and animals. The small relic, the oldest representation of a musical instrument yet found in Israel, will be exhibited to the public at a forthcoming symposium at the Hebrew University to be entitled, “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll”.

Visitors Archaeology Centre Approved Conditionally

A large visitor’s centre planned to be built over the Givati Parking lot, located opposite the City of David entrance and south of the Dung gate, has been approved by the National Planning Appeals Board, subject to severe restrictions. The plan was to build a large complex of exhibition spaces, offices, parking places and facilities for visitors on pilotis or stilts so as to preserve the existing archaeological remains on the site. There were objections to the plan, known as the Kedem Centre, from two environmental groups that thought it was very near to the City walls and would oversail them visually and destroy the archaeological remains on the site. The Kedem Centre was the brainchild of the Elad Foundation, who are sponsoring the City of David excavation, and wanted to see a suitable complex to provide facilities for visitors coming to the site and give them an explanation of its importance. The plan has now been approved but with the condition that it be reduced in size and height so as not to dominate this sensitive area. Another condition has been that the plan for the preservation of the archaeological remains must be submitted for public approval before building work commences.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #69, 4th May 2015

Egyptian Style Artifacts from Southern Cave

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently displayed artifacts unearthed from a cave near Tel Halif, 15 km. north of Beersheba. The items were found during a looting probe and date to the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age, say from 1500 to 1000 BCE. Yuli Schwartz of the IAA said that the thieves had been thwarted and the IAA were now carrying out a salvage excavation. She said that more than 300 pottery vessels of alabaster, seals and seal impressions had been found, as well as jewellery of bronze, shell and faience in considerable quantities. The appearance of the artifacts were in an Egyptian style and suggest that there had been an Egyptian governmental centre in the area at the time, Many of the stone seals were scarab-shaped with Egyptian images, and several were inscribed on semi-precious stones from Egypt and the Sinai.

Some had the names of Egyptian Pharaohs, one had a sphinx with the name of Thutmose (c.1480 BCE), another with the name of Amenhotep (c. 1370 BCE), and one with the name of Ptah, god of Memphis. It appears the objects were mainly made in Egypt but some were of Israelite work using Egyptian methods and motifs. Dr. Ben-Tor of the Israel Museum noted that most of the finds dated to the 15th and 14th centuries BCE when Canaan was ruled by the Egyptians. The excavation continues and the finds have been transferred to the IAA laboratories for cleaning and further study before being put on display again.

Praise for Finders of Undersea Gold Coins

The divers who discovered the largest hoard of gold coins ever found in Israel were honoured at a recent ceremony at the Nebe Shuayb Druze shrine in the Galilee. They had found 2,600 gold coins of the Fatimid period on the seabed in near-perfect condition, and they reported it immediately to the IAA. Most of the coins bear the name of the Fatamid Caliph al-Hakim bi Amra-Allah who is believed to have founded the Druze religion in 1017 CE, and therefore the find was of tremendous interest to the Druze community, and their spiritual leader Sheikh Tarif attended the ceremony. The IAA said that they were proud to connect the Druze to their local past. No information was given as to how the coins had ended up on the sea-bed in Caesarea harbour. At the ceremony the six divers were presented by the IAA and the Caesarea Corporation with certificates of exemplary citizenship and with a replica of one of the gold coins.

Dome of the Rock, Tension over Carpet Renewal

The Islamic Trust, the Waqf, have recently replaced the worn carpet inside the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The IAA were not informed of the change and it only came to the notice of Zachi Dvira, a colleague of Gabi Barkai, who saw pictures of the move on pages of Islamic Facebook and expressed concern to the IAA, who were unaware of it. The concern is not with the change of the modern carpet but with the floor below which could have been examined when the old carpet was lifted.

It seems that the floor below is covered with tiles of the Crusader period, and these were removed or changed without proper supervision. Under the tiles the earlier floor might have shown evidence of earlier pavings or the existence of another floor below. The IAA should have been informed and could have done the necessary research and taken photographs. The Israeli government will not allow the work to be opened up again due to delicate relations with the Jordanian government, who financed the operation. According to the Waqf management the work was long overdue and they said “our work in the Dome is transparent, we are only putting down carpet, nothing more, nothing less.” The suspicion by some commentators, is that the Waqf are trying to remove all traces of the Crusader geometric flooring of the 11th century CE, as pieces had previously appeared in Gabi Barkai’s sifting of the earlier material that was illegally removed by the Waqf without supervision in 1999.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

 

 

Report from Jerusalem #68, 1st April 2015

Prize for Professor Ahituv

It was announced that Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben Gurion University in Beersheba would be awarded the Israel Prize in Biblical Research on Independence Day, which falls on 23rd April this year. The Israel prize is the highest civilian honour awarded in Israel and is given on an annual basis. Prof. Ahituv is one of the leading Biblical scholars in Israel and was founder of the Ben Gurion University Press and the last editor of the Biblical Encyclopaedia, who brought that great and definitive work to a successful conclusion.

Rare Coins Discovered in Northern Cave

Three members of the Israeli Caving club discovered a cache of silver and bronze coins after crawling for hours through narrow caves in Northern Israel recently. They reported their find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) who announced that the coins were from the time of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BCE. Yoli Shwartz of the IAA added that near the coins a cloth bag or satchel was also located which contained silver rings, bracelets and earrings. It was thought that the coins and the jewellery had been hidden by their owners during a period of governmental unrest at the death of Alexander, when conflict developed between his successors, and the owners had been unable to return to retrieve their valuables. The finders were commended by the IAA for their early notification of the treasure and the IAA said that the coins would now be cleaned and examined before being exhibited to the public. The other artifacts would also be examined further to check their dating, which it was believed went back to the Hellenistic period and probably even earlier.

Ancient Beer-Making Pottery in Central Tel Aviv

The IAA announced that pieces of pottery used in the manufacture of beer by Egyptians were uncovered in a salvage dig in central Tel Aviv, where the construction of office blocks was due to start. The IAA dated the pieces to the Early Bronze Age of five thousand years ago and, according to Diego Barkan, director of the excavation, some of the pottery fragments were of large ceramic basins made in an Egyptian manner to prepare beer. The pieces were made with some organic material for strengthening, which was not a local tradition, and suggested that it was Egyptians that had manufactured it while living in the area. Barkan said, “Until now we were only aware of Egyptian presence in the northern Negev and southern coastal plain…..now we know that they also appreciated what the Tel Aviv region had to offer, and they knew how to enjoy a mug of beer just as the Tel Avivians do today !” Other finds at the site included a bronze dagger and flint tools dating to the Chalcolithic period of c. 4000 BCE.

Porcupine Diggers in Central Israel

A clay lamp of about 500 CE was recently found by the IAA on a heap of soil, at the Horbat Siv ruins in the Emek Hefer valley, north-east of Netanya. The accumulation of soil was created by the underground activities of a porcupine digging itself a new burrow in the area. The porcupines will dig their underground burrows sometimes fifteen metres long and will throw out the spoil and any archaeological items in their way. The IAA announced with a bit of humour: “ We call on all porcupines to avoid digging their burrows at archaeological sites and warn that such digging without a licence is a criminal offence that on prosecution can lead to a prison sentence.”

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem,

Report from Jerusalem #67, 2nd March 2015

Oldest Human Skull Yet Found in the Middle East

Archaeologists and anthropologists have reported the finding of a fossilized partial skull in the Manot Cave in western Galilee seven years ago but only now reported after extensive verification of its date. Dr. Omri Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) claimed that the skull was 55,000 years old and “one of the most important discoveries in the history of human evolution”. He was standing outside the cave of the discovery, 40 km. north-east of the Carmel caves, and pointed out that the cave entrance had collapsed thousands of years ago and thus had hermetically sealed the remains and preserved the skull. He said that morphometric analysis had shown that the skull belonged to modern Homo Sapiens and thus was the earliest modern human skull ever found in the Middle East. Professor Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University explained that two main migrations of ancient and modern Homo Sapiens from East Africa occurred 120,000 years ago and again between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago and while modern Homo Sapiens went on to conquer the world, his ancient cousin never made it past the Middle East. However the migrant route of modern Homo Sapiens passed through the Levant on its way to Europe and Asia – the Levant being the only land route between Africa and Europe. It is not clear why only the skull of the corpse was found and the explorers (who have had to abseil many metres down into the cave) said that it is hoped to find further remains as the excavation continues.

Arrest of Grave Robbers at Antiquities Site

At the end of January, three young Bedouin men were apprehended by Guy Fitoussi, archaeologist and inspector of the IAA Robbery prevention Unit, at an ancient Ashkelon burial site and handed over to the Police. The men had come with a metal detector and digging equipment to the Byzantine-era tombs, but claimed to the police that they were only searching for worms to fish with at the nearby dock. Fitoussi said that they were attempting to open three 1,500 year old graves to search for artifacts such as jewellery and coins that may have been buried with the dead. He said that their activities in disturbing the graves were causing irreparable damage to future archaeological research and would destroy clues to understanding the lives and culture of the former inhabitants. Due to increasing looting of ancient sites in the area, the IAA Robbery Prevention Unit have mounted regular night-time surveys of the area, and it was during one of these that the looters were apprehended.

Fine Wine of the Byzantine Era

During exploration in the Negev desert conducted by Haifa University professors Guy Bar-Oz and Dr. Lior Weisbrod and Dr. Tali Erikson-Gini of the IAA, ancient charred grape seeds of the Byzantine era of 1,500 years ago were uncovered in an antique pile of botanical and animal remains. It is claimed that these seeds were of a sought-after wine of the period called the “Wine of the Negev”, an extremely expensive wine drunk by the society’s elite.

The seeds were found after careful sifting and it was not clear where they had come from. Guy Bar-Oz said that the vines from which the seeds would have come had not survived but their existence showed that such vines had grown in the Negev and had flourished without the need of large amounts of water, as was needed by vines in Europe. The next step, the explorers said, was to work with biologists to research the DNA of the seeds, and they would also now attempt to try to grow vines from the seeds and make wine from the grapes.

Treasure Trove of Gold Coins Found Off Caesarea

A very large collection of gold coins was recently discovered in the harbour of Caesarea National Park. The stash of coins was found by divers of the local diving club and reported to the IAA, who said that the divers were good honest citizens to have immediately reported the collection of coins. The director of the Marine Archaeology unit of the IAA, Kobi Sharvit, said that there would likely be a wreck nearby of a Fatimid treasury ship that was on its way to Cairo with tax revenues. Or it may have been that the coins were meant to pay the salaries of the Fatimid military garrison stationed in Caesarea. The discovery consisted of nearly two thousand gold coins of the 11th century CE and was the largest collection ever found in Israel. The coins were in denominations of dinars, half-dinars and quarter-dinars and varied in size and weight. The oldest coin to be found was a quarter-dinar minted in Palermo, Sicily of the ninth century CE, while most of the coins were minted under the Fatimid Caliphs Al-Hakim and son Al-Zahir of 996-1036 CE who had developed Caesarea and adjoining coastal areas. In spite of their long incarceration, the coins were in good condition but some had been bent and showed tooth marks which, according to the IAA, demonstrate that they were physically checked by their owners or their traders.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #65, 16th December 2014

Scroll Looters Caught Red-Handed

In the first week of December, inspectors of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Robbery Prevention Unit arrested thieves carrying out illegal excavations in a cave using a metal detector and other tools. The culprits had been observed by the Arad Rescue Unit working at the so-called Cave of Skulls on the northern cliff of Nahal Tze’elim, about 15 km. west of the Dead Sea and 5 km. north of Arad. The cave is extremely difficult to reach, and the trespassers, young men from near Hebron, rappelled down from the top of the cliff to reach the cave. They were spotted by the Arad Rescue Unit who alerted the IAA inspectors, who came and waited for the culprits at the top of the cliff and arrested them. They were taken to the Arad police station where they were questioned and detained. According to Amir Ganor, director of the Robbery Prevention Unit, scroll robbers have been operating in the area for many years in the hope of finding scrolls, scraps of ancient texts and artifacts left in the caves from the times of the Great Revolt and the Bar-Kochba Revolt, which can be sold for large sums in the antiquity markets in Israel and abroad. He added that it was the first time in decades that the thieves had been caught in the act of looting. The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Woolley and Lawrence Museum at Carchemish

The Turkish government is planning to open a museum to the work of Leonard Woolley and T.E.Lawrence at Jerabulus, where the excavators lived from 1910 -1914, overlooking the site of Carchemish. The museum, due to open next May, is being organized by Nicolo Marchetti of Bologna University, who says they are working very close to an area of fighting between Turkey and Syrian rebels, and they will erect a very high anti-sniper wall around the museum for the safety of visitors. Archaeological work at Carchemish, on the Euphrates, resumed in 2011 and is ongoing.

Aerial Photography Simplified with High-Tech

It is often desired to photograph an archaeological site from the air, which helps to see the overall layout and also identify nearby areas that may require excavation. The difficulty has been the cost of hiring aircraft or balloons for the job and the time involved in getting the results. Now in Israel that task has been greatly simplified by two companies that can provide clear and accurate photographs taken from a camera mounted on an aerial drone. The work is done by a pilot on the ground and an expert photographer, who work together and can arrange for pictures taken from all angles. The images are directed straight to the excavator’s computer and the cost is considerably less and much faster than comparable aerial photography of the past.

Large Ancient Farmhouse in Central Israel

coin of Alexander the Great
Silver coin of Alexander bearing image of Heracles

An Iron Age farmhouse of the 8th century BCE has been unearthed at Rosh Ha’ayin, a few kms. east of Petah Tikva. It extends over a large area measuring 30m by 40m and was in fact a small settlement in itself, providing for processing the agricultural produce as well as residential quarters. There was also a number of wine presses found nearby, which suggest that wine production was the most important agricultural activity of the area. According to Amit Shadman, the dig director of the IAA, the farmhouse was built during the Assyrian Conquest, continued into the Persian period of the 6th century BCE and later into the Hellenistic period as well. This was confirmed by the finding on one floor of a rare silver coin bearing the head of Zeus on one side and that of Heracles on the other, together with the name of Alexander (the Great). The site will be preserved and conserved within the town by the IAA for the benefit of local residents and visitors.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem