Report from Jerusalem #50, 14th May 2013

Early and Unusual Ritual Bath in Jerusalem

Last April a mikvah of the Second Temple period was uncovered in Jerusalem, in the western suburb of Kiryat Menahem, in a rescue dig conducted before the construction of a major roadway project. The ritual bath is unique in that it was located underground in a cave, and the natural water was supplied by rain onto three basins and channels carved into the roof of the cave, an unusual feature. The area of the bath was rendered in a type of waterproof plaster, according to excavator Benyamin Storchan of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). It is not clear how the mikvah was dated to the Second Temple period. After the bath went out of use, the basins and channels were filled with earth; a hole was cut in the roof and the cave acted as a local cistern. The local authority is interested to have it restored to the original mikvah structure with the three water basins and channels, and they believe it will serve as an attraction to local residents and visitors.

Battles in Syria Topple Ancient Minaret in Aleppo

The ongoing battles in Syria have claimed another ancient monument, this time the nine-storey tower Minaret of Aleppo’s Mosque, allegedly of the Umayyad (661-750 CE) period. The tower had an internal stair to a high level canopied viewing gallery surmounted by a miniature replica mosque and Islamic crescent moon finial. The mosque stands in the Old City of Aleppo, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Both sides of the conflict have blamed the collapse on each other, the State saying that it was due to rebel fire, and the rebels blaming Government tank shelling. At present large areas of Aleppo are in rebel hands but State troops remain in control of many other sectors of the city. Much of the original Mosque has been destroyed as well as the medieval stone-vaulted Suk or market.

The Gabriel Revelation Stone

In conjunction with the present Herod the Great Exhibition (which is proving very popular) the Israel Museum is displaying an unusual artifact. It is a long and narrow slab of stone inscribed in ink in two columns and dated by its calligraphy to 1st century BCE. It was found in 2007 on the east side of the Dead Sea and is on loan to the museum by the Jesselsohn family of Zurich. It is in two pieces that together make up 87 lines in neat square Hebrew script of the Herodian period, but with many lines unclear. The text purports to be written by the angel Gabriel in the first person, in conversation with a human being whom he warns of the destruction of Jerusalem but with the hope that God will save the city for the sake of the angel Michael and God’s servant David. The final lines are unclear and may have referred to the destruction of the city or its survival.

The back of the stone is smooth but not inscribed and the lower section is soiled, so it appears as if the piece was mounted against a wall with its base set into the ground. The artifact is exhibited together with early manuscripts relating to the angel Gabriel, and part of the War Scroll from Qumran, which uses a similar script. The exhibit will remain open until mid February 2014.

Byzantine Mosaic Floor in Northern Negev

A mosaic floor was recently found in the grounds of Kibbutz Beit Kama, 20 km. north of Beersheba, where the area is being prepared for the extension of the Trans-Israel Highway (Motorway 6) to Beersheba and Eilat. The mosaic floor is virtually complete in size but some portions are badly damaged, though the colours are vivid and the portrayal of doves, peacocks, jars of wine and vine branches is clear. The large square area is bordered by a heavy guilloche frame in black, red and white tesserae, set around a circular centrepiece with the four corners, between round and square, portraying stylized amphorae. According to the excavator, Dr. Rina Avner of the IAA, the mosaic floor belonged to a public building that had evidence of a complex water supply. In view of the emphasis of the mosaic on drink, it was perhaps a hostelry, that was part of a large Byzantine settlement of the 4th to 6th centuries, spread over 6 hectares alongside the ancient roadway to Beersheba from the north.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #49, 8th April 2013

Early Industrial Works Under Jaffa

In anticipation of renovated underground infrastructure plans for the streets of Jaffa, rescue digs by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have uncovered extensive industrial installations related to ancient liquid extraction processes such as presses, to produce wine and other alcoholic beverages. The remains date to the Byzantine period according to Dr. Yoav Arbel, Director of the IAA excavations. He said that they were evidence of just one phase of the extensive agricultural processes carried out in the Jaffa area from the time of the early Egyptian occupation of the 14th century BCE up to that of the Ottoman Empire, when fruit orchards were still prevalent in the surroundings.

Each uncovered unit consisted of a pressing floor connected to a collecting vat to hold the pressed liquids. The excavators thought that the discovered sections found under Hai Gaon Street represented only part of a larger industrial complex and that further installations would be found when the adjoining streets were investigated. The new infrastructure works, such as cables and drainage, were being laid carefully over the uncovered remains so that they would be kept preserved and protected, though not visible. The renewal project covers the Magen Avraham Compound of Jaffa and will result in improved drainage, landscaping and street lighting for the city.

Ancient Burial Cave on Mount of Olives Looted

Two young men were arrested by police in late February found digging into an ancient burial cave that was a known sealed ancient monument near to the large Kidron Valley tombs, such as the so-called tomb of Absalom.  The culprits admitted they were looking for buried treasure, as recorded by a spokeswoman for the IAA Theft Prevention Unit. The caves were thought to have preserved burial goods such as oil lamps and weapons, and it was not clear why such valuable remains had not been removed earlier by the IAA, seeing they were known to have been present in the tombs.

Preservation of Antiquities in Syria

Concern has been expressed over the preservation of the many objects of antiquity in Syria, during the present unrest and virtual civil war. One specific example has been mentioned, the looting and virtual destruction of the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest in the world. It is situated in an old part of the city, is built over a cave dedicated to the Prophet Elijah and is presumed to date back, at least in part, to the first century CE. The plaque on the cornerstone claims it to be the “Shrine and Synagogue of the Prophet Eliahou Hanabi since 720 BC”. It served the Jewish community until the early 19th century and was replaced by the more modern synagogue in the Old City where, it is reported, the Torah scrolls and other artifacts from the Jobar have been stored for safety.  It is to be hoped that the extensive wall paintings of the Dura-Europos Synagogue which, it is understood, are stored in the open but under cover, in Damascus, will not be affected by the unrest. It is also reported that the ancient souk in Aleppo has suffered heavily, and many of its medieval stone vaults have been destroyed, as have other ancient markets and mosques throughout the country.

Biblical Faces Reconstructed by Jacobovici

In another of his controversial archaeology series, Simcha Jacobovici is showing faces that he claims are reconstructed from authentic skulls of biblical personalities. The series is being aired on Canadian TV and the first episode purports to show the face of a Philistine woman, who is designated “Delilah”. It is based on a 3,000-year-old skull from a collection in Tel Aviv University. The face has been reconstructed in the way that forensic scientists work from skulls for police investigations.

A second episode shows the face of a man from a burial cave of the time of Jesus who, Jacobovici claims, was a man who knew Jesus. A third claim is based on the remains of an infant found inside a burial jar and is said to be that of “a sacrificed child”. These claims are clearly highly speculative and have been dismissed by Joe Zias, formerly of the IAA, as “show business and not science”. The actual reconstructions were mostly carried out by Victoria Lynwood of Montreal, who also reconstructed the skull of a 6,000-year-old warrior, whose teeth had decayed to such an extent that it was unclear how he had been able to continue to eat. Although dismissive of the series, Prof. Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University said that it would spark renewed interest in archaeology and that was the one good side of the presentation.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #48, 18th February 2013

“Debris” Removed from Temple Mount

As mentioned last month, six lorry-loads of material were removed from the Temple Mount in early January, discovered by Zachi Dvira (Zweik) who works with Gabby Barkai on the sifting project. The Jerusalem Police declared this to be ordinary debris, but the archaeologists see it as valuable excavated material, that has been removed from the Temple Mount against the High Court order prohibiting removal of any material from the Mount. Archaeologists are trying to retrieve the material from the local refuse dump and bring it to the sifting site for proper examination.

Preservation of 300 Historical Sites

The 700 million shekel (about £120M) program is going ahead with one third dealing with Biblical and Second Temple sites, and the remaining with later periods. The earlier projects include funding for projects in the City of David, Tel Shilo, the Machpelah cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Herodian remains near Bethlehem. Although the news does not give full specifics, it is clear that the allocated money is being used for these purposes, and further funds will be made available in due course.

Israel Antiquities Authority Archives Digitized

The above-mentioned fund is also being used to support the publication of a database with the records of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The documents will become available to scholars and include 19th century letters on excavations at the City of David, plans for the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre after the earthquake of 1927, and the extensive archives of the Rockefeller Museum. The work will give scholars access to valuable documents and will also ensure preservation of the archives, many of whose documents are suffering from disintegration because of poor paper quality and poor storage facilities in the past. Most of the documents are in English (they will receive Hebrew annotation) and are available on line here but no date has yet been given for the completion of the work.

Restoration of Avdat National Park

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has now completed restoration of the UNESCO Heritage site of the Avdat National Park in the Negev that was vandalized in October 2009. The work was carried out at a cost of nearly nine million shekels (£1.5m) but the Authority has made it clear that some of the archaeological evidence of original stonework has been lost forever due to the damage done by the vandals.

Herod the Great Exhibition at the Israel Museum

This fine exhibition opened at the Israel Museum on 12th February 2013 and will run for eight months. It is a tribute to Herod’s great building projects and also to the lifetime of investigation that Ehud Netzer devoted to their uncovering. In fact it appears that it was Netzer who started planning the exhibition after his location of Herod’s Tomb on Herodion, and before his tragic death at that site in October 2010. The exhibition mentions Herod’s tumultuous life, as a great fighter, lover and indeed murderer, but it is his tremendous building structures that are given pride of place, such as his many palaces, the port of Caesarea and Herodion itself. Herod’s tomb is shown with a reconstruction of the central tholos, using the actual carved stones from the site, and restorations of the three smashed sarcophagi that were found there. There are many clear wooden models, as were favoured by Netzer, of the tomb and other projects with ingenious films showing their locations in Masada, Jericho, Caesarea and elsewhere and how their construction took place in such difficult terrain. Netzer was of the opinion that Herod had played a personal role in the planning of these oversized projects.  Without him no architects or engineers would have dared to produce such ambitious plans, he thought.

There are wonderful original oversized carved Ionic and Corinthian capitals as were used at the Temple porticos and at Herod’s many palaces, but pride of place is given to the work at Herodion.  The original unique paintings of the royal box at the intimate hillside theatre at Herodion are displayed.

It appears that everything Herod did was on the grandest of scales and with the finest materials. As has been truly said, Emperors built for posterity but Herod built for eternity. This exhibition, coming more than two thousand years after his death,  makes that clear; it is a great tribute to the better side of Herod’s genius and energy, and also to the indefatigable work undertaken by Ehud Netzer over nearly fifty years.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem