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

Report from Jerusalem #64, 10th November 2014

Earthquake and Recent Finds at Susita

Excavation continues at Susita, the site on the hills overlooking the east bank of Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. The finds were discovered under the roof of a building that collapsed in the earthquake of 363 CE. Susita was also called Hippos as it sits like a horse on a hilltop 350m. above the lake. According to the excavator, Dr. Michael Eisenberg of Haifa University, the collapsed building, the largest on the site, was a basilica that served as a marketplace, and a number of skeletons were discovered under its collapsed roof. One of them was of a young woman who was wearing a golden dove-shaped pendant. Also found was the marble leg of a statue that may have been 2m. high, that of a god or an athlete. The earthquake of 363 was a powerful one and completely destroyed the city, which took twenty years to be rebuilt and, according to Eisenberg, there was a later earthquake of 749 CE, which destroyed the city completely – the city was never rebuilt. The city had a bastion of the Roman period that overlooked the lake and there the archaeologists found a catapult-like machine that would have been 8m. long and could have launched massive stone ammunition, some of which was still extant at the site.

Ancient Mikveh – Recent Graffiti, South of Beit Shemesh

In a rescue dig at the Ha’Ela junction, before the widening of Route 38, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has uncovered an ancient mikveh, believed to be dated to about 100 CE, and a massive water cistern of about two hundred years later. Great interest centred on the fact that the ceiling of the cistern had been scratched with the names of two Australian soldiers at the time of the British Mandate. According to Yoav Tsur of the IAA, the find “allows us to reconstruct a double story – a Jewish settlement of the second century CE, probably against the background of the Bar-Kochba Revolt and another story, no less fascinating, about a group of Australian soldiers who visited the site 1,700 years later and left their mark”. They left their names, Corporals Scarlett and Walsh and their numbers in the RAE (Royal Australian Engineers) with the date 30/5/1940.

According to the IAA, research shows that Scarlett died in 1970 and Walsh in 2005, but the IAA will contact their families to tell them about the find. The Israel National Roads Company has agreed to slightly change the junction layout so that the finds can be incorporated in the adjacent landscaping.

Latin Inscription Found in Jerusalem

Although found in July, this inscription from the time of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian was only recently displayed to the public at the Rockefeller Museum. It is on a large stone, weighing one ton and was found in secondary use as part of the cover of a deep cistern, with part of the stone cut out in a semi-circle to accommodate a small manhole cover to the cistern.

The inscription reads (in translation):

To the Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the deified Traianus Pathicus, grandson of the deified Nerva, high priest, invested with tribunician power for the fourteenth time, consul for the third time, father of the country (dedicated by) the tenth legion Fretensis Antoniniana

It is dated to the year 129/130 CE, when Hadrian was touring his eastern colonies and dedicated the rebuilt Jerusalem as Colonia Aelia Capitolina. The inscription is in fine classic Roman lettering and according to Dr. Rina Avner who led the IAA team that located it, “there is no doubt that this is one of the most important official Latin inscriptions that have been discovered in this country.”

The other half of the inscription, which was found many years ago by the French diplomat Charles Clermont-Ganneau, is on display in the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum at the Lion’s gate of the old City.

The new inscription find was the subject of a day-long seminar last week at the Rockefeller Museum, where it will shortly be put on permanent display.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #63, 24th September 2014

Oldest Metal Object ever Found in the Region

It is claimed that a small copper object found in an excavation at Tel Tsaf, south of Beit Shean in Israel, is the oldest metal object ever found in the Middle East. The object is described as an awl, a small pointed pin-shaped tool that was used for punching holes, and was dated to the late 6th or early 5th millennium BCE. It was found in a rich commercial centre that dates to around 5000 BCE and excavation commenced there in 1970. The claim is published in the journal PLOS ONE by Dr. Danny Rosenberg of Haifa University and Dr. Florian Klimscha of the German Archaeological Institute of Berlin. The site had been identified as a wealthy trading centre due to its large mudbrick buildings and the number of storage silos holding vast quantities of wheat and barley.   Other findings included pieces made from obsidian, shells from the Nile and figurines of people and animals. The copper awl, 4 cms. long, was found by Prof. Yossi Garfinkel in a sealed grave covered by large stones inside a silo, indicating the importance of the buried body and that of the awl to the deceased. This copper artifact and its date moves back the known use of metal in the region by several hundred years.

Huge Ancient Reservoir at Beit Shearim

In an excavation conducted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) in conjunction with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) at the burial sites of Beit Shearim, 15 km. south-east of Haifa, a huge underground reservoir was found. It had two staircases for water carriers going up and down and had a capacity of 1,300 cubic metres of water, and the INPA dated it to the Roman period of the early centuries CE.

Internet Archaeological Museum

The IAA announced that it was launching an Internet Archaeological Museum “accessible at the touch of a button”. It will be organised in collaboration with the Israel and Rockefeller Museums and the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library and will feature some 2,500 artifacts of the most important collections of the Levant. The site will be accessed at www.antiquities.org.il and will be updated regularly by the IAA.

Byzantine Compound at Beit Shemesh

A large and well preserved compound was recently uncovered by the IAA at Beit Shemesh, 15 km. south-west of Jerusalem. The excavators, Irene Zibelbrod and Tehilla Libman, said the site was surrounded by a substantial wall and enclosed an industrial area and a residential one. They found a large olive press and a very large winepress with two treading floors and a collecting vat, and they believe that the site had been a monastery of the Byzantine period, although no church or evidence of other religious activity had been found. The impressive size of the presses and other industrial remains suggested that the compound had acted as a regional centre with numerous rooms, some with mosaic floors. The excavation was conducted prior to the expansion of Beit Shemesh, and the archaeological remains will be preserved as a landmark in the new residential area.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute, Jerusalem