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Report from Jerusalem, #3, July 2008

We are now in the excavation season in Israel, in fact coming to the end of it shortly. The weather is hot and indeed sweltering in some places. As far as I am aware, digs have been going on at:
Rehov, near Bet Shean (under Ami Mazar),
Hazor (Amnon Ben-Tor),
Megiddo (Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin),
Tel Safi, former Gath (Aron Meier),
Gezer (Steve Ortiz and Sam Woolf),
Khirbet Qeiyafa, near Tel Azeka (Yossi Garfinkel),
Mount Zion (Shimon Gibson),
Tel Kedesh, in the north (Sharon Herbert and Andrea Berlin),
Tzipori (Ze’ev Weiss),
Yiftahel, rescue dig, IAA, (Hamudi Haleilah, Yanir Milevski, Nimrod Getzov),
Sussita, by Kinneret (Arthur Segal) and
Tel Kinrot and Tel Koor, near Rosh Pina (joint Dutch, Finnish, German, Swiss teams).
This is not a complete list by any means; my apologies to those I have omitted.

There must have been lots of finds and I mention just three exceptional ones of which I have heard. At Megiddo, they have uncovered a previously unknown Early Bronze Age temple next to the big section cut years ago. At the IAA rescue dig at Yiftahel, where a new junction is planned on the road between Haifa and Tiberias, three plastered skulls have been found, set in a row, dated to the Neolithic Pre-Pottery Period (not sure if A or B) similar to the ones of the ancestor cult found at Jericho. At Khirbet Qeiyafa they have found a two-chambered gate complex of the Early Iron Age (Iron II A).

The problem of ancient graves has come up again. Some have been found during the construction of a much-needed underground facility for the Barzilai hospital at Ashkelon, as the town is expecting more rocket attacks from the Gaza region. Work will be held up for the IAA to investigate. At the moment it seems the graves are of the Byzantine period and may be of Christian or pagan inhabitants.

A small white marble disc, 20cm in diameter, has been found by a diver off the coast at Yavneh-Yam, an ancient port between Tel Aviv and Ashdod. It is thought to have been used on a ship to ward off the Evil Eye and is dated to the 4th or 5th century BCE. The object is perfectly round, with a central hole, flat on one side and curved on the back. So far only four such pieces have been found.

An ancient catacomb has been found by Jordanian archaeologists under an early church at Rihab, northern Jordan. It is under the Church of St. Georgeous of 230 CE and could be the site of very early Christian worship. The excavators say they have found signs of early Christian rituals and they think the shrine was built underground to escape detection.

A date seed found by Yigal Yadin at Massada in the 1960s has been successfully germinated by scientists at Hadassah Hospital. It appears to be an extinct species of date palm that had extensive medicinal properties. It is hoped that the specimen will produce fruit in a few years (7 years after germination) and its location is being kept secret until further results are obtained. Radio-carbon dating on fragments show its date to have been compatible with the Roman Siege of Massada of 73 CE.

Further finds continue to be unearthed around the Silwan pool in Jerusalem by Ronnie Reich and Eli Shukron. On a recent tour we were shown a fine flight of steps that had led from the Pool up to the Temple Mount. It dates from the Herodian period and is built on top of a wide, man-high underground tunnel which was probably a sewer or waste water channel. Inside the tunnel were found many vessels and remains of provisions which indicate that the tunnel was used for escape purposes, probably by people fleeing from the Roman assault of 70 CE, which culminated in the destruction of the Herodian Temple.

Report from Jerusalem, #2, June 2008

The month of May, with the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, has been busy on an number of archaeological fronts.

A new national park has been opened by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Jewish National Fund at Adulam in the Elah Valley, some 20 km south-west of Jerusalem. This is the area (Cave of Adulam) where by tradition David was said to have hidden from King Saul (I Sam.22). The centrepiece of the park is Horvat (Ruins of) Etri, which are identified as the ancient Jewish settlement of Kfar Etara mentioned by Josephus. Another site in this park of 12,000 acres is Horvat Burgin, which is believed to have been the village of Kfar Bish, also mentioned by Josephus and by the Talmud.

At the May Presidential Conference, plans were unveiled for the ambitious Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal to the cost of $3 billion. This is the latest plan to save the rapidly falling Dead Sea, and may well become a reality as the costs will be underwritten by private Israeli funds, by the Jordanian monarchy and by Prince Bin-Talal of Saudi Arabia. It will provide hundreds of jobs for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians in the construction of a canal, a railway line, electric power stations, desalination plants and tourist facilities. Such an enormous project, if it really happens, will require extensive manpower resources from the archaeological community in rescue digs throughout this sensitive area in the years to come.

In April an American initiative was published, which seeks to bring Palestinian and Israeli archaeologists together to preserve their common heritage. The plan comes from archaeologists of the Universities of California (Los Angeles) and Southern California. They have formed a joint Working Group with several Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and work has started on recording sensitive sites and arranging access for scholars and visitors of all faiths. It is hoped that this work will form an agreement that can be incorporated into any future peace negotiations.

Some months ago a quarry used to supply the fine stones for the Herodian Temple was uncovered in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Ramot Shlomo and very recently another has been found in the Sanhedria district, about two km from the centre of the city. It was uncovered by IAA in a rescue dig, under the direction of Gerald Finkielsztejn, before the construction of a private house. It supplied some of the smaller white limestone ashlars used for the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, and it is expected that more such quarries will be uncovered.

The famous arched gate to Ashkelon has recently been restored and opened to the public. It dates from the MB I period and is considered to be 3,850 years old. It was constructed in mudbrick to a parabolic profile. The upper section of the front elevation, which was not intact, has now been restored in matching materials, but the rear portion (the gate is 15 metres long or deep) has been replaced in timber, which is not authentic. The whole is protected from weathering by an appropriate roof. The ancient gate at Tel Dan is only slightly later (MB II) and together the two mudbrick structures are the oldest arched gateways in the world, and belie the idea that it was the Romans who invented the arch.

At Yiftahel, a pre-pottery Neolithic site (PPNB) in the Galilee, where a new road junction is planned, a cache of eighty stone knife blades, eight arrowheads, three flint blocks, two sickle blades and other bone items were uncovered by the IAA in May in a low-level structure considered to be 9,000 years old. Work is continuing on this early site.

Much older was a surprise find, also uncovered in May, of a large stalactite cave in the Western Galilee, found while a bulldozer was working on a sewage line in the JNF Forest east of the seaside town of Nahariya. The cave consists of a number of chambers, the main one 60 by 80m and 40m high. According to Ofer Marder, head of the Prehistoric Branch of the IAA, the finds include man-knapped flint tools and zoological remains of animals now extinct in Israel such as red deer, buffaloes and bears (!). The finds date from the Upper Paleolithoic period (40,000-20,000 BP) and the cave is at present sealed to prevent disturbance and contamination while the contents are under advanced scientific study.

Nearer to the present, and just in time for the 60th anniversary, the extensive dig opposite the Western Wall, which is revealing mainly Roman and Byzantine remains, has uncovered an unexploded Israeli Davidka shell of the 1948 War of Independence, which was rapidly removed by police, and appears to have been safely detonated outside the city.

Report from Jerusalem, #1, April 2008

This is not the excavation season in Israel, but several digs are in progress and there is considerable activity on the conference front. Please note that at this stage the reports of digs are preliminary only and in no way official.

There was an evening meeting at the Hebrew University on April 6th to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Yigal Shiloh and the 30th anniversary of his excavations at the City of David in Jerusalem. The main speakers were Ronny Reich and Eilat Mazar who described the many new finds that were being excavated in the area of Shiloh’s original work.

On 10th April, the full-day Irene Levi-Sala Annual Research Seminar will be held at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on the subject of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s Monuments at Deir el-Bahri in Egypt. The main speaker will be Zbigniew Szafranski of Warsaw University, who is Director of the Hatshepsut Mission, working at Deir el-Bahri. The co-ordinator of the programme is Eliezer Oren, head of the Department of Archaeology at Beersheba, who has lectured to the AIAS on several aoccasions.

The Hecht Museum of the University of Haifa has recently opened an important Exhibition on the Great Revolt in the Galilee, 66-70 CE. The exhibition follows the course of the Roman army’s defeat of the Jewish Revolt in the Galilee (the army then proceeded southwards to inflict its disastrous destruction on Jerusalem and the Temple). The catalogue (in Hebrew and English) examines the evidence of the battles and the hiding places of the Jews in the Galilee, the material culture of the Roman Army, and also the works of Josephus on the defeat of the towns of Yodefat and Gamla, whose descriptions are analysed critically and found not always to be in accordance with the archaeological evidence. The exhibition remains open for two years, until Spring 2010.

Tiberias has been the scene of much recent archaeological activity. The work in the southern area, started by Yizhar Hirschfeld, has had to be halted recently, due to Hirschfeld’s untimely death. It was continued for a time by his assistants Anna de Vincenz, Eran Meir and Shulamith Miller, who are now working on the publication of Hirschfeld’s finds. A recent salvage excavation to the south of the existing town has uncovered an Early Bronze Age settlement wall, still standing one and-a-half metres high, and also significant Umayyad remains, which indicate that there was both a very early colony before the new town of Tiberias was founded by Herod Agrippa, and also a more extensive residential area, well beyond the new town, in the Islamic period.

Much of the recently-exposed past of Tiberias will be incorporated into the planned Berko Archaeological Park that will cover 25 acres and is due to open in the late summer. It is named after Ozer Berkowitz, a well-loved local community leader and should become one of the town’s main tourist attractions.

Last month Shimon Gibson (Israel Editor of the Bulletin) opened a new excavation at Mount Zion, near the Zion Gate, with a preliminary dig of four weeks (to be continued in June) on the site of previous excavations by Magen Broshi in the seventies. The dig has already gone down to remains of residences of the Second Temple period, and will proceed further over time to the underlying First Temple remains. The excavation is sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which has sent volunteers to work on the site, and is co-directed by Gibson and James Tabor. They have in mind a programme of at least five seasons and then plan to turn the site over to an archaeological garden “theatre” showing the range of residential buildings from the First Temple period to late Islamic times.

Considerable First Temple remains are coming up at the excavations opposite the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, directed by Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). This is a very long and extensive salvage dig and has already yielded up evidence of the late Roman Decumanus that extended eastwards towards the Temple, and now, at the lower levels, artifacts such as personal seals of the First Temple period, have been found.

At the City of DavidEilat Mazar continues her work around the ‘Large Stone Structure’ that some believe can be identified with a royal palace of the time of King David, due to its location, its massive construction in the Phoenician style, and the earlier pottery fragments under the lower courses of the work. The dig comes under the auspices of the Hebrew University and the Shalem Foundation, a Jerusalem think-tank.

Excavations continue at Herodion under Ehud Netzer (who lectured to the Society on the subject) and his assistant Roie Porath. They continue working on the remains of the tholos that is considered to have been Herod’s tomb and are now planning to see how it relates to the monumental staircase that led from lower Herodion up to the palace within Herod’s artificial mountain.

Finally I should mention the upcoming 34th Archaeological Congress of Israel, due to be held on 15th and 16th April of this year. It is an annual event when all the academics get together to see where they and their colleagues stand on the state of the art. It is sponsored by the Departments of Archaeology of the five major universities of Israel and the IAA, and has an impressive list of 35 eminent lecturers speaking under such headings as Research versus Excavation, Archaeology and Society, Discoveries in Jerusalem, Re-excavating earlier Digs, Archaeology and Science, and Text versus Archaeological Finds.

Stephen Rosenberg,
Jerusalem, 6th April, 2008