Report from Jerusalem, #10, February 2009

The large, former car-park site in Jerusalem opposite the City of David visitors’ centre, continues to throw up interesting finds. The latest is a small red marble figurine of a male head and neck, only 5 cm high, that may have been a weight used by a merchant. It has a flat base and is not broken off from a larger statue. It is of a man with a curly beard and little, if no, hair, and is thought to be of an athlete or boxer, it certainly has a broken nose. It was found at the IAA dig directed by Doron Ben-Ami and dates from the Roman period, about 200 CE. The IAA claims nothing similar has yet been found in Israel

Two years ago the Israel Museum exhibited a large stone inscription, on loan from the Steinhardt family of New York, called the Heliodorus Stele. It was a Greek text announcing that the Emperor Seleucus IV (son of Antiochus III) had appointed his minister, Heliodorus, to oversee the temples of his empire, and it seemed to confirm the story in Second Maccabees 3 of chief minister Heliodorus being instructed by the Emperor to go and rob the Jerusalem Temple of its treasures. In that he was not successful, being attacked by a divine golden figure on a golden horse and the High Priest, Honia (Onias), had to pray for his recovery. These details are not recorded on the stele (!) but it does look as if the two Heliodoruses were the same man.
The stele was deciphered by Profs. Hannah Cotton-Paltiel and Michael Woerrle some time ago and dated to 178 BCE. H.Shanks wrote an article on it in BAR (Nov/Dec 2008).
The English text of the stele is available on the internet if you type in Heliodorus.

One problem is that the stele was damaged and the lower section is missing. Also, having been acquired on the market, in the present-day climate of suspicion, the provenance was suspect. Now, very recently, lo and behold, three missing sections of the stele have been found in a dig at Maresha, in the national park of Bet Guvrin.

The IAA have just announced that in a dig supervised by Dr Ian Stern of the IAA and Barny Alpert, three broken fragments were found in an underground storage vessel. Dr.Dov Gera (a specialist in the Hellenistic period) saw that they looked like the base of the Steinhardt piece and, indeed, they fitted it perfectly, though one further piece of the base is still missing. The new pieces have not yet been deciphered but they clearly continue the edict of Seleucus IV appointing Heliodorus, who, in his turn, appointed further officials to carry out the necessary inspections. The stele is written in truly diplomatic language, implying that it was in the locals’ interest to have their temples inspected whereas, if Maccabees is to be believed – and there is no reason to doubt it – its purpose was to provide the Emperor with the necessary plunder and cash to keep the empire going.

The fact that three missing pieces were found in the ‘Dig for a Day’ project indicates the authenticity of the stele and shows that this edict was erected in the Hellenistic city of Maresha. Presumably further copies were erected at other centres to indicate that the inspections being carried out by Heliodorus and his men were carried out on the orders of the Emperor himself.

We do not know the sequel of the story and exactly why Heliodorus was prevented from robbing the Jerusalem Temple. Perhaps he was not too diligent in his work for the Emperor, because it is known that three years later in 175 BCE he murdered the Emperor in the hope of putting himself on the throne. His plan was, however, frustrated by the ambitious Antiochus IV, brother of Seleucus IV, who rushed back from exile in Rome and seized the vacant throne. We can surmise that Heliodorus was not punished for the murder, which suited the new incumbent, Antiochus Epiphanes. And, though not exactly as the story of Hanukkah that they keep telling us, the rest is history.

Stephen Rosenberg,
W. F. Albright Institute, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem, #9, January 2009

Just in time for the Hanukkah holiday (at the end of December last year), when it is traditional for children to receive gifts of ‘Hanukkah gelt’, a young British volunteer, Nadine Ross of Birmingham, unearthed a cache of 264 gold coins at the dig on the car-park site opposite the City of David Visitors Centre, Jerusalem, which is being directed by Doron Ben-Ami for the IAA. This is the site where the Roman golden earring was found, as reported previously. The coins were minted at the time of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-641 CE) and are in good condition. It looks as if the coins were hidden in a chink in one of the walls at the time of the Moslem conquest of Jerusalem; the owner obviously hoped to recover them at a later date.

Another case of a coin find by a young volunteer was made in the debris from the Waqf underground work on the Temple Mount. In the sifting of this material, which is being directed by Gaby Barkay, two coins were recovered recently (out of over 3000 found to date). One is a half-shekel, minted in Jerusalem at the time of the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), which depicts a branch of three pomegranates and the inscription ‘Sacred Jerusalem’. This is a relatively common coin; the second one, however, is much rarer. It is a Seleucid one depicting Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BCE) who looted the Temple and aroused the enmity of the Maccabees.

In Egypt, two more tombs have been found in the necropolis of Saqqara, 12 miles south of Cairo. The tombs are rock cut and date to about 2300 BCE, the time of the Sixth Dynasty, and housed the remains of two senior officials, a man and a woman, according to the excavator Saleh Suleiman. The tombs are to the south-west of the known burial plots and indicate that the cemetery was much larger than previously thought.

In mid December UNESCO and the Egyptian Government announced that the world’s first underwater archaeological museum was being planned at the Bay of Alexandria, which contains many underwater remains of the Roman period and earlier. The museum will be built half underwater and half above water, presenting plenty of challenges to the designers and much that will be of interest and novelty to future visitors.

In what has become an urgent debate, the new underground facilities of the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon have been held up for many months due to the presence of graves and skeletons of the Byzantine period. Work on the facility, to provide an underground emergency room and operating theatre, started a year ago but was halted when the preliminary excavations revealed the presence of human bones. The hospital, which has catered for Israeli and Palestinian wounded, needs the facility urgently. Hopefully things can now proceed as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Metzger, has pronounced that the graves can be moved if the work is done with the necessary reverence.

At the Israel Museum, the archaeological section, as well as many others, is closed for extensive renovations and therefore a new service has been introduced which is proving popular with visitors. Every Monday and Wednesday (at 11 am) the museum is running tours to the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem, with free guided tours of its extensive collections, most of them acquired at the time of the British Mandate. The Rockefeller itself is worth a visit, as it is an iconic building with one of the finest courtyards in Jerusalem. It is a haven of tranquillity with a lovely pool and a set of fine sculptured panels by Eric Gill. The tour is well worth taking for lovers of archaeology and architecture.

Finally, the newspaper Ha’aretz has just illustrated two remarkable finds made by Ronnie Reich and Eli Shukron in the debris fill of the hewn cistern by the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem. One is of a tiny (2 cm high) red ivory pomegranate figure surmounted by a sitting dove, the other a clay bulla (seal impression) of a ship being navigated by sailors using three oars. These finds were made together with dozens of fish bones and more than 170 bullae, all from the hewn cistern, and dating to the 9th century BCE, which shows, according to Reich and Shukron, that the City of David was then an important administrative centre. We await further details.

Stephen Rosenberg,
Albright Institute, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem, #8, December 2008

In England you may or may not have heard of the ‘new’ pyramid recently discovered at Saqqara in Egypt. This was announced by the ever-present Chief of Egyptian Antiquities, Zehi Hawass, in November. It was found next to the pyramid of Pharaoh Teti (c.2345-2333 BCE) and those of his two wives, which were discovered some years ago, and is thought to be that of his mother, Queen Shesheshet. The find is basically a 5-m high stump that was the base of a pyramid three times as high. It was buried under 25 m of sand and the fact that it was found with pieces of the original white limestone casing alongside suggested that it would have been a royal pyramid. The Queen mother always played a strong role in the kingdom and Queen Shesheshet is thought to have helped to establish her son as the founder of the 6th Dynasty of Egypt.

Last month, Zachi Zweig of the IAA announced some finds that he had made in digging into the survey records left by R.W.Hamilton of the British Mandate Antiquities the 1930s. After earthquakes in 1927 and 1937, Hamilton had worked with the Waqf Islamic Authority in restoring damage to the El Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (Haram es-Sharif). He found a Byzantine mosaic floor and under that a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) from the Second Temple period. The mosaic is similar to one at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Zweig is of the opinion that it is of a public building, even a church, that stood on the Temple Mount, though there is no literary record of that. Zweig and Gabriel Barkay have uncovered over the last few years several pieces of white marble church chancel screen in the rubble from the Mount that they have been systematically sifting, which may have belonged to such a church. The details of the mikveh were not published by Hamilton in his official report but were filed in his records for the British Antiquities Authority. Barkay is reported as saying this find, even if not a church but some other public building, completely alters our picture of the Temple Mount during the Byzantine period, and the presence of a mikveh raises further unsolved questions..

The Ehud Netzer saga of Herodion continues. In further excavation at the site of the presumed tomb of Herod, on the slopes of Herodion, Netzer recently announced that he had found remains of two further sarcophagi, that he said would have been buried with the previously announced more lavish pink-stone one, in a two-storey mausoleum 25m. high. It is presumed that these additional sarcophagi were of members of Herod’s family. Who they were and whether they died a natural death or were murdered cannot be ascertained, as they were found empty and shattered. The continuing excavations have also uncovered a ‘small’ theatre (seating an audience of about 700) just below and to the west of the mausoleum. The theatre had remarkable wall paintings, with some of the original figures and colours intact, and plaster mouldings dated to about 15-10 BCE (Herod died in 4 BCE). It is not clear if the theatre was part of the original Herodion complex, or partly destroyed to make way for it.

A large excavation by the IAA has been progressing on the Givati car park site opposite the City of David visitor’s centre in Jerusalem, under the direction of Doron Ben-Ami. There a discovery has been made of an ornate luxurious jewelled earring of gold set with pearls. The jewel was found within a Byzantine structure but is thought to have been made in the Roman period, several hundred years earlier, and perhaps preserved as a family heirloom. Jewelry from the Roman period is very rare in Jerusalem, thanks to the Roman and later destructions, but the excavators expect to make further discoveries of elite items from the period at this site of a presumed palace. The earring is of a late Roman model found elsewhere in Europe and similar in manufacture to ones known from Egypt.

Finally, the Tomb Raiders. At Hilazon Tachtit (literally, ‘Lower Snail’) in the Western Galilee near Carmiel, Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and her team have uncovered a strange tomb that they consider to have been that of a Natufian witch, of 12,000 years ago. The tomb contained a large number of strange grave goods, including 50 tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard, the wing-tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls, the foreleg of a wild boar and a human foot. The unusual relics point to the grave of a she-shaman, who was in touch with the spirits of nature and animals. It is the first time such a burial has been found in this area. The grave was oval-shaped and the body was laid on its side, resting against the wall of the tomb, as the witch was petite and had a decided spinal deformity that would have made her limp. Her age was about 45 years at death. The remains were covered with ten large stones, probably to protect the body from ravaging animals. Another less generous theory is that the community laid the heavy stones on the body to prevent the powerful witch-doctor from ever rising again.

Stephen Rosenberg,
Albright Institute, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem, #7, November 2008

Immediately after sending off Report no.6, a number of important finds were announced, particularly at the Seminar on 28th October at the Hebrew University, so here goes.

Eilat Mazar continues to make new discoveries at the City of David site. The latest is an underground water tunnel (partly plastered) that ran under the building, which she calls The Large Stone Structure, which appears to have fed a nearby pool. It debouched onto the hillside and was deliberately blocked (and still is) at a later date. From pottery and two broken lamps, Mazar dates it to the Early Iron Age, and speculated that it may have served to help Joab, David’s general, to penetrate into and conquer Jebus, pre-Israelite Jerusalem, by way of the ‘tzinnor’ (2 Sam.5:8), but that is not yet by any means established. At a later date the tunnel may have served as an escape route for those fleeing from the Babylonian destruction of 586 BCE.

The find of a shard from Khirbet Qeiyafa (perhaps ‘Ruin Beautiful’) in the Elah Valley, southwest of Jerusalem, has raised enormous interest. It is inscribed with five lines of an early Canaanite script, a precursor of Palaeo-Hebrew. The excavator, Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University, claims this to be the earliest Hebrew inscription yet found as he thinks that the first line contains at least two Hebrew words, ‘Al Ta’aseh (do not make…)’, but no full reading has yet been made of the shard. The find was made in the cooking area of a house alongside the six-chambered gate of this 23-dunam (6-acre) town, on a hilltop site overlooking the Elah Valley, where conflicts were fought between the Philistines and the kingdoms of Saul and David, according to the biblical record. It was built in the Early Iron Age but occupation ceased shortly afterwards, judging by the pottery. After a long interval it was re-occupied in the early Hellenistic period, during the Ptolemaic occupation of Palestine, then called Coele-Syria. The evidence for the latter comes from coins found on site. The find of the shard was made in the second season of the dig. It is planned to continue for several more years to uncover the central area of this walled hilltop town.

Further news on Khirbet Qeiyafa: Yossi Garfinkel has just announced that there was a second gate to the city, which was not obvious as it had been built over in Hellenistic times. For an Iron-Age town to have had two gates was most unusual; it was a unique feature. He points out that the site lies between the better-known towns of Azekah and Socoh. In Joshua 15:36 there is a town called Sha’arayim (which means ‘two gates’), mentioned together with the two sites of Azekah and Socoh. It is referred to again in the account of the battle with the Philistines. After David’s combat with Goliath in the Valley of Elah, the Philistines flee, ‘and the wounded of the Philistines fell down by the Way to Sha’arayim….'(1 Sam. 17:52).

The third dramatic find was that of an oval black seal in the dig opposite the Western Wall of the old City, conducted by Shlomit Wexler-Bedollah for the IAA. It shows a typical Assyrian archer, as on the Lachish reliefs in the British Museum, alongside a three-letter Hebrew name, X-G-V (the first letter is a Heth), and can be dated by the script to the 8th or 7th century BCE. The seal is so curious, combining a Hebrew name with an Assyrian motif, that it has already been pronounced a fake (a fashionable point of view) by one expert. but this is unlikely, as it was found in a controlled scientific excavation and is so unusual that a forger would neither know nor be tempted to make the connection. One possibility is that it belonged to an Israelite mercenary working for the Assyrian army that besieged Jerusalem in the time of Sennacherib and Hezekiah, but nothing is definite so far.

On the subject of fakes, the trial in Jerusalem District Court of Oded Golan and three accomplices, accused of faking the Yehoash Tablet and the Inscription on the James, brother of Jesus, Ossuary, has been halted for several months until January 2009. The trial has been going on for nearly three years, the court only meets once a week, and the judge has advised the police and the IAA to reconsider their case as they have so far been unable to pin down the charges on Golan and his co-defendants, in spite of the fact that most experts consider the two artifacts to have been faked, something which the defendants continue to deny. The judge’s opinion is a setback for the IAA but it is thought that they will continue to prosecute though they may consider new tactics when the case resumes next year. Watch this space.

Another dramatic find, reported from Southern Jordan by Thomas Levy of the University of California, was of a large copper-smelting plant in the area of the kingdom of Edom, dated by radio-carbon analysis to the 10th century BCE. The plant is a 10-hectare site called Khirbet en-Naxas (‘Ruins of Copper’) about 30 miles north of Petra, and contains over a hundred buildings and a fortress, and is littered with large black slag heaps, and the remains of burnt charcoal that have enabled radio-carbon dating to be made. Although people are quick to associate copper mines of this period with Solomon (1 Kings 7:47) it is more likely that it was the Egyptians, as at Timna, that worked the mines, as an Egyptian amulet of the goddess Mut and a scarab from Tanis in Egypt were found in situ.

Sad news of the death of the Franciscan priest Michele Piccirillo on 26 October at the age of 63. Piccirillo was Professor of Biblical History and Geography at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem and an expert on the wonderful Byzantine mosaics of Jordan, on which he published at least four major volumes.

Stephen Rosenberg,
Albright Institute, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem, #6, October 2008

Ehud Netzer continues on the Herodian theme at the Albright Institute, speculating on the exact function of the mountain palace: was it a summer palace, a fortress, Herod’s burial place? Netzer was convinced that it was all three and, to my mind, he proved his case. His talk nearly clashed with Hanan Eshel who was launching his new book on the and Hasmoneans and the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute a little later on the same night of 23 October. On 28 October at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University there will be a seminar on Urbanisation in the South Levant in the Early Bronze Age with Israel Finkelstein, Pierre de Miroschedji and Rafi Greenberg. And on 30 October at the Hebrew University the annual seminar to review the year’s work in Jerusalem and Environs will be held with talks by Zvi Greenhut, Dan Barag, Yossi Garfinkel, Oded Lipschitz, Shimon Gibson, Ronnie Reich and others. There is plenty of meat here for the hungry archaeologist.

A fairly sensational find was announced earlier this month when a sarcophagus cover was found with the inscription “ben Hacohen Hagadol” (son of the High Priest) on the cover. The discovery was made (in-situ!) on an extensive dig by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) probably at Bet Hanina, just north of Jerusalem. However the IAA are not giving out further details except to say that the site is in the tribal area of Benjamin, where it is known that many of the Cohanim (priests) of the last Temple period (30-70 CE) lived. I think we can expect further details of this interesting find and the site in due course.

The water tunnel under the City of David, usually called Hezekiah’s Tunnel, continues to attract many visitors and I would like to record the impressions of a newcomer to the site, who came with me recently through the water tunnel. He is Robert Lipman, an accountant from London, now living in Ashkelon, who writes, ‘Here the two vital factors for the survival of the inhabitants 3,000 years ago come into play. Walls for protection providing safety from invaders and brigands and the supply of precious life-sustaining water. Hence the importance of the tunnel as a conduit for the supply of water in times of siege and adversity….the journey is made along a tepid man-made water course which at times just sloshes through one’s plastic shoes and at others splashes just below the knees of one’s shorts…one feels great empathy for the men who hewed out this vital narrow conduit. In places it is tall enough to stand erect and in others it is necessary to crouch … Imagine the excitement of the two teams of excavators as they approached one another, impossibly by chance, as the tunnel twists and turns, and then hearing each other excavating scarcely three cubits apart, before they finally meet….’ I think Lipman conveys some of the excitement of one’s first tour through this extraordinary tunnel, a major engineering feat of c.700 BCE. Even today there is still discussion as to how it was dug and why.

Besides the Hecht Archaeological Museum at Haifa University that I mentioned recently, the National Maritime Museum in Haifa is also showing archaeological work, the results of seventeen seasons of excavation at the site of Tel Shiqmona, at the foot of the northern tip of the Carmel mountain. The early settlement was sustained by rainwater run-off from the mountain that fed into the adjacent fields. The site dates back to the Late Bronze Age when it was an Egyptian outpost connected to Bet-Shean, and one of the most interesting exhibits is the famous scarab that alludes, in hieroglyphs, to a local Hyksos ruler, reading ‘Son of Ra, Ya’qob-her, grant life’, that some scholars have related to the patriarch Jacob.

Another famous item is a terracotta figure of a girl with a drum, from the 8th century BCE. There are many other early artifacts, and a considerable number of a much later date from the Byzantine period, including a fine mosaic floor with animal roundels. Early excavations took place at Tel Shiqmona in 1895 by G. Schumacher and later by Moshe Dothan in 1951 but the main work was conducted by Joseph Elgavish on behalf of the Haifa Museum of History from 1963 to 1979.

Finally, archaeological bacteria! It is reported that scientists from Tel Aviv and Hebrew University Medical schools, together with researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Salford, have found the DNA of an early strain of tuberculosis in the bones of a mother and child at Athlit-Yam, just south of Haifa, that were buried in the Neolithic Pre-Pottery Age of 9,000 years ago. Although this is 3,000 years earlier than previous evidence of the disease, it is shown to be the human strain of tuberculosis and not one evolved from bovine TB, as previously thought. The community from which it evolved was settled at a period when animals were domesticated but not yet used for their milk. The find will enable researchers to work out how the bacteria have evolved over the centuries to the present day, when TB is still infecting millions around the world.

Stephen G Rosenberg
Albright Institute, Jerusalem