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