Report from Jerusalem, #19, December 2009

UNESCO Conservation in Acre

At the end of November a special course was started at the International Conservation Centre in Acre called “Saving the Stones”. The course will run for five months and is aimed at young people who wish to learn all the current techniques of preservation of ancient buildings, and the city of Acre itself serves as their classroom. The youngsters come from all over the world and participate in actual restoration projects, learning all the processes of documentation, survey, planning the treatment and the practical work itself. This is the first time that the course is being held, and it is planned to run twice a year. The director, Shirley Anne Peleg said it was an opportunity for the students to learn their techniques within the context of a living community in an ancient city like Acre, which is an UNESCO Heritage Site. The course is a joint enterprise between the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the Old Acre Development Authority and the Acre Municipality.

Horvat Ma’agura, A Hasmonean Fortress

In time for the Hanukkah holiday, the IAA announced that recent work in the Negev had demonstrated that the Hasmonean kings had extended their rule deep into the Negev. Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, of the IAA, explained that Josephus had indicated that their rule had only extended to just south of the Gaza strip, which was conquered by Alexander Yannai in 99 BCE, and archaeologists had found nothing to indicate that their rule extended further. Now, at the fortress of Horvat Ma’agura, two miles west of the Sde Boker region, it was found that it was the Hasmoneans who built the fortress (and not the Romans as previously thought) to stop the Nabateans using this route to bring spices from Petra to Gaza. Hasmonean coins of Alexander Yannai were found here as well as at Nessana, a desert town, about 25 miles west of Horvat Ma’agura. It appears that the Hasmoneans employed mercenary as well as Jewish troops to fight the Nabateans, judging by the evidence of imported vessels and wine, the remains of whose dregs were found by Dr. Erikson-Gini.

A case of Roman-era leprosy and tuberculosis

Some time ago Prof. Shimon Gibson, with colleagues Dr. Boaz Zissu and Prof. James Tabor, located a sealed tomb at the Akeldama Cemetery in the Ben Hinnom valley of Jerusalem, to the south-west of the Old City. It became known as the Tomb of the Shroud because the male body was wrapped in a simple white shroud and was unusual in that the body’s bones had not been removed to an ossuary after a year, as was the normal practice at the time. The tomb doorway was found sealed and the skeleton was dated by C14 radio-carbon method to the first half of the first century CE. The remains were sent for medical analysis and the results, by Israeli, American and British scientists, have just been published. The results show that this is the first known case of a human shown to have been suffering from leprosy, a form of the skin disease psoriasis.

However the DNA analysis showed that the poor man suffering from leprosy, actually died of tuberculosis. The shroud in which he was contained was of a much simpler weave than the famous Turin Shroud, which was claimed to have wrapped the body of Jesus, and the experts have therefore suggested that this known shroud, of the time of Jesus, shows that the complex Turin one was of much later manufacture.

A Roman house in Nazareth

Just in time for Christmas, the IAA announced the find of a house of the time of Jesus in Nazareth. The excavation, led by Yardenna Alexandre (née Rosenberg) was an IAA rescue operation in the courtyard of what is planned to be a small museum being built next to the Church of the Annunciation. The dig revealed a large wall of the Mameluke period built over five or six walls of a modest dwelling with pottery of the first century CE (the early Roman period). These are the remains of the first house of this period found in Nazareth, which the NT says was the location of Jesus’s childhood. This work, together with the location of nearby tombs, suggests that Nazareth was at that time a small Jewish village of about fifty houses. The house contained a water cistern and an underground storage chamber, with a concealed entrance, that acted as a storage silo and may have also been used to hide persons from the eyes of the Romans during the Great Revolt of 66 CE. The pottery found was of a simple nature but included some chalk stone vessels which indicate that the inhabitants were concerned about ritual purity matters, as the stone, in contrast to clay, would not be subject to ritual impurity. The excavation has still to be completed and will then be left exposed in the courtyard to be attached to a small museum, being developed by the Chemin Neuf Franciscan organization, who sponsored the IAA excavation.

Stephen G. Rosenberg
Albright Institute, Jerusalem