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