Report from Jerusalem #65, 16th December 2014

Scroll Looters Caught Red-Handed

In the first week of December, inspectors of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Robbery Prevention Unit arrested thieves carrying out illegal excavations in a cave using a metal detector and other tools. The culprits had been observed by the Arad Rescue Unit working at the so-called Cave of Skulls on the northern cliff of Nahal Tze’elim, about 15 km. west of the Dead Sea and 5 km. north of Arad. The cave is extremely difficult to reach, and the trespassers, young men from near Hebron, rappelled down from the top of the cliff to reach the cave. They were spotted by the Arad Rescue Unit who alerted the IAA inspectors, who came and waited for the culprits at the top of the cliff and arrested them. They were taken to the Arad police station where they were questioned and detained. According to Amir Ganor, director of the Robbery Prevention Unit, scroll robbers have been operating in the area for many years in the hope of finding scrolls, scraps of ancient texts and artifacts left in the caves from the times of the Great Revolt and the Bar-Kochba Revolt, which can be sold for large sums in the antiquity markets in Israel and abroad. He added that it was the first time in decades that the thieves had been caught in the act of looting. The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Woolley and Lawrence Museum at Carchemish

The Turkish government is planning to open a museum to the work of Leonard Woolley and T.E.Lawrence at Jerabulus, where the excavators lived from 1910 -1914, overlooking the site of Carchemish. The museum, due to open next May, is being organized by Nicolo Marchetti of Bologna University, who says they are working very close to an area of fighting between Turkey and Syrian rebels, and they will erect a very high anti-sniper wall around the museum for the safety of visitors. Archaeological work at Carchemish, on the Euphrates, resumed in 2011 and is ongoing.

Aerial Photography Simplified with High-Tech

It is often desired to photograph an archaeological site from the air, which helps to see the overall layout and also identify nearby areas that may require excavation. The difficulty has been the cost of hiring aircraft or balloons for the job and the time involved in getting the results. Now in Israel that task has been greatly simplified by two companies that can provide clear and accurate photographs taken from a camera mounted on an aerial drone. The work is done by a pilot on the ground and an expert photographer, who work together and can arrange for pictures taken from all angles. The images are directed straight to the excavator’s computer and the cost is considerably less and much faster than comparable aerial photography of the past.

Large Ancient Farmhouse in Central Israel

coin of Alexander the Great
Silver coin of Alexander bearing image of Heracles

An Iron Age farmhouse of the 8th century BCE has been unearthed at Rosh Ha’ayin, a few kms. east of Petah Tikva. It extends over a large area measuring 30m by 40m and was in fact a small settlement in itself, providing for processing the agricultural produce as well as residential quarters. There was also a number of wine presses found nearby, which suggest that wine production was the most important agricultural activity of the area. According to Amit Shadman, the dig director of the IAA, the farmhouse was built during the Assyrian Conquest, continued into the Persian period of the 6th century BCE and later into the Hellenistic period as well. This was confirmed by the finding on one floor of a rare silver coin bearing the head of Zeus on one side and that of Heracles on the other, together with the name of Alexander (the Great). The site will be preserved and conserved within the town by the IAA for the benefit of local residents and visitors.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #60, 20th April 2014

Exhibition of Early Masks at the Israel Museum

A new temporary exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem shows a collection of twelve masks from Jericho and other sites around the Dead Sea.

The masks are all of stone and dated to the Pre-pottery Neolithic B period of about nine thousand years ago. They were dispersed among several museums and private collections and have been collected together here for the first time. The Israel Museum had two of them, one from Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert and one from nearby Horvat Duma, according to Debby Hershman, the curator. They are all beautifully mounted on separate stands and individually spotlit in a dark room, which gives one an uncanny feeling of being watched by surreal ancestors, and found wanting. Their purpose is unclear but the Museum speculates that they were used for unknown rituals in a world where the symbols of death breathed life into those that viewed them. The exhibition remains open until 13th September 2014.

Crac Des Chevaliers Threatened

It has been reported that Syrian government forces have been shelling the walls of this well-preserved Crusader castle, in the Homs gap of Syria, where rebels have been entrenched. The castle is an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important standing medieval castles in the world. Heavy shelling had already damaged some of the interior structures, according to earlier reports.

Prehistoric Diet in Ramle

Archaeologists of Haifa University, led by Dr. Yossi Zaidner, have uncovered early human remains at the Hector site in Ramle, south of Ben Gurion airport, in a very deep pit-like area that dates back to the Mousterian period of the Paleolithic era of 170,000 years ago. The remains include a considerable number of large bones that relate to equids, fallow deer and rhinoceros, which were presumably the diet of the humans that camped out in this deep and open area. This is one of the earliest remains of human settlement in the Middle East and is most unusual, according to Dr. Zaidner, for being located in an open- air camp rather than a cave.

Second Temple Ossuaries Looted

Two Palestinians from Bethlehem were recently arrested trying to sell eleven ossuaries to two Israeli collectors. They were all detained by police at a security checkpoint and reported to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), whose Eitan Klein recognized the artefacts as Second Temple burial coffins by their fine double rosette carvings on the limestone. The ossuaries had come from an unknown cave in the Jerusalem area, and one of them was quite small and probably that of a deceased child.  Two of the ossuaries had names inscribed, but only the first names, being Yoezer and Ralfin, written in Hebrew and Greek.

The boxes will be held by the IAA pending the trial of the criminals, and the bones transferred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for conventional Jewish burial.

Tomb of Prominent Canaanite?

During a rescue dig before the laying of a gas pipeline at Tel Shadud near Sarid, 6 kms. south-west of Nazareth,  a cylindrical clay coffin with an anthropomorphic carved lid of an Egyptian type, was found. Inside was an adult skeleton, tentatively identified by Dr. Ron Be’eri, one of the directors of the dig, as a Canaanite who may have served the Egyptian government. With the body was found a gold signet ring with the name of Seti I, father of Ramesses the Great, engraved on it. This dates the remains to 13th century BCE. Nearby were the graves of two men and two women, who may have been family members of the coffin deceased, as well as pieces of pottery, a bronze dagger and bowl and other bronze fragments. These were considered to be offerings to the gods and also utensils for the use of the deceased in the afterlife. Dr. Be’eri thought that the skeleton may have been that of an Egyptian official or a wealthy Canaanite of the local elite, imitating Egyptian customs. The IAA will take DNA samples from inside the coffin to try and determine the original nationality of the deceased.

Prize Awarded to Prof. Gabriel Barkai

The Moskowitz Prize for Zionism has recently been awarded to three recipients – to Michael Freund of the Jerusalem Post, to Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon of the ex-Gush Katif settlers, and to archaeologist Prof. Gabriel Barkai, who share the prize of $100,000. The award to Prof. Barkai is for his lifelong work on the ancient history of Jerusalem and in particular for his salvage of the remains removed from the Temple Mount by the Islamic authorities, and for setting up the major sifting complex to analyse those remains.

Jerusalem Spring Citadel Dig Completed

After fifteen years of work at the Gihon Spring, Professors Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron have now completed their uncovering of the great fortress that protected the spring in the Canaanite period of 1,800 years ago, and continued in use during the reigns of David and Solomon and thereafter. The structure was of truly massive stonework the like of which was  notseen again until the time of Herod the Great. The work was discovered when a new visitors’ centre was planned, whichhad to be delayed until the archaeologists had completed their investigations. It can now go ahead and the public will be allowed access to see the exposed megaliths of the impressive foundations of the fortress. The question now remains – if the Gihon Spring was so heavily fortified, why did Hezekiah (or another) have to build the extensive rock-cut tunnel to protect the spring from the Assyrians?

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #49, 8th April 2013

Early Industrial Works Under Jaffa

In anticipation of renovated underground infrastructure plans for the streets of Jaffa, rescue digs by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have uncovered extensive industrial installations related to ancient liquid extraction processes such as presses, to produce wine and other alcoholic beverages. The remains date to the Byzantine period according to Dr. Yoav Arbel, Director of the IAA excavations. He said that they were evidence of just one phase of the extensive agricultural processes carried out in the Jaffa area from the time of the early Egyptian occupation of the 14th century BCE up to that of the Ottoman Empire, when fruit orchards were still prevalent in the surroundings.

Each uncovered unit consisted of a pressing floor connected to a collecting vat to hold the pressed liquids. The excavators thought that the discovered sections found under Hai Gaon Street represented only part of a larger industrial complex and that further installations would be found when the adjoining streets were investigated. The new infrastructure works, such as cables and drainage, were being laid carefully over the uncovered remains so that they would be kept preserved and protected, though not visible. The renewal project covers the Magen Avraham Compound of Jaffa and will result in improved drainage, landscaping and street lighting for the city.

Ancient Burial Cave on Mount of Olives Looted

Two young men were arrested by police in late February found digging into an ancient burial cave that was a known sealed ancient monument near to the large Kidron Valley tombs, such as the so-called tomb of Absalom.  The culprits admitted they were looking for buried treasure, as recorded by a spokeswoman for the IAA Theft Prevention Unit. The caves were thought to have preserved burial goods such as oil lamps and weapons, and it was not clear why such valuable remains had not been removed earlier by the IAA, seeing they were known to have been present in the tombs.

Preservation of Antiquities in Syria

Concern has been expressed over the preservation of the many objects of antiquity in Syria, during the present unrest and virtual civil war. One specific example has been mentioned, the looting and virtual destruction of the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest in the world. It is situated in an old part of the city, is built over a cave dedicated to the Prophet Elijah and is presumed to date back, at least in part, to the first century CE. The plaque on the cornerstone claims it to be the “Shrine and Synagogue of the Prophet Eliahou Hanabi since 720 BC”. It served the Jewish community until the early 19th century and was replaced by the more modern synagogue in the Old City where, it is reported, the Torah scrolls and other artifacts from the Jobar have been stored for safety.  It is to be hoped that the extensive wall paintings of the Dura-Europos Synagogue which, it is understood, are stored in the open but under cover, in Damascus, will not be affected by the unrest. It is also reported that the ancient souk in Aleppo has suffered heavily, and many of its medieval stone vaults have been destroyed, as have other ancient markets and mosques throughout the country.

Biblical Faces Reconstructed by Jacobovici

In another of his controversial archaeology series, Simcha Jacobovici is showing faces that he claims are reconstructed from authentic skulls of biblical personalities. The series is being aired on Canadian TV and the first episode purports to show the face of a Philistine woman, who is designated “Delilah”. It is based on a 3,000-year-old skull from a collection in Tel Aviv University. The face has been reconstructed in the way that forensic scientists work from skulls for police investigations.

A second episode shows the face of a man from a burial cave of the time of Jesus who, Jacobovici claims, was a man who knew Jesus. A third claim is based on the remains of an infant found inside a burial jar and is said to be that of “a sacrificed child”. These claims are clearly highly speculative and have been dismissed by Joe Zias, formerly of the IAA, as “show business and not science”. The actual reconstructions were mostly carried out by Victoria Lynwood of Montreal, who also reconstructed the skull of a 6,000-year-old warrior, whose teeth had decayed to such an extent that it was unclear how he had been able to continue to eat. Although dismissive of the series, Prof. Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University said that it would spark renewed interest in archaeology and that was the one good side of the presentation.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem