Report from Jerusalem, #26, 14th October 2010

Herod’s private theatre at Herodion

In the wake of the rediscovery of the tomb of Herod, Prof. Ehud Netzer has now fully excavated a room identified as Herod’s private box at the centre of the 400-seat theatre on the eastern slopes of Herodion. It was decorated by Italian artists sent from Rome in about the year 15 BCE, some eleven years before Herod died, at which point the theatre went out of use. The plastered private box was decorated with painted ‘windows’ looking to a Nile scene and a seascape with a sailing vessel, as well as human and animal figures. The theatre is being restored by the Hebrew University and it is hoped that it will be open to the public next year, but it can already by seen in outline from the upper part of Herodion.

Figure of Tyche at Sussita

In a private house in the Hellenistic city of Sussita (Hippos), above the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), Prof. Arthur Segal and Dr. Michael Eisenberg of Haifa University have found a fragment of fresco depicting Tyche, the goddess of fortune (and city goddess), together with the figure of a maenad, associated with the god Dionysus in his rites, dated to the 3rd century or early 4th century CE. This large house and its decoration remained in use in the Byzantine period and thus, according to the finds, these cultic images were not removed with the coming of Christianity, when several churches were built in Sussita.

Ring of Apollo found at Dor

A ring of the early Hellenistic period (late 4th century BCE) was found at Tel Dor, on the coast, north of Caesarea. According to Dr. Ayelet Gilboa, of Haifa University, it is a rare find and shows that high-quality jewellery was appreciated and affordable in a provincial port like Dor. The head on the ring was identified as an image of Apollo, the sun god – and god of healing, prophecy and music. It is an embossed image on a bronze signet ring used as a seal honouring the god. It was found in the same area as a gemstone with the miniature head of Alexander the Great and an elaborate mosaic floor that formed part of a major public building or large residence, uncovered during an earlier season.

Samaritan Synagogue south of Bet She’an

In an excavation south of Beth Shean directed for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) by Dr. Walid Atrash and Yaakov Harel, a mosaic floor from a Samaritan synagogue dating to the 5th century CE was uncovered. This would have remained until the Muslim Conquest of 634 CE. The ruins of the large hall of the synagogue face Mt. Gerizim, the holy site of the Samaritan Temple, and the mosaic has an inscription that the archaeologists read as: ‘This is the templeā€¦’, which would refer either to this synagogue (if it were called a ‘temple’) or to the one formerly on Mount Gerizim site itself.

This synagogue is one of several in the Beth Shean area, once a major centre of Samaritans, and lies close to Nablus (Shechem), not far from the village that is still home to the remaining Samaritan community.

10,000th birthday of Jericho

The city council of Jericho is anxious to attract tourists to the earliest city in the known world, dating back to 8000 BCE. Besides the actual remains of the ancient city, now undergoing its fifth major excavation, this time by an Italian team, the local authority is promoting two other ancient features to interest tourists. One is an ancient sycamore tree with a massive hollow trunk two metres in diameter that, according to local legend, is the tree climbed by Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who, according to the Gospel of Luke (19:1-10), was trying to get a better view of Jesus. A new museum and visitors’ centre is planned, adjoining the tree. However, there is another dead, glass-covered sycamore in the courtyard of the nearby Greek Orthodox Church that claims the same venerable history.

The second feature for development is the colourful mosaic paving of the Hisham Palace, adjoining north Jericho, where the largest local mosaic is being uncovered for public display. Both the museum and the mosaic depend on raising the necessary finance, for the building and for a weather shield for the mosaic. Another problem is that Jericho, located in the Palestinian National Authority, is currently not open to holders of Israeli passports, but it is hoped this may change in the near future.

Forgery trial draws to a close

After five years, the defence has completed its case and Judge Aharon Farkash is due to give his verdict in the local Jerusalem Court before the end of the year, after considering the opinions of many legal and scientific experts and 12,000 pages of evidence. The case has boiled down to a focus on two major artefacts: the Yehoash tablet and the inscribed Ossuary of James, brother of Jesus, and to two defendants, Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv collector, and Robert Deutsch, a dealer and expert on ancient seals. The judge has already said that he will find it nearly impossible to reach a decision where the experts themselves cannot agree, and that he does not see that the prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that, if there is forgery, the defendants have carried it out. The prosecution was brought by the IAA, who must await the verdict with some trepidation.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem