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

Report from Jerusalem, #5, September 2008

A large walled enclosure of about 30ft. by 60ft. has been uncovered in the Galilee, in the Nazareth Hills, at Kfar HaHoresh. It dates to the Neolithic Pre-Pottery B Era (8th millennium BCE) and is being dug under the direction of Nigel Goring-Morris, a British archaeologist at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. He considers it to be a funerary precinct which acted as a regional centre for nearby villages, probably the first in this area. The site has yielded up 65 skeletons, mostly of young adult males, and an entire herd of cattle was also buried nearby. In addition there is a large number of small finds such as shell pendants, a symbolic serpentine axe, engraved tokens and phallic figurines. The variety of stone materials indicates exchange with areas such as Anatolia, Cyprus and Syria. Goring-Morris will be lecturing about the site at the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem in November.

Reports have come in from Damascus that the jawbone of an early diminutive camel has been discovered at Khown, a desert site near Palmyra, Syria. One of the leaders of the Syrian-Swiss expedition, Heba al-Sakhel, has claimed that the bone of this desert-cruising species could be one million years old. We await further details.

Early this September, the press was shown the extensive work that has been conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority under Yehiel Zelinger on the southern slopes of Mount Zion, Jerusalem. This work, now being continued under Yoav Arbel of the IAA, has uncovered large sections of the southern wall of the city from the Second Temple period, and another section in front of it built in the Hasmonean period, with fine bossed ashlars typical of the period of the first century BCE. After the destruction by the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a Byzantine wall was built above the ruins, though it appears that the later builders did not know of the first walls. The present excavators were helped by earlier discoveries made by Bliss and Dickie, working for the PEF in the 1890s. At that time, they did not have permission to excavate from ground level, so Bliss and Dickie had to work from tunnels that they cut alongside the walls. The press was most interested in the souvenirs that were recovered from the 19th-century dig, such as beer and wine bottles, part of a gaslight and workmen’s shoes. The site overlooks the Ben Hinnom Valley, which is scheduled to be landscaped as a national park.

Regrettably, on 16th September Avraham Biran died, aged (I believe) well over 90. Biran started his career in the British civil service during the Mandate period and became the long-time excavator of Tel Dan in the north of Israel. He had been Director of the Nelson Glueck School of Archaeology and received the Israel Prize for Archaeology a few years ago. Undoubtedly full-scale obituaries will appear in the archaeological press shortly.

Rumours have been circulating about the early demise of the Kenyon Institute (formerly the British School of Archaeology) in Jerusalem and I am happy to say that they are untrue. The new director of the Institute, Jamie Lovell, has inaugurated an extensive series of lectures and the library has been reorganized on user-friendly lines with new movable shelving.

Finally a curious report in Ha’Aretz and the Jerusalem Post detailed the unearthing of a medieval town in Russia that is claimed to be the city of Itil, the capital of the Khazar kingdom, near the Caspian Sea, which converted to Judaism in the tenth century CE. The work has been conducted by Dmitry Vasilev of the Astrakhan State University and supported by Yevgeny Satanovsky, director of the Middle Eastern Institute in Moscow. The city is on the Silk Route from China to Europe, which enabled the Khazars to collect taxes and become a wealthy kingdom. Satanovsky claims that they converted to Judaism so as to maintain their independence from the surrounding peoples that were practising Muslim and Christian-based cultures. We will surely hear more about this find from Russian scholars who have said that Khazar studies (previously proscribed by Stalin) are just beginning to uncover the history of this mysterious kingdom.

Stephen G Rosenberg
Albright Institute, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem, #4, September 2008

As the main dig season is now over, newspaper and anecdotal reports are coming in from all over the country, and it is clear that some sensational finds have taken place.

I have already mentioned the three plastered skulls found at Yiftahel in the Lower Galilee; pictures and more information have now appeared. They date from Pre-pottery Neolithic B Period of 6 to 7000 BCE and the excavator, Dr. Hamudi Haleila of the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority), reports that they were found in a pit near a mudbrick building, The graves were under the building and the skulls were later removed and set in the house on benches, a form of ‘ancestor worship’ set up as an example to the youth. Haleila points out that similar cults were observed as far away as Syria, and 15 similar skulls are known from Jericho.

There is ongoing work repairing and cleaning the present walls of Jerusalem, and a start has been made at the Zion Gate, where the scaffolding has just been removed to show a pristine stone face. The bullet holes of the 1948 period have, however, been left in situ, and the original dedicatory inscription to Suleiman the Great has been restored.

At Megiddo, the dig headed by Israel Finkelstein, David Ussiskin and Baruch Halpern, an amazing temple of the EB1 period (3000 BCE) has been uncovered. It is about 30 m long and has a row of central pillar bases, each side of which are smooth rectangular and circular basalt slabs of unknown purpose. There is a central altar on the back wall opposite the presumed entrance. Nearby were found masses of animal bones, mainly sheep/goat and gazelle. Finkelstein calls it ‘the mother of all temples’ and says that publication can be expected by next year. This is a major and intriguing find, situated not far from the later famous central altar of Megiddo.

More small finds are turning up at Elath Mazar’s dig in the City of David. The latest is a bulla (seal impression) engraved in paleo-Hebrew of Gedalyahu ben Pashur (Jeremiah 38:1), a minister of King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, who was captured and murdered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

At Moshav Ahihud in Western Galilee, 5 miles east of Acre, a large olive-production plant of the sixth or seventh century CE has been found in an IAA excavation directed by Michael Cohen. The plant includes a huge olive press and two large oil storage containers lined in mosaic and plaster. The complex may have been part of a monastery as there is evidence (from small finds) of a church nearby. The site was destroyed by fire in about 700 CE.

A study of tuberculosis, undertaken by Israeli, Palestinian and German scientists, will be examining the ancient bones excavated by Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho, to try and discover the origin of the disease, which is still a killer in many parts of the world. It is felt that the tombs of Jericho, perhaps the oldest city known, may be able to reveal how the disease developed among the early crowded conditions 10,000 years ago. The research will be conducted at the Hebrew University (HU), Al-Quds University and the University of Munich, under a grant from the German Science Foundation.

The recent dig at Zippori (Sepphoris), under Ze’ev Weiss of the Hebrew University, has uncovered a Roman Temple of the third century CE. The temple was located in the centre of the city and shows that pagan worship took place in the city alongside Jewish practice. The temple measured about 24 x 12 m and was probably dedicated to Zeus and Tyche, judging from depictions of a temple facade on Zippori coins of Antoninus Pius. Only the foundations of the temple remained and it appears that a Christian Church was built over them at a later date, thus preserving the location of cult in the city centre. Another large Roman building, of unknown purpose, was found adjoining the temple.

The date for the domestication of cows, sheep and goats has been pushed back 2000 years to the sixth millenium BCE. The evidence comes from the examination of thousands of pottery vessels showing the remains of milk deposits, including vessels from Sha’ar Hagolan, in the Jordan Valley, excavated and examined by Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University, working with colleagues from UK, US, Netherlands, Greece, Turkey and Rumania. The work was published in a recent issue of Nature.

Dr. Daniella Bar-Josef of Haifa University has recently claimed that the large number of green-coloured jewellry from the Upper Paleolithic period of 12,000 years ago, collected by the Geological Survey of Israel from at least eight sites throughout Israel, were beaded amulets for human and agricultural fertility. She claims that their use came about at the transition from hunter-gathering to sedentary farming, when all forms of fertility were at a premium. The colour green was used to promote the aspect of growth, related to plants and trees, even at the expense of bringing material for the beads from sites 100 km distant.

The IAA have recently announced that all 15,000 to 20,000 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be available for viewing on the Internet within the next five years, together with a translation and interpretation of each fragment. At the same time, the project for their preservation is continuing apace.

Report from Jerusalem, #3, July 2008

We are now in the excavation season in Israel, in fact coming to the end of it shortly. The weather is hot and indeed sweltering in some places. As far as I am aware, digs have been going on at:
Rehov, near Bet Shean (under Ami Mazar),
Hazor (Amnon Ben-Tor),
Megiddo (Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin),
Tel Safi, former Gath (Aron Meier),
Gezer (Steve Ortiz and Sam Woolf),
Khirbet Qeiyafa, near Tel Azeka (Yossi Garfinkel),
Mount Zion (Shimon Gibson),
Tel Kedesh, in the north (Sharon Herbert and Andrea Berlin),
Tzipori (Ze’ev Weiss),
Yiftahel, rescue dig, IAA, (Hamudi Haleilah, Yanir Milevski, Nimrod Getzov),
Sussita, by Kinneret (Arthur Segal) and
Tel Kinrot and Tel Koor, near Rosh Pina (joint Dutch, Finnish, German, Swiss teams).
This is not a complete list by any means; my apologies to those I have omitted.

There must have been lots of finds and I mention just three exceptional ones of which I have heard. At Megiddo, they have uncovered a previously unknown Early Bronze Age temple next to the big section cut years ago. At the IAA rescue dig at Yiftahel, where a new junction is planned on the road between Haifa and Tiberias, three plastered skulls have been found, set in a row, dated to the Neolithic Pre-Pottery Period (not sure if A or B) similar to the ones of the ancestor cult found at Jericho. At Khirbet Qeiyafa they have found a two-chambered gate complex of the Early Iron Age (Iron II A).

The problem of ancient graves has come up again. Some have been found during the construction of a much-needed underground facility for the Barzilai hospital at Ashkelon, as the town is expecting more rocket attacks from the Gaza region. Work will be held up for the IAA to investigate. At the moment it seems the graves are of the Byzantine period and may be of Christian or pagan inhabitants.

A small white marble disc, 20cm in diameter, has been found by a diver off the coast at Yavneh-Yam, an ancient port between Tel Aviv and Ashdod. It is thought to have been used on a ship to ward off the Evil Eye and is dated to the 4th or 5th century BCE. The object is perfectly round, with a central hole, flat on one side and curved on the back. So far only four such pieces have been found.

An ancient catacomb has been found by Jordanian archaeologists under an early church at Rihab, northern Jordan. It is under the Church of St. Georgeous of 230 CE and could be the site of very early Christian worship. The excavators say they have found signs of early Christian rituals and they think the shrine was built underground to escape detection.

A date seed found by Yigal Yadin at Massada in the 1960s has been successfully germinated by scientists at Hadassah Hospital. It appears to be an extinct species of date palm that had extensive medicinal properties. It is hoped that the specimen will produce fruit in a few years (7 years after germination) and its location is being kept secret until further results are obtained. Radio-carbon dating on fragments show its date to have been compatible with the Roman Siege of Massada of 73 CE.

Further finds continue to be unearthed around the Silwan pool in Jerusalem by Ronnie Reich and Eli Shukron. On a recent tour we were shown a fine flight of steps that had led from the Pool up to the Temple Mount. It dates from the Herodian period and is built on top of a wide, man-high underground tunnel which was probably a sewer or waste water channel. Inside the tunnel were found many vessels and remains of provisions which indicate that the tunnel was used for escape purposes, probably by people fleeing from the Roman assault of 70 CE, which culminated in the destruction of the Herodian Temple.

Report from Jerusalem, #2, June 2008

The month of May, with the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, has been busy on an number of archaeological fronts.

A new national park has been opened by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Jewish National Fund at Adulam in the Elah Valley, some 20 km south-west of Jerusalem. This is the area (Cave of Adulam) where by tradition David was said to have hidden from King Saul (I Sam.22). The centrepiece of the park is Horvat (Ruins of) Etri, which are identified as the ancient Jewish settlement of Kfar Etara mentioned by Josephus. Another site in this park of 12,000 acres is Horvat Burgin, which is believed to have been the village of Kfar Bish, also mentioned by Josephus and by the Talmud.

At the May Presidential Conference, plans were unveiled for the ambitious Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal to the cost of $3 billion. This is the latest plan to save the rapidly falling Dead Sea, and may well become a reality as the costs will be underwritten by private Israeli funds, by the Jordanian monarchy and by Prince Bin-Talal of Saudi Arabia. It will provide hundreds of jobs for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians in the construction of a canal, a railway line, electric power stations, desalination plants and tourist facilities. Such an enormous project, if it really happens, will require extensive manpower resources from the archaeological community in rescue digs throughout this sensitive area in the years to come.

In April an American initiative was published, which seeks to bring Palestinian and Israeli archaeologists together to preserve their common heritage. The plan comes from archaeologists of the Universities of California (Los Angeles) and Southern California. They have formed a joint Working Group with several Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and work has started on recording sensitive sites and arranging access for scholars and visitors of all faiths. It is hoped that this work will form an agreement that can be incorporated into any future peace negotiations.

Some months ago a quarry used to supply the fine stones for the Herodian Temple was uncovered in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Ramot Shlomo and very recently another has been found in the Sanhedria district, about two km from the centre of the city. It was uncovered by IAA in a rescue dig, under the direction of Gerald Finkielsztejn, before the construction of a private house. It supplied some of the smaller white limestone ashlars used for the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, and it is expected that more such quarries will be uncovered.

The famous arched gate to Ashkelon has recently been restored and opened to the public. It dates from the MB I period and is considered to be 3,850 years old. It was constructed in mudbrick to a parabolic profile. The upper section of the front elevation, which was not intact, has now been restored in matching materials, but the rear portion (the gate is 15 metres long or deep) has been replaced in timber, which is not authentic. The whole is protected from weathering by an appropriate roof. The ancient gate at Tel Dan is only slightly later (MB II) and together the two mudbrick structures are the oldest arched gateways in the world, and belie the idea that it was the Romans who invented the arch.

At Yiftahel, a pre-pottery Neolithic site (PPNB) in the Galilee, where a new road junction is planned, a cache of eighty stone knife blades, eight arrowheads, three flint blocks, two sickle blades and other bone items were uncovered by the IAA in May in a low-level structure considered to be 9,000 years old. Work is continuing on this early site.

Much older was a surprise find, also uncovered in May, of a large stalactite cave in the Western Galilee, found while a bulldozer was working on a sewage line in the JNF Forest east of the seaside town of Nahariya. The cave consists of a number of chambers, the main one 60 by 80m and 40m high. According to Ofer Marder, head of the Prehistoric Branch of the IAA, the finds include man-knapped flint tools and zoological remains of animals now extinct in Israel such as red deer, buffaloes and bears (!). The finds date from the Upper Paleolithoic period (40,000-20,000 BP) and the cave is at present sealed to prevent disturbance and contamination while the contents are under advanced scientific study.

Nearer to the present, and just in time for the 60th anniversary, the extensive dig opposite the Western Wall, which is revealing mainly Roman and Byzantine remains, has uncovered an unexploded Israeli Davidka shell of the 1948 War of Independence, which was rapidly removed by police, and appears to have been safely detonated outside the city.