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 #59, 24th March 2014

The World of the Philistines Museum

A new museum has opened in Ashdod on the Israeli coast, devoted to the Philistines, who lived in that area some three thousand years ago. It is called the Corinne Mamane Museum, after a young archaeologist who was tragically killed in a road accident nearby. It is a serious collection of Philistine remains and artifacts from 12th to 7th centuries BCE, but it is geared to create interest for local schoolchildren who flock to it regularly. In one section dealing with the life of Samson and his fights with the Philistines, there is a whole wall devoted to a large photographic tableau of Gustav Dore’s engraving of Samson seizing the two pillars of the temple of Dagon (Judges 16:30). As one stands in front of it and claps ones hands, the picture disintegrates, the pillars collapse and all the Philistines fall down dead. There is also a table with images of many pottery fragments spread around, as one touches each piece, it appears to fly off onto  a central screen and join together with the other pieces to make up a large amphora, suitably restored. These are fascinating exhibits for children and adults alike. The professional adviser to the Museum was Prof. Aren Maeir.

Ancient Miqveh in Spain

The synagogue of Gerona, in Catalonia, Spain, was founded in 1435 and abandoned at the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in 1492. Gerona had an active Jewish population of over twenty families. Recently a contemporary miqveh has been uncovered on the site, which is a rare find as so few ritual baths remain of that early date in Europe. The synagogue site now houses a museum of local Jewish history, and Alon Bar, the Israeli Ambassador to Spain, attended the unveiling of the miqveh together with Spanish dignitaries, who said that  the Spanish authorities see the find as an important link with their Jewish past, which they now hope to promote.

Sy Gitin Retires as Director of the Albright Institute of Archaeology

In July of this year Prof. Seymour Gitin, 78, will retire as Director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, after thirty-four years in office. He will be replaced by Dr. Matthew Adams, an Egyptologist who trained at Penn State University and has taught at several American universities and is director of the Jezreel Valley Regional Project in Israel.

Prof. Gitin expanded the activities of the Institute to include an international fellowship programme with 65 fellows from all over the world, including the Far East, as well as local Israelis and Palestinians. He instituted an annual programme of 80 events, such as weekly lectures and field trips, and conducted a major excavation at Tel Miqne-Ekron, organised in conjunction with the Hebrew University, with Trude Dothan and Gitin as joint directors.

Other field projects associated with the Albright include sites at Ashkelon, Tel Kedesh, Gezer, Sepphoris. Tel Regev and Tel Zeitah. During Prof. Gitin’s term of office, the Institute has undergone major renovations to its premises in East Jerusalem and the library holdings have increased threefold. The Albright is now the premier English-speaking archaeological facility in Israel.

Sy himself has authored nearly two hundred publications and will continue working on the Tel Miqne-Ekron material in his retirement, when he will remain as Dorot Director and Professor of Archaeology Emeritus. He has received prizes and awards from many universities and from the Israel Museum for his outstanding contribution to the archaeology of the Levant in general, and to the history of the Philistines in particular. We wish him a long and active retirement in good health.

Exhibition of Earliest Masks at Israel Museum

The exhibition of twelve of the world’s oldest masks has featured in the Museum since early March, and will remain open until September 2014.  Further information will be available in due course.

Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Library

As part of its ambitious new building project called the Schottenstein National Campus for Archaeology in Israel, now under construction on Museum Hill by the Israel Museum and the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) will erect the largest library  of the archaeology of Israel in the Middle East, and perhaps in the world. It will be called the Mandel National Library for Archaeology in Israel, and is being built thanks to donations from the Mandel Foundation of Cleveland, USA.  It will house 150,000 volumes and include 500 rare books and thousands of periodicals. The facility, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, will be open to the public as well as scholars and it is hoped it will be completed by April 2016.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #58, 24th February 2014

Church Uncovered near Kiryat Gat

At the village of Aluma, just north-west of Kiryat Gat and beside the ancient road from Ashkelon to Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has discovered the remains of a Byzantine Church with excellent mosaics. The building is 22m long and 12 m. wide and is of the basilica type with a wide nave and narrow aisles. All three sections have floors covered in colourful mosaics laid out as forty medallions framed by vine tendrils, each medallion depicting an animal or botanical symbol and with the names of local church leaders Demetrios and Herakles. There is a large external entry courtyard floored in white mosaic with a panel giving the names of Mary and Jesus, and the local donor. The church is the only one of this period found in the area and the IAA suggest that it was the focus of Christianity in this vicinity. Also found nearby was a potter’s workshop with remains of jugs and bowls, lamps and glass objects, indicating a rich local culture, according to Dr. Daniel Varga, director of the excavation. The mosaics will be removed for public display at a museum and the site covered back to preserve it.

Dead Sea Scrolls on Facebook

Since early December 2013, the IAA have put the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital library on Facebook and made the thousands of fragments available free of charge to the public, in an improved format thanks to use of a unique camera developed for the purpose. The website is www.deadseascrolls.org.il.  The upgraded website includes 10,000 new images, translations into Russian and German, and a faster search engine.

Ancient Well in Tel Aviv

In a salvage dig in the Ramat Hahayal area, a large Byzantine-era well, about 1,500 years old, has been uncovered. The mouth of the well is several meters wide and is an example of one that employed a donkey to draw water by means of clay vessels on a continual belt and discharge it into a nearby cistern or reservoir.

Metal Greek Statue from Gaza

A life-size bronze statue of a Greek god has been rescued from shallow waters by a Palestinian fisherman off the coast of Gaza. It weighs 500 kg and was hauled aboard his boat by four men, he says, and taken ashore on a cart because of its great weight. According to one expert it shows no sign of encrustation or barnacles and it is suspected to have been found on land, though not declared as such. The local government of Hamas heard of it and ordered it to be taken into police custody, since when it has been kept from view, to the intense frustration of local scholars and archaeologists. One expert from the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem is reported to have declared it to be priceless, very rare and virtually unique, but it should be noted that there are two life-size bronze statues in the Athens National Museum, which are called Poseidon and Paris. The Gaza statue has been dated to the fifth to first century BCE and dubbed Apollo, for reasons unknown.

Unesco Listing of Ancient Caves and Terraces

Israel has put forward to UNESCO for consideration at their next meeting in Doha in June, for the World Heritage List, the caves of Bet Guvrin and Maresha, southwest of Jerusalem. The caves belong to ancient cities that were inhabited from the time of the Edomites to the Crusaders.

At the same meeting, the Palestinian Authority have put forward the ancient terraces of Battir, a west-bank village near Jerusalem, whose terraces go back hundreds of years, it is claimed.

Persian Period Village Near Jerusalem

During work on a natural gas line from the coast to Jerusalem, remains of a large village were uncovered near Mitzpe Harel, west of Jerusalem. The settlement consisted of several houses around narrow pathways and was probably surrounded by orchards and vineyards, as prevalent in the area today. It looks as if the houses were the standard four-room house around a courtyard, and the village was perched on an elevated spur with good views of the surrounding country. According to the dig director Irina Zilberbord, the village was at its peak in the Hasmonean period of the second century BCE and was abandoned at the end of that period – perhaps when Herod drew away many peasant inhabitants for work on his reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple, according to Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem regional archaeologist. It is reported, happily, that the gas line will now be relocated so that the site can remain accessible for further investigation.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

Report from Jerusalem #57, 20th January 2014

Red Sea – Dead Sea Project

There has been considerable discussion recently in the press about the possibility of constructing a water link from the Gulf of Eilat to the southern end of the Dead Sea. The purpose of this scheme would be to stem the loss of water in the Dead Sea, which is dropping about one meter in height every year, The scheme would include considerable advantages in water supply to the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Jordanians, who all support the idea in theory, but it is ergonomically controversial and hugely costly. There are strong arguments on both sides. Whatever details, it would involve the construction of a canal or large pipeline between the two waterways and this would cause considerable damage to the area of the Negev involved, which in turn would require a very large number of rescue digs by archaeologists.

Removal of Jewish Relics from Temple Mount

There was a heated discussion in the Knesset at the end of December, initiated by Moshe Feiglin, who asserted that the Waqf, the Islamic supervisory body of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was removing ancient timber beams, which he claimed dated back to the time of Solomon, from the site. He blamed the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) for lack of supervision, but in fact, the IAA has no responsibility for this area, designated as a Holy Site, over which only the Waqf and the Israel Police have jurisdiction.

“Kedem Compound” Visitors’ Centre Criticised

The Givati Parking Lot opposite the entrance to the City of David site is due to be developed as a visitors’ centre in East Jerusalem. The approved plans have been criticized by archaeologists because the development will completely cover the site, which was in the course of excavation and has revealed rich finds that are attributed to a possible palace of Queen Helena of Adiabene, who converted to Judaism and settled in Jerusalem in 1st century CE. Judging by the published illustration, the project is a massive one with a central pedestrian walkway flanked by four-storey construction each side to house meeting and exhibition rooms, lecture halls and offices. There will be underground parking levels which will destroy parts of the site, and the critics claim that the whole complex should have been planned on an open ground floor with pillars, that would have allowed access to the original structures below.

Excavations at Tel Hebron

Work started in early January on excavations at Tel Rumeida, ancient Hebron, where walls exist that date back to the period of Abraham and earlier, according to a recent press release by the IAA. The dig will continue works started in the 1960’s which have revealed remains from the Early Bronze Age and all later periods up to the Islamic era. The excavations will be conducted by Emanuel Eisenberg of the IAA, who worked on the site 15 years ago and is now hoping to make finds, he says, that go back to the time of King David and earlier.

Ancient Pottery from a Private Collection in Galilee 

In mid-January the IAA made the surprising find of a large collection of ancient pottery in the basement of a woman living in Poriya Illit in the lower Galilee. The lady, Osnat Lester, telephoned the IAA to announce that she had a basement full of pottery dredged up from the Mediterranean by a fisherman relative of her family, now deceased. The IAA sent two of its members and found a large number of boxes of intact vessels and large broken fragments, that they were able to date to the periods from the Biblical to the Roman ages. The vessels were used to carry wine, oils and various foodstuffs, and had been loaded on cargo ships which later sank at sea. The pottery was encrusted with seashells and ocean debris and sediment. This valuable find will be examined in detail and then prepared for public exhibition, according to Amir Ganon of the IAA, which will please the donor who had expressed the wish that it will not just be stored away but put on view so that her grandchildren would be able to view it. The IAA thanked Mrs. Lester for presenting this precious cargo of pottery to them and thereby donating it to the people of Israel as a whole.

 Stephen Rosenberg

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem #56, 8th December 2013

Cuneiform Tablets to be Returned to Iraq

Nearly ten thousand cuneiform tablets will be returned to Iraq by Cornell University. The tablets date from the 4th millennium BCE and later, and are suspected to have been looted from Iraq, which has demanded their return. They were donated to the university by a collector who bought them on the market seven years ago, and they have been preserved, photographed and published over the last few years by scholars at the university, which has now agreed to return them to Iraq museum in Baghdad. The university acknowledges that there may be concerns about the safety of the tablets, but has stated that “the Iraq Museum seems to be secure at this point”. The tablets include the private records of a Sumerian princess of Garsana, who administered her husband’s estate after his death, who gave equal rights and wages to women, and allowed them to direct male workers on building projects. Other tablets record details of temple rituals, the treatment of refugees and the yields of agricultural products.

Climatic Changes at the end of the Late Bronze Age

A study conducted by Dafna Langgut and published in the Journal of the Tel Aviv Institute of Archaeology shows that there was a great climatic change in the period of 1250-1100 BCE, that may have accounted for the upheavals in the civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean, in Egypt, Greece, Crete, Syria and in Israel, where the first monarchy was established. The study was based on core samples taken from deep under the Kinneret, Sea of Galilee, in 18m. long cores containing fossil grains of pollen, which Langgut claims is the most enduring organic material in nature. The pollen was blown into the water and the particles show details of the vegetation that grew around the lake and the climatic conditions of the period. The study was conducted together with Prof. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Thomas Litt of Bonn University and Prof. Mordechai Stein of Hebrew University. Prof. Finkelstein notes that this pollen study had a precision of forty years, as compared to other pollen studies of only several hundred years, which may have missed the changes now revealed. The results correlate with text records of drought and famine in locations from Anatolia to Egypt.

Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Arrests Looter

Uzi Rotstein of the IAA Theft Prevention Unit reported the arrest of one of a group of six illegal metal-detector operators who were looting Byzantine coins at a site in the Nahal Sorek basin in the Judean hills. Excavating an ancient site without a permit from the IAA is considered to be a criminal act that can result in a prison term of up to five years. Members of the Theft Prevention Unit are not police officers but carry small arms and have the right to make arrests.

Ancient Wine Cellar Unearthed at Tel Kabri

At Tel Kabri, 3 km. east of Naharia, archaeologists have unearthed a large wine cellar dated to 1700 BCE. It was part of a luxurious palace and estate that may have belonged to a rich northern Canaanite ruler. The find amounted to forty plain 1 m. high storage jars and is one of the largest wine cellars ever found. By residue analysis, the excavators, Eric Cline of  George Washington University, Andrew Koh of Brandeis University and Assaf Yasur-Landau of Haifa University, showed that the wine, both red and white, was flavoured with honey,  juniper, mint, cinnamon and myrtle. The cellar was about 5 x 8 m. and adjacent to a large banqueting hall, both of which may have been destroyed by earthquake. At the end of the dig, two doors were found leading out of the cellar, which will have to await examination until the next season in 2015.

Chalcolithic Village found near Beit Shemesh

Since 2004, archaeologists of the IAA have been exposing domestic remains on a site south of Beit Shemesh, alongside road 38, which is due to be widened. The finds include a building of the pre-pottery Neolithic period dated to about 8000 BCE, the oldest such structure to have been found in this country, according to Dr. Amir Golani, in charge of the dig. Other buildings of a later date were also uncovered, together with axes, flints and stone tools, which will be cleaned and preserved by the IAA at their nearby offices.  Next to the oldest building was found a standing monolith (1.2m. high and weighing a quarter of a ton), that had been tooled on all six sides, which suggests it may have served a cultic function alongside the building.

Hasmonean Period Building in Jerusalem

A building of 64 sq. m. nearly 4m. high has been uncovered in the Givati parking area by the City of David, and dated to the Hasmonean period. According to Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, one of the directors of the dig, this is the first evidence of a building of this period to be found in Jerusalem. Dating has been made easier by the discovery on the floor of over forty silver and bronze coins of the second century BCE, which are now being cleaned and will take another year, Ben-Ami said. Only part of the structure has been uncovered so far, but it is not domestic in nature and likely to have been a public building. It is hoped to find further evidence of the period as the dig proceeds.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.