Report from Jerusalem, #8, December 2008

In England you may or may not have heard of the ‘new’ pyramid recently discovered at Saqqara in Egypt. This was announced by the ever-present Chief of Egyptian Antiquities, Zehi Hawass, in November. It was found next to the pyramid of Pharaoh Teti (c.2345-2333 BCE) and those of his two wives, which were discovered some years ago, and is thought to be that of his mother, Queen Shesheshet. The find is basically a 5-m high stump that was the base of a pyramid three times as high. It was buried under 25 m of sand and the fact that it was found with pieces of the original white limestone casing alongside suggested that it would have been a royal pyramid. The Queen mother always played a strong role in the kingdom and Queen Shesheshet is thought to have helped to establish her son as the founder of the 6th Dynasty of Egypt.

Last month, Zachi Zweig of the IAA announced some finds that he had made in digging into the survey records left by R.W.Hamilton of the British Mandate Antiquities the 1930s. After earthquakes in 1927 and 1937, Hamilton had worked with the Waqf Islamic Authority in restoring damage to the El Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (Haram es-Sharif). He found a Byzantine mosaic floor and under that a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) from the Second Temple period. The mosaic is similar to one at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Zweig is of the opinion that it is of a public building, even a church, that stood on the Temple Mount, though there is no literary record of that. Zweig and Gabriel Barkay have uncovered over the last few years several pieces of white marble church chancel screen in the rubble from the Mount that they have been systematically sifting, which may have belonged to such a church. The details of the mikveh were not published by Hamilton in his official report but were filed in his records for the British Antiquities Authority. Barkay is reported as saying this find, even if not a church but some other public building, completely alters our picture of the Temple Mount during the Byzantine period, and the presence of a mikveh raises further unsolved questions..

The Ehud Netzer saga of Herodion continues. In further excavation at the site of the presumed tomb of Herod, on the slopes of Herodion, Netzer recently announced that he had found remains of two further sarcophagi, that he said would have been buried with the previously announced more lavish pink-stone one, in a two-storey mausoleum 25m. high. It is presumed that these additional sarcophagi were of members of Herod’s family. Who they were and whether they died a natural death or were murdered cannot be ascertained, as they were found empty and shattered. The continuing excavations have also uncovered a ‘small’ theatre (seating an audience of about 700) just below and to the west of the mausoleum. The theatre had remarkable wall paintings, with some of the original figures and colours intact, and plaster mouldings dated to about 15-10 BCE (Herod died in 4 BCE). It is not clear if the theatre was part of the original Herodion complex, or partly destroyed to make way for it.

A large excavation by the IAA has been progressing on the Givati car park site opposite the City of David visitor’s centre in Jerusalem, under the direction of Doron Ben-Ami. There a discovery has been made of an ornate luxurious jewelled earring of gold set with pearls. The jewel was found within a Byzantine structure but is thought to have been made in the Roman period, several hundred years earlier, and perhaps preserved as a family heirloom. Jewelry from the Roman period is very rare in Jerusalem, thanks to the Roman and later destructions, but the excavators expect to make further discoveries of elite items from the period at this site of a presumed palace. The earring is of a late Roman model found elsewhere in Europe and similar in manufacture to ones known from Egypt.

Finally, the Tomb Raiders. At Hilazon Tachtit (literally, ‘Lower Snail’) in the Western Galilee near Carmiel, Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and her team have uncovered a strange tomb that they consider to have been that of a Natufian witch, of 12,000 years ago. The tomb contained a large number of strange grave goods, including 50 tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard, the wing-tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls, the foreleg of a wild boar and a human foot. The unusual relics point to the grave of a she-shaman, who was in touch with the spirits of nature and animals. It is the first time such a burial has been found in this area. The grave was oval-shaped and the body was laid on its side, resting against the wall of the tomb, as the witch was petite and had a decided spinal deformity that would have made her limp. Her age was about 45 years at death. The remains were covered with ten large stones, probably to protect the body from ravaging animals. Another less generous theory is that the community laid the heavy stones on the body to prevent the powerful witch-doctor from ever rising again.

Stephen Rosenberg,
Albright Institute, Jerusalem

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

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.