Report from Jerusalem, #11, March 2009

The Israel Antiquities Authority have been busy again with several important rescue digs, which precede both large and small building development, laying of pipelines, road works and suchlike, all over the country . They employ a staff of several hundred, many of them qualified archaeologists with doctorates in their subject, and other experts in ancient writing, identification of bones, coins, and so on. Most of the work is run-of-the-mill but on many occasions important finds are uncovered and outside experts are consulted.

At the end of February the IAA announced spectacular finds at Umm Tuba, an Arab neighbourhood south-east of Jerusalem, in a rescue dig directed by Zubair Adawi.. Two seal impressions in paleo-Hebrew were found with the names of two senior officials, possibly of the government of Hezekiah (726-696 BCE). One of the seals was stamped on a wine jar handle next to a ‘lemelekh’ stamp, indicating that this official was approving the contents of the jar as to purpose, content or tax compliance. The seal names were Aximelekh ben Amadyahu and Yehoxail ben Shaxar (I am using X for a Het, to save confusion with a He). In addition an inscribed pottery fragment of the Hellenistic (Maccabean) period of 2nd century BCE was also uncovered. The lettering looks like the first ten letters of the alphabet as written by an apprentice scribe.

These finds were made within a large building of the First and Second Temple period, a building of many rooms around a courtyard containing a pottery kiln of the Iron Age. It was partly destroyed by the Babylonians and then reused in the Hellenistic period until it was ruined again by the Romans, when Jerusalem was sacked. However it was re-used again in Byzantine times, probably by pilgrims travelling between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It may be that the building was originally a kind of government storage depot, or local distribution centre. Three years ago fragments of a monastery building found by the site carried the name ‘Metupha’, which relates to the present Arab town name of Umm Tuba or Tupha, which is also related to the Biblical place name of Netupha, the recorded birthplace of two of King David’s warriors (“Hanetuphati”, 2 Samuel 23:28-29).

The Moshav of Ness-Harim, 20 km west of Jerusalem, near to Bet Shemesh, had to allow the IAA to excavate their site at Horvat a-Diri, surrounded by oaks and terraces, before they could extend their buildings onto it. The rescue dig, directed by Daniel Ein-Mor, uncovered the beautiful mosaic floor of a Byzantine-period church with a sacred inscription in early Greek, which was deciphered by Dr Leah de Signi of the Hebrew University to read

‘Holy Lord of St Theodorus, guard over the noble Antonius and Theodosia, and Theophylactus and the priest Johannes, remember the donors Maria and Johannes, in the sixth year of indiktus (?), have mercy on Stephanos.’

The first season in November 2008 uncovered the narthex of the church, which seemed to be the centre of a larger complex extending over nearly 4 acres. It included an impressive wine press, with two tiers of presses and vats, indicating the production of wine that was typical of a church complex of 6th and 7th centuries CE. This building was clearly one of a string of similar Byzantine churches found at Emmaus, Bet-Guvrin and Jerusalem. It appears that the building was re-used for some kind of industrial purpose in the later Islamic period.

A most unusual, though not really ancient, find was made in a rescue dig directed by Dr Rina Avner for the IAA in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was a broken piece of a blue-coloured jar of the medieval period, 12th or 13th century CE. The design was in a naturalistic Turkish style and hailed from Iran with an inscription in Persian painted in black on the neck of the jar. It was identified by Rivka Cohen-Amir as part of a love poem or quatrain by Amar-Xiyam, one of the most famous of the Persian poets of 11th and 12th centuries, who was also an astronomer and mathematician. The text was translated by Dr. Julia Rabinowicz of the Hebrew University to read

‘..(his) hand was on the neck of his beloved…’

This is a unique find in Jerusalem and one wonders how it came to be here. Perhaps the jar was a gift to a beloved one in Jerusalem. Who knows?

Stephen Rosenberg,
W.F.Albright Institute, Jerusalem