Report from Jerusalem, #13, May 2009

The excavators of Beth Shemesh (25 km west of Jerusalem) claim that the Canaanite city may have been ruled by a female monarch and that they may have found a depiction of her. Some of the El-Amarna letters of the 14thcentury BCE speak of a ‘Mistress of the Lionesses‘ appealing to Egypt for help against bandits and invaders. The title implies a female ruler but neither her name nor that of the city is mentioned in the tablets. Prof. Nadav Na’aman, of Tel Aviv University, thinks the city in question is Beth Shemesh and the excavators, Prof. Shlomo Bunomovitz and Dr Zvi Lederman, have uncovered a ceramic plaque that they think might represent the lady ruler. It shows an Egyptian-type figure, purportedly male, but with both arms bent and holding lotus plants, which are considered to be female characteristics. The headdress and skirt appear to be female but some scholars consider them to be applicable to male as well as female figures. If this is really a female figure, then Bunomovitz and Lederman may have found a representation of the ‘Mistress of the Lionesses’ and they will be looking for more clues in the coming season.

The Speaker of the Knesset, Rueven Rivlin, has recently opened an archaeological garden adjoining the Parliament building in Jerusalem. It bears the name ‘Tranquillity within thy Palaces’ (Psalms 122:7) and shows original artifacts from the Second Temple period up to Ottoman times, mainly from Jerusalem sites. It includes an olive press, mosaics and ancient inscriptions. It was organized by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and is open to the public.

On a less happy note, the police have recently arrested two Palestinians who were trying to sell a papyrus document that is nearly 2000 years old. It is (surprisingly) written in Paleo-Hebrew script and dated to the fourth year of the ‘Destruction of Israel’ which implies the year 74 CE, four years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, or it could be 139 CE, four years after the end of the Bar Kokhba war. The document was a roll with 15 lines of text, some of it missing, and relates to a widow, ‘Miriam barat Ya’akov‘ and the possessions that she is transferring to her late husband’s brother, according to Amir Ganor of the IAA anti-theft department. It is an important, so-far unpublished social document and it is not yet clear where it was originally found.

During the construction of a girls’ school in Ras al-AmudEast Jerusalem, a jar handle with the name Menahem, was found at a rescue dig directed by Dr.Ron Beeri of the IAA, who said that this is the first time that this name has been found on a handle in Jerusalem, although the name is common on seals found in Israel and elsewhere. The script is in clear Paleo-Hebrew of the 8th century BCE, the time of king Menahem ben Gadi (749-738 BCE) one of the last rulers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Finally, another ancient synagogue is being excavated in the Galilee, home to dozens of synagogues of the Roman and Byzantine periods. This one is at Wadi Hammam, a Jewish village near Migdal, a few km northwest of Tiberias. The excavations are now in their third season and are directed by Dr Uzi Leibner of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. The synagogue is in three phases and went out of use in the later 4th century CE, as dated by coins found within the structure. The middle phase, of the early 4th century, had a mosaic and an inscription that were plastered over in the last phase. The first phase has not yet been uncovered.

The synagogue plan resembles the standard configuration with a central hall or nave separated by columns from two side aisles, with an ark niche in the south wall facing Jerusalem and a store room on the west side. Entry was from the north, though it is not yet clear whether there was one doorway or the more normal three. The stonework is in white limestone as well as the standard black basalt. The synagogue was an integral part of the village, with houses and an olive press adjacent to it. Further excavations are in progress.

Stephen G. Rosenberg,
The Albright Institute, Jerusalem