Report from Jerusalem, #14, June 2009

On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho stands the site of the ancient Inn of the Good Samaritan where, in a parable which Jesus told, a Samaritan helped a robbed and wounded wayfarer and took him to the inn on this road at the time of Jesus. After extensive archaeological work, uncovering remains from the Second Temple period, a new indoor and outdoor Museum has been opened on the site in a building that was a guard house in the Ottoman period. The museum houses a wonderful collection of mosaics from Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and early churches from the West Bank and Gaza. The inspiration for the mix of exhibits comes from the parable of the Samaritan. The museum is open free of charge every day except Saturday.

On the subject of mosaics, 13 years ago a large and colourful mosaic was discovered in Lod, 25 km west of Jerusalem. It was one of the finest early Byzantine mosaics in the country, showing a mass of land and sea animals, and had been left covered up to protect it. It is now being reopened and will be exhibited by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in the new Lod Museum Archaeological Centre, thanks to funds donated by the Leon Levy and Shelby White Foundation.

In the Levant it has been assumed that the use of pottery does not go back to before about 6000 BCE. For instance, the early levels of the city of Jericho, which date back to about 8000 BCE, have no pottery vessels. But recently one bowl-like artifact from China, that dates back to about 16000 BCE, has been identified as a pottery product by Chinese, American and Israeli archaeologists working in a small cave in the Hunan province of China. Israeli scholars Elisabetta Boaretto and Steve Weiner led the scientific work and the claim is that the hunter-gatherers of the period also produced pottery. The matter of the early dating is complex and not yet agreed by all scholars but it would make sense that China produced the earliest pottery!

At the ancient cemetery of Sepphoris, in the Galilee, a recent find has been a tomb lintel with the inscription in Aramaic, ‘This is the tomb of Rabbi Tanhuma and Rabbi Shimeon the Priest, Huna, Shalom’. It dates to the 3rd or 4th century CE according to Dr Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College in the Galilee.

The Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem is now a venue for outdoor pop concerts but originally was one of the main water reservoirs for the city. Part of the lower aqueduct supplying it has recently been found in a rescue dig directed by Dr Ron Beeri for the IAA, before the building of a new Montefiore Museum at the site. The section uncovered is from the Ottoman period. It is 3 m high and incorporates a small tower and ceramic pipework that fed into the pool and also into a fountain for use by pilgrims. The remains will be incorporated into the museum.

Prof. Adam Zertal does it again! You may recall that he had uncovered several outdoor ritual enclosures in the course of his extensive (in time and place) survey of the tribal area of Manasseh. He has now disclosed that he has discovered the largest known underground cave in the region, some 4 km north of Jericho. It extends over 4 acres and lies 10 m below the desert surface. It was used as a vast quarry in the Roman period and, after that, possibly as a Byzantine monastery and a hiding place for many years. The roof is supported by 20 integral pillars on which are many carvings, including crosses and a wheel-like diagram that Zertal thinks may have been a representation of the 12-month zodiac.

The northern city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee is now becoming of great interest to archaeologists. The city dates to the early Roman period when it was built by Herod Antipas as a tribute to the Emperor Tiberius. Extensive excavations south of the present town have revealed the southern gate, the market place and a whole urban complex and harbour of great sophistication. Much of the exploratory work was directed by the late Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University, who died recently at the early age of 56 and did not live to see the completion of his work.

At present under excavation is a large theatre that may have seated 5000-7000 spectators. It is by the hillside but built at right angles to it, so as to avoid the spectators having the sun in their eyes. The fine stonework of the proscenium and stage have been uncovered and work is continuing on the auditorium, under the direction of Dr Walid Atrash of the IAA, who estimates that it will be at least another year before the whole theatre is uncovered. When that is complete, the town will be as interesting to visit as Bet Shean is today.

Stephen G. Rosenberg,
W.F.Albright Institute, Jerusalem