Report from Jerusalem, #16, September 2009

Although it is now the end of the summer dig season, not much has yet been announced about recent finds but there has been plenty of other news.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has begun to compile a register of private collections of antiquities. There are estimated to be 100,000 collectors who hold more than 15 significant artefacts and, since February of this year, they have been required by law to register with the IAA. So far few have come forward as it seems owners are worried that their items may be impounded and are also concerned about security. The IAA says there is no intention to requisition any item, only to register it and see if private collectors are holding items that may help to further identify or explain artefacts held by the State. The IAA will issue certificates to approved collectors and will also help with photographs and historical analysis.

Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba is designing a programme to investigate documents where one ancient text has been overwritten by another. These are called palimpsests and the university scientists are finding methods of highlighting the original text, which may have been partly scratched off to make way for the later one. In several cases an original Hebrew text has been deciphered under a later Arabic one. The texts in question are mainly medieval and come from such sources as the Cairo Geniza, the Al-Aksa MS Library in Jerusalem and Al-Azar MS Library in Cairo. The method of investigation is being developed by the computer science and humanities departments of the university and, when fully operational, the scientists hope to be able to examine further documents now in the British Museum, the Louvre and other national libraries.

The large site opposite the City of David Visitors Centre, which used to be the useful Givati car park, is throwing up more and more evidence of intensive use. The latest finds indicate that it housed a luxurious Roman mansion, of which 1000 sq. m have already been uncovered by Dr. Doron Ben-Ami of the IAA. This was the area where the ornate gold ear-ring was found recently and the small sealing stamp in the shape of a boxer’s head. The mansion was built in two storeys around a central courtyard and had a tiled roof. It seems to have been destroyed in the earthquake of 363 CE which devastated many buildings around the Jordan Valley, both in Israel and Transjordan.

About six months ago a small stone doorway was uncovered to an underground tomb in Tzippori (Sepphoris) in the Galilee. The landowner was preparing to build a chalet on his garden plot and discovered this underground opening, of which the lintel bears the name of the 3rd-century Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. The Tiberias magistrates court and the owner have now reached agreement for the IAA to conduct an excavation of the site, which will begin shortly. There is considerable speculation and doubt about the inscription, as this Rabbi Joshua is mainly known to have lived in Lod, much further south. There is also some concern that extreme Jewish religious elements, who oppose any disturbance of buried remains, will oppose the dig.

The recent visit of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the offices of the PEF during his visit to London caused some excitement in the Hebrew press and the PM mentioned his pleasure at the visit at his press conference. The Jerusalem Post said he was ‘thrilled’ and it gave a brief history of the Fund. It must have been an exciting day at the offices and I wonder how the small premises managed to contain all the security and the press. Congratulations to the PEF for arranging it.

It was announced by the IAA that sections of a Canaanite wall of the MBA II period were recently uncovered by Prof. Ronnie Reich and Dr. Eli Shukron in the area of the Jerusalem National Park around the City of David. It is built of massive boulders and stands 8 m high in places. The size of the wall and its location confirms, according to Reich, that Jerusalem was at that period an urban entity with a ruler who was able to organise such an impressive set of defences. The wall is known to have run for at least 24 m and will have continued further west as well. We await further details of this impressive find.

The dig at Sussita, on the east side of Lake Kinneret, directed by Prof. Arthur Segal and Dr. Michael Eisenberg of Haifa University, has come up with the find of a cache of three figurines of Aphrodite, dating back about 1500 years. The figures are 30 cm (12 in) tall and stand with the nude goddess covering her private parts, known in the trade as ‘the modest Venus’. They are of clay, made from a mould and would have been cast in large numbers to aid women in childbirth and young ladies seeking love, according to Segal.

Another important find this season at Sussita was a small semi-circular, theatre-like structure. It was originally roofed and would have seated about 600 people. Such a structure is unusual in Israel where the known theatres housed an audience of several thousand and were not roofed. A small structure like this may have been used for poetry and musical events and would be a small public hall, called an Odeon, or even a Bouleterion, a conference chamber for meetings of the town council.

Stephen Rosenberg,
W.F.Albright Institute, Jerusalem