Report from Jerusalem, #2, June 2008

The month of May, with the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, has been busy on an number of archaeological fronts.

A new national park has been opened by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Jewish National Fund at Adulam in the Elah Valley, some 20 km south-west of Jerusalem. This is the area (Cave of Adulam) where by tradition David was said to have hidden from King Saul (I Sam.22). The centrepiece of the park is Horvat (Ruins of) Etri, which are identified as the ancient Jewish settlement of Kfar Etara mentioned by Josephus. Another site in this park of 12,000 acres is Horvat Burgin, which is believed to have been the village of Kfar Bish, also mentioned by Josephus and by the Talmud.

At the May Presidential Conference, plans were unveiled for the ambitious Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal to the cost of $3 billion. This is the latest plan to save the rapidly falling Dead Sea, and may well become a reality as the costs will be underwritten by private Israeli funds, by the Jordanian monarchy and by Prince Bin-Talal of Saudi Arabia. It will provide hundreds of jobs for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians in the construction of a canal, a railway line, electric power stations, desalination plants and tourist facilities. Such an enormous project, if it really happens, will require extensive manpower resources from the archaeological community in rescue digs throughout this sensitive area in the years to come.

In April an American initiative was published, which seeks to bring Palestinian and Israeli archaeologists together to preserve their common heritage. The plan comes from archaeologists of the Universities of California (Los Angeles) and Southern California. They have formed a joint Working Group with several Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and work has started on recording sensitive sites and arranging access for scholars and visitors of all faiths. It is hoped that this work will form an agreement that can be incorporated into any future peace negotiations.

Some months ago a quarry used to supply the fine stones for the Herodian Temple was uncovered in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Ramot Shlomo and very recently another has been found in the Sanhedria district, about two km from the centre of the city. It was uncovered by IAA in a rescue dig, under the direction of Gerald Finkielsztejn, before the construction of a private house. It supplied some of the smaller white limestone ashlars used for the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, and it is expected that more such quarries will be uncovered.

The famous arched gate to Ashkelon has recently been restored and opened to the public. It dates from the MB I period and is considered to be 3,850 years old. It was constructed in mudbrick to a parabolic profile. The upper section of the front elevation, which was not intact, has now been restored in matching materials, but the rear portion (the gate is 15 metres long or deep) has been replaced in timber, which is not authentic. The whole is protected from weathering by an appropriate roof. The ancient gate at Tel Dan is only slightly later (MB II) and together the two mudbrick structures are the oldest arched gateways in the world, and belie the idea that it was the Romans who invented the arch.

At Yiftahel, a pre-pottery Neolithic site (PPNB) in the Galilee, where a new road junction is planned, a cache of eighty stone knife blades, eight arrowheads, three flint blocks, two sickle blades and other bone items were uncovered by the IAA in May in a low-level structure considered to be 9,000 years old. Work is continuing on this early site.

Much older was a surprise find, also uncovered in May, of a large stalactite cave in the Western Galilee, found while a bulldozer was working on a sewage line in the JNF Forest east of the seaside town of Nahariya. The cave consists of a number of chambers, the main one 60 by 80m and 40m high. According to Ofer Marder, head of the Prehistoric Branch of the IAA, the finds include man-knapped flint tools and zoological remains of animals now extinct in Israel such as red deer, buffaloes and bears (!). The finds date from the Upper Paleolithoic period (40,000-20,000 BP) and the cave is at present sealed to prevent disturbance and contamination while the contents are under advanced scientific study.

Nearer to the present, and just in time for the 60th anniversary, the extensive dig opposite the Western Wall, which is revealing mainly Roman and Byzantine remains, has uncovered an unexploded Israeli Davidka shell of the 1948 War of Independence, which was rapidly removed by police, and appears to have been safely detonated outside the city.