Report from Jerusalem, #4, September 2008

As the main dig season is now over, newspaper and anecdotal reports are coming in from all over the country, and it is clear that some sensational finds have taken place.

I have already mentioned the three plastered skulls found at Yiftahel in the Lower Galilee; pictures and more information have now appeared. They date from Pre-pottery Neolithic B Period of 6 to 7000 BCE and the excavator, Dr. Hamudi Haleila of the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority), reports that they were found in a pit near a mudbrick building, The graves were under the building and the skulls were later removed and set in the house on benches, a form of ‘ancestor worship’ set up as an example to the youth. Haleila points out that similar cults were observed as far away as Syria, and 15 similar skulls are known from Jericho.

There is ongoing work repairing and cleaning the present walls of Jerusalem, and a start has been made at the Zion Gate, where the scaffolding has just been removed to show a pristine stone face. The bullet holes of the 1948 period have, however, been left in situ, and the original dedicatory inscription to Suleiman the Great has been restored.

At Megiddo, the dig headed by Israel Finkelstein, David Ussiskin and Baruch Halpern, an amazing temple of the EB1 period (3000 BCE) has been uncovered. It is about 30 m long and has a row of central pillar bases, each side of which are smooth rectangular and circular basalt slabs of unknown purpose. There is a central altar on the back wall opposite the presumed entrance. Nearby were found masses of animal bones, mainly sheep/goat and gazelle. Finkelstein calls it ‘the mother of all temples’ and says that publication can be expected by next year. This is a major and intriguing find, situated not far from the later famous central altar of Megiddo.

More small finds are turning up at Elath Mazar’s dig in the City of David. The latest is a bulla (seal impression) engraved in paleo-Hebrew of Gedalyahu ben Pashur (Jeremiah 38:1), a minister of King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, who was captured and murdered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

At Moshav Ahihud in Western Galilee, 5 miles east of Acre, a large olive-production plant of the sixth or seventh century CE has been found in an IAA excavation directed by Michael Cohen. The plant includes a huge olive press and two large oil storage containers lined in mosaic and plaster. The complex may have been part of a monastery as there is evidence (from small finds) of a church nearby. The site was destroyed by fire in about 700 CE.

A study of tuberculosis, undertaken by Israeli, Palestinian and German scientists, will be examining the ancient bones excavated by Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho, to try and discover the origin of the disease, which is still a killer in many parts of the world. It is felt that the tombs of Jericho, perhaps the oldest city known, may be able to reveal how the disease developed among the early crowded conditions 10,000 years ago. The research will be conducted at the Hebrew University (HU), Al-Quds University and the University of Munich, under a grant from the German Science Foundation.

The recent dig at Zippori (Sepphoris), under Ze’ev Weiss of the Hebrew University, has uncovered a Roman Temple of the third century CE. The temple was located in the centre of the city and shows that pagan worship took place in the city alongside Jewish practice. The temple measured about 24 x 12 m and was probably dedicated to Zeus and Tyche, judging from depictions of a temple facade on Zippori coins of Antoninus Pius. Only the foundations of the temple remained and it appears that a Christian Church was built over them at a later date, thus preserving the location of cult in the city centre. Another large Roman building, of unknown purpose, was found adjoining the temple.

The date for the domestication of cows, sheep and goats has been pushed back 2000 years to the sixth millenium BCE. The evidence comes from the examination of thousands of pottery vessels showing the remains of milk deposits, including vessels from Sha’ar Hagolan, in the Jordan Valley, excavated and examined by Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University, working with colleagues from UK, US, Netherlands, Greece, Turkey and Rumania. The work was published in a recent issue of Nature.

Dr. Daniella Bar-Josef of Haifa University has recently claimed that the large number of green-coloured jewellry from the Upper Paleolithic period of 12,000 years ago, collected by the Geological Survey of Israel from at least eight sites throughout Israel, were beaded amulets for human and agricultural fertility. She claims that their use came about at the transition from hunter-gathering to sedentary farming, when all forms of fertility were at a premium. The colour green was used to promote the aspect of growth, related to plants and trees, even at the expense of bringing material for the beads from sites 100 km distant.

The IAA have recently announced that all 15,000 to 20,000 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be available for viewing on the Internet within the next five years, together with a translation and interpretation of each fragment. At the same time, the project for their preservation is continuing apace.