Report from Jerusalem, #5, September 2008

A large walled enclosure of about 30ft. by 60ft. has been uncovered in the Galilee, in the Nazareth Hills, at Kfar HaHoresh. It dates to the Neolithic Pre-Pottery B Era (8th millennium BCE) and is being dug under the direction of Nigel Goring-Morris, a British archaeologist at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. He considers it to be a funerary precinct which acted as a regional centre for nearby villages, probably the first in this area. The site has yielded up 65 skeletons, mostly of young adult males, and an entire herd of cattle was also buried nearby. In addition there is a large number of small finds such as shell pendants, a symbolic serpentine axe, engraved tokens and phallic figurines. The variety of stone materials indicates exchange with areas such as Anatolia, Cyprus and Syria. Goring-Morris will be lecturing about the site at the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem in November.

Reports have come in from Damascus that the jawbone of an early diminutive camel has been discovered at Khown, a desert site near Palmyra, Syria. One of the leaders of the Syrian-Swiss expedition, Heba al-Sakhel, has claimed that the bone of this desert-cruising species could be one million years old. We await further details.

Early this September, the press was shown the extensive work that has been conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority under Yehiel Zelinger on the southern slopes of Mount Zion, Jerusalem. This work, now being continued under Yoav Arbel of the IAA, has uncovered large sections of the southern wall of the city from the Second Temple period, and another section in front of it built in the Hasmonean period, with fine bossed ashlars typical of the period of the first century BCE. After the destruction by the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a Byzantine wall was built above the ruins, though it appears that the later builders did not know of the first walls. The present excavators were helped by earlier discoveries made by Bliss and Dickie, working for the PEF in the 1890s. At that time, they did not have permission to excavate from ground level, so Bliss and Dickie had to work from tunnels that they cut alongside the walls. The press was most interested in the souvenirs that were recovered from the 19th-century dig, such as beer and wine bottles, part of a gaslight and workmen’s shoes. The site overlooks the Ben Hinnom Valley, which is scheduled to be landscaped as a national park.

Regrettably, on 16th September Avraham Biran died, aged (I believe) well over 90. Biran started his career in the British civil service during the Mandate period and became the long-time excavator of Tel Dan in the north of Israel. He had been Director of the Nelson Glueck School of Archaeology and received the Israel Prize for Archaeology a few years ago. Undoubtedly full-scale obituaries will appear in the archaeological press shortly.

Rumours have been circulating about the early demise of the Kenyon Institute (formerly the British School of Archaeology) in Jerusalem and I am happy to say that they are untrue. The new director of the Institute, Jamie Lovell, has inaugurated an extensive series of lectures and the library has been reorganized on user-friendly lines with new movable shelving.

Finally a curious report in Ha’Aretz and the Jerusalem Post detailed the unearthing of a medieval town in Russia that is claimed to be the city of Itil, the capital of the Khazar kingdom, near the Caspian Sea, which converted to Judaism in the tenth century CE. The work has been conducted by Dmitry Vasilev of the Astrakhan State University and supported by Yevgeny Satanovsky, director of the Middle Eastern Institute in Moscow. The city is on the Silk Route from China to Europe, which enabled the Khazars to collect taxes and become a wealthy kingdom. Satanovsky claims that they converted to Judaism so as to maintain their independence from the surrounding peoples that were practising Muslim and Christian-based cultures. We will surely hear more about this find from Russian scholars who have said that Khazar studies (previously proscribed by Stalin) are just beginning to uncover the history of this mysterious kingdom.

Stephen G Rosenberg
Albright Institute, Jerusalem