Report from Jerusalem, #8, December 2008

In England you may or may not have heard of the ‘new’ pyramid recently discovered at Saqqara in Egypt. This was announced by the ever-present Chief of Egyptian Antiquities, Zehi Hawass, in November. It was found next to the pyramid of Pharaoh Teti (c.2345-2333 BCE) and those of his two wives, which were discovered some years ago, and is thought to be that of his mother, Queen Shesheshet. The find is basically a 5-m high stump that was the base of a pyramid three times as high. It was buried under 25 m of sand and the fact that it was found with pieces of the original white limestone casing alongside suggested that it would have been a royal pyramid. The Queen mother always played a strong role in the kingdom and Queen Shesheshet is thought to have helped to establish her son as the founder of the 6th Dynasty of Egypt.

Last month, Zachi Zweig of the IAA announced some finds that he had made in digging into the survey records left by R.W.Hamilton of the British Mandate Antiquities the 1930s. After earthquakes in 1927 and 1937, Hamilton had worked with the Waqf Islamic Authority in restoring damage to the El Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (Haram es-Sharif). He found a Byzantine mosaic floor and under that a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) from the Second Temple period. The mosaic is similar to one at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Zweig is of the opinion that it is of a public building, even a church, that stood on the Temple Mount, though there is no literary record of that. Zweig and Gabriel Barkay have uncovered over the last few years several pieces of white marble church chancel screen in the rubble from the Mount that they have been systematically sifting, which may have belonged to such a church. The details of the mikveh were not published by Hamilton in his official report but were filed in his records for the British Antiquities Authority. Barkay is reported as saying this find, even if not a church but some other public building, completely alters our picture of the Temple Mount during the Byzantine period, and the presence of a mikveh raises further unsolved questions..

The Ehud Netzer saga of Herodion continues. In further excavation at the site of the presumed tomb of Herod, on the slopes of Herodion, Netzer recently announced that he had found remains of two further sarcophagi, that he said would have been buried with the previously announced more lavish pink-stone one, in a two-storey mausoleum 25m. high. It is presumed that these additional sarcophagi were of members of Herod’s family. Who they were and whether they died a natural death or were murdered cannot be ascertained, as they were found empty and shattered. The continuing excavations have also uncovered a ‘small’ theatre (seating an audience of about 700) just below and to the west of the mausoleum. The theatre had remarkable wall paintings, with some of the original figures and colours intact, and plaster mouldings dated to about 15-10 BCE (Herod died in 4 BCE). It is not clear if the theatre was part of the original Herodion complex, or partly destroyed to make way for it.

A large excavation by the IAA has been progressing on the Givati car park site opposite the City of David visitor’s centre in Jerusalem, under the direction of Doron Ben-Ami. There a discovery has been made of an ornate luxurious jewelled earring of gold set with pearls. The jewel was found within a Byzantine structure but is thought to have been made in the Roman period, several hundred years earlier, and perhaps preserved as a family heirloom. Jewelry from the Roman period is very rare in Jerusalem, thanks to the Roman and later destructions, but the excavators expect to make further discoveries of elite items from the period at this site of a presumed palace. The earring is of a late Roman model found elsewhere in Europe and similar in manufacture to ones known from Egypt.

Finally, the Tomb Raiders. At Hilazon Tachtit (literally, ‘Lower Snail’) in the Western Galilee near Carmiel, Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and her team have uncovered a strange tomb that they consider to have been that of a Natufian witch, of 12,000 years ago. The tomb contained a large number of strange grave goods, including 50 tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard, the wing-tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls, the foreleg of a wild boar and a human foot. The unusual relics point to the grave of a she-shaman, who was in touch with the spirits of nature and animals. It is the first time such a burial has been found in this area. The grave was oval-shaped and the body was laid on its side, resting against the wall of the tomb, as the witch was petite and had a decided spinal deformity that would have made her limp. Her age was about 45 years at death. The remains were covered with ten large stones, probably to protect the body from ravaging animals. Another less generous theory is that the community laid the heavy stones on the body to prevent the powerful witch-doctor from ever rising again.

Stephen Rosenberg,
Albright Institute, Jerusalem