Report from Jerusalem, #27, 16th November 2010

Israel Antiquities Authority

Last month the Reshut haAtiqot (Israel Antiquities Authority, IAA) celebrated its 20th anniversary. Before that it had been the Israel Department of Antiquities within the Ministry of Education, but in 1990 it became an independent body with its own budget and leadership structure. As will be known from these reports, the IAA has figured largely in most of the archaeological work in Israel and is responsible for much of the recovery and restoration of the important sites in the country. The IAA now numbers a permanent staff of about 450 men and women, many of them highly qualified experts in their various fields. The work is directed from Jerusalem but spread among local offices throughout the country. There are storage depots and workshops in several locations and new headquarters are in the process of being constructed in Jerusalem, adjacent to the Israel Museum and the Bible Lands Museum, which will concentrate all the various activities in one ambitious building. Besides the straightforward work of site excavation, and particularly rescue digs, the IAA has an active department for publications and preservation and restoration work. Education is important and staff are encouraged to undertake further professional training, to upgrade their academic degrees, and are sent abroad to lecture at international conferences.

Dead Sea Scrolls coming on line

As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced its plan to digitalize the complete remains of the Dead Sea Scrolls to make them available to the public on line. In order to do this the IAA has teamed up with Google’s Israel Research and Design Centre in a $3.5 million project. The technology will enable each layer of each fragment to be viewed in colour and will make it unnecessary for the original pieces to be handled any more. It is planned to start the work before the end of the year and Google will then find a way to present the material on the Internet, together with transcriptions, translations and associated material. It is hoped that the first images will be available in Spring 2011 and work will then proceed continuously on the 30,000 fragments that have to be recorded in this way.

Mosaic floor at Tel Shikmona

The site was partly excavated from the 1950s to the 1970s and then fell into neglect and became used as a refuse tip. A new expedition by the University of Haifa, which is nearby, has cleaned the site and, on digging further, has uncovered some extensive floor mosaics of 6th century CE. The site lies by the sea shore west of Haifa, and was part of a major city in the area between 4th century BCE and the Muslim conquest of 7th CE. The previous finds included an Egyptian tomb, a Persian fortress and many elite items of Middle Bronze age. The mosaic presently being exposed and cleaned belonged to an ecclesiastical structure of the Byzantine period and will be exhibited as part of a public archaeological park connected to Hecht Park (connected with the Hecht Museum in the University building).

Professor Ehud Netzer, in Memoriam

On 28th October Ehud Netzer died, aged 76. His sudden death came as a great shock to all archaeologists in Israel and no doubt further afield as well. Netzer had retired as Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University recently but was still very active in expeditions in Israel and Albania and was busy on further publications of his work. He was the world expert on the colossal constructions of Herod the Great and had spent thirty years at the site of Herodion, some of it looking for the king’s tomb, which he finally located in 2007. As a result he travelled around the world describing this remarkable discovery. He continued his work at the site and was in a meeting with the Hebrew University to finalise plans to exhibit the frescoes he had uncovered at Herod’s private theatre at the site. It was then that he leaned against an unsafe wooden barrier and fell down 3m. backwards causing a massive concussion from which he never recovered. This was a tragic end to a distinguished career that started as a site architect under Yadin at Masada, and finished clarifying most of the important monuments of the Hasmonean and Herodian periods in Israel.

Stephen G. Rosenberg
W.F. Albright Institute, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem, #26, 14th October 2010

Herod’s private theatre at Herodion

In the wake of the rediscovery of the tomb of Herod, Prof. Ehud Netzer has now fully excavated a room identified as Herod’s private box at the centre of the 400-seat theatre on the eastern slopes of Herodion. It was decorated by Italian artists sent from Rome in about the year 15 BCE, some eleven years before Herod died, at which point the theatre went out of use. The plastered private box was decorated with painted ‘windows’ looking to a Nile scene and a seascape with a sailing vessel, as well as human and animal figures. The theatre is being restored by the Hebrew University and it is hoped that it will be open to the public next year, but it can already by seen in outline from the upper part of Herodion.

Figure of Tyche at Sussita

In a private house in the Hellenistic city of Sussita (Hippos), above the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), Prof. Arthur Segal and Dr. Michael Eisenberg of Haifa University have found a fragment of fresco depicting Tyche, the goddess of fortune (and city goddess), together with the figure of a maenad, associated with the god Dionysus in his rites, dated to the 3rd century or early 4th century CE. This large house and its decoration remained in use in the Byzantine period and thus, according to the finds, these cultic images were not removed with the coming of Christianity, when several churches were built in Sussita.

Ring of Apollo found at Dor

A ring of the early Hellenistic period (late 4th century BCE) was found at Tel Dor, on the coast, north of Caesarea. According to Dr. Ayelet Gilboa, of Haifa University, it is a rare find and shows that high-quality jewellery was appreciated and affordable in a provincial port like Dor. The head on the ring was identified as an image of Apollo, the sun god – and god of healing, prophecy and music. It is an embossed image on a bronze signet ring used as a seal honouring the god. It was found in the same area as a gemstone with the miniature head of Alexander the Great and an elaborate mosaic floor that formed part of a major public building or large residence, uncovered during an earlier season.

Samaritan Synagogue south of Bet She’an

In an excavation south of Beth Shean directed for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) by Dr. Walid Atrash and Yaakov Harel, a mosaic floor from a Samaritan synagogue dating to the 5th century CE was uncovered. This would have remained until the Muslim Conquest of 634 CE. The ruins of the large hall of the synagogue face Mt. Gerizim, the holy site of the Samaritan Temple, and the mosaic has an inscription that the archaeologists read as: ‘This is the templeā€¦’, which would refer either to this synagogue (if it were called a ‘temple’) or to the one formerly on Mount Gerizim site itself.

This synagogue is one of several in the Beth Shean area, once a major centre of Samaritans, and lies close to Nablus (Shechem), not far from the village that is still home to the remaining Samaritan community.

10,000th birthday of Jericho

The city council of Jericho is anxious to attract tourists to the earliest city in the known world, dating back to 8000 BCE. Besides the actual remains of the ancient city, now undergoing its fifth major excavation, this time by an Italian team, the local authority is promoting two other ancient features to interest tourists. One is an ancient sycamore tree with a massive hollow trunk two metres in diameter that, according to local legend, is the tree climbed by Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who, according to the Gospel of Luke (19:1-10), was trying to get a better view of Jesus. A new museum and visitors’ centre is planned, adjoining the tree. However, there is another dead, glass-covered sycamore in the courtyard of the nearby Greek Orthodox Church that claims the same venerable history.

The second feature for development is the colourful mosaic paving of the Hisham Palace, adjoining north Jericho, where the largest local mosaic is being uncovered for public display. Both the museum and the mosaic depend on raising the necessary finance, for the building and for a weather shield for the mosaic. Another problem is that Jericho, located in the Palestinian National Authority, is currently not open to holders of Israeli passports, but it is hoped this may change in the near future.

Forgery trial draws to a close

After five years, the defence has completed its case and Judge Aharon Farkash is due to give his verdict in the local Jerusalem Court before the end of the year, after considering the opinions of many legal and scientific experts and 12,000 pages of evidence. The case has boiled down to a focus on two major artefacts: the Yehoash tablet and the inscribed Ossuary of James, brother of Jesus, and to two defendants, Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv collector, and Robert Deutsch, a dealer and expert on ancient seals. The judge has already said that he will find it nearly impossible to reach a decision where the experts themselves cannot agree, and that he does not see that the prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that, if there is forgery, the defendants have carried it out. The prosecution was brought by the IAA, who must await the verdict with some trepidation.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem