Report from Jerusalem, #29, 4th February 2011

Jordan Baptismal Site Reopened

On 18th January a ceremony was held to mark the re-opening of the site on the River Jordan where John the Baptist is supposed to have baptised Jesus. It had been closed for over forty years as a military zone and has now been released by the army and renovated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority who have improved access for pilgrims and tourists. The site is known in Arabic as Qasr al-Yehud (Castle of the Jew) and pilgrims can enter it from both the Israeli and Jordanian side, though crossing between them is not possible as it is fenced off mid-river to mark the boundary between the two countries.

The ceremony, marking also the Feast of the Epiphany, was led by Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and was attended by an estimated 15,000 pilgrims, most of whom watched the ceremony on screens while the lucky few got to immerse themselves in the river in white cloaks.

The site is also deemed by some to represent the place where the Children of Israel are said to have crossed into Canaan by the fords, under the leadership of Joshua.

The Passing of Vendyl Jones

Vendyl Jones, who was said to have spent much of his life looking for the Ark of the Covenant, passed away in late December 2010. He had been a pastor in the Baptist Church and was drawn to Jewish texts and practices by his reading of the Bible, so much so that he called himself a Noahide, that is, one who keeps the seven Jewish commandments for Gentiles. In 1964 he came across literature on the Copper Scroll and started searching for the treasures of the Temple. His fame rested on his identity with the “Indiana Jones” played by Harrison Ford, but Vendyl denied the connection. In Israel his enduring image was photographs of him in the press digging in the soil with a trowel in one hand and the Bible in the other. He claimed to have found samples of the “ketoret” incense used in the Temple. It was a reddish powder and was confirmed by tests at the Weizmann Institute, though disputed by other scholars.

Drainage Channel and Street of Ancient Jerusalem

After the work of seven years, the surface water drain from near the Temple Mount to the Pool of Siloam has been cleared and will shortly be opened to tourists. The work has been conducted by Prof. Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and has opened up a stepped street above the channel that goes back to the early Roman period. Remnants of pottery and other domestic waste suggest that the channel, which is from 1m. to 2m. high under the street, was used by refugees escaping from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. Josephus carries a vivid account of the Roman forces searching for the escapees, enslaving some and killing others.

Parts of the tunnel had already been uncovered by Charles Warren, at the Western Wall end, and by Bliss and Dickie at the Siloam end, but this is the first time that it has been possible to see the two ends as one continuous passageway and sewer. The present section runs for 600 metres and it is presumed that it extends further northwards for an equal amount to the Damascus Gate.

Jerusalem Leper Hospital to be Arts Centre

The former Hansen Hospital, named after the doctor who isolated the germ that caused leprosy, is to be renovated as the City centre for the visual arts. It stands on a large piece of ground opposite the Jerusalem Theatre in the prosperous Talbiyeh neighbourhood. It is a pleasant three-storey structure with balconies around a central courtyard and its interest to archaeologists is that it was built in 1887 by the German architect Conrad Schick (1822-1901), who came to the city as a missionary and died there as an early explorer and archaeologist. He is known as the builder of models of the Temple Mount and the surveyor of maps of Jerusalem. It was a set of his pupils who first saw and drew his attention to the Siloam Inscription in the water tunnel. As an architect he was responsible for the layout of one of the early neighbourhoods outside the old City, the Mea Shearim housing complex, now largely inhabited by members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. One wonders if they realize that their homes were planned and built by a former Christian missionary.

Byzantine Church in the Judaean Hills

Due to the discovery of illegal plunder from the site, the chief IAA investigator of archeological theft, Amir Ganor, started a dig at the ruins of Hirbet Madras, south-west of Jerusalem and just north of Beit Guvrin, where he uncovered the floor of a 6th Cent. CE structure that was thought to be a synagogue but, thanks to many stones carved with crosses, is now seen to have been a church. It has a magnificent mosaic floor of geometric patterns that incorporate representations of lions, foxes, peacocks and fish. The church is built over another structure, probably five centuries earlier, of the early Roman period, that might have been a village synagogue. There are also underground tunnels alongside, that may have served as hiding places for the Jews during the Bar-Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), as found at Beit Guvrin nearby. Steps from the church lead down into a small burial cave that the excavators think was considered to be the holy resting place of the Prophet Zechariah, but the reasons for this are obscure.

The site, which is now on an isolated hilltop, will be covered over again, until plans and funding become available to secure it and open it to the public.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F.Albright Institute, Jerusalem

Report from Jerusalem, #28, 5th January 2011

Non-Destructive Investigation By X-Ray

Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University has discovered a method of investigating clay and other materials by non-destructive methods, using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry . Having built up a data-base of results from former intrusive methods, he can now organize the analysis by merely scanning the object and comparing the results with the previous data. The scans will then show the type of clay or other material and its geographical origin. He is thus able to examine new finds and also older museum specimens without the need to break off a piece or cut off a sample. The method has been used on the Late Bronze Age fragment of a cuneiform letter from the City of David excavations that is dated to the El-Amarna period. Prof. Goren’s analysis shows that the tablet material is the Terra Rossa soil from around Jerusalem and it is therefore most probable that the item was written by a scribe in the Jerusalem area and may indeed have been part of a letter dictated by the Jebusite king Abdi-Heba to Egypt, to the court of Amenhotep III or IV at El-Amarna, and the fragment may have been part of the copy retained by the sender.

Aelia Capitolina, A Roman Bathing Pool in Jerusalem

During excavations for a new mikvah (ritual bath) in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, a rescue dig by the IAA, directed by Dr. Ofer Sion, uncovered a large bathing pool that had been used by the Tenth Legion (Fretensis) of the Roman army in about 200 CE.  Evidence of the Roman build was the large number of floor and roof tiles with the stamp of the legion, and the many stamped roof tiles show that the facility was completely roofed. The location in the Jewish Quarter, some distance from the presumed army HQ in the Armenian Quarter, shows that the occupying soldiers were spread out throughout the city. The Tenth Legion was involved in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and later in the rebuilding of the city by Hadrian, after the abortive Bar-Kochba revolt of 135 CE. when it was renamed Aelia Capitolina.

The excavators were amused to find one of the roof tiles impressed with the paw marks of a dog.  Presumably the cur had walked over the wet tiles that had been spread out and left to dry.

Monastery of St. George in Wadi Qelt, West of Jericho

On 30th November a ceremony was held at the Monastery to celebrate the completion of a new road to St. George’s, that had been built by the Ministry of Tourism and other bodies to improve access, at the request of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.¬† The present road had suffered damage from flash floods and a minor earthquake over the last few years, and the new one will make it easier for pilgrims and tourists alike, to visit this remarkable 5th-7th century complex of buildings that appear to hang from the side of the steep desert mountain over the lush green wadi below.

It is thought that the original buildings were constructed above a fourth-century synagogue. They were destroyed during the Persian invasion of Jerusalem in 614 CE. and later restored by the Crusaders. The interior boasts some very fine icons and frescoes. Today, St. George’s is one of only six monasteries still active in the Judean desert area.

Funding for Restoration of Historic Sites

In the context of the National Heritage Plan announced last February, the first tranche of 91 million shekels (16 million sterling) has now been allocated for work to 16 major sites, ancient and modern. One of the archaeological sites is Herodion, where work was recently halted due to the tragic death of Ehud Netzer. It can now continue with restoration of the unique frescoes at the small theatre, that will be preserved and made ready for presentation to the public by experts from the Hebrew University.

Another site will be the large Byzantine-period synagogue at Umm el-Kanatir, in the Golan heights, which is being restored piece by piece using computerized technology organized by Yeshu Drei and archaeologist Haim Ben-David.

Sudden Fierce Storm , Destruction and Discovery

Winter in Israel started with a destructive storm on 12th and 13th December, that wreaked havoc along the Mediterranean coast in particular. Many sites were affected but worst of all was Caesarea. Some of the foundations of the northern aqueduct were exposed and parts of the Crusader city wall suffered fractures due to subsidence. The Crusader-period breakwater, that protected the southern arm of the Herodian harbour was broken into three pieces and the port wall left unprotected from southern wave damage. Repair work will have to begin very shortly to avoid major damage to the ancient port.

At Ashdod-Yam, the ancient fortress close to the shore suffered damage.

In ancient Ashkelon, at the national park, there was damage to a mosaic floor and a row of several columns was overturned. On the beach ten metres below, the storm that hit the cliffs exposed and toppled a classic white marble Roman statue about 1.2m high. It was headless and without arms but depicted a fine female figure in a carefully folded toga and sandals and has been presumed to be of Aphrodite. It is from a bath house, exposed at the head of the cliffs, and may have been part of the dedication of the baths, that are dated to c. 300 CE.

Early Homo Sapiens from Cave in Israel, 400,000 Years Ago?

In 2000 Prof. Avi Gopher and Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University discovered the Qesem Cave where they claim to have found the earliest evidence of modern man. The cave is near Rosh Ha’ayin, about 20 km. east of Tel Aviv, and the archaeologists have located a series of human teeth that they claim are closer to the dental apparatus associated with anatomically modern Homo Sapiens, rather than their earlier brothers, the Neanderthals. They have found in the cave evidence of flint knapping, the mining of sub-surface materials for flint production, hunting and the cutting and sharing of animal meat, evidence of regular burning and so on, all activities associated with anatomically modern Homo Sapiens.

The claim is that these findings antedate the earliest evidence of anatomically modern Homo Sapiens from Africa and thus the scholars claim that the species existed at the Qesem cave many years earlier than presently realized. The dating of the teeth to between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago is however not yet at all clear and further results from the ongoing excavations are awaited before reaching any firm conclusions.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg,

W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem