Thursday, September 10, 2009

1st Century Synagogue Found at Magdala

The Israel Antiquities Authority has announced, with a rather mild headline, the discovery of a synagogue at Magdala (Migdal) dating from 50 B.C. to A.D. 100. I would consider this big news, even though, as far as I can tell, no one is reporting it yet (except Joe Lauer, who always seems to know everything first).

Magdala was the home of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ disciples. That, together with the fact that its location was near the center of Jesus’ ministry (Capernaum, Chorazin, Gennesaret, etc.), makes it quite likely that Jesus visited Magdala. Matthew records that “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues,” and I see no reason that Magdala would be excluded (Matt 9:35; cf. 4:23). Thus it is likely, in my opinion, that Jesus visited this synagogue.

Magdala from above, tb052000203 Magdala from above

This is not the same thing as saying, as they did last year, that “archaeologists have discovered vases of perfumed ointment which may have been used by Mary Magdalene to anoint the feet of Jesus.” This is not the first synagogue excavated that Jesus visited. He almost certainly was in (an earlier version) of the Capernaum synagogue, may have been in the Chorazin synagogue (though there is a dating problem), and could have been in the Gamla synagogue. We know of other 1st century synagogues, but it is most unlikely that Jesus visited those at Herodium and Masada, particularly since they were constructed after his death.

The discovery is most significant to me because it puts Magdala “on the map,” so to speak. Before this synagogue was found, visitors would only zip by the site on the highway while a rushed tour guide cried out, “there is Magda...well, too late. It was behind those trees and next to the ferris wheel.” More intrepid explorers could do no better than stand at a fence and look at a few old walls. Hopefully these new excavations will give the world a chance to see a portion of this ancient town.

The IAA has three high-res photos you can download (zip file), and the press release begins as follows:

A synagogue from the Second Temple period (50 BCE-100 CE) was exposed in archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting at a site slated for the construction of a hotel on Migdal beach, in an area owned by the Ark New Gate Company. In the middle of the synagogue is a stone that is engraved with a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the likes of which have never been seen. The excavations were directed by archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The main hall of synagogue is c. 120 square meters in area and its stone benches, which served as seats for the worshippers, were built up against the walls of the hall. Its floor was made of mosaic and its walls were treated with colored plaster (frescos). A square stone, the top and four sides of which are adorned with reliefs, was discovered in the hall. The stone is engraved with a seven-branched menorah set atop a pedestal with a triangular base, which is flanked on either side by an amphora (jars).

According to the excavation director, Dina Avshalom-Gorni of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “We are dealing with an exciting and unique find. This is the first time that a menorah decoration has been discovered from the days when the Second Temple was still standing. This is the first menorah to be discovered in a Jewish context and that dates to the Second Temple period/beginning of the Early Roman period. We can assume that the engraving that appears on the stone, which the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered, was done by an artist who saw the seven-branched menorah with his own eyes in the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue that was uncovered joins just six other synagogues in the world that are known to date to the Second Temple period”.

The full release is here. I don’t know enough yet to comment on the relationship of this newly excavated building to another previously excavated at Magdala which was identified (with controversy) as a synagogue. From the photos and the decoration, there should be little debate as to the function of this building.

Magdala from north, mat07447 Magdala from the north, early 1900s

This photograph is one of 600 high-resolution images in the newly released Northern Palestine CD, volume 1 of The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection. Photo: Library of Congress, LC-matpc-07447 (but currently misidentified there).

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Bar Kochba Coin Cache Discovered

A press conference by Hebrew University is being reported at GNews, with beautiful photographs of the finds.

The largest cache of rare coins ever found in a scientific excavation from the period of the Bar-Kokhba revolt of the Jews against the Romans has been discovered in a cave by researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University.

The coins were discovered in three batches in a deep cavern located in a nature reserve in the Judean hills. The treasure includes gold, silver and bronze coins, as well as some pottery and weapons.

The discovery was made in the framework of a comprehensive cave research and mapping project being carried out by Boaz Langford and Prof. Amos Frumkin of the Cave Research Unit in the Department of Geography at the Hebrew University.

The discovery included 120 gold, silver, and bronze coins, many in excellent condition. You can read the rest of the article here. As other news sites prepare stories, you can find them via this Google News link.

As for the “Cave Research Unit,” when word gets out about that, I bet they get lots of applicants!

UPDATE: The story is now covered by the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Arutz-7.

UPDATE (9/16): Joe Lauer notes a link with interviews (mp3) of the archaeologists who discovered the coins.

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Weekend Roundup

A PhD student has discovered a fragment of Codex Sinaiticus under the binding of an 18th-century book. The parchment contains part of Joshua 1:10 and dates to A.D. 350.

Azusa Pacific University has purchased five Dead Sea Scrolls fragments from a book dealer in southern California. “This acquisition will set Azusa Pacific University apart from all other Christian institutions of higher education in the world,” said Paul Gray, vice provost for graduate programs and research and dean of the University Libraries. As an educator, I think this is a publicity stunt which will do little more than give them bragging rights for recruiting. How about this as an idea for setting apart a school and improving education: build an extension campus for your students in Israel.

CNN carries the story of the Middle Bronze passageway discovered in Jerusalem, together with a 2.5 minute video that includes interviews with archaeologists Reich and Shukrun.

A carved stone with Egyptian signs from the First Dynasty has been discovered at Tel Bet Yerah (Khirbet Kerak) on the southwestern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee (photos here).

HT: Joe Lauer and Ferrell Jenkins

UPDATE (9/11): NPR has a 4-minute radio interview of Ronny Reich (with written transcript)

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Massive Canaanite Wall Found in City of David

The discovery of a massive fortified walkway leading to Jerusalem’s Gihon Spring has been announced by archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun. Excavations so far have uncovered a portion of a Middle Bronze wall that is 26 feet (8 m) high and 75 feet (24 m) long. The wall apparently protected a passageway that led from the fortified city of Jerusalem down the eastern slope of the City of David to the Gihon Spring in the Kidron Valley.

The discovery is reported in a press release of the Israel Antiquities Authority and a story in Arutz-7, soon to be followed by all the major news outlets. There are some parts of the story that don’t make sense or are inaccurate.

“This is the most massive wall ever discovered in the City of David,” Reich said. “It is tremendously large in terms of its dimensions, thickness, and size of the rocks used. It appears that they protect a walk-way used to walk down from some tower atop the hill towards the spring.”

That statement is fine, but then Reich is quoted as saying,

This is the first time we have found such massive building in Jerusalem from before the period of King Herod.

But he said the same thing years ago, for his excavations of the Pool and Spring Towers reveal monumental construction from the Middle Bronze Age. Perhaps he means that collectively all of his excavations in the past decade have found such construction “for the first time.”

The new double wall/passageway is apparently related to the Pool and Spring Towers which protected Jerusalem’s water supply at this same period. When discovered, there was a mystery as to whether these were free-standing towers outside of Jerusalem’s wall. My guess is that this new wall “connects the dots” and explains how Jerusalemites accessed these towers without exposing themselves to enemy attack.

Connecting discoveries to biblical figures increases interest, but few people would agree with the article’s assertion that this was the time period of Abraham. The wall dates to 1800-1700 BC, while the biblical chronology puts Abraham’s death closer to 2000 BC.

My favorite quote of the article is a statement I’ve often heard archaeologists make, but which rarely seems to make it into print.

The new discovery shows that the picture regarding Jerusalem’s eastern defenses and the ancient water system in the Middle Bronze Age 2 is still far from clear.

And then this:

Despite the fact that so many have excavated on this hill, there is a very good chance that extremely large and well-preserved architectural elements are still hidden in it and waiting to be uncovered.

The IAA release invites you to see the discoveries in person.

The fortification will be revealed to the public for the first time tomorrow (Thursday, September 3), within the framework of the 10th Annual Archaeological Conference on the discoveries in the City of David. Admission to the conference is free and the public is invited. Unique artifacts from all of the excavations at the site, such as the gold earring that was found in the excavation at the Givati Car Park, will be presented in the conference. In addition, before the conference, visitors can participate in any of 17 different tours that will be guided by scholars there.

Two high-resolution photographs of the wall are available here or here (direct link to zip file).

The official (and beautiful) website of the City of David is here.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Proto-Sinaitic Inscription Found at Timna

Stonewatch/Arad Academy e.V. has announced the discovery of a proto-Sinaitic inscription in Timna, Israel, about 20 miles north of Eilat.  The press release, via ANE-2:

The engraving, measuring ca. 12 x 16 cm, was found by "Stonewatch / Arad Academy e.V.", an institution based in Germany, that has been conducting surveys of rock art in Timna and worldwide for many years (

Dr. Stefan Jakob Wimmer, an Egyptologist and ANE epigraphist at the University of Munich - who is not related to Stonewatch - is studying the engraving and working on a scholarly publication. He has preliminarily suggested to identify the writing as Proto Sinaitic:

"... The right oval shows signs that are identical with characters of the Proto-Sinaitic script, and can in my view quite easily be read as a West Semitic personal name. In the left oval several signs will need more consideration. Some features of the inscription are especially remarkable: The suggested personal name in the right oval ends with the sign of a seated man. The adoption of a personal determinative has to my knowledge not been observed in other PS inscriptions, but is easily conceivable and should by no means contradict the identification of the inscription as PS. The upper character in the left oval could in my view be a variant of the image of the sun with two uraei protruding on either side, reduced to the uraei, and may shed light on a roughly similar sign in the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions. It will have to be examined if the oblong frames were inspired by cartouches. As an alternative one might think of stylised footprints.... The constellation of Egyptians and Semites in the context of mining activities is attested at two places: Serabit el-Khadim/Sinai, where almost all PS inscriptions were found (with the only exception until now of Wadi el-Hol near Luxor), and Timna. ... The importance of the discovery of this inscription - if indeed Proto-Sinaitic - is obviously considerable. It is hoped that its common ground with the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim, and also Wadi el-Hol, and even more its new, variant features, may substantially contribute to the study of the early alphabet."

We can add that the location of the inscription (which will not be disclosed until the necessary measures to protect the engraving from vandalism have been taken) corroborates a connection with the Egyptian copper mining activities at Timna. It is not, however, in close vicinity to the Hathor sanctuary.

The possibility of a modern "hoax" can safely be excluded due to clear signs of erosion and the identical colour (patina) of the grooves with the stone surface.

For more rock art from Timna including what may be other examples of yet undiciphered inscriptions, go to our free downloads: (Catalogue of Rock Art in Southern Israel Timna Valley)

Josef Otto
Stonewatch / Arad Academy e.V.

A photograph is available at


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Alexander the Great Carving Found at Dor

From Arutz-7:

Excavations in Tel Dor have turned up a rare and unexpected work of Hellenistic art: a precious stone bearing the miniature carved likeness of Alexander the Great. Archaeologists are calling it an important find, indicating the great skill of the artist.

The Tel Dor dig, under the guidance and direction of Dr. Ayelet Gilboa of Haifa University and Dr. Ilan Sharon of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, has just ended its summer excavation season. For more than 30 years, scientists have been excavating in Tel Dor, identified as the site of the Biblical town of Dor. The town's location, on Israel's Mediterranean Sea coast some 30 kilometers south of Haifa, made it an important international port in ancient times.

"Despite the tiny proportions - the length of the gemstone (gemma) is less than a centimeter and its width less than half a centimeter - the artist was able to carve the image of Alexander of Macedon with all of his features," Dr. Gilboa said. "The king appears as young and energetic, with a sharp chin and straight nose, and with long, curly hair held in a crown."

The full article is here and includes a small photo.

UPDATE: Joe Lauer sends along direct links to two beautiful photos:

  • Tel Dor, aerial view at the end of the 2009 excavation season
  • The gem of Alexander the Great, photographed using binocolor


Friday, August 21, 2009

Aphrodite and Odeon Found at Hippos

The University of Haifa has announced some discoveries from its 2009 season of excavations at Hippos/Sussita, reported in a press release (Hebrew) and in an English article in Ha’aretz

Remains of an ancient cult to the goddess of love have come to light in the southern Golan Heights site of Susita.

At the site, on a 350 meter-high-plateau overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret, archaeologists found a cache of three figurines of Aphrodite (whom the Romans called Venus), dating back about 1,500 years. The figurines, made of clay, are about 30 centimeters tall. They depict the nude goddess standing, with her right hand covering her private parts - a type of statue scholars call "modest Venus."

I’m personally more interested in another find, described at the conclusion of the article:

Another special find at Susita is an odeon - a small, roofed theater-like structure with seats for about 600 people, uncovered for the first time in Israel, according to the excavators. They said such structures were fairly common in the Roman period and were used for the reading of poetry and musical presentations to a select audience, in contrast to theaters, which could seat around 4,000 people.

The claim that this is the first odeon discovered in Israel is not true; another has been excavated at Aphek/Antipatris (NEAEH 1: 71, with photo).

The press release includes several photos.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Roman Building Excavated in City of David

A third-century A.D. Roman building has been excavated in the City of David in Jerusalem.  Excavations in this past and future parking lot located in the Central (Tyropean) Valley have formerly revealed a first-century A.D. palace believed to have belonged to Queen Helene of Adiabene.

From the press release of the Israel Antiquities Authority:

A spacious edifice from the Roman period (third century CE) – apparently a mansion that belonged to a wealthy individual – was recently exposed in the excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out in the 'Givati Car Park' at the City of David, in the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park. The excavations are being conducted at the site on behalf of the IAA and in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, and are underwritten by the ‘Ir David Foundation.

According to Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, the excavation director on behalf of the IAA, together with Yana Tchekhanovets, “Although we do not have the complete dimensions of the structure, we can cautiously estimate that the building covered an area of approximately 1,000 square meters. In the center of it was a large open courtyard surrounded by columns. Galleries were spread out between the rows of columns and the rooms that flanked the courtyard. The wings of the building rose to a height of two stories and were covered with tile roofs”.

A large quantity of fresco fragments was discovered in the collapsed ruins from which the excavators deduced that some of the walls of the rooms were treated with plaster and decorated with colorful paintings. The painted designs that adorned the plastered walls consisted mostly of geometric and floral motifs. Its architectural richness, plan and particularly the artifacts that were discovered among its ruins bear witness to the unequivocal Roman character of the building. The most outstanding of these finds are a marble figurine in the image of a boxer and a gold earring inlaid with precious stones.

The full release can be found here (temporary link).

Three high-resolution photos can be downloaded from the IAA website, including photos of the earring and statue and an aerial photograph of the building.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Jewish Temple from Third Century AD Found in Turkey

The headline above reflects the article’s story, but I think a better English word for the discovery would be “synagogue.”  Traces of many Jewish synagogues have been found in Turkey and this is likely just another.  The word “temple” is sometimes used to refer to a worship building, without intending to specify a singular structure such as that in Jerusalem.

The location of the discovery is interesting to New Testament readers for another reason: Paul visited this place.  A search of the NT won’t reveal any references to Andriake/Andriace, but this was the name of the port of Myra, where Paul changed ships on his way to prison in Rome (Acts 27:5-6).

From Today’s Zaman:

Ongoing excavations at the ancient port city of Andriake in Lycia -- located in Antalya's Demre district -- have uncovered a centuries-old Jewish temple.

Site chief Dr. Nevzat Çevik, an archaeology professor at Akdeniz University, told the Anatolia news agency that his team believes the temple is from around the third century. Located on a choice spot facing the sea, the temple was likely built following a law instituted in 212 that allowed Jews the right to become Roman citizens, Çevik said.

The find is important as it is the first archaeological trace of Jewish culture found in Lycia. “For the archaeological world, the world of science and particularly for Lycian archaeology and history, we're facing an important find here. It's the first remnant of Lycian Jewish culture we've found,” Çevik said, describing the find. “When we first discovered the temple, we weren't sure what it was, but after continuing to dig, the archaeological findings and particularly the first-quality marble slabs that we found were evidence for us that they were part of a Jewish temple.”

The finding came as a great surprise, the archaeologist said, and the team is continuing to work excitedly. “To encounter remnants of Jewish culture for the first time has caused great excitement. We're adding another layer to what we know of Lycian culture -- now that we know that there was a Jewish presence in Lycia as well, we can follow this path and better understand other finds,” he explained.

As part of the temple find, the team located a menorah and pieces inscribed with traditional Jewish symbols and figures. Çevik also noted the importance that the find would eventually have for tourism in the region.

Andriace Hadrian's granary near harbor, tb062406329ddd

Andriace harbor with well-preserved granary of Hadrian in foreground (2nd century A.D.)

HT: Paleojudaica

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Assyrian Tablets Found in Tayinat Temple

The tablets may be “part of a possible archive.”  From a press release from the University of Toronto:

Excavations led by a University of Toronto archaeologist at the site of a recently discovered temple in southeastern Turkey have uncovered a cache of cuneiform tablets dating back to the Iron Age period between 1200 and 600 BCE. Found in the temple's cella, or 'holy of holies', the tablets are part of a possible archive. The cella also contained gold, bronze and iron implements, libation vessels and ornately decorated ritual objects.

"The assemblage appears to represent a Neo-Assyrian renovation of an older Neo-Hittite temple complex, providing a rare glimpse into the religious dimension of Assyrian imperial ideology," said Timothy Harrison, professor of near eastern archeology in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and director of U of T's Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP). "The tablets, and the information they contain, may possibly highlight the imperial ambitions of one of the great powers of the ancient world, and its lasting influence on the political culture of the Middle East."

Partially uncovered in 2008 at Tell Tayinat, capital of the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Palastin, the structure of the building where the tablets were found preserves the classic plan of a Neo-Hittite temple. It formed part of a sacred precinct that once included monumental stelae carved in Luwian (an extinct Anatolian language once spoken in Turkey) hieroglyphic script, but which were found by the expedition smashed into tiny shard-like fragments.

The press release continues here.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ten-Line Inscription on Mount Zion

A “clear but cryptic” ten-line inscription from the 1st century A.D. found in excavations of Mount Zion is reported in an article in the the Jerusalem Post.  This discovery was mentioned previously on this blog here and by excavation director James Tabor on his blog here

A unique ten-line Aramaic inscription on the side of a stone cup commonly used for ritual purity during Second Temple times was recently uncovered during archaeological excavations on Jerusalem's Mount Zion, The Jerusalem Post learned on Wednesday.

Inscriptions of this kind are extremely rare and only a handful have been found in scientific excavations made within the city....

The new Aramaic inscription from the first century CE is currently being deciphered by a team of epigraphic experts in an effort to determine the meaning of the text, which is clear but cryptic. The dig also produced a sequence of building remains dating back to the First and Second Temple periods through to Byzantine and Early Islamic periods.

From the Second Temple period, archaeologists uncovered a house complex with an mikve (purification pool) with a remarkably well preserved vaulted ceiling. Inside this house were three bread ovens dating back to the year 70 CE when Titus and the Roman troops stormed the city.

The Jerusalem Post article includes a photo of two lines of the inscription.  I do not recall seeing an image of the inscription in previous reports.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Quarry of Herod Discovered in Jerusalem

From the Jerusalem Post:

An ancient quarry covering approximately one dunam and dating back to the end of the Second Temple period was uncovered during excavations on Shmuel Hanavi Street in Jerusalem ahead of the construction of residential buildings, Israel Antiquities Authority said on Monday.

According to Dr. Ofer Sion of the Authority, who directed the dig along with Yehuda Rapuano, the 2,300 year-old site was probably the source of the stones used to build the Second Temple walls.

"The immense size of the stones indicates it was highly likely that the large stones that were quarried at the site were destined for use in the construction of [legendary builder of ancient Jerusalem King] Herod's magnificent projects in Jerusalem, including the Temple walls," Sion said.

The article continues here.

The article gives conflicting dates for the quarry.  It is dated to the “end of the Second Temple period,” which is the years before A.D. 70.  But it was used for Herod’s projects, and he ruled in Jerusalem from 37-4 B.C.  But the site is 2,300 years old.  Given the monumental construction of Herod’s rule, I would guess that it dates from this period.

The location of the site is Shmuel Hanavi Street, which is a major thoroughfare about one mile north-northwest of Damascus Gate, running between Sanhedria and Mea Shearim.

Other major quarries from roughly the same time period have been discovered in Ramat Shlomo (location, photos), Sanhedria, and “Solomon’s Quarries” near Damascus Gate.  The quarry at Ketef Hinnom (now covered by the Menahem Begin Heritage Center) may date to the same period.

Ketef Hinnom new excavations, tb090299803

Ketef Hinnom quarry, September 1999

UPDATE: Joe Lauer notes that a couple of high-resolution images are available from the Israel Antiquities Authority here (zip).  The press release is posted here, and Arutz-7 also has an article.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Jericho Quarry Photos

National Geographic has posted five photographs of the Jericho quarry-monastery.  For previous stories on this discovery, see here and here.

Paleojudaica also notes a story on current difficulties in the Samaritan community.

HT: Paleojudaica


Monday, June 29, 2009

The Bones and Face of the Apostle Paul

According to the Vatican, the traditional “tomb of Paul” has been authenticated.  Pope Benedict XVI announced that “tiny fragments of bone . . . belong to someone who lived in the first or second century.”  “This seems to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains of the Apostle St. Paul.” 

The skeptical would note that a lot of people lived in the first and second centuries.  However, these bones were within a tomb traditionally identified with Paul.  I wouldn’t call that proof, but it seems to point in the direction of authenticity.  At least, it is unlikely that somebody in the Middle Ages set this all up.  CNN has a report.

Additionally, what is believed to be the earliest portrait of Paul was unveiled.  The painting dates to the 4th century and shows the apostle with a thin face and a dark pointy beard.  You can see for yourself here.

Previous coverage of the excavation of Paul’s tomb was mentioned here and here.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bronze Age Tomb Found in Bethlehem

From the Associated Press:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Workers renovating a house in the traditional town of Jesus' birth accidentally discovered an untouched ancient tomb containing clay pots, plates, beads and the bones of two humans, a Palestinian antiquities official said Tuesday.

The 4,000-year-old tomb provides a glimpse of the burial customs of the area's inhabitants during the Canaanite period, said Mohammed Ghayyada, director of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Workers in a house near the Church of the Nativity uncovered a hole leading to the grave, which was about one meter (yard) below ground, he said. They contacted antiquities officials, who photographed the grave intact before removing its contents.

They dated the grave to the Early Bronze Age, between 1,900 B.C. and 2,200 B.C.

Jerusalem-based archaeologist and historian Stephen Pfann called the find "an important reference to the life of the Canaanites," adding that it could give a glimpse into life in the area before the time when the Biblical patriarchs are said to have lived.

While many artifacts exist from this period, intact graves are rare, mainly because of looting, he said.

The article continues here (and another photo here).  A few comments:

The tomb dates to the Intermediate Bronze period, also confusingly known as Early Bronze IV or Middle Bronze I.  Many tombs from this period, including intact ones, have been found throughout Israel.  In fact, this period is primarily known from its cemeteries, with relatively few settlements discovered.  (See this post for photos of a cemetery from this period found a couple of years ago in Jerusalem.)

More importantly, this tomb indicates an early presence in the city that later came to be known as Bethlehem, the city of David’s birth.  I don’t see anything about material from this period in NEAEH, which may indicate the significance of this discovery.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Roman Quarry = Ancient Gilgal?

Does the newly discovered Roman quarry mark biblical Gilgal?  The excavator thinks this is possible.  From Haaretz:

Zertal says their working theory is that the site is Galgala, biblical Gilgal, mentioned on the sixth-century Madaba mosaic map. The cave, buried 10 meters underground, is about 100 meters long, 40 meters wide and 4 meters high, is the largest artificial cave so far discovered in Israel.

Potsherds found in the cave and the carvings on the columns led Zertal to date the first quarrying of the cave to around the beginning of the Common Era. It was used mainly as a quarry for 400 to 500 years," but other finds give the impression it was used for other purposes, perhaps a monastery or even a hiding place," Zertal said.

Zertal said scholars wondered why people would dig a quarry underground considering the effort needed to just to pull the stones out of the ground.

A possible answer may be in the famous Madaba Map of ancient Palestine, found in Jordan. In it, a place named Galgala is marked and an accompanying Greek word meaning "12 stones." The map also depicts a church near the site. Archaeologists say they have found two ancient churches near the cave.

According to Zertal, scholars had always assumed that "12 stones" refered to the biblical story of the 12 stones the Israelites set up at Gilgal after they crossed the Jordan.

However, the discovery of the quarried cave may mean the reference was to a quarry established where the Byzantines identified Gilgal. Zertal explains that in antiquity sanctuaries were built out of stones from sacred places.

The rest of the article is here

I would note that there is sometimes a big difference between a biblical site and what Byzantines thought was a biblical site.  In any case, the quarry’s location, 3 miles north of Jericho, is approximately where biblical scholars have supposed ancient Gilgal may have been located.  What has always been lacking is any archaeological evidence for a site from the time of Joshua.  A Roman quarry does not provide that evidence, but it may be a step in the right direction.

References to Gilgal in the Bible include Josh 4:19-20, Josh 10:6-7, 1 Sam 11:14-15, 1 Sam 13:4-15, 2 Sam 19:15; 2 Kings 2:1, Hos 4:15, and Amos 4:4.

HT: Joe Lauer

UPDATE (6/22): Thanks to Joe Lauer for sending along links to articles with photos.  The University of Haifa has issued a press release which includes four high-resolution photos.  Ynet includes a slideshow with six images, including one of the cave’s entrance.

UPDATE (6/25): National Geographic has an article about the discovery, including some quotations from Jodi Magness.

Medeba map Jericho and Gilgal area, tb053108977Jericho and Gilgal on the Medeba Map
Outlined in red is “Gilgal, also the Twelve Stones”
Below and to the right is the city of “Jericho,” surrounded by palm trees
The Jordan River is at the top, with the fish on the right swimming away from the Dead Sea

For more about the Medeba Map, see this BiblePlaces page.

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Roman Quarry Found near Jericho

The largest manmade cave in Israel was found 3 miles north of Jericho, and may have been used as a monastery in later years.  From the Jerusalem Post:

An artificial underground cave, the largest of its kind in Israel, was discovered in the Jordan Valley during excavations by the Haifa University's Department of Archaeology.

Prof. Adam Zertal, who headed the dig, assessed that the cave was used as a quarry in the Roman era. Various carvings were found on the cave's walls, including some of crosses, leading to the notion that the cave might have also hosted an ancient monastery.

The cave, sprawling over four dunams [1 acre] ten meters [32 feet] under the face of earth, is located some four kilometers [2.5 miles] north of Jericho. It was discovered at the end of March 2009 as part of a Haifa University dig which began in 1978, and is the largest man-made cave ever uncovered in Israel. The cave's main hall is supported by 22 pillars, on which are engraved 31 crosses, a zodiac-like symbol, roman numerals and a Roman legion's pennant. Judging by the findings, Prof. Zertal dated the cavern to around 1 CE.

"Initially, the place was utilized as a quarry, which was active for 400-500 years. But the other findings definitely give the impression that the cave was used for other purposes, such as a monastery, and perhaps even a hideaway," said Zertal.

The story is also covered by Haaretz and Reuters.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Low-Level Aqueduct and Sultan’s Pool

One of the most impressive building projects of King Herod and others of his period is the aqueduct system that brought water to Jerusalem from the area south of Bethlehem.  Most people aren’t familiar with this project, or if they are, they really can’t fathom how remarkable the system is.  This is because unless you get out and hike around for at least a few hours, it is difficult to get a sense for the obstacles that were overcome.

Several aqueducts brought water to a series of three massive pools known today as “Solomon’s Pools.”  Two aqueducts then transported the water to Jerusalem.  The upper-level aqueduct led to the area of Herod’s Palace on the Western Hill and the lower-level aqueduct fed the pools and cisterns around the Temple Mount.

The relationship and date of Sultan’s Pool (photo below) to the low-level aqueduct has never been clear.  The pool is located in the Hinnom Valley on the western side of Jerusalem, and recent excavations suggest that it was only constructed in the Byzantine period.

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced today that they have discovered a channel that diverted water from the low-level aqueduct into Sultan’s Pool.  Built in the Byzantine period (330-640), the channel was repaired multiple times in the Ottoman period (1517-1917).

The IAA has issued a press release and two high-resolution aerial photos (zip).  Arutz-7 has the story (“Jerusalem’s Secret Revealed”) and includes low-res photos in the article.

From the press release:

The Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered the main aqueduct that conveyed water to the Sultan’s Pool during an excavation prior to the construction of the Montefiore Museum in Mishkenot Sha’ananim by the Jerusalem Foundation. The ancient aqueduct supplied pilgrims and residents with water for drinking and purification.

Most Jerusalemites identify the Sultan’s Pool as a venue where large cultural events are held; however, for hundreds of years it was one of the city’s most important water reservoirs.

In an archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority recently conducted prior to the construction of the Montefiore Museum, which the Jerusalem Foundation plans to build in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, an aqueduct was uncovered that conveyed water to the Temple Mount and also served as the principal water supply to the Sultan’s Pool. The excavation, directed by Gideon Solimany and Dr. Ron Beeri of the Israel Antiquities Authority, focused on a section along the course of the Low-level Aqueduct, on the western side of Ben Hinnoam Valley above the Derekh Hebron bridge.

According to Dr. Ron Beeri, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “We are dealing with a very impressive aqueduct that reached a height of three meters. Naturally, one of the first things Sultan Suleiman I hastened to do in Jerusalem (along with the construction of the city wall as we know it today) was to repair the aqueduct that was already there which supplied the large numbers of pilgrims who arrived in Jerusalem with water for drinking and purification. Suleiman attached a small tower to the aqueduct, inside of which a ceramic pipe was inserted. The pipe diverted the aqueduct’s water to the Sultan’s Pool and the impressive sabil (a Muslim public fountain for drinking water), which he built for the pilgrims who crossed the Derekh Hebron bridge and is still preserved there today”. Dr. Beeri said, “It is evident that the location of the aqueduct was extremely successful and efficient: we found four phases of different aqueducts that were constructed in exactly the same spot, one, Byzantine, from the sixth-seventh centuries CE and three that are Ottoman which were built beginning in the sixteenth century CE. The last three encircle a large subterranean water reservoir that was apparently built before the Ottoman period”.

Sultan's Pool with St Andrew's Church, mat12447 Sultan’s Pool in the Hinnom Valley, September 1943
Library of Congress, matpc-12447
From the forthcoming photo CD: The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection: Jerusalem

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hyksos Palace Excavated at Tell el-Dab'a

Discoveries from excavations at Tell el-Dab'a, the Hyksos capital in Egypt, were announced recently in a press release from the University of Vienna, but the article was only available in German.  Joe Lauer has received and passed along a statement from the press office in English, which is given below.  Photos of the cuneiform tablet, horse burial, and archaeologist are linked at the bottom of this page.

   A team of the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and of the University of Vienna under Prof. Manfred Bietak and Irene Forstner-Mueller excavated recently a palace of the Hyksos king Khayan (c. 1600-1585 BC). The site is called Tell el-Dab‘a and it was the capital of the Hyksos kings, who ruled the northern part of Egypt between 1640 and 1530 BC. The antiquities were revealed just under the agricultural crust in a rescue operation. It became clear that this palace in the size of over 10,000 sqm is of northern Syrian type and ranges very well among the biggest palaces found thus far in northern Syria. 
    Two finds this season were particularly remarkable. First a fragment of a cuneiform letter written in southern Mesopotamian style and originating most probably in Babylon. As Karen Radner and Frans van Koppen from the University College London – two eminent scholars in this field – found out, this fragment was a letter and can be dated according to its orthography to the last 50 years of the Old Babylonian Kingdom of Hammurabi. The find shows the far reaching international ties of the Hyksos and at the same time connects Egyptian chronology with the Mesopotamian chronology – thus far the synchronisation with Egypt was a controversy of scholars. Now this matter seems to be settled in favour of a low Mesopotamian chronology with the conquest of Babylon around 1550 BC.
    The second important discovery was the burial of a horse, which is situated and stratigraphically well connected within the palace. It was a mare between 5 and 10 years. It was obviously not a chariot horse but more likely used for breeding. It was the Hyksos who introduced the horse to Egypt and it is the oldest undisputed horse burial found in this country. Its position in the palace suggests that this mare was a pet of the Hyksos, most likely king Khayan.
    The third important discovery was a courtyard used for ritual feasts. Numerous pits with over 5000 vessels, buried ritually with remains of meals such as animal bones, were found. Such institutions as this courtyard, secured behind enormous walls, are known from texts in Mesopotamia and the Levant since the third millennium BC. The feasts were in honour of deceased kings or at the occasion of birthdays of gods. It is the first time that such rituals are attested in Egypt by a population originating from the northern Levant.
    The Hyksos period is still very obscure from historical point of view, but the long going excavation of the Austrian team has contributed to a series of corrections in its historiography. The population originated most probably from Lebanon and northern Syria, as the newly discovered palace and the pottery shows. They were people with an urban background and came originally in the late 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as shipbuilders, sailors, soldiers and craftsmen to the country where the pharaohs settled them in a harbour town in the north-eastern Delta, the later city of Avaris. In a time of political weakness they were able to establish a small kingdom there and soon afterwards were able to control the Delta and Middle Egypt until their former vassals in Upper Egypt, particularly king Ahmose defeated them and founded the New Kingdom.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Scientific Discovery: Dating Pottery By Measuring Rehydroxylization

Scientists at the University of Manchester announced last week a breakthrough in the dating of ceramic (pottery) objects.  Called rehydroxylation dating, "the method relies on the fact that fired clay ceramic material will start to chemically react with atmospheric moisture as soon as it is removed from the kiln after firing. This continues over its lifetime causing it to increase in weight – the older the material, the greater the weight gain." Initial tests on materials up to 2,000 years old have been accurate within a decade.  If this method proves reliable in dating earlier objects, it could be quite useful in solving, for instance, the current debate over 10th-9th century BC pottery in Israel.  One problem with this method for archaeological sites is that the “internal clock” of the pottery is “reset” if the temperature reaches 500 degrees Celsius.  Thus the pottery from areas destroyed by fire would only date to the year of the destruction and not to the date of creation.

The results of the report are covered in a popular article by Science Daily, or you can read the original article (pdf) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A (alternate link here).  The paper’s abstract:

The majority of ceramics are found in archaeological deposits and are extremely difficult to date. The typical method of using radiocarbon dating used for bone or wood cannot be used for ceramic material because it does not contain carbon, and luminescence dating is far too complex. Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Manchester have discovered a new method of ceramic dating which is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A..

Their new 'rehydroxylation dating' method stems utilises the fact that fired clay ceramics start to react chemically with atmospheric moisture as soon as it is removed from the kiln. The ultra-slow recombination of moisture appears to be generic in fired-clay ceramics and obeys a precise power law, which acts as an 'internal clock'. Rehydroxylation dating enables scientists to date brick samples from Roman, medieval and modern periods.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hebrew Inscription Discovered on Mount of Olives

Earlier this week a discovery was announced of an inscription of “Menahem” from an excavation on the southern end of the Mount of Olives (JPost or, with photo, Arutz-7).  The name “Menahem” gets attention because it is the name of one of the last rulers of the northern kingdom (c. 752-742 BC).  There is some difficulty with this reading, and other proposals have been made, including that it says “M / Nahum” or “[B] N (son) / Nahum.”  It sure seems like there have been a lot of Old Testament-era Hebrew inscriptions found in Jerusalem (and Judah) this decade.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Ancient Submerged Village at Atlit

This story about a Neolithic village submerged at Atlit has something of everything except a biblical character: environmental activism, the earliest known fishing town, undisturbed burials, a healthy diet but poor health, the earliest case of tuberculosis, ancient and modern global warming, and a Stonehenge-like circle of stones.  The title of the Jerusalem Post article is “Israel’s Atlantis”:

But in 1984, during an underwater archeological survey, Galili and his colleagues discovered the Atlit-Yam village - some 400 meters offshore. The submerged village, he says, is the largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement ever uncovered off the Mediterranean coast. In an area of 40,000 square meters eight to 12 meters below sea level, the archeologists found remains of human habitation dating back 9,000 years to the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic period.

Putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their findings, the architecture of the dwellings and the radiocarbon dating sets the scene for what is thought to have been the earliest-known agro-pastoral fishing community, a claim that has gone undisputed by archeological authorities. Marine discoveries from the site are published in professional journals worldwide....

Recently, researchers identified signs of tuberculosis in the skeletons of a mother and child at the site. Mycobacterum tuberculosis, the principal agent of human TB, is believed to have evolved over the millennia. A multi-disciplinary team from Tel Aviv and the Hebrew Universities in Israel and Centers for Infectious Diseases in the UK together with the Israel Antiquities Authority put together the tests, including DNA. TB was generally held to have been transferred to humans from cattle, but there were no cows at Atlit-Yam. This led to the suggestion that the high density of the fishing village's population had facilitated the transmission of the disease. According to Dr. Helen Donoghue, the infected organism is "definitely the human strain of TB, in contrast to the original theory that human TB only evolved from bovine TB later on in history, after the domestication of animals."

The full article is here.

HT: Joe Lauer


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Seal of “Saul” Found in Jerusalem

A seal of a person named Saul dating from the time of Hezekiah (c. 700 BC) has been discovered in the City of David in Jerusalem.  The Israel Antiquities Authority has released a high-resolution photograph and a press release:

The seal, which is made of bone, was found broken and is missing a piece from its upper right side. Two parallel lines divide the surface of the seal into two registers in which Hebrew letters are engraved:



A period followed by a floral image or a tiny fruit appear at the end of the bottom name.

The name of the seal’s owner was completely preserved and it is written in the shortened form of the name שאול (Shaul). The name is known from both the Bible (Genesis 36:37; 1 Samuel 9:2; 1 Chronicles 4:24 and 6:9) and from other Hebrew seals.

According to Professor Reich, “This seal joins another Hebrew seal that was previously found and three Hebrew bullae (pieces of clay stamped with seal impressions) that were discovered nearby. These five items have great chronological importance regarding the study of the development of the use of seals. While the numerous bullae that were discovered in the adjacent rock-hewn pool were found together with pottery sherds from the end of the ninth and beginning of the eighth centuries BCE, they do not bear any Semitic letters. On the other hand, the five Hebrew epigraphic artifacts were recovered from the soil that was excavated outside the pool, which contained pottery sherds that date to the last part of the eighth century.

The press release continues here (temporary link).

HT: Joe Lauer

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Website: Life and Land

My friend Gordon Franz has (finally) created his own website.  I’ve been pointing people for years to various articles that Gordon has written and he is now making them conveniently available in one place:  Some of the articles that may be of particular interest to readers of this blog include:

Does “The Lost Shipwreck of Paul” Hold Water? – A critique of the theory of Robert Cornuke.

Mount Sinai is Not at Jebel Al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia (and parts 2 and 3) – A careful refutation of the theory of Ron Wyatt that has captivated many gullible Bible believers.

Did the BASE Institute Discover Noah’s Ark in Iran? – The historical and geographical problems with a recent theory promoted in Christian circles.

The So-Called Jesus Family Tomb “Rediscovered” in Jerusalem – A lengthy analysis of the Talpiyot tomb that recent movie producers have claimed belonged to Jesus of Nazareth.

And much more.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

2,000-Year-Old Hebrew Scroll Fragment Found

A portion of an ancient papyrus scroll has been recovered from two Palestinian thieves in Jerusalem yesterday.  Haaretz reports:

The rare historical document, handwritten in Hebrew on papyrus paper and estimated to be more than 2,000 years old, is a bill surrendering property rights. The document was written by a widow named Miryam Ben Yaakov, and hails from a period in which the people of Israel were exiled from the area and very few Jews remained.

The scroll also, unusually, clearly indicates a precise date on the first line: "Year 4 to the destruction of Israel". The intention is, presumably, either to the year 74 C.E. (the year when the Second Temple was destroyed during the Great Revolt) or to 138 A.D. (the annihilation of the Jewish settlement following the Bar Kokhva revolt).

The Israel Antiquities Authority said on Wednesday that the scroll was an "exceptional archeological document, of the like but a few exist," adding that similar scrolls had been sold worldwide for sums as high as $5-$10 million.

The story is also covered by the Associated Press, the Jerusalem Post, and Arutz-7.  The Israel Antiquities Authority press release is here, and separately you may download a high-resolution image of the document.

HT: Joe Lauer


Oldest Place on Earth is in Israel’s Desert


Weathering — wind and water, freezing and thawing — takes its toll, and longer-term changes caused by volcanic activity and sliding crustal plates, known as tectonic activity, fold today's ground into tomorrow's interior.

The constant makeover of the planet is typically fastest in the mountains, slower in the tectonically inactive deserts.

But a new study of ancient "desert pavement" in Israel's Negev Desert finds a vast region that's been sitting there exposed, pretty much as-is, for about 1.8 million years, according to Ari Matmon and colleagues at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

It is the oldest known vast expanse of surface area. In fact it is more than four times older than the confirmed next oldest desert pavement, in Nevada, according to an article at the web site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The scientific report is in the current issue of GSA Bulletin.  The FoxNews article does not give any indication of where in the desert this “pavement” is located, but it does include a couple of photographs.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Roman Tombs Found in Bethlehem

Construction work in Bethlehem this weekend revealed a Roman tomb.  From Maan News:

Roman-era catacombs were unearthed in Bethlehem Saturday during construction in an empty lot beside Bethlehem University.

The small underground cave system opens facing north, and held four stone coffins with engravings on each, housed in two separate dug out burial areas.

Head of Antiquates [sic] department in Jericho Wael Hamamrah estimated the artifacts, complete with skeletal remains and some pottery are between 1,800 and 1,900 years old.

Construction workers preparing to lay pipe in the yard called Palestinian tourism and antiquates police when they went to investigate the sudden collapse of earth in an area they had been digging in that morning.

The full story and six enlargeable photos are here.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Possible Finds of Hezekiah, Mistress of Lionesses, and more

An inscription with six paleo-Hebrew letters has been found in the City of David.  The Israel Antiquities Authority strangely has a press release after the item has already been published in the Israel Exploration Journal (58:48-50) and Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 2009).  You can download a photo of the inscription here.  The question of interest to Bible readers is whether the inscription preserves three letters of the name of Hezekiah.  For analysis, I recommend Chris Heard’s blogpost and comments.

A press release from the American Friends of Tel Aviv University describes a Late Bronze Age plaque that may depict a female king, known in the Amarna Letters as the “mistress of the lionesses.”  A copy of the article includes a high-res version of the plaque drawing.

The British Museum has plans to expand, but the Louvre had more visitors in 2008.

The Turkish Riviera Magazine covers the ancient city of Perge (Perga) in an article that includes some good photographs and diagrams.  Paul visited the city on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:13-14; 14:25).

If you like to read the OT in Hebrew or the NT in Greek, but struggle with the vocabulary, you may have been attracted to one of the new “reader’s Bibles” that defines the less common vocabulary on the same page as the text.  Now John Dyer has created a “make your own” version that looks like it could be quite useful.  Even if you have a “reader’s Bible,” you could print off a chapter of the text instead of carrying multiple Bibles to church.  (It’s a new site, and there may be bugs.  Currently it’s not loading for me in Internet Explorer, but works in Firefox.  To change the reading, select the chapter at the top and type over it.)

Hattips to Joe Lauer, Explorator, and Justin Taylor

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Foot-Shaped Stone Enclosures Discovered in Israel

This discovery announced by the University of Haifa today could be very interesting.  There’s not enough information here for me to be bold enough to offer my thoughts, but I look forward to learning more about it. 

The article is entitled “Exceptional Archaeological ‘Foot’ Discovery in Jordan Valley”, and a summary is given:

Researchers at the University of Haifa reveal an exceptional archaeological discovery in the Jordan valley: Enormous "foot-shaped" enclosures identified with the biblical "gilgal" stone structures. "The 'foot' structures that we found in the Jordan valley are the first sites that the People of Israel built upon entering Canaan and they testify to the biblical concept of ownership of the land with the foot."

You can click on over to read the entire article and view the two photographs (large size: 1, 2).  Among the things I would like to know more about are the locations of the five structures, including how many are in the Jordan Valley.  The skeptic in me wonders how much imagination is required to see a “foot” in each one.  Regardless of the shape, they could be quite helpful in our understanding of ancient Israel.

HT: Joe Lauer

UPDATE: A.D. Riddle sends along the coordinates for a couple of sites that may be among the five.  You can download them in Google Earth format here.  Both are on the south side of the Wadi Farah (aka Faria), about 3 miles (5 km) north of Alexandrium/Sartaba.

UPDATE (4/9): Joe Lauer sends along notice of a couple of articles on the discovery: Haaretz and Science Daily.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Pier Discovered from Ancient Acco

The Israel Antiquities Authority has announced the discovery of a pier in the harbor of the city known as Acco/Akko, Ptolemais, and Acre.

Remains of a unique and impressive floor were discovered at a depth of one meter underwater in Akko harbor. The remains constitute the first evidence of a low sea level during the Hellenistic period in Akko. The floor remains were discovered during archaeological excavations and inspections that the Israel Antiquities Authority Marine Archaeology Unit is carrying out within the framework of rehabilitating Akko’s southern seawall. The project is being implemented by conservators on behalf of the Old Acre Development Company, Ltd., and is underwritten by the Israel Lands Administration. The scope of the funding that the latter is providing totals several million shekels. As part of the project, a temporary rampart that serves as both a road and dam was built in the sea. The pool of water that formed between the rampart and the seawall was pumped out so as to create dry conditions for rehabilitating the seawall.

The part of the floor that has been revealed so far extends for a distance of 15 meters and is 4 meters wide (the full dimensions of the floor have not yet been exposed). The floor was built of rectangular, smoothly dressed kurkar stones that were placed atop a foundation course of roughly hewn kurkar stones arranged next to each other as “headers”. In probes that were conducted beneath the floor, numerous fragments of ceramic jars of Aegean provenance (from Rhodes, Kos and elsewhere) were found that were used to transport wine, as well as tableware and cooking vessels. Among the other artifacts recovered were a Greek style bronze arrowhead and bronze coins that are covered with marine encrustations. A preliminary identification of the finds shows that the floor was constructed in the Hellenistic period (end of the third century until the middle of the second century BCE) as part of a national project.

This press release continues here.  High-resolution photos of the discovery and its vicinity are available here (zip).  For more photos and information about the ancient Acco, see this BiblePlaces page.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Aren Maeir on the 35th Annual Archaeological Conference

Today the 35th Annual Archaeological Conference was held in Jerusalem, and fortunately for us, Aren Maeir was there and has commented on some of the interesting presentations that were given.  You can read his blog for the full report, but here are the three of most interest to this blog author:

1) Haggai Misgav spoke about the Kh. Qeiyafa inscription, which still is for the most part undeciphered, but he showed some good slides of the 5 lines, 50 letters, and showed nicely the reading of, e.g., eved (slave), melek (king), al t’as (don’t do in biblical hebrew), etc. Inter alia, the so-called “Goliath inscription” from Tell es-Safi/Gath was mentioned....

4) Erez Ben-Yosef et al, who discussed some interesting results of Tom Levi’s project in the Edom lowlands, including details on some new sites at which there is evidence for early Iron Age and Iron IIA smelting activities.

5) Norma Franklin who discussed the so-called “Proto-Aeolic capitals” of the Iron Age, claiming, very logically, that none of them were actually capitals!”

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Byzantine Bathhouse Excavated Near Sderot

The Israel Antiquities Authority reports in a press release:

A bathhouse that dates to the Byzantine period was exposed in an archaeological excavation undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority near Kibbutz Gevim (at the site of Horvat Lasan) and underwritten by the Israel Railways, prior to laying a railroad track from Ashkelon to Netivot.

According to archaeologist Gregory Serai, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The bathhouse, which covers an area of 20 x 20 m, was apparently destroyed in a cave-in and was later used as a rubbish dump that was filled with household refuse. It was ascertained in the excavation that the furnace (hypocaust) was dug into the natural soil and its ceiling was built of a cement-like material that was lined with ceramic tiles. The ceiling was supported by means of one meter high colonnades built of mudbricks. The bathers entered the changing room (apodyterium) and passed from there into a room with cold water (frigidarium) where there were probably stepped tubs. From there they continued into the room with warm water (tepidarium) and on to the room with hot water (caldarium – comparable to today’s sauna). The floor of the caldarium was paved with marble flagstones, some of which were as big 1 x 1 m. Evidence of the ceiling’s destruction is attested to by the manner in which the hypocaust columns were toppled in different directions”.

Following its destruction, the structure served as a source of building material as evidenced by the stone walls that were robbed. Secondary use of the stones was noted in the center area of the excavation. A number of residential buildings were discovered in this part of the site and they contained storage jars that were still in situ.

The village’s buildings and bathhouse join the finds that were revealed in a previous excavation that was conducted on the other side of the road. In the opinion of Gregory Serai, “We are dealing with a village whose economy was based on the production of wine and the manufacture of pottery vessels. The site was situated on a road that linked Beer Sheva with Gaza and probably began as a road station in the Roman period.

There’s a brief article about Kibbutz Gevim, including its location, at Wikipedia.  Eight photos of the excavations can be found with the article at this temporary link, or directly here (zip).

HT: Joe Lauer

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Byzantine Church Discovered in Nes-Harim

This discovery is reported by the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and CNN.  The following is the beginning of the press release of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A church that dates to the Byzantine period which is paved with breathtakingly beautiful mosaics and a dedicatory inscription was exposed in an archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting near Moshav Nes-Harim, 5 kilometers east of Bet Shemesh (at the site of Horvat A-Diri), in the wake of plans to enlarge the moshav.

According to archaeologist Daniel Ein Mor, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The site was surrounded by a small forest of oak trees and is covered with farming terraces that were cultivated by the residents of Nes-Harim. Prior to the excavation we discerned unusually large quantities of pottery sherds from the Byzantine period and thousands of mosaic tesserae that were scattered across the surface level”.

The excavation seems to have revealed the very center of the site, which extends across an area of approximately 15 dunams, along the slope of a spur that descends toward Nahal Dolev.

During the first season of excavation (November 2008) the church’s narthex (the broad entrance at the front of the church’s nave) was exposed in which there was a carpet of polychrome mosaics that was adorned with geometric patterns of intertwined rhomboids separated by flower bud motifs. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the excavation this mosaic was defaced and almost completely destroyed by unknown vandals. During that excavation season a complex wine press was partly exposed that consists of at least two upper treading floors and elongated, well-plastered arched cells below them that were probably meant to facilitate the preliminary fermentation there of the must. Part of the main work surface, which was paved with large coarse tesserae, was exposed at the foot of these cells. A complex wine press of this kind is indicative of a wine making industry at the site; this find is in keeping with the presence here of a church and is consistent with our knowledge about Byzantine monasteries in the region during this period (sixth-seventh centuries CE).

The press release continues here.  The IAA has posted (temporary link) three high-resolution images: 1) an aerial view of the site; 2) workers cleaning the church floor; 3) a close-up of the church’s dedicatory inscription.  A direct link to the images is here.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Mysterious Stones in Eastern Turkey

My friend Al sent along this link with the comment: Take away the wild and foolish speculation and it’s an interesting article.

I agree.

Do these mysterious stones mark the site of the Garden of Eden?

UPDATE: G.M. Grena, in the comments below, suggests a much more sensible article: (short link:


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Desert Kites: Ancient Technology of Hunters

This JPost article claims that a new study has “unlocked a key piece,” but as far as I can tell, the research merely confirms what was previously believed.  Mazar, in his Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (1990), says something similar (pages 54-56).  It’s an interesting phenomenon, and I note it here for those who have not studied some of the earlier periods of land of Israel.

University of Haifa researchers have just unlocked a key piece of the mystery of ancient desert survival, as part of their research on "desert kites" in the Negev and Arava regions.

The kites - so called because of their kite-like appearance to British pilots flying over the area in the early 1900s - resemble walls stretching over hundreds of meters of desert, meeting at angles with rounded trenches at the intersections.

The study, headed by zooarcheologist Dr. Guy Bar-Oz, archeologist Dr. Daniel Nadel and landscape ecologist Dr. Dan Malkinson, found that these structures were made by ancient desert people over 5,000 years ago as mass hunting apparatuses.

A number of such kites have been identified in Jordan, Syria, Israel and the Sinai. The archeological community has surmised that they were used for hunting purposes or as cattle pens.

Now, after surveying 11 kites and conducting digs at four different kite locations - from Givat Barnea in the North to Eilat in the South - and utilizing cutting edge measuring devices, two radiometric methods of dating, and aerial and ground photography, the team has concluded that the kites were constructed specifically to direct wild animals along the walls and convey them toward the trenches, where they could be hunted with ease....

"We were not taken by surprise by the technological ability; humans in that period were very similar to us in their capabilities. But nevertheless these were immense efforts," he said. "Some of the kites are spread across hundreds of meters, and the construction blocks of some of the traps are very large and heavy. We are definitely talking about wide-scope construction in a region that is challenging for survival."

The full story is hereArutz-7’s version includes four photos.

HT: Joe Lauer


Monday, February 23, 2009

Wealth of Inscriptions Found South of Jerusalem

Recent excavations have uncovered six inscriptions from the Iron Age and one from the Hasmonean period.  The site has been identified with biblical Netofa (2 Sam 23:28-29).  From the Israel Antiquities Authority:

Royal seal impressions were discovered in excavations of the Israel Antiquities Authority at Umm Tuba, in the southern hills of Jerusalem.

A large building that dates to the time of the First and Second Temples, in which there was an amazing wealth of inscriptions, was discovered in a salvage excavation conducted by Zubair Adawi, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in the village of Umm Tuba in southern Jerusalem (between Zur Bahar and the Har Homa quarter), prior to construction work by a private contractor.

Considering the limited area of the excavation and the rural nature of the structure that was revealed, the excavators were surprised to discover in it so many royal seal impressions that date to the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah (end of the eighth century BCE). Four “LMLK” type impressions were discovered on handles of large jars that were used to store wine and oil in royal administrative centers. These were found together with the seal impressions of two high ranking officials named Ahimelekh ben Amadyahu and Yehokhil ben Shahar, who served in the kingdom’s government. The Yehokhil seal was stamped on one of the LMLK impressions before the jar was fired in a kiln and this is a very rare instance in which two such impressions appear together on a single handle.

The full press release is here.  A link to 7 photographs is given only on a non-permanent posting of the release.  The story is reported by Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post.  Umm Tuba is located near Tsur Baher, south of Talpiot and north of Har Homa.  You can see a map here.  You can read more about LMLK seals here.

HT: Joe Lauer


Monday, February 16, 2009

Heliodoros Stele Discovered

For $30, tourists can excavate the ancient ruins of Maresha/Beit Guvrin for three hours.  The area is full of caves rich with ancient artifacts, and it is not uncommon for excavators to find many “treasures” in the exposure.  Usually these discoveries include Hasmonean oil lamps or pottery vessels, for recently volunteers uncovered a nearly intact inscription from the 2nd century B.C.  Haaretz reports:

Three fragments of a Greek inscription, believed to be part of the "Heliodoros stele" were recently found at an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation at the National Park of Beit Guvrin.

The Heliodoros stele, dating back to 178 B.C.E. and consisting of 23 lines inscribed in limestone, is considered one of the most important ancient inscriptions found in Israel.

Dr. Dov Gera, who studied the inscriptions, determined that the fragments were actually the lower portion of "The Heliodoros stele". This discovery confirmed the assumption that the stele originally stood in one of the temples located where Maresha-Beit Guvrin National Park stands today.

The new fragments were discovered in a subterranean complex by participants in the Archaeological Seminars Institute's "Dig for a Day" program.

As published by Professors Cotton and Wörrle in 2007, this royal stone stele bears a proclamation by the Seleucid king, Seleucus IV (father of Antiochus IV). The contents of the stele shed light on the Seleucid government's involvement in local temples, mentioning an individual named Olympiodoros, the appointed "overseer" of the temples in Coele Syria - Phoenicia, including Judea.

The order of the king was sent to Heliodorus, who was probably the same person mentioned in the book of II Maccabees. According to the story in Maccabees, Heliodorus, as the representative of King Seleucus IV, tried to steal money from the Temple in Jerusalem but instead was severely beaten as a result of divine intervention.

The rest of the story is here.  The Israel Antiquities Authority has a press release and two high-resolution photos.

HT: Joe Lauer

Maresha from west aerial, tb011606749ddd Maresha from west

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Roman Figurine Discovered in Jerusalem

The Israel Antiquities Authority has reported the discovery of an ancient marble figurine.  The bearded man may be a Roman boxer and is believed to date to approximately A.D. 200.

The figurine was used as a suspended weight together with a balance scale. This is probably the only find of its kind from excavations in the country.

A figurine (bust) made of marble depicting a miniature image of a bearded man’s head was discovered in the excavations that the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting in the area of the Givati car park in the City of David, in the Walls around Jerusalem National Park.

According to Dr. Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, directors of the excavation at the site on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The high level of finish on the figurine is extraordinary, while meticulously adhering to the tiniest of details. Its short curly beard, as well as the position of its head which is slightly inclined to the right, are indicative of an obviously Greek influence and show that it should be dated to the time of the emperor Hadrian or shortly thereafter (second-third centuries CE). This is one of the periods when the art of Roman sculpture reached its zenith. The pale yellow shade of the marble alludes to the eastern origin of the raw material from which the image was carved, probably from Asia Minor, although this matter still needs to be checked”.

The rest of the press release is here, and three photos may be downloaded in a zip file.  The story is covered by Haaretz and the Associated Press.  Reports of previous discoveries in this same excavation may be read here and here and here and here.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Conference on the Philistines

Aren Maeir reported last week on an archaeological meeting in Beersheba that included eight presentations on recent research on the Philistines in Israel.  Reports like this are so helpful in giving the public a sense of the progress being made in the field.  Otherwise individual reports will appear in scattered journals or possibly an (over-priced) collection from a European publisher and be unknown by those with a general interest.  

You can read his summary of the presentations, but I’ll just note here Pirhiya Nahshoni’s excavation of a small Late Bronze fishing village which included “imported Minoan, Mycenaean, Anatolian, Cypriote, Egyptian and other finds.”  That’s quite a rich collection of imports.  Maeir had previously praised the significance of this site:

Meanwhile, what she has published in her MA thesis is of utmost importance! This study has been largely overlooked, but deserved close attention from anyone dealing with the final stages of the LB and the early Iron I periods. For example, the fact that the site is abandoned at the end of the LB and not resettled in the early Iron I, is a nice example of the major changes that occured in the settlement pattern, trade relations, economic structure, etc., between the two periods. It would appear to support the “normative” explanation on the Sea Peoples/Philistine phenomemon, i.e. that it is not a continuation of the LB, but rather, a new, intrusive event(s).

Maeir concludes his post with a description of the rocket attack he experienced while in Beersheba.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 8 of 2008: Archaeological Discoveries Related to the Bible

2008 was a good year for archaeology.  You can read about the top ten archaeological discoveries in the world this year, but my goal here is simply to suggest what I perceive to be the most significant discoveries for understanding the Bible and its world.  Both the selection and the ranking is purely subjective; there were no polls, editorial committees, or coin tosses.  For another opinion, take a look at the list of Dr. Claude Mariottini

1. Khirbet Qeiyafa (and inscription).  The new excavations of this fortified site in the Shephelah ranks as #1 for the following reasons: 1) The site was occupied for only a limited time during the reign of King David. 2) The site is located near the battle location of David and Goliath. 3) A strongly fortified site is indicative of a strong central government, at a time when scholars question the existence of such.  4) A early Hebrew inscription discovered this summer points to the site’s owners (Judeans) and the state of literacy in this period.  5) These discoveries will certainly shed light on what is currently the most debated issue in biblical archaeology: the nature of Israel/Judah during the 10th century.

Elah Valley aerial from west, tb011606779 marked Elah Valley from the west

2. Gath excavations.  It’s not a single discovery that puts the excavations of this Philistine city in the number two spot, but rather the cumulative results of a very profitable season.  This includes possible early Iron IIA material (see above debate), a 10th century seal impression, two Assyrian destruction layers, methodological advances, as well as other significant remains from the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Ages.

Gath, Tell es-Safi, Area E excavations from east, tb060906085dddGath excavations, Area E, Summer 2006

3. New discoveries at Herod the Great’s tomb.  The tomb was discovered and identified in 2007, but on-going excavation in 2008 revealed additional coffins, including one that may belong to one of Herod’s wives and another to one of his sons.  They also found a theater that sat 750 people and included a VIP room with beautiful wall paintings.  All of this further confirms the previous identification that Herod’s tomb was located on the slope of the Herodium.

4. The “First Wall” of Jerusalem.  A well-preserved portion of the Hasmonean wall (2nd century B.C.) was uncovered on the south side of Jerusalem.  While parts of this wall have been excavated previously, there are two advantages to the current excavation: 1) It is being carried out with the latest in archaeological knowledge. 2) The remains will be preserved and visible to visitors.

5. Alphabetic Inscription from Zincirli. The Kuttamuwa Stele is a large well-preserved funerary inscription from the 8th century B.C. city of Sam'al (modern Zincirli) that sheds light on the beliefs of the afterlife of one of Israel’s northern neighbors.  For more on the content of the inscription, see this.  This is the only discovery on this list which is also on Archaeology Magazine’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2008.

6. Iron Age Seals from Jerusalem.  Many inscriptions were found in Jerusalem at different times this year, including the Seal of Shlomit (aka Temah), the Seal of Gedaliah, the Seal of Netanyahu, and the Seal of Rephaihu.  The first two were discovered in Eilat Mazar’s excavation of the potential area of “David’s palace,” and the other two were found relatively close by (Western Wall and Gihon Spring).  Gedaliah is mentioned by name in Jeremiah 38:1, and Shlomit may be mentioned in 1 Chronicles 3:19.  Some might rank these discoveries higher in the list, but I have not because so many have already been found, including many in this area and many that mention other biblical figures.

7. Pre-8th century B.C. neighborhood in the City of David.  This report received little notice, as far as I could tell, but could be quite significant in our understanding of the growth of Jerusalem in the earliest centuries of Judean rule.  While these discoveries were made in 2007, they were only publicized in 2008 (thus qualifying them for this list).  In short, the archaeologists found five Iron Age strata which included a group of houses that dated “earlier than the 8th century.”  Excavators rarely uncover houses in Jerusalem, and these would be the earliest I know of from the Iron Age.

8. Philistine temple near Gerar.  I heard very little of this discovery, but it makes the list because Philistine temples are both rare and of biblical interest (see Judges 16:23-30 and 1 Samuel 5:2-5).  Other Philistine temples have been excavated at Tel Qasile and Ekron (and Aren Maier has teased that he may have another at Gath).

Other discoveries that did not make the top 8 include the sarcophagus fragment of the son of the High Priest in Jerusalem, the “Christ Inscription” in Egypt, and a Jerusalem quarry found in Sanhedria.  The on-going Temple Mount sifting project deserves mention (and support).

Other finds that did not make the list are the perfume bottle that Mary Magdalene used to anoint Jesus’ feet and the water tunnel that David used to conquer Jerusalem.  Perhaps more information or discoveries will convince me that these are more than attempts to gain publicity.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

264 Gold Coins Found in City of David

The excavations south of the Dung Gate, where previously an announcement was made of the discovery of the palace of Queen Helene of Adiabene, is the site of a cache of Byzantine coins.  A Byzantine tourist volunteering at the dig made the find yesterday.  CNN reports:

Some Israeli archaeologists are having a particularly happy Hanukkah.

The Israel Antiquities Authority reported a thrilling find Sunday -- the discovery of 264 ancient gold coins in Jerusalem National Park.

The coins were minted during the early 7th century.

"This is one of the largest and most impressive coin hoards ever discovered in Jerusalem -- certainly the largest and most important of its period," said Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, who are directing the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Researchers discovered the coins at the beginning of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which started at sunset on Sunday.

One of the customs of the holiday is to give "gelt," or coins, to children, and the archaeologists are referring to the find as "Hanukkah money."

The 1,400-year-old coins were found in the Giv'ati car park in the City of David in the walls around Jerusalem National Park, a site that has yielded other finds, including a well-preserved gold earring with pearls and precious stones.

They were in a collapsed building that dates back to the 7th century, the end of the Byzantine period. The coins bear a likeness of Heraclius, who was the Byzantine emperor from 610 to 641.

Usually archaeologists do not want to publicize the discovery of gold during an ongoing excavation, as it can lead to unwanted attention.  Perhaps word got out before they could swear everyone to secrecy.

The rest of the story is here.  You can also read about it at Arutz-7, Jerusalem Post, and the government press release.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Two Important Coins Found in Temple Mount Rubble

Many interesting finds have been made from the pile of “trash” that was removed from the Temple Mount and dumped in the Kidron Valley.  The Jerusalem Post reports the latest discovery.

Two ancient coins, one used to pay the Temple tax and another minted by the Greek leader the Jews fought in the story of Hanukka, have been uncovered amid debris from Jerusalem's Temple Mount, an Israeli archeologist said Thursday.

The two coins were recently found in rubble discarded by Islamic officials from the Temple Mount. It is carefully being sifted by two archeologists and a team of volunteers at a Jerusalem national park.

The first coin, a silver half-shekel, was apparently minted on the Temple Mount itself by Temple authorities in the first year of the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66-67 CE, said Bar-Ilan University Professor Gabriel Barkay, who is leading the sifting operation.

One side of the coin, which was found by a 14-year-old volunteer, shows a branch with three pomegranates, and the inscription "Holy Jerusalem"; the other side bears a chalice from the First Temple and says "Half-Shekel."

In the Bible, Jews are commanded to contribute half a shekel each for maintaining the Temple in Jerusalem. At the time of the Temple's construction in the sixth century BCE, every Jew was ordered to make an obligatory symbolic donation of a half-shekel. This consistent yet small payment allowed all Jews, irrespective of socioeconomic position, to participate in building the Temple.

You can read the full story here.

In related news, the archaeologists in charge of this project face a significant funding shortfall.  A recent letter from Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Zweig concludes:

The Temple Mount Sifting Operation is not a project for an elite group of archaeologists. It is now the property of the entire Jewish people, including the tens of thousands of volunteers who have helped us sift through the rubble over the years. Many times throughout history the most important projects are adopted by private donors who have the privilege to make a significant difference well before the state steps in to help. The Temple Mount Sifting Project is just such an opportunity. Please take part in this effort to save the Temple Mount Antiquities and help us to continue the educational programming which is having an immeasurable impact on thousands of visitors from all walks of Jewish life.

You can read more about this important project and learn how to make a contribution here

HT: Joe Lauer

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mariottini on the Top Ten Discoveries of 2008

Dr. Claude Mariottini has posted his “Ten Important Archaeological Discoveries in 2008 Related to the Bible.”  Since he beat me to it, I think I’ll not try to create my own list, but will give some of my thoughts on these finds. I’ll do that in the next few days.  For now, you can read his list and follow the links.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Perfume Bottles Found at Magdala

There is something important to this story, but it’s not what you might think.  What is exciting is that ancient Magdala is being excavated.  Perhaps that will increase our knowledge of this ancient city that was home to Mary Magdalene.  Perhaps it will result in the site being opened to visits by tourists.  Perhaps there will be silly sensational claims made before analysis is done – oh wait, that wish has already come true.  From the Telegraph, written by Nick Pisa in Rome:

Archaeologists have discovered vases of perfumed ointment which may have been used by Mary Magdalene to anoint the feet of Jesus.

This sentence should immediately clue you into the fact that this is a “made-for-TV” story, fashioned for maximum publicity without regard to truth.  You know this because:

1. It is quite incredible that of all the vases in the ancient world, the first ones the archaeologists find at this city are related to this biblical event.

2. Mary was from Magdala, but since there is no record that Jesus was ever in Magdala, his feet were not anointed there.  Perhaps, though, Mary carried the bottles back to her hometown.

3. Except that it’s hard to believe that Mary only poured some of the contents out and left the rest for archaeologists to find.

4. Most important to ignore in order to make this story fly is the fact that the Bible nowhere says that Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus’ feet.  A different Mary anointed him the week before his crucifixion (John 12:1-8).  And a sinful woman anointed him at the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).  She is never named and Mary Magdalene is introduced by Luke two verses later (Luke 8:2) with no indication that this was the same woman.  Furthermore, the unnamed woman used an alabaster jar.  Did the excavators find an alabaster jar?  Mary Magdalene did plan to anoint Jesus’ body one Sunday morning, but she failed in her attempt (Mark 16:1-8).

The Italian team have been digging for several months at the ancient Palestinian town of Magdala – from where Mary gets her name.

In Mary’s day, Magdala was in the district of Galilee.  Today, its ruins are in the state of Israel.  It was not then, and is not now, a Palestinian town, except for those who wish to see the Jewish nation replaced by an Arab one.

The archaeologists of the Franciscan academic society Studium Biblicum Franciscanum found the unopened vases dating to the first century AD conserved in mud at the bottom of a swimming pool in Magdala's thermal complex....

Speaking of the discovery Father Stefano De Luca who is leading the dig, said: "The mud-filled condition of the site allowed us to find these truly extraordinary objects, which were intact and sealed and still contain greasy substances.

"We think these are balms and perfumes and if chemical analysis confirms this, they could be similar to those used by Mary Magdalene in the Gospels to anoint the feet of Christ.

I have a revolutionary idea.  Analyze the contents, and then tell us what they are.

"The discovery of these vases is very important. We have in our hands the cosmetic products from the time of Jesus. It's very likely that the woman who anointed Christ's feet used these products, or ones similar in organic composition and quality."

Frankly, this story could have been written long before the excavations.  They already knew the site was inhabited in the 1st century A.D.  All they needed was to find some vases, any vases, and they could say that these were related to Mary.  And the reporters would come, and the donations would flow.

HT: Joe Lauer

Magdala from above, tb102702020 Magdala from west

UPDATE (12/12): An article in Italian is longer and includes a photograph.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jerusalem, Rome, and Alexandria

Zachi Zweig recently produced photographs of a Byzantine mosaic floor discovered under Al Aqsa Mosque between 1938 and 1942. Zweig is certain that this was part of a Byzantine church on the Temple Mount. To this point, it has generally been held that the Byzantines left the Temple Mount in ruins. The 6th century Medeba Map does not show any buildings in this area. Underneath the mosaic floor was a Jewish ritual bath (mikveh). The story is in the Jerusalem Post, and Leen Ritmeyer comments at his blog.

Google Earth has added a layer for Ancient Rome as it stood in A.D. 320. Judging from a 2-minute video preview, this is an extraordinary resource. As with the rest of Google Earth, it is free. It probably would not be difficult to remove a few buildings and create a layer for Rome in the 1st century. Perhaps someone will be so motivated.

Leen Ritmeyer has created a less detailed Jerusalem layer that shows the city in the 1st century. (UPDATE 11/20: This layer is no longer available.)

This story has been around before, but perhaps its re-circulation indicates that progress is being made. The JPost reports that plans are underway for the world’s first underwater archaeology museum in Alexandria.

"The whole Bay of Alexandria actually still houses the remains of very important archeological sites. You have the place of the Pharaohs - the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria - which is one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. You have the Polonike Palace, which was the palace of Cleopatra, and there might also be the grave of Alexander the Great," she said.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

New Discoveries at Herod’s Tomb

In advance of the upcoming National Geographic special on Herod’s tomb, as well as the cover story of the same on the December issue of NG, archaeologist Ehud Netzer held a press conference today announcing the most recent discoveries.  You can read the Hebrew University press release (with photos) and articles in Arutz-7, Haaretz, and National Geographic.  Below are selected portions of the articles.


The findings include coffins of Herod’s family, a theater with a VIP room, and two coffins containing the remains of most likely Herod’s wife and the wife of Archelaus, Herod’s son. The new findings further support the idea that the grave discovered last year belongs to Herod the Great. (Arutz-7)

Netzer described the winter palace, built on a largely man-made hill 680 meters high, as a kind of country club, with a pool, baths, gardens fed by pools and aqueducts and a 650-seat theater. (Haaretz)

Herodium with lower pool, tb021407740dxo

Herodium with lower pool


A theater that could hold an audience of 750 was discovered not far from the mausoleum. In front of the seating area is a large room for VIPs, from which the king and his close friends would watch the shows. (Arutz-7)

"In Herod's private box at the auditorium, the diggers discovered delicate frescoes depicting windows opening on to painted landscapes, one of which showed what appeared to be a southern Italian farm," said Roi Porat, one of Netzer's assistants on the digs. Just visible in the paintings, dating from between 15-10 B.C., are a dog, bushes and what looks like a country villa. (Haaretz)

"Normally in Judean art you wouldn't paint scenes such as these with animals. The style is so similar to what is known from Italy, it really looks like a team came over to do the painting," said Rachel Chachy-Laureys, a surveyor working with Nezter. "It fits the context." (National Geographic)

The theater, its two side rooms and VIP section, were intentionally destroyed when Herod constructed the cone-shaped artificial mountain, which enclosed the round structure that stood at the top of the hill. (Arutz-7)


"What we found here, spread all around, are architectural fragments that enable us to restore a monument of 25 meters high, 75 feet high, very elegant, which fits Herod's taste and status," [Netzer] told The Associated Press. (Haaretz)

In the excavation that took place this year in the area of the mausoleum, the remains of two white-colored tombs were found, most likely belonging to Herod’s family. The bright red and elegant coffin of Herod, which was displayed last year, is now completely restored, along with a large tomb. Prof. Netzer ascertains that the red coffin is the burial coffin of Herod. In contrast to the white coffins, the red coffin was shattered into hundreds of pieces, and spread throughout the mausoleum area. Prof. Netzer estimates that Malthace the Samaritan was buried in the larger of the two white burial coffins. (Arutz-7)

One big question remains: Where is Herod's body?  "We have only found a very small number of human bones at the site and have not been able to come to any conclusions," Netzer said. "We have not yet finished digging and have only uncovered a small area."  But he does not believe the king's remains will ever be recovered. (National Geographic)

Previous discussion and photos of Herod’s tomb can be found here.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Beautiful Earring Found in Jerusalem

From the Associated Press:

A luxurious gold, pearl and emerald earring provides a new visual clue about the life of the elite in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. And its discovery was a true eureka moment for excavators.

The piece was found beneath a parking lot next to the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. It dates to the Roman period just after the time of Jesus, said Doron Ben-Ami, who directed the dig.

The earring was uncovered in a destroyed Byzantine structure built centuries after the piece was made, showing it was likely passed down through generations, he said.

Archaeologists came upon the earring in a corner while excavating the ruins of the building under a parking lot. "Suddenly one of the excavators came up shouting 'Eureka!'" said Ben-Ami.

The find is eye-catching: A large pearl inlaid in gold with two drop pieces, each with an emerald and pearl set in gold.

"It must have belonged to someone of the elite in Jerusalem," Ben-Ami said. "Such a precious item, it couldn't be one of just ordinary people."

Archaeologist Shimon Gibson, who was not involved in the dig, said the find was truly amazing, less because of its Roman origins than for its precious nature.

"Jewelry is hardly preserved in archaeological context in Jerusalem," he said, because precious metals were often sold or melted down during the many historic takeovers of the city.

The story continues hereArutz-7 has a similar story.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

King David’s Water Tunnel in Jerusalem

Last week Eilat Mazar announced that she had discovered a water channel connected to the building she has identified as the palace of King David.  Based on the tunnel’s date, location, and characteristics, she believes that she has identified “with high probability” the shaft used by David’s men to conquer Jerusalem.  You may recall the story:

On that day, David said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the tsinnor to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies” (2 Samuel 5:8).

The Hebrew word tsinnor is usually translated “water shaft.”  For many years, this shaft was identified with a 40 foot (13 m) vertical shaft near the Gihon Spring.  More recent excavations have suggested that this shaft was not accessible during the time of David.

The story gets the press-release-rehash in the Jerusalem Post and Arutz-7The Trumpet, because of its close relationship with Mazar, has two photos.  Haaretz apparently wrote their story before the press release and has some strange information about the water system:

But Mazar believes the water system served to purify David's warriors, first among them his chief of staff, Joab, after the city had already been conquered.

She says that purification was necessary because the Bible states they had to fight against the "blind and the lame," and in so doing would have become impure. She notes the use in the relevant verse of the Hebrew root naga (touch) in relation to the "gutter," a word usually involving matters of purity.

Here are just a few thoughts (based on the articles, not the minimal information above):

It seems that this channel was discovered at the end of the last season of excavation, and much more work is required.

Both ends of the tunnel are currently blocked, so it is not clear where the tunnel begins or ends.

The tunnel runs north-south, that is, roughly from the area of “David’s palace” towards the Temple Mount, all within the city fortifications.  This does not seem to fit the type of passageway that would be needed to conquer the city.

Oil lamps from the end of the First Temple period (c. 600 B.C.) were found, but it’s not clear how Mazar knows the tunnel was in use in the time of David.  It’s usually easier to date the end of use of a water system than the beginning.

The attempt to also connect the tunnel with refugees fleeing from Jerusalem in the days of King Zedekiah seems stretched.

Both identifications of the tunnel to the Bible (David and Zedekiah) strike me as the sort of “biblical archaeology” that Bible believers like myself wish would go away.  By that I mean, you find a tunnel and without knowing where it begins or where it ends, you assume that it must be the very one that is mentioned in a famous story in the Scriptures.  How is it that such archaeologists, working in a very restricted area, always happen to find exactly what they are looking for?

The solution is not to refuse to make connections to the Bible, nor to deny that the Biblical record is historically accurate, but instead to carefully study all of the evidence, avoiding unwarranted and premature sensationalistic headlines.  It goes both ways; more often it is scholars on the other side who use a scrap of evidence as complete and compelling proof that the biblical story is false.  Abuses on one side do not justify abuses on the other.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription Update

There was a flurry of news coverage of the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription yesterday, even though only a few words of that inscription have been translated (or, at least, announced).  Here are a few highlights.

CBS News has a 45-second video showing a man opening and handling the inscribed potsherd (ostracon).  A few letters are visible.

You can watch a 5-minute interview with the excavator, Yosi Garfinkel (in Hebrew) (via Yitzhak Sapir).

A few photos were released, but they appear to be deliberately impossible to read, as the excavators naturally want to translate the inscription before someone on the internet does.  It also has been suggested that high-tech photos may be necessary before the excavators are able to read the inscription in its entirety.  Here are a few photos: ostracon 1, ostracon 2, aerial view of the site and the gatehouse.

There is some debate on the ANE-2 list about whether this is a (Proto-)Canaanite inscription or a Hebrew inscription.

A member of the excavation team has posted some of his thoughts on Jim West’s blog.

The most ridiculous headline belongs to a British rag: 'Proof' David slew Goliath found as Israeli archaeologists unearth 'oldest ever Hebrew text'

And if you prefer your inscriptions on a coffee mug, Eisenbrauns just announced the 2008 Gezer Calendar mug

There are a couple of other stories that I don’t have time to comment on now, but you can read about Eilat Mazar’s discovery of the tsinnor (water shaft) that David used to conquer Jerusalem and about an inscribed stone seal found in Jerusalem.  Don’t believe everything you read.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription

The Jerusalem Post has some details about the inscription from today’s archaeology conference in Jerusalem.  Some extracts:

A teenage volunteer found the curved pottery shard, 15 centimeters by 15 centimeters, in July near the stairs and stone washtub of an excavated home. It was later discovered to bear five lines of characters known as proto-Canaanite, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet.

Carbon-14 analysis of burnt olive pits found in the same layer of the site dated them to between 1,000 and 975 B.C., the same time as the Biblical golden age of David's rule in Jerusalem.

Scholars have identified other, smaller Hebrew fragments from the 10th century B.C., but the script, which Garfinkel suggests might be part of a letter, predates the next significant Hebrew inscription by between 100 and 200 years....

The shard is now kept in a university safe while philologists translate it, a task expected to take months. But several words have already been tentatively identified, including ones meaning "judge," "slave" and "king."

The Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it is difficult - perhaps impossible - to conclude the text is Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time. Garfinkel bases his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning "to do," a word he said existed only in Hebrew.

"That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found," he said....

If the inscription is Hebrew, it would indicate a connection to the Israelites and make the text "one of the most important texts, without a doubt, in the corpus of Hebrew inscriptions," Maier said. But it has great importance whatever the language turns out to be, he added.

The full story is here.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gath 2008 Excavation Summary

An update for the 2008 season at Gath (Tell es-Safi) is now posted at The Bible and Interpretation website.  Director Aren Maeir has summarized the discoveries and it’s worth reading in full.  Some of the highlights:

Early Bronze Age: the site was apparently huge

Middle Bronze Age: more excavation of the city wall and glacis

Late Bronze Age: a very large building, with rich collection of pottery

Iron Age I: remains of plants and animals could help determine the Philistines’ diet; Mycenaean IIIC pottery found

Iron IIA (1000-800 B.C.): – all bullet points are direct quotations from the article

  • clear early Iron IIA pottery
  • a well-dated fragment of a seal impression (of the late 21st Dynasty in Egypt, ca. mid-10th cent BCE)
  • several nice clusters of carbonized grape pips. This latter find should be able to provide robust 14C datings for this phase
  • One cannot overemphasize the importance of the finds in this level, since it may provide the first concrete, well-dated (from several perspectives) context from the early Iron Age IIA in Philistia. In fact, the finds from this level may serve as a central key to solving the “hot debate” on the chronology of the Iron Age, raging for now for more than a decade. Hopefully, the 14C results will be available by late 2008.
  • these finds demonstrate conclusively that our original assumption that the city of Gath was very large during the Iron Age IIA, reaching ca. 45-50 hectares [108-120 acres] in size, was correct. This makes it perhaps the largest site in Philistia, and perhaps in the entire Land of Israel during this period. As such, it appears to match the image of Gath that is portrayed in the biblical texts that relate to the early monarchy, in which the city is described as the largest and most important of five cities of the Philistine Pentapolis, the primus inter pares among the five cities.

Iron IIB (c. 700 B.C.): two destruction layers, possibly related to Sargon II and Sennacherib

Methodology: “in-field laboratory (including an IR spectrometer in the field), which was supplemented by the additional laboratories back in the base camp, provided us with “on-line” results of these analyses - which enabled “real-time” understanding of the archaeological finds. This joint program is unparalleled at ANY excavation in Israel, and in fact, in the world. The close integration of a “regular” excavation team with a wide team of archaeological scientists IN THE FIELD, is simply unparalleled anywhere.”

For many reasons, this excavation looks like it will be extremely beneficial for archaeological and biblical studies.

Gath, Tell es-Safi, from east, tb060906175 Gath, view from the east

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Copper Mines from Time of Solomon

Recently Dr. Thomas Levy of the University of California at San Diego was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.  In conjunction with that, he published an article in their journal (abstract here) about his work at Khirbet en-Nahas, including his belief that the copper mines were in operation here during the time that the Bible records King Solomon as mining copper.  Lots of new sources and blogs have made a big deal out of the story, and while it is a good story, it is not a new story.  If you haven’t read about it before, or if you need a refresher, by all means read it again.  But if it all sounds familiar, you know why (NY Times 2006 article here; see also article in a recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review). 

The university press release is here.  There’s a good 12-minute video made by the university  (with dozens of photos used without even a kind mention of their source).  You can find many more articles by searching for “Levy copper mines.”

Kh en-Nahas overview to nw, df080207181dxo

Khirbet en-Nahas, view from southeast

Kh en-Nahas Area S, Iron Age four-room workshop, view ne, df080207014dxo

Khirbet en-Nahas, Iron Age workshop

Kh en-Nahas slag remains on surface, df080207332dxo

Copper slag remains on surface

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Monday, October 06, 2008

“Son of the High Priest”: Sarcophagus Fragment Found

Arutz-7 reports:

Archaeologists excavating north of Jerusalem have found a piece of a sarcofagus - a stone coffin - belonging to a son of a High Priest.  The visible inscription reads, "the son of the High Priest" - but the words before it are broken off.  It thus cannot be ascertained which High Priest is referred to, nor the name or age of the deceased...

The precise location of the find is not being released, for security reasons. 

The sarcophagus cover fragment - 60 centimeters (2 feet) long by 48 centimeters (19 inches) wide - is made of hard limestone, is meticulously fashioned, and bears a carved inscription in Hebrew letters that are both similar to today's script and typical of the Second Temple period.

A number of High Priests served in the Temple in its final decades - it was destroyed in 70 C.E. - and there is no way of knowing which one is noted in the fragment.  Among the known High Priests of the end of the Second Temple period were Caiaphas, Theophilus (Yedidiya) ben Chanan, Shimon ben Baitus, Chanan ben Chanan and others...

Other discoveries at the site include public and residential buildings, agricultural installations, pools and cisterns.

Tombs from the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D. are very common in Jerusalem.  There was a large upper class that built lavish stone tombs, approximately 1,000 of which have been found.

The full story (and a tiny photo) is here.

UPDATE: The Israel Antiquities Authority press release includes a link to a zip file with three high-res photos, including one of the excavation site and two of the inscription.  HT: Joe Lauer

UPDATE (10/8): Haaretz has the story with some new details, and the Jerusalem Post has a 2-minute video about the excavation and discovery.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

“Christ” Inscription in Egypt

Here’s a strange one: An archaeologist in Alexandria, Egypt claims to have found a cup with a Greek inscription, “Dia Chrestou Ogoistais” (“through Christ the Magi”).  What’s stranger is that he’s claiming that he found it in a stratified context dating to A.D. 50. 

You can read the article (in Spanish) here.  Some comments and nice photos are here.  More comments are here.

HT: Gene Brooks

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Speculation on the Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription

With regard to the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription, there are those who know and those who don't.  Those who know have been sworn to secrecy, leaving only those of us who don't know to speculate.  I am happy to oblige and suggest below some reasons on why this inscription is significant, thereby possibly fueling more speculation by others also in the dark.

What is not speculation is the fact that the inscription is being studied by Haggai Misgav, a Northwest Semitic epigraphist (source).  Given the location of its discovery, this is no surprise, but it clearly rules out the possibility that inscription was written in another language.  Misgav Haggai says at present that his conclusions are "doubtful and temporary" and he does not know when he will be ready to publish (reported by Jim West).  That suggests that the inscription is difficult.  I offer some ideas that may explain archaeologist Aren Maier's comment that this inscription "is going to be VERY INTERESTING!!!!"

1. The inscription is long.  This is a guess based upon a photograph of the potsherd and a friend's report that the inscription is 4-5 lines long.  Too many inscriptions are known only from a small portion preserved.  The recent ostracon found at Gath with a name similar to Goliath received much attention, but it contained only two words.

2. The inscription is meaningful.  This is in contrast to other early inscriptions, such as the Tel Zayit abecedary (10th c.) and the Izbet Sartah abecedary (11th c.).  Certainly alphabetic inscriptions are meaningful, and scholars can write much about them.  But the primary reason why they get so much attention is because there are few other contemporary inscriptions.  Sometimes conclusions about the state of writing are made that may be without warrant.  The combination of a brief or ambiguous text with a lack of contemporary material makes possible many wrong interpretations.

3. The inscription was discovered in a stratified context.  This is in contrast to the Gezer Calendar, which was found in the debris pile in 1908.  The Tel Zayit abecedary was found in a wall, not in its original context.  Archaeologists do not have a clear stratigraphical context for many important inscriptions. 

4. The inscription is early.  Khirbet Qeiyafa has occupation from the 10th century and then a gap until the Hellenistic period (2nd c.).  The inscription certainly dates to the time of the settlement, which guarantees a 10th century date (assuming that the site itself has been correctly dated).  There are very few 10th century inscriptions in Israel, and all have some problems.  (The only 10th c. inscriptions from Israel that come to mind are the Gezer Calendar, Tel Zayit abecedary, and the Shishak inscription, but there are probably others.)  The significance of an inscription increases exponentially each century that you go back in time.  A seal impression in the city of David from the 6th century is less rare and thus less valuable than a letter or poem from the 10th century.

5. The inscription dates to a period now highly controversial in biblical archaeology.  In the mid-1990s Israel Finkelstein proposed a "Low Chronology," which essentially re-dated all material believed to be from the 10th century to the 9th century.  The poor material culture from the 11th century was brought down to the 10th century.  Historically, then, Israel and Judah were impoverished and weak, or, more likely, non-existent (according to Finkelstein) at the time when the Bible describes the great United Monarchy.  Like so many theories in biblical archaeology, this one is highly dependent upon a large amount of "white space," in which one's own ideas can be inserted.  Almost certainly this new inscription will fill in some of the gaps, as well as spawn its own controversies.

More speculating remains to be done on the site identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa, but that will need to await a future post.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Qeiyafa Ostracon Photo

G. M. Grena has noted in a comment below and on a post on biblicalist that a photo of the 10th century ostracon is apparently already online here.  You cannot see the inscription, but you get an idea for the size of the potsherd. 

Grena speculates further on biblicalist:

For those not who didn't attend last year's ASOR conference, Prof. Garfinkel had presented a paper, "Khirbet Kiafa: Biblical Azekah":

Though he did not reveal to me anything about the ostracon, in personal correspondence this morning he confirmed that Kiafa "cannot be" Azekah after having completed their first large scale excavation this past summer. Joseph Lauer also brought to my attention a Hebrew University of Jerusalem web page for the excavation, which states the same thing:

"In the past we suggested an identification with the biblical city of Azeka, but the dating of the Iron Age settlement to the early 10th century BC clearly dispro[ves] our first hypothesis."

Normally, it would be somewhat embarrassing to have your thesis "ruined" so quickly (less than a year), but I'm guessing that with the new discovery, nobody associated with the work at this khirbet minds!

The statement that dating the site to the early 10th century means that it cannot be Azekah does not make sense to me, as the story of David and Goliath mentions Azekah at approximately this time (1 Sam 17:1).  Azekah also existed at the time of the Conquest (Joshua 10:10; 15:35), which means that any candidate for the site must have Late Bronze remains.

Another possibility, perhaps too good to suggest, is that the ostracon provides the biblical name of Khirbet Qeiyafa/Kiafa.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

10th Century Inscription from Shephelah

Aren Maier, excavator of Gath, was at a meeting in Jerusalem recently with a group of Israeli archaeologists and Yossi Garfinkel and Saar Ganor presented a newly discovered inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa.  Maier reports on the ANE-2 list:

This absolutely fantastic, fortified Iron Age site (late Iron I/early Iron IIA) has a very nice assemblage of pottery, and what may be the most important Iron Age Semitic inscription found in Israel in the last decade! (to be published by Haggai Misgav of the Hebrew University).

I can't give details about it, but OH BOY - this is going to be VERY INTERESTING!!!!

Clearly, the site, its dating, the finds, and their significance, will be of paramount importance in the discussions of the Iron Age southern Levant, and just about anything connected to it, in the near future.

Based on Yossi's previous track record in publishing excavation results, publications should be appearing soon!

I doubt Maier is exaggerating, and this could provide some fun discussion in the months ahead.  It may help some readers if I spell out more of what Maier means by "the site, its dating, the finds, and their significance."

The site: Khirbet Qeiyafa (aka the "Elah Fortress") is located opposite Azekah along a ridge north of the Elah Valley, near the famous battle of David and Goliath.

The date: The site, and therefore presumably the inscription, dates to "late Iron I/early Iron IIA," which is the scholarly way of saying "10th century B.C."  David and Solomon were kings in Jerusalem in the 10th century.

The finds: Some of this has already been reported, but Maier probably is meaning the inscription itself, about which nothing has been revealed to the public.  I reported previously that the ostracon (inscribed potsherd) has 4-5 lines of writing.

Its significance: The major discussion in "biblical archaeology" right now centers on the 10th century.  The newer view (popularized in this book) denies that Judah was a nation-state until hundreds of years later, insisting that the biblical account of the United Monarchy is pure fabrication.  Most archaeologists reject that view.  My guess is that Maier's excitement is because this inscription will play a role in this discussion.

Other inscriptions: It may be worth noting that two (or three) other significant 10th century inscriptions were found in the same region.  To the north, Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister found the Gezer Calendar in the early 1900s. To the south, Ronald Tappy discovered an abecedary (alphabetic inscription) at Tell Zayit a few years ago.  To the west at Gath, Maier uncovered the "Goliath inscription," which dates to the 10th or 9th centuries.  If you're an archaeologist looking for a 10th century inscription, head for the Shephelah.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"First Wall" of Jerusalem found

The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a press release today describing the discovery of part of the southern wall of Jerusalem during the time of Christ.  Built by the Hasmoneans sometime after 150 B.C., Josephus dubbed it the "First Wall," in distinction to Herod's (?) "Second Wall" and Herod Agrippa's "Third Wall."  The "First Wall" encompassed the city on all four sides (unlike the later two), and had sixty towers.  Archaeologists recently discovered one of those towers preserved to a height of 10 feet (3 m).  The wall was in use until the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Some more details:

  • The wall was discovered on "Mount Zion," the modern name for Jerusalem's Western Hill.
  • The results were revealed in a press conference on Mount Zion today.
  • The area had been excavated 100 years ago by Frederick Jones Bliss and Archibald Dickie, once described in the Jerusalem Post as "archeologist Blis Vediki." No kidding! (In Hebrew, "ve" means "and.")
  • Archaeologist Yehiel Zelinger lectured on his discoveries about 6 weeks ago at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
  • Portions of this wall have previously been excavated in Area G, the Citadel complex, south of the Citadel underneath the Turkish wall, and near the Broad Wall next to the "Israelite Tower" (unfortunately closed to the public now for years).
  • The chief contribution of this discovery will not be in revealing where the wall was (we already knew that), but in giving us more details about that wall, by means of careful stratigraphic excavation.  Bliss and Dickie excavated by digging underground tunnels, hardly the method for understanding the history of a structure.
  • The archaeologist is impressed: "This is one of the most beautiful and complete sections of construction in the Hasmonean building style to be found in Jerusalem."
  • Apparently the remains will be preserved in the Jerusalem City Wall National Park.
  • Remains were also unearthed of the Byzantine period wall constructed by Empress Eudocia.

The story is also carried by the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and BBC (with two great photos).

UPDATE: The Israel Antiquities Authority has made five photos available for download.  The aerial photo reveals that the excavation is on the west side of the Catholic cemetery on the south side of Mount Zion.  The most famous inhabitant of the cemetery is Oskar Schindler.  His tomb is visible on the lower right of the photo.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

City of David Excavation Report

Excavations began in the parking lot below Dung Gate in 2003 and were resumed in 2007.  The Israel Antiquities Authority has just released a brief report on the discoveries from the 2007 season.  It should be noted that this report does not include results from 2008.

Excavations in Central Valley, tb051908109 
Excavations of area in May 2008

The longest portion of the report concerns the Second Temple period, which is primarily the 1st century A.D.  It reports one of the discoveries:

A large impressive edifice, whose northeastern corner has only been revealed to date, was in the southern unit. The eastern wall of the building (exposed length over 14 m, thickness c. 2 m, height more than 5 m) was built of large roughly dressed fieldstones, some of which were hundreds of kilograms in weight. The northern wall (width c. 1 m) was also preserved to a substantial height. The interior portion of the building, within the limits of the excavated area, indicated that the structure was divided into elongated halls, oriented northwest-southeast.

This is what was hailed in the media as the "palace of Queen Helene of Adiabene," though as the 1st century ruler's name is not mentioned in this report, some may have missed the connection.

The period of greater interest given the current discussion of the nature of Jerusalem in the Old Testament period is the section on the Iron Age, quoted here in full.

The remains of the period, exposed in five strata that represented most of the Iron Age, were founded directly on bedrock, marking the earliest settlement in this part of the City of David. This period was mainly characterized in this area by relatively densely built houses of careless and poor construction. The houses, built of one-stone-wide walls, contained a variety of domestic installations. These indicate a residential quarter that existed in the area during this period.

The early phase of the Iron Age was noted for the use of bedrock the builders had employed for setting the buildings’ walls and incorporating it within their built complex of structures. Thus, ‘habitation pockets’, confined between the buildings’ walls and bedrock outcrops, were discovered. This phase was dated earlier than the eighth century BCE, based on the abundance of ceramic finds. The later phase of this period dated to the seventh–sixth centuries BCE. No building remains from Iron I were discovered.

There are several significant points to note here:

  • The discovery of houses from the Iron Age in Jerusalem is unusual.  In most places, later destruction removed traces of building except for monumental structure (walls, water systems).  The best examples of houses were found on the other (that is, east) side of the City of David in Shiloh's excavation.
  • Caution should be taken before concluding that because some houses in Jerusalem at this time were of "poor construction," all were.
  • Some of the material is "earlier than the eighth century," which means 9th century (or possibly 10th, but distinguishing pottery between the two centuries is problematic at the moment).  This indicates that there was habitation in this area before the expansion in Hezekiah's day (late 8th century) when the Western Hill was fortified.  This should not be surprising, given indications in the biblical text.
  • That no remains were found from Iron I (or Bronze Age; see end of report) also fits the biblical narrative.  The city of Jebus was small and more closely located to the Gihon Spring when it was captured by David.  The city expanded to the north as David prepared for the construction of the temple.

In other words, the biblical account would lead us to expect to find remains earlier than the 10th century in the City of David, remains from the 10th century and later at the Temple Mount, with a likely "filling in" of habitation between the two sometime after the temple's construction.  Admittedly, there are other possibilities, but this one seems quite reasonable, and it appears to fit with the results of this report.

Readers unfamiliar with the geography of the area and the location of these excavations will better understand the last two points with the graphic below, which shows that the excavation area was outside the boundaries of the "City of David."

Aerial view of City of David, tb010703 givati parking diagram 
Jerusalem from the southwest
Click on graphic for high-resolution

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Shephelah Updates

The Shephelah, or western foothills of Judah, is an ideal site for excavations because of 1) its rich history; 2) its close proximity to universities in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; and 3) its moderate climate.  There's enough work to be done in the Shephelah alone to occupy every archaeologist working in Israel for the next 100 years.

Tel  Aviv University has been approved to renew excavations at Azekah.  Though it is one of the most important sites in the Shephelah, it has only been excavated by Robert Alexander Stuart Macalister in a brief dig more than 100 years ago.  Among other things, Azekah is mentioned in the Bible as near the place of the Philistine encampment when David defeated Goliath.  It was one of the last two cities holding out against Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. (see Jeremiah 34:6-7 and Lachish Letter #4).  There are undoubtedly a lot of goodies buried under that pile of dirt.

Azekah from northeast, tb030407700
Azekah from the northeast

Bar Ilan University has been excavating Tel 'Eton/Tell Aitun under the direction of Avi Faust.  This year was their third season of excavation and they are finding a destruction level as well as a fortress in the style of a four-room house, only larger. The destruction level seems to pre-date Sennacherib's 701 campaign because pottery is transition form between Lachish III and IV; but also not likely to be Sargon II's 712/711 campaign since it appears he only visited cities on the coastal plain. Scholars have suggested that the site is biblical Eglon (for more on that, see The Sacred Bridge, 128). The website is viewable in MS Internet Explorer, but not Firefox.

 Tell Aitun, possibly Eglon, from south, tb102900331
Tel 'Eton, possibly biblical Eglon, from south

Khirbet Qeiyafa, located directly east of Azekah, is being excavated by Yosi Garfinkel of Hebrew University.  They found a four-chambered gate dating to the 10th century B.C. with a casemate wall and two attached buildings. There was no previous occupation and the nearest subsequent occupation is Hellenistic, so it is virtually a single-period site for Iron IIA. They also found an ostracon (inscribed potsherd) with about 4-5 lines of writing, the contents of which are apparently more sensitive than Israel's plans to bomb Iran.  (This is a good reminder to thank those archaeologists who are quick to share their discoveries with all of their supporters.)  The ostracon will be published by Misgav.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Satellite Imagery plus

A guy discovers a ship 10,000 feet underwater that was sunk 60 years ago - without ever leaving his computer!  Wetherby News has the fascinating story and some potential benefits to archaeologists.  A previous article was in the Times Online.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has posted a 7-minute movie about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. has quite a selection of interesting (modern) maps.

HT: Joe Lauer


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Plastered Skulls Found in Galilee

From Arutz-7:

Archaeologists have discovered three 9,000-year-old skulls at the Yiftah'el dig in the Lower Galilee, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. Experts said the placement of the skulls confirms the worship of ancestors from during that time, practiced by displaying skulls inside houses.

The skulls were apparently placed on benches in a house where they would inspire the younger generation to continue in the ways of their forefathers. A similar custom was also identified in Syria, Turkey and Jordan.

The skulls are 8,000-9,000 years old and were buried in a pit adjacent to an excavated large public building. They were discovered during excavations for a new highway interchange at the Movil Junction, a major intersection.

"The skulls were found plastered – that is to say sculpted – which is a phenomenon that is identified with the New Stone Age," said site director Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily. "The practice included the reconstruction of all of the facial features of the deceased by means of sculpting the skull with a variety of materials such as plaster that was specifically intended for this. On the skulls that were found in the excavation the nose was entirely reconstructed."

The story continues here.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sepphoris Temple and More

A Roman temple from the 2nd century A.D. has been excavated at Sepphoris.  The temple was about 40 by 80 feet (12 x 24 m) and its facade faced the decumanus, the main east-west street of the city.  A church was later built over the temple.  The story is reported by ScienceDaily, Physorg, and the Jerusalem Post.  The first two links each have a photo.

Zondervan Academic has a new blog and they have, among other things, links to the online programs for the national meetings of AAR, ETS, and SBL.  I also liked John Walton's post on bad things people do in teaching children the Bible

The JPost has a short article about "Genesis Land," a tourist site that recreates patriarchal life midway between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Some people know General Charles Gordon because of his work in China and Sudan, and others for his popularization of "Gordon's Calvary" or the Garden Tomb.  NPR has a five-part series on China and Sudan, in which Gordon's influence is discussed in part one.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Byzantine Period Olive Press Discovered

A "very formidable and rare olive press" was discovered recently in Western Galilee.  It is one of the largest known from Israel and dates to the 6th-7th centuries A.D.  From the Israel Antiquities Authority:

A unique and impressive complex for producing oil that dates to the Byzantine period, which is also one of the largest uncovered in the country so far, was discovered recently during trial excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Moshav Ahihud, in the Western Galilee. The excavations are being carried out as part of a development plan to enlarge the village....

In the middle of the building a central crushing mill (a large round stone) was uncovered upon which a millstone (referred to as a memel) was placed. It was customary to harness an animal to the axle of the millstone which would turn the stone and thereby crush the olives.

After crushing and breaking them, the olive pulp was brought for pressing in aqalim (baskets woven of coarse fabric or ropes). The aqalim were squeezed in a press and the olive oil was extracted as a result of this action. The baskets served as a filter whereby the liquid dripped out leaving the pits and pulp waste behind in the baskets. 

Three screw type press beds and a stone weight that was originally connected to the end of a. beam were revealed at the site.

The rest of the story, and photographs, are here.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Gold Coins from 1st Century Found at Ramat Rahel

Haaretz is reporting on the discovery of a hoard of coins at a site three miles south of ancient Jerusalem.

A few days ago, archaeologists made a most surprising find at the bottom of such a columbarium, at a site at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel near Jerusalem - a hoard of coins from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.).

Late in July, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University identified, beneath the floor of the columbarium, a ceramic cooking pot from the 1st century C.E. that held 15 large gold coins. "It's very special to find a hoard like this, and it's very exciting," related the director of the excavations at the site, Dr. Oded Lipschits, of TAU. "We discovered the hoard with a metal detector, and then we went down into the niche and found this small cooking pot inside it."

What was a pot holding coins doing at the bottom of a cave used for raising pigeons? According to Lipschits, the pot was covered up in a way that indicates that it had been concealed in a hurry. "We know that coins like these were brought to the Temple," he says. "Possibly after the Temple was destroyed there was no place to bring the coins, and since the columbarium was no longer in use, they buried the coins here. This arouses sad thoughts as we approach Tisha B'Av," he added, referring to the Hebrew date (the ninth of Av) that traditionally marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

For photos, see the Hebrew version of the article. (HT: Joe Lauer).

Unrelated to the coin discovery is discussion of the function of the building that has previously been identified as a palace of the Judean kings (something akin to Camp David in the U.S.). 

Lipschits says that one of the aims of the current dig is to clarify the purpose of this structure. "The accepted claim is that it is a palace of the kings of Judea, but I'm dubious of that. The palace lacks any Judean characteristics, and there is no reason that a royal palace would have been built here, when the City of David is not far away."

Lipschits believes that the palace was built during the period of the Assyrian subjugation. "This entire complex is, in my opinion, an administrative center for the occupying regime, a place where agricultural produce was collected, for delivery as a tax to the Assyrians."

During the period of the return to Zion (beginning 539 B.C.E.), the Assyrian regime was replaced by a Persian one, but the administrative center continued to operate. Many seal impressions from this period have been found, bearing the name "Pahwat Yahud," the name of the country under this regime. The Ramat Rachel excavation is is the main accumulation in the country of impressions of this sort, and Lipschits sees this as further proof that the site was an administrative center.

There's some confusion about this elsewhere, but I think the journalist has it correct.  What Lipschits is suggesting, contrary to his predecessors (Aharoni, Yadin, and Barkay) is that the palace was an Assyrian center, following the time of the Assyrian subjugation of Judah under Hezekiah.  While most would agree that Assyria maintained some sort of control over Judah for about 50 years after Sennacherib's failed attempt to conquer Jerusalem, Lipschits goes farther in claiming that Ramat Rahel was an on-site command post for Assyria.  Here's a brief summary of archaeologists' conclusions about this important and beautiful building:

  • Yohanan Aharoni: Palace of Judean king Jehoiakim (cf. Jeremiah 22); ca. 600 B.C.
  • Yigael Yadin (never missing an opportunity to disagree with YA):  Palace of Judean queen Athaliah; ca. 840 B.C.
  • Gabriel Barkay: Palace of Judean king Hezekiah; ca. 700 B.C. (possibly built, destroyed, and rebuilt during his reign)
  • Nadav Na'aman and Oded Lipschits: Assyrian headquarters in Judah; ca. 700 B.C.

If you're interested in more, you can start with the article by Barkay in Biblical Archaeology Review, Sept/Oct 2006, pp. 34-44.

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Gath Season 2008 Report

The season at Philistine Gath (Tell es-Safi) is concluded and archaeologist Aren Maeir has a great wrap-up of the season for all who couldn't be there. Gath is proving to be one of the most important excavations of recent times and Maeir's helpful reviews to the public should be a model for all excavations (and we get it straight from the horse's mouth and not garbled through a journalist!). Some highlights (from my perspective):

  • They excavated material from Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, Iron I, Iron II, and Crusader.
  • Gath appears to have been a large, significant site in Early Bronze, before the arrival of the Philistines.
  • Remains were found related to the earliest arrival of the Philistines at the site, including locally made Mycenean IIIC ware.
  • Important discovery from the time of David/Solomon: "a well-dated fragment of a seal impression (of the late 21st Dynasty in Egypt, ca. mid-10th cent BCE), and several nice clusters of carbonized grape pips. This latter find should be able to provide nice 14C datings for this phase. One cannot overemphasize the importance of the finds in this level, since it may provide the first concrete, well-dated (from several perspectives) context from the early Iron Age IIA in Philistia."
  • Gath was a large site in the time of the first kings of Judah: "As such, it appears to mirror the role that Gath is portrayed as playing in the biblical text in the early monarchy, that of the major Philistine city, primus inter pares among the five Philistine cities."
  • More evidence was revealed of Hazael's destruction of the site in about 800 B.C.
  • Gath may have been destroyed twice by the Assyrians - first by Sargon II (712 B.C.?) and then by Sennacherib (701 B.C.).

Maeir concludes: "All told, the season was great, the team was fantastic and the find were extraordinary!"

Read the whole thing here.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Seal of King Zedekiah's Official Discovered

Eilat Mazar announced yesterday that the seal of a government official was discovered in her excavations in the City of David.  The story was covered by several media outlets (JPost, the Trumpet), and here's my summary with a few thoughts.

What: The clay seal impression, about 1 cm (.4 inch) in diameter, has the name Gedaliah, son of Pashur.

Who: Gedaliah was a government official mentioned in the book of Jeremiah as serving the last king of Judah, Zedekiah.  Gedaliah was among those who intended to kill the prophet Jeremiah.  The relevant passage is Jeremiah 38:1-5.

Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah was saying to all the people, 2 “Thus says the Lord: He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live. He shall have his life as a prize of war, and live. 3 Thus says the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and be taken.” 4 Then the officials said to the king, “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” 5 King Zedekiah said, “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you” (ESV).

Note: The man mentioned immediately after Gedaliah is Jucal the son of Shelemiah.  His seal impression was found nearby in Mazar's excavation three years ago. 

Where, specifically:  Trumpet reports:

”We found the bulla of Jehucal inside the palace structure,” Mazar told yesterday. “This time, we found the bulla of Gedaliah outside the wall, just at the foot of the same spot we found Jehucal.” The two must have been connected somehow, she said.

When: Zedekiah was king from 597-586 B.C.  The date of the seal impression's discovery is not given, as far as I can tell.  With the last discovery of a seal impression, Mazar announced it so fast that later she had to go back and apologize for mis-reading the inscription (backwards).

Photos: For photographs of the seal impression, see  For some excellent line drawings of the inscription by G. M. Grena, see the files posted at biblicalist. For a general photo of the excavation area, see my photo here.

A few additional comments on the JPost article:

The excavation at the history-rich City of David, which is located just outside the walls of the Old City near Dung Gate, has proven, in recent years, to be a treasure trove for archeologists.

Actually, on the whole, I'd say that the discoveries have been minimal.  This is a central area of the City of David and after three years of excavation, three seal impressions and two controversial building identifications is not what I'd call a "treasure trove."  A few meters down the slope Yigal Shiloh found an archive of more than 50 seal impressions, including one belonging to a government official more friendly to Jeremiah, Gemariah the son of Shaphan (Jer 36).  Of course, it is altogether possible that Mazar has made other significant finds but is choosing to publicize them in the future.

The archeologist, who rose to international prominence for her excavation that may have uncovered the Biblical palace of King David nearby, has been at the forefront of a series of back-to-back Jerusalem archeological finds, including the remnants of a wall from the Biblical prophet Nehemiah, also in the area.

It seems to me that there's a problem here when an archaeologist can "rise to international prominence" on the basis of a couple of sensationalistic identifications without peer review.  If those identifications prove untenable (and there is significant discussion among archaeologists about both of the above issues), will she still be internationally prominent?  Should an individual scholar be so elevated on the basis of his/her own unconfirmed claims?  I would note here that lots of Bible skeptics would say the same thing; I am not among them, but still am uneasy about some of the ways these matters have been handled.  Of course, this new seal impression is not part of the debate.

The current dig is being conducted on behalf of the Shalem center, a Jerusalem research institute, and the right-wing City of David Foundation, and was carried out under the academic auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Is there relevance to the fact that the City of David Foundation is "right-wing"?  Is the JPost suggesting that this discovery or its interpretation is affected by the political views of a funding organization?  Should the identity of the the financial supporter have priority over the identity of the academic authority?  Would the JPost have identified another institution as "left-wing"? 

UPDATE (8/3): In an email, the City of David Foundation includes this additional information:

Dr. Eilat Mazar completed the third phase her excavation of what she believes to be Kind [sic] David’s palace at the City of David site a month and a half ago and is currently sifting through the remains of that excavation. It was in this material that she found the seal. Much of the rubble from the dig has yet to be sifted and it is likely that more discoveries will be made.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Weekend Roundup

Leen Ritmeyer has a posted (with a follow-up) on his identification of several stones in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount that are clearly pre-Herodian.  Ritmeyer dates them to the time of King Hezekiah, suggesting that he was the one to build the 500-cubit square Temple Mount that Ritmeyer has previously identified.  He includes some helpful illustrations and photos.

A review of current excavations in Turkey is given at Today's Zaman.  New Testament sites being excavated include Alexandria Troas, Miletus, Hierapolis, Sardis, Smyrna, and Laodicea.  There are many other sites as well.  Many of these cities have very impressive remains, unlike many sites in Israel.  Today's Zaman also has an article on recent discoveries at Sardis.

NASA has a photo of a street of Ephesus at night, with (the planet) Jupiter illuminating the way.

Across the way in Greece, the ancient hippodrome of Olympia has been discovered.  This is a good story that counters the myth that everything to be found has already been found.

A couple fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have now been published by James H. Charlesworth.  One of the fragments may be from the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the other appears to be from Nehemiah, making it the first portion of that book to be found among the DSS.  Paleojudaica gives more info and links.

If you're a tourist in Israel and have a question, you can now call the 24-hour tourist hotline.  It's easy (dial *3888), but it's not a toll-free number.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Just Another Byzantine Church

The "Earliest Church in Jordan" sounded like a bunch of nonsense to start with and now a couple of scholars have more data and believe the excavators have made some big mistakes.

Even stronger criticism has now emerged. Two University of Toronto scholars argue that the excavators have misread the inscription in the church; they claim, from both a rereading of the inscription and from the architecture, that the church is significantly younger than do the excavators. They also say that the cave below gives no indication of having been used in the first century.

Biblical Archaeology Review has the story, including a pdf file of the article: “The Oratory of St. George in Rihab: The Oldest Extant Christian Building or Just Another Byzantine Church?”

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Weekend Stories

A Byzantine cemetery has been discovered in construction work at the hospital of Ashkelon (JPost).

An arsonist set several fires in the Tel Dan nature reserve, burning half of the 120-acre park.  They hope to re-open the park later this week (JPost).

A rare marble discus was discovered underwater at Yavne-Yam.  The disk, 8 inches in diameter, was used to ward off the evil eye in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. (IAA; Arutz-7; Haaretz; JPost).

The hotel where Mark Twain stayed in Jerusalem has been identified (Haaretz).

Israeli, Palestinian, and German scholars will be studying bones unearthed at Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon in order to study the DNA so as to identify genes that made the ancient inhabitants more or less susceptible to tuberculosis (Guardian).

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg discusses two Jewish temples known from Egypt, one at Leontopolis (Tell el-Yehudiyeh) and the other on Elephantine Island (Yeb, Aswan) (JPost).

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Gabriel's Vision (Messiah Stone)

The New York Times publishes an article on old news, Drudge links to it, and suddenly we have a sensational story that will "shake our basic view of Christianity."  Hold on a minute.

You can read the story in the NY Times, a copy at the International Herald Tribune, Haaretz, World Net Daily, and elsewhere.  You could also have read about it a year ago in Haaretz, or read the article in Biblical Archaeology Review Jan/Feb 2008 issue.  Why is it suddenly "news" now?

You can see photos of it at Haaretz, a large photo here, line drawing and transcription here (pdf), and an English translation here.  You can also read the original journal article published in Cathedra here (in Hebrew; pdf).

Here's a brief summary:

What: Three-foot tall stone inscribed in ink with 87 lines of Hebrew text describing a vision given by the angel Gabriel

When: The stone was written in the 1st century B.C. and it was discovered 8-10 years ago and sold by a Jordanian antiquities dealer to an Israeli-Swiss antiquities collector.

Where: It was found in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, possibly on the Jordanian side.  Ada Yardeni: "You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone."

Forgery?: Even though this was not uncovered in a legal excavation, scholars believe the inscription to be authentic.

The Sensational Claim: The end of the inscription mentions a messiah who would rise in 3 days.  Since the text was written before Jesus' resurrection, it explains how the story of Jesus' resurrection came to be.

The Sensational Quotation: "Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story" (Israel Knohl, professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University and proponent of this theory). 

The Disputed Reading: "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you."

Why Disputed: "There is one problem.  In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl's tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words" (Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University).

Why This Matters:

Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

In other words, if the disputed reading is correct, this reveals that Jesus and/or his disciples did not create the story of his resurrection after three days, but rather they borrowed it from existing ideas.  Of course, it is either one or the other: they invented it or stole it.  Here's a radical idea: Jesus was raised by God from the dead after he had been in the tomb three days.  Jesus expected this, which is why he predicted it.  His disciples remembered it, which is why they recorded it.

The author of this theory, Israel Knohl, says that this stone "should shake our basic view of Christianity."  Several assumptions are required for this stone to be so significant: 1) Knohl's disputed reading must be correct; 2) Knohl's interpretation of the text overall must be correct; 3) Jesus and/or his disciples must have known about this text (or a similar one not yet attested to); 4) Jesus did not rise from the dead; 5) Jesus' disciples were dishonest in claiming that he did rise from the dead and in attributing this idea to him from another source; 6) Jesus' disciples were stupid in dying for a lie that they invented.  Altogether, I think that these assumptions are shaky enough to suggest that Knohl is a little too optimistic about the impact of his theory.

UPDATE (7/8): I found the BAR article mentioned above online and added a link.  For today's articles and analysis on the story, see this post at Paleojudaica.

UPDATE (7/9): I can hardly do better than Paleojudaica with the latest stories, so I will not even try.  Note his choice for "inflated headline of the week."

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Student Finds LMLK Handle

Last month I was in Israel when a friend called and said that one of the students in a group he was leading found a jar handle with a LMLK seal impression laying on the ground at Ramat Rahel (two miles south of the Old City of Jerusalem).  I've led student groups around Israel for 15 years and none of them has ever found a LMLK handle and my friend is three days into his first trip when one is found.  Within a day or so, he had sent a photo of the seal impression to "Mr. LMLK" (who immediately published an analysis of it here) and got the expert opinion of Dr. Gabriel Barkay.  Yesterday, the story made it into the newspaper.  If you're recruiting for next year's tour, you can try enticing your students with the hope of such a discovery.  And you might take a closer look at that next potsherd before you toss it.

Lemelek, found by Sanchez
LMLK seal impression; photo by Steven Sanchez

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mysterious Stone Piles in Sea of Galilee

From Haaretz:

A marine scientist has discovered a series of mysterious stone patterns on the lake bed of drought-stricken Lake Kinneret.

The man-made piles of stone, which are now above water, jut out from the freshwater lake, and sit 30 meters from each other along a 3.5-kilometer stretch of the eastern shore, from the Kinneret College campus to Haon resort.

Gal Itzhaki of Kibbutz Afikim first noticed the stones while strolling along the lake's receded shoreline. He says the patterns are a "fascinating phenomenon" and are part of an "impressive building enterprise."

Though they have not yet been scientifically examined, there are several hypotheses as to what functions they fulfilled. One theory postulates that they were part of a boundary between the ancient lakeside towns of Hippos, also known as Sussita, and Gadara. Both towns were part of the Decapolis, a group of 10 towns that flourished in the eastern part of the Roman province of Palestina, and are mentioned in the New Testament. Others have hypothesized that the patterns were part of a string of watchtowers or small buildings, or were used to set up fishermen's nets.

Read the rest here.  The Hebrew version includes a photo.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Earliest Church in Jordan

When a sensational but unsubstantiated archaeological discovery is reported, my inclination is to ignore it.  Since the goal to gain headlines and popularity (and sometimes to stir up tourism), the best way to thwart the guilty is to not publicize their claim.  As they know, all publicity is good publicity.

This doesn't work very well when mainstream news sources carry the story and one gets multiple requests about the accuracy of the report.  So I succumb.

The claim by Jordanian archaeologists that they have found the "earliest church" ever is the latest in an apparently on-going competition by archaeologists.  According to everything I've read about it, there is no basis for this claim whatsoever.  All evidence noted in the story runs counter to this claim.  Jerome Murphy-O'Connor says it well:

"Pushing the (date) back to the year 70 is very speculative. (The Jordanians) are desperate to create church sites (for tourism)," Father Murphy-O'Connor said. "I would be suspicious of this sort of hype."

Be suspicious of archaeologists, pseudo-archaeologists, and government departments of tourism.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Egyptian Fortress on Road to Canaan Revealed

From National Geographic:

Archaeologists have uncovered more remnants from Tharu, the largest known fortified city in ancient Egypt, which sits near the modern-day border town of Rafah.

The fortress, also known as Tjaru or Tharo, covered about 31 acres (13 hectares), Egyptian authorities say. Its discovery near the Suez Canal was announced in July 2007.

Tharu helped guard the empire's eastern front in the Sinai Peninsula and served as a military cornerstone for Egypt's ancient leaders.

"It was built [more than] 3,000 years ago, and it was an important and strategic point," said Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The fort's remains were found as part of a project that began in 1986 to explore the "Horus Way," an ancient military road that connected 11 fortresses linking Egypt and Palestine.

The path also served as an entry point for traders coming from Asia.

"This is the only way to enter Egypt by land coming from the east," said Fayza Haikal, a professor of archaeology and Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. "It was the way not only for armies but also commercial [expeditions]."

So far Egyptian authorities have discovered four fortresses along the Horus Way, which essentially formed the same line as Egypt's current eastern border (see map).

The story continues here.

HT: Joe Lauer


Monday, May 19, 2008

Another Jerusalem Quarry Discovered

Like the quarry found last year, this one is north of the Old City.  From the Jerusalem Post:

For the second time in the past year, archeologists have uncovered a Second Temple Period quarry whose stones were used to build the Western Wall, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Monday.

The latest archeological discovery was made in the city's Sanhedria neighborhood, located about two kilometers from the Old City of Jerusalem.

The quarry was uncovered during a routine "salvage excavation" carried out by the state-run archeological body over the last several months ahead of the construction of a private house in the religious neighborhood.

The quarry is believed to be one of those used to build the Jerusalem holy site because the size of the stones match those at the Western Wall.

"Most of the stones that were found at the site are similar in size to the smallest stones that are currently visible in the Western Wall, and therefore we assume that the stones from this quarry were used to build these structures," said Dr. Gerald Finkielsztejn, director of the excavation.

The stones were dated by pottery found at the site, he added.

"This is a rather regular quarry except that there are really big stones," Finkielsztejn said.

The largest of the stones found at the quarry measures 0.69 x 0.94 x 1.65 m, while some of the stones were apparently ready for extraction but were left in place.

The quarry was probably abandoned at the time of the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66-70 CE, he said.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Report of Queen of Sheba's Palace

Trend News reports the discovery of Queen of Sheba's palace.  I have no independent knowledge of this excavation, so it not impossible that there's a kernel of truth in the story.  But I would note a few things that suggest caution before you include this in your list of "greatest discoveries of the Bible."  1) The news sources which are currently carrying the story are not ones I'm familiar with.  If this was carried by a source like the Associated Press, then it would carry more weight. 2) The story's claim that Sheba was married to Solomon is based on late tradition, and certainly is not mentioned in the Bible, as the article says.  Getting simple facts like these wrong makes me wonder if the rest of the facts are based on such flimsy reporting.  3) There is no evidence that the ark of the covenant went to Ethiopia.  The tradition is based in part on the tradition that Sheba was married to Solomon (or at least gave birth to his child).  4) Many scholars believe that Sheba was in modern Yemen. 

Archaeologists believe they have found the Queen of Sheba's palace at Axum, Ethiopia and an altar which held the most precious treasure of ancient Judaism, the Ark of the Covenant, the University of Hamburg said Wednesday, the dpa reported.

Scientists from the German city made the startling find during their spring excavation of the site over the past three months.

The Ethiopian queen was the bride of King Solomon of Israel in the 10th century before the Christian era. The royal match is among the memorable events in the Bible.

Ethiopian tradition claims the Ark, which allegedly contained Moses' stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, was smuggled to Ethiopia by their son Menelek and is still in that country.

The University said scientists led by Helmut Ziegert had found remains of a 10th-century-BC palace at Axum-Dungur under the palace of a later Christian king. There was evidence the early palace had been torn down and realigned to the path of the star Sirius.

The story continues here.

HT: Paleojudaica


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Philistine Temple (Found) and Gate (Rebuilt)

A couple of developments in the land of the Philistines are worth noting:

A Philistine temple is being excavated at a site south of the five major Philistine cities.  The temple dates to late Iron I (circa 1000 B.C.) and is a few miles south of biblical Gerar (Tel Haror) and northwest of Beersheba.  Aren Maier has a brief report of his visit and some of the finds.

The Canaanite gate at Ashkelon has now been completely restored.  They claim that it is the "oldest arched gate in the world," but pushing the date of the Ashkelon gate a little earlier and the date of the Dan gate a little later.  Even archaeologists are competitive!  The JPost has a picture of the gate with a modern arch which looks like it was designed for schoolkids.  Below is a photo before they added the arch.

Ashkelon Middle Bronze gate, tb083006557
Ashkelon Middle Bronze Gate (circa 1800 B.C.)

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Iron Age Seal Found in Jerusalem: Netanyahu son of Yaush

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has announced the discovery of an Iron Age seal from the excavations in the Western Wall plaza.  This is the second of two seals previously reported and it reads "[belonging] to Netanyahu ben Yaush."  Both names are known from the Bible, but this particular person is not mentioned.  This seal was found a debris layer dating to the end of the Iron Age (c. 586 B.C.) underneath the "Eastern/Valley Cardo."  The area of the excavations is shown in the photo below.  More information about the discovery and a photo of the seal is available in the IAA press release (and repeated by Arutz-7).

Western Wall plaza excavations, tb051707664
Excavations in Western Wall plaza, May 2007

Medeba map, Jerusalem, tb031801034
Medeba Map depiction of Jerusalem, 580 A.D.

The following paragraph from the press release seems strange to me, and if it wasn't the IAA reporting it, I'd not believe it:

In addition to the personal seal, a vast amount of pottery vessels was discovered, among them three jar handles that bear LMLK stamped impressions. An inscription written in ancient Hebrew script is preserved on one these impressions and it reads: למלך חברון ([belonging] to the king of Hebron).

My guess is that this is a standard LMLK seal impression, and it simply gives one of the four place names that are listed on LMLK seals (Hebron, Ziph, Socoh, MMST).  The place name is a royal distribution center, and is not a reference to the domain of the king.  "To the king" means that it was royal property.  "Hebron" is the place of distribution.  All of this is well-known (and you can learn more than you ever wanted to know at, which makes me wonder if this discovery is something different, or if the press report was written by a secretary.

UPDATE (3/17): The JPost now has an article on the discovery, which essentially covers the same ground, including repetition of the error of the seal "belonging to the king of Hebron."  The article ends with details I don't recall seeing:

The newly-found remnants of the city's past will be preserved next to a new Western Wall Heritage Center, slated to be built at the site, and whose planning prompted the salvage dig.

The construction of the building, which is expected to take several years and is being underwritten by the American media mogul Mort Zuckerman, will include an educational center, a video conference room, a VIP lounge and a police station.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Inscription Discovered at Philistine Gath

A seal recently discovered in the City of David reads "Rephaihu (ben) Shalem."  Archaeologist Aren Maier, who directs the on-going excavations at Philistine Gath, reports on an inscription which may be connected to the word "Rephaim," mentioned in the Bible in various places including 2 Samuel 21:16-22.

UPDATE (3/4): The post above has been greatly altered from the original.  This inscription is from Gath, not Jerusalem, and it was incised on a jar, and is not a seal.  Thanks to Aren Maier for the correction.  My apologies to all for the errors.  When word comes of the second seal found in the City of David, I'll note it on this blog.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

New Seals Found in City of David

I don't remember seeing this published elsewhere and you might miss it under the title "What Happened to the Clerks and Merchants of the 8th Century BCE?"  Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun have discovered more seals in the City of David, these from the 8th century (the time of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah).  These excavators had previously discovered a collection of seals from the 9th century, and these did not bear inscriptions.  But they recently found two stone seals and three bullae (seal impressions), all inscribed with Hebrew names.  The best preserved has the name "Rephaihu (ben) Shalem."  The article is brief and includes a photo of the complete seal.  Though they operate without much fanfare, Reich and Shukrun's excavation in Jerusalem over the last 13 years has produced more interesting results than probably any other dig in Israel, including discovery of the two towers at the Gihon Spring, the reinterpretation of Warren's Shaft, the discovery of the Pool of Siloam, and many other related architectural features and small finds.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Excavations of Magdala and Nazareth

Antonio Lombatti has word of reports of (recent) excavations of Magdala and (not-so-recent) excavations of the area now known as "Nazareth Village." 

Magdala: You can read Lombatti's intro here (with beautiful photos) or read the report in Italian here.  If you're wondering if you've ever visited Magdala, you haven't.  You may have driven by it (or possibly hiked or biked if you're one of those sort), but the area has been locked and sealed for a long time, and entrance available only to those who know the right people.  Hopefully that will all change...

Nazareth: You can read Lombatti's intro here or go straight to the report (pdf) by Stephen Pfann.  If you're wondering why you were unimpressed with Nazareth when you visited, it's probably because you didn't visit Nazareth Village, a modern reconstruction of the 1st century village.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Seal of "Temah" Found in Jerusalem

Many seals have been found with the names of people mentioned in the Bible, but it's always nice to find another. From the Jerusalem Post:

A stone seal bearing the name of one of the families who acted as servants in the First Temple and then returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to Babylonia has been uncovered in an archeological excavation in Jerusalem's City of David, a prominent Israeli archeologist said Wednesday.

The 2,500-year-old black stone seal, which has the name "Temech" engraved on it, was found earlier this week amid stratified debris in the excavation under way just outside the Old City walls near the Dung Gate, said archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, who is leading the dig.

According to the Book of Nehemiah, the Temech family were servants of the First Temple and were sent into exile to Babylon following its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

The family was among those who later returned to Jerusalem, the Bible recounts.

The seal, which was bought in Babylon and dates to 538-445 BCE, portrays a common and popular cultic scene, Mazar said.

The 2.1 x 1.8-cm. elliptical seal is engraved with two bearded priests standing on either side of an incense altar with their hands raised forward in a position of worship.

The rest of the article is here.

The article mentions the mention of Temech (spelled Temah in NIV, NAS and ESV) in Nehemiah 7:55, but not Ezra 2:53.

HT: Joe Lauer

UPDATE (1/17): The JPost article now includes a photo. And on the ANE-2 list, Peter van der Veen suggests that the inscription should be read the opposite way, thus sh-l-m-t or Shlomit.

UPDATE (1/19): Chris Heard has a good analysis, together with some helpful illustrations showing the suggested readings. From the discussion at ANE-2 and elsewhere, it seems that the majority of scholars favor the "Shlomit" reading. There is a Shlomit mentioned in the Bible from this time period as well, in Ezra 8:10.

UPDATE (1/31): Mazar now agrees with those who read the seal from left to right. For more, see this post.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Excavations of Herodian Ruins at Dhahab (Penuel/Mahanaim)

Many will probably quickly skip over this article, but those who have visited or studied the sites of Penuel and Mahanaim will be interested, though the article mentions neither possible identification.  Excavations have (finally!) begun at Tall adh-Dhahab, often identified by biblical scholars as the place where Jacob wrestled with the angel, where David fled from Absalom, and where Jeroboam built his Transjordanian capital.  But what was not known (at least to me) was the Herodian attraction to the site.  This makes perfect sense, given its history.  A professor of theology at Technische Universität Dortmund began work last year.  From their recent press release.

This year Thomas Pola, professor for theology at TU Dortmund, and his team have continued the excavations in the East Jordan Land. With their findings on the mountain Tall adh-Dhahab (West) in the Jabbok Valley the archeologists could substantiate one assumption: everything points to the fact that the building remains from the Hellenistic and Roman era, found in 2006, were part of a yet unknown monumental building of Herod the Great (73-4 BC).

This assumption is based on the floors of one of the discovered peristyle yards (yards enclosed by continuous columns) which the archeologists were able to excavate. Prof. Pola sees the parallels with the architecture of Herod’s West Jordan Alexandreion as prove that there also was a monumental building of Herod the Great on the plateau of the mountain Tall adh-Dhahab. That would mean that in addition to his reign over the West Jordan Land, the Jewish king had a security system with which he could have controlled the ancient long-distance traffic in the middle Jordan Valley and the access ways to the plateau of the East Jordan Land.

Above that, the team of Prof. Pola for the first time discovered a layer from the late Bronze Age or the Early Iron Age on a natural terrace directly underneath the plateau. The ruins of a tower from the city wall at least show three building phases. “On the level of the oldest building phase we took samples from a burnt layer. A C14-analysis carried out by Prof. Manfred Bayer (Physics at TU Dortmund) showed that the charcoal originates from the time 1300 to 1000 BC. At this location we will continue to work in 2008.”

Finally Prof. Pola’s team discovered the purpose of the monumental military facility half way up the mountain: it is a casemate wall. It is supposed to have been finished in Roman times. This is yet another argument for the identification of the mountain with the stronghold Amathous mentioned in the ancient world. The historian Josephus (37 to 100 AD) described Amathous as the biggest stronghold in the East Jordan Land.

The press release continues here.

Penuel from southeast, tb031701999
Tall adh-Dhahab West, identified by some as biblical Mahanaim and by others (including myself) as Penuel


Hatshepsut Mummy Study Continues

Because the biblical dates in the Bible suggest that the Exodus occurred in the mid-15th century, some surmise that Hatshepsut might be the princess mentioned in the Bible.  In any case, she is a very important and interesting figure.  From the Associated Press:

Months after Egypt boldly announced that archaeologists had identified a mummy as the most powerful queen of her time, scientists in a museum basement are still analyzing DNA from the bald, 3,500-year-old corpse to try to back up the claim aired on TV.

Progress is slow. So far, results indicate the linen-wrapped mummy is most likely, but not conclusively, the female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled for 20 years in the 15th century B.C.

Running its own ancient-DNA lab is a major step forward for Egypt, which for decades has seen foreigners take most of the credit for major discoveries here.

It's time Egyptian scientists took charge, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities chief who spearheaded the quest to find Hatshepsut and build the lab. "Egyptology, for the last 200 years, it has been led by foreigners."

The story continues here.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Palace of Queen Helena Found?

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of the palace of Queen Helena of Adiabene today.  You can read about it in this Jerusalem Post article or in this AFP article.  The JPost article also has a great photo of the excavation area.  Here are some parts of the JPost article with my thoughts.

The site, which has been unearthed during a six-month 'salvage' excavation in the Givati parking lot just outside the Dung Gate ahead of the planned expansion of the Western Wall car park, also indicates that the ancient City of David was much larger than previously thought, said archeologist Doron Ben-Ami, who is directing the dig at the site.

If you've been in Jerusalem in the last five years, you've seen this gaping hole just south of the Dung Gate - this is the same place.  I worked with our students as volunteers in digging here back in the fall of 2003, so it's not exactly a new excavation as the article implies.

Temple Mount and City of David aerial from sw, tb010703234 
Jerusalem from southwest; excavation area circled

That the "City of David was much larger than previously thought" doesn't make any sense to me.  The City of David has always been understood to be bordered by the Kidron Valley on the east and the Central Valley on the west and neither of those have moved in the last six months.  Nobody has doubted that there was construction in this area in the 1st century A.D., especially given the Crowfoot expedition in the 1920s.

The "monumental" edifice, which was destroyed by the Romans when they demolished the Second Temple in 70 CE, was dated to the end of the Second Temple Period by pottery and stone vessels, as well as an assortment of coins from that time, Ben-Ami said.

When we were there, we were digging in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, and I've never been part of a dig where we found more coins than this one. 

According to the director of the dig, the elaborate edifice, which is an anomaly in the landscape of the Lower City at the end of the Second Temple period - which was marked with modest buildings - was probably a palace built by Queen Helena, a wealthy Iraqi aristocrat who converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem with her sons.

The problem with this statement is that very little digging has been done on the crest of the City of David (as opposed to the eastern slope), and there was much destruction in later periods.  So there isn't much to compare with.  If all they have is a magnificent building, I'd say it could be Helena's and it could be someone else's.

Helena is an interesting individual.  Her tomb in Jerusalem was the second most magnificent one in the ancient world (and it's still impressive, although difficult to visit because of poor management by the French government; cf. Ant. 20.4.3).  Josephus wrote that Helena built three palaces in the Lower City (one for herself, one for her son and one for her mother-in-law; Wars 4.9.11; 5.6.1), which is (I think) the only basis for the identification of this building as hers by the archaeologist.

Though contemporary with the book of Acts, Helena is not mentioned in the New Testament.  Josephus connects her with the famine mentioned in Acts 11:28, indicating that she bought large quantities of food from Egypt to feed the people of Jerusalem (Ant. 20.2.3ff.).

The archeologists carrying out the dig have not yet found any inscription to identify the building they uncovered, but the excavation director said that there was a "high probability" that the site was indeed the 2,000-year-old palace of Queen Helena.  "We need more evidence to decide, but almost everything fits," Ben-Ami said.

This identification could well be, but there's no evidence for it given in this article.  I would think the identification would be stronger if: 1) more of the City of David had been excavated, thus excluding other sites; 2) we had more knowledge of what else was in the City of David in the 1st century; all we really know is that these palaces were here, but it's doubtful that these occupied the entire area; 3) finds from the building were of Mesopotamian origin (Adiabene was a province in northern Mesopotamia).

The well-preserved structure being uncovered in the ongoing excavation is an impressive architectural complex that includes massive foundations; walls, some of which are preserved to a height in excess of five meters and built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms; halls that are preserved to a height of at least two stories; a basement level that was covered with vaults; remains of polychrome frescoes, water installations and ritual baths.

This is great, but there were many impressive buildings in first century Jerusalem, so this alone is not sufficient to prove the identification.

Those interested in Jewish evangelism and conversion in the New Testament period would find Helena's story worth studying.  For a start, take a look at the articles in Anchor Bible Dictionary on Proselyte and Circumcision.

Update: The JPost has a one-minute video of the excavations with an archaeologist talking about the discovery.  HT: Joe Lauer.

Update (12/7): has a 2-minute video, and this Arutz-7 article has numerous photos which show the well-preserved walls and some of the artifacts discovered.  The story is also covered by Reuters, Haaretz, and the AP.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Gospel of Judas: NG Blew It

April D. DeConick says that National Geographic got it all wrong in their interpretation of the Gospel of Judas.  And, what do you know, but their strange choices created the story.  DeConick goes further than explaining the translation errors, but she also shows why scholarship should not be done this way - in a closet by a few scholars who sign non-disclosure agreements before a major press conference designed to generate boatloads of money.

Amid much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.

It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

The rest is here and it is worth reading.

UPDATE (12/8): One of the NG translators responds in a letter to the NYT.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

More on "Nehemiah's Wall"

Yesterday the Jerusalem Post finally reported on the discovery of "Nehemiah's wall" first announced several weeks ago.  Today the AP has a report.  Most of the material is similar to what was reported before, but the Jerusalem Post says that not only the tower but the wall as a whole is from the time of Nehemiah.  That would be a significant development, because the wall is large and easily visible to tourists.  The AP version quotes two scholars with different views on Mazar's conclusion.  Stern's expertise is Persian period.

Ephraim Stern, professor emeritus of archaeology at Hebrew University and chairman of the state of Israel archaeological council, corroborated Mazar's claim. "The material she showed me is from the Persian period," the period of Nehemiah, he said. "I can sign on the date of the material she found."

Another scholar disputed the significance of the discovery.

Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, called the discovery "an interesting find," but said the pottery and other remains do not indicate that the wall was built in the time of Nehemiah. Because the debris was not connected to a floor or other structural part of the wall, the wall could have been built later, Finkelstein said.

"The wall could have been built, theoretically, in the Ottoman period," he said. "It's not later than the pottery — that's all we know."

You can read the full story here.


First Wall and Palace of David excavation area, tb102306083
Wall (center foreground and below wooden staircase) dated by Eilat Mazar to Nehemiah's time

City of David Area G from southeast, tb091306302labeled

On the picture above, the wall redated to Nehemiah's time is in between the "Southern Hasmonean period tower" and "Northern Hasmonean period tower," behind the "Stepped Stone Structure."


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ancient Synagogue Found Below Arbel

Hebrew University announced the discovery of an ancient synagogue this week.  Dozens of Galilean synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine (Talmudic) periods have been discovered, including ones not far from this one at Capernaum, Arbel, and Hammath Tiberias.  Wadi Hamam is located at the base of the Arbel cliffs, and is the location of the end of "the hike" if you've ever climbed down.  Students with me last year who hiked from Khirbet Kana (biblical Cana) to Magdala probably passed right over the remains described below.  From the Hebrew University website:

Remains of an ancient synagogue from the Roman-Byzantine era have been revealed in excavations carried out in the Arbel National Park in the Galilee under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The excavations, in the Khirbet Wadi Hamam, were led by Dr. Uzi Leibner of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology and Scholion – Interdisciplinary Research Center in Jewish Studies.

Dr. Leibner said that the synagogue’s design is a good example of the eastern Roman architectural tradition. A unique feature of the synagogue is the design of its mosaic floor, he said.

Arbel and Valley of Doves aerial from southwest, 123-05tb
Area of discovery from southwest

The synagogue ruins are located at the foot of the Mt. Nitai cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, amidst the remains of a large Jewish village from the Roman-Byzantine period. The first season of excavations there have revealed the northern part of the synagogue, with two rows of benches along the walls. The building is constructed of basalt and chalk stone and made use of elements from an earlier structure on the site....

The excavators were surprised to find in the eastern aisle of the synagogue a mosaic decoration which to date has no parallels -- not in other synagogues, nor in art in Israel in general from the Roman-Byzantine period. The mosaic is made of tiny stones (four mm. in size) in a variety of colors. The scene depicted is that of a series of woodworkers who are holding various tools of their trade. Near these workers is seen a monumental structure which they are apparently building. According to Dr. Leibner, since Biblical scenes are commonly found in synagogue art, it is possible that what we see in this case is the building of the Temple, or Noah’s ark, or the tower of Babel. The mosaic floor has been removed from the excavation site and its now in the process of restoration.

The rest of the story and a photo of the mosaic floor may be found here.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Roman street found near Western Wall

From today's Jerusalem Post:

The remains of an ancient terraced street dating back to the Roman Period have been uncovered in the Western Wall tunnels, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday.

The street, which likely led to the nearby Temple Mount, dates back nearly 2,000 years to when the city was called Aelia Capitolina, during the second to fourth centuries.

The site, which was uncovered in archeological excavations over the past year, is a side street connecting two major roads in the area, said Jon Seligman, the Antiquities Authority Jerusalem regional archeologist.

The ancient street is paved with large flagstones and is amazingly well-preserved. It is demarcated on both sides by walls built of ashlar stones.

The recent finding is the latest indication that even after they destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Romans continued to value the Temple Mount as one of the main urban focal points of activity in the city.

Various artifacts were discovered in the excavations, including pottery, glass vessels and dozens of coins that all date to the construction of the street and the period after it was abandoned.

Update (11/16): Link above updated. Reuters also has the story with photos.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Excavator Claims Nehemiah's Wall Found in Jerusalem

A few weeks ago I reported on a discovery of Persian period material in the City of David. In a presentation at an archaeological conference in Israel yesterday, Eilat Mazar gave more details about the discovery. The mainstream press hasn't yet picked up the story, but it is reported on the web at (HT: Joe Lauer). A few excerpts in italics, with my commentary:

Yesterday, at an archaeological conference at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Dr. Eilat Mazar told 500 attendees that she had discovered Nehemiah’s wall.

This conference was the 13th Annual Conference of the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies on "New Studies on Jerusalem." One of the lectures scheduled later that day was by Israel Finkelstein: Jerusalem in the Persian Period and the Wall of Nehemiah. No report of that talk is given in this article.

Adjacent to the palace wall stood a large stone tower archaeologists believed to be built during the Hasmonean dynasty (142-37 b.c.). Early last summer, a section of that tower, which was built on a steep slope just outside the palace, began to give way, indicating it was on the verge of collapse. And so what started as a simple task of repairing a collapsing tower turned into a six-week dig—and a fascinating new discovery.

There are two towers that could fit this description. My guess is it is the northernmost of the two, because 1) the excavation had been working in close proximity to this for the last couple of years, including workers standing on top of it for debris removal and 2) previous excavators had suggested that the base of this tower was originally built in the Persian period. I've taught for years that if there's any evidence in Jerusalem that has been found of Nehemiah's wall, it's here. What's new, then, is the additional evidence to support this contention.

City of David Area G from southeast, tb091306302labeled

“Under the tower,” Dr. Mazar said at the conference, “we found the bones of two large dogs—and under those bones a rich assemblage of pottery and finds from the Persian period [6th to 5th centuries b.c.]. No later finds from that period were found under the tower.” The pottery is what clearly dates the time period for the tower’s construction. Had the tower been built during the 2nd or 1st century b.c., Dr. Mazar explained, 6th-century pottery underneath the wall would leave a chronological gap of several hundred years. Therefore we know, based on the pottery dating, that the tower would have been built three to four centuries earlier than previously thought, during the Persian Empire’s heyday, which is precisely when the Bible says Nehemiah rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem.

According to biblical chronology, Nehemiah returned to build the walls of Jerusalem in about 445 B.C., which is the middle of the 5th century. Thus the dating of this wall would correspond with the biblical record of Nehemiah's wall. Furthermore, it is logical that that the Hasmoneans built their wall (the "First Wall") above the remains of Nehemiah's wall. The dog burials are interesting because 800 of such were found in a Persian period level at Ashkelon. The article does not mention the seal impression (bulla) with "a beautiful 5th century B.C. inscription" mentioned here previously.

Many of the landmarks described in Nehemiah’s book can now be clearly identified today thanks in large part to the work of Eilat Mazar.

False on two counts. Most of the landmarks of Nehemiah's book are not identifiable today (for understandable reasons). And Mazar has excavated very little from the Persian period. Mazar would not make this claim for herself.

For the rest of the morning, Dr. Mazar’s colleagues spoke one after another, each of them picking apart her findings, some even rejecting her conclusions. But the entire morning session of perhaps the most important archaeological conference of the year in Israel was devoted to Eilat Mazar’s work—not her theories, her work.

This is what makes the archaeological discipline so much better than it was 100 years ago, when one archaeologist could make a claim and that was the end of the matter.

And that’s just the way she likes it. As she has said before, in the end, the stones will speak for themselves.

Rubbish. Stones do not speak for themselves. Archaeology is large part interpretation, which makes it as much of an art as a science.

UPDATE (11/12): Yitzhak Sapir was at the conference and would have written an entirely different article.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Ron Tappy and the Abecedary

I don't think this recently discovered alphabetic inscription has received coverage in the popular press like it deserves.  From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Ron Tappy became a committed Christian in his mid-20s, after deciding to read the Bible straight through.

When he did, "the Old Testament just floored me, and the history of Israel became my history, and I became a Christian in that process. To this day, I have an abiding respect for the texts of Scripture," he said.

It seems fitting, then, that Dr. Tappy's most famous discovery as a biblical archaeologist is a 38-pound limestone rock inscribed with a 2,900-year-old alphabet.

The stone was found two years ago at Tel Zayit in Israel, a dig about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Using distinctive pottery and carbon dating of the soil levels above it, the stone was firmly traced to the 10th century B.C., the time when the biblical King Solomon was supposed to have lived.

The discovery was described by some experts as the most important find in biblical archaeology in the last 10 years.

One reason for the buzz was that the stone suggests the earliest Hebrew Scriptures could have been written down in that era -- hundreds of years earlier than many scholars had believed.

For Dr. Tappy, the alphabet stone also suggests not only that King Solomon was a real historical figure, but that he did in fact have a growing kingdom at the time, because Tel Zayit sits on the border of Solomon's Judah and the kingdom of Philistia, where the Philistines lived.

The story continues here.  The excavation's website is here, but has not been updated recently.  Photographs of the inscription appear to be more sacred than the ark rare but here's one with Tappy and another showing a few of the letters.

UPDATE: Offline there is a lot of information and photographs in this article:

Tappy, Ron E., P. Kyle McCarter, Marilyn J. Lundberg, Bruce Zuckerman (2006). "An Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century B.C.E. from the Judaean Shephelah". BASOR 344 (November): 5-46.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Persian Period Finds in City of David

I was talking with a scholar the other day about the general lack of archaeological material in Israel from the Persian period (530-330 B.C.).  This is especially true for the city of Jerusalem.  Then today I learned this from a reliable source:

Just yesterday, Eilat Mazar found a Persian period layer with much pottery and bullae, mostly fragments, but one with a beautiful 5th century B.C. inscription from the Persian Period.

Mazar is excavating in the City of David, above Shiloh's Area G, on the summit of the hill in an area where she believes she is excavating the palace of David.  When I know more, or when this is reported in the media, I'll mention it here.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Material from First Temple Period Found on Temple Mount

A remarkable discovery of undisturbed archaeological material from the Temple Mount and dating to the Old Testament period was announced yesterday by the Israel Antiquities Authority.  This is remarkable for a few reasons:

By all appearances, there was little apparent archaeological supervision of the Muslim digging of a trench on the Temple Mount last month.  That's why lots of people were screaming.  It's not that digging itself is bad, but digging without proper archaeological procedure is simply destruction.

Undisturbed layers from the First Temple period (1000-586 B.C.) are not often found anywhere in Jerusalem.  This is because of later building activities and because of current inhabitation of the city.

No undisturbed layers from any period have been excavated on the Temple Mount, ever.  This is owing to Muslim control of the site and their prohibitions against archaeological excavation.  This dates back to the earliest "archaeologists" in Jerusalem, including Charles Warren in the 1860s.

It has been expected that the construction of the present Temple Mount by King Herod in the 1st century B.C. was so extensive and destructive that little would remain (in stratified contexts) from the previous eras.  The present discovery does not seem to constitute significant material in and of itself, but it certainly gives hope that more could be recovered should excavations be permitted.  Similar discoveries from this time period have been made by Gabriel Barkay in his Temple Mount Sifting Project, but they were not from a stratified context as this was.

Enough of the significance of the discovery, here are some details:

Items discovered: ceramic table wares, animal bones, olive pits, bowls, juglet base, storage jar rim. 

Date of items: 8th-6th century (roughly the times of Hezekiah to Josiah)

Location of discovery: southeastern corner of raised platform on Temple Mount

Archaeologist in charge: Yuval Baruch, Jerusalem District Archaeologist

Consulting archaeologists: Sy Gitin, Director of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University and Ronny Reich of Haifa University

The key statement making this an important discovery: "The layer is a closed, sealed archaeological layer that has been undisturbed since the 8th century B.C.", Jon Seligman, Jerusalem regional archaeologist.

The skeptic: Eilat Mazar, "I think it is a smoke screen for the ruining of antiquities."

The future: examination of the discoveries in a future seminar to be organized by the Israel Antiquities Authority

More information: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (with photos), Israel National News (with wrong dates), Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, Maariv (more detailed article in Hebrew)

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Earthquake Evidence

Scientists have just released a report on a massive earthquake in 749 A.D. in Israel.  The Jerusalem Post article is misleading in suggesting that they just now learned about this particular earthquake, as any visitor to Beth Shean will attest when viewing the fallen columns.  But some more information has been learned based on excavations at Umm el-Kanater in the Golan Heights.

The discovery by Tel Aviv University scientists that a major earthquake (over 7 on the Richter scale) took place on the Golan Heights in the year 749 CE - and none of similar magnitude in some 975 years - means the area is long overdue for another one. So say the TAU geologists and archeologists who published their findings in Seismology Research Letters released to the press on Sunday.

The archeological signs of the earthquake were found at Umm el-Kanater ("Mother of the Arches"), a five- or 10-minute drive from Katzrin and near Moshav Natur east of the Kinneret. The damage consisted of a broken pool of water whose two parts were moved a meter from one another. The pools had been used to collect water for a nearby village inhabited from the Byzantine Period until the middle of the eighth century. The dig site has been open to the public for more than three years.

The village suffered destruction, including damage to an elaborately built synagogue that collapsed and whose stones were fortunately not stolen, unlike those of many other archeological sites on the Golan.

You can read the rest at the Jerusalem Post.

The reference to 975 years is enigmatic.  It probably is a reference to an earthquake in 1724 A.D., but why that means Israel is due for another one at this time is not clear.

Umm Kanatir, db031007598
Umm el-Kanatir
Photo courtesy of David Bivin (March 2007)


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Seal of Jezebel

A Dutch researcher believes that she can connect a seal discovered long ago with the famous wife of King Ahab.  From Haaretz:

For some 40 years, one of the flashiest opal signets on display at the Israel Museum had remained without accurate historical context. Two weeks ago, Dutch researcher Marjo Korpel identified article IDAM 65-321 as the official seal of Queen Jezebel, one of the bible's most powerful and reviled women.

Israeli archaeologists had suspected Jezebel was the owner ever since the seal was first documented in 1964. "Did it belong to Ahab's Phoenician wife?" wrote the late pioneering archaeologist Nahman Avigad of the seal, which he obtained through the antiquities market. "Though fit for a queen, coming from the right period and bearing a rare name documented nowhere other than in the Hebrew Bible, we can never know for sure."

Avigad's cautious approach stemmed from the fact that the seal did not come from an officially-approved excavation. It was thought to come from Samaria in the ninth century B.C.E., but there was no way of knowing for certain where it had been found. And that has been the scientific hurdle that Korpel - a theologian and Ugaritologist from Utrecht University and a Protestant minister - set out to conquer.

In her paper, scheduled to appear in the highly-respected Biblical Archaeology Review, Korpel lists observations pertaining to the seal's symbolism, unusual size, shape and time period. By way of elimination, she shows Jezebel as the only plausible owner. She also explains how two missing letters from the seal point to the Phoenician shrew....

But speaking as a private person, I am in my mind 99 percent sure that it belonged to Jezebel," she says after some coaxing.

However, Korpel is not an archaeologist, and her research of archaeological findings is essentially textual. "I have thought about this. But many research fields see important discoveries by researchers from related fields," she says. "I admit my solution for the seal of Jezebel is quite simple. But then, so was the invention of the paper clip."

See also this update in Haaretz which explains why Jezebel is spelled incorrectly on the seal.

If you have access to older issues of Biblical Archaeology Review, you can see a photo of the seal in the March/April 1993 issue, page 28.  Or you can see it online here.

Update (10/11): This Dutch website has a photo of the seal with each letter identified.

HT: Joe Lauer


Monday, October 01, 2007

Recent Discoveries

A friend sends along some interesting news articles:

Archaeologists found evidence that bas reliefs and cunieform letters were painted in the Achaemenid royal tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam in Iran. Among these is the tomb of Darius the Great.

Renovations of a mosque at Luxor revealed architectural elements of an earlier temple of Ramesses II.

The Japanese have obtained permission to renew excavations of (the Turkish part of) Karkemish (aka Carchemish). They have to clear some mine fields, and work is expected to begin in a year-and-a-half.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Jerusalem Quarry: Photos

ABC has some photos of the quarry, or you can watch a two-minute video with relatively poor footage of the site (and two guys who can't correctly pronounce the object of the discovery). has some exclusive photos of the quarry area, with thanks to Aubrey Laughlin for sharing them with us.  Click on each photo for a higher-resolution version, which you are free to use for personal and educational purposes.

Herodian quarry, al092407516sr 
General view showing how the ancients cut away the mountain

Herodian quarry from north, al092407543sr
View showing the proximity of the quarry to Ramat Shlomo

Herodian quarry, al092407541sr
Showing a cross-section of the mountain and Jerusalem in the distance

Herodian quarry, al092407527sr
Notice the trenches cut in the rock in the foreground

 Herodian quarry, al092407550sr 
A view showing where quarrying activity ended.

  Herodian quarry, al092407555sr 
You can easily see where the rocks were extracted

Herodian quarry, al092407538sr
A trench made in order to extract the stone

Next challenge: Identify the stones removed from this quarry (bonus points if you can put each one back in its original location!).

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Jerusalem Quarry: The Location

I have been asked where exactly the quarry was located.  Here are two maps from Google Earth that show the area of the quarry, about 2 miles (3 km) north of the Old City.  You can click on each for a larger view.

General view.  Note the highway to the east of the quarry is similar to the ancient route (known sometimes as the Central Ridge Route or the Road of the Patriarchs).

Closer view, which will be helpful if you're in the neighborhood and want to see it yourself.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Quarry of Temple Mount Discovered

Archaeologists in Jerusalem have made a significant discovery of one of the quarries used in the construction of Herod's Temple Mount.  Located 3 miles (4 km) northwest of the Old City, the 1.25-acre quarry has remains of massive stones measuring 9-25 feet (3-8 m) long, comparable to the stones visible in the Western Wall today.  The quarry is located near the main road coming from the north and at an elevation that is 250 feet (80 m) higher than the Temple Mount, making it an ideal location for quarrying activity.  Coins and pottery found in the quarry help to secure the date of its use to the 1st century B.C.  The story is carried by the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Arutz-7.

Photo below: Another quarry that many believe was used by Herod's crews is the so-called "Solomon's Quarries," near the Damascus Gate of the Old City.

Solomon's Quarries, tb051706274
"Solomon's Quarries"

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