Category Archives: ISRAEL

9,000-year-old Neolithic ‘city’ near Jerusalem changes how we think about human evolution

9,000-year-old Neolithic ‘city’ near Jerusalem changes how we think about human evolution

The 9,000-year-old metropolis — pre-dating both Britain’s Stonehenge and ancient Egypt’s pyramids — was uncovered during a survey before the construction of a new highway, which is one of the biggest ever found, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.

The team estimated a population between 2,000 and 3,000 people, which would have constituted a large city for the time.

It covered dozens of hectares near what is today the town of Motza, some five kilometers west of Jerusalem.

The excavation exposed large buildings, alleyways and burial places.

Jacob Vardi, co-director of the excavations at Motza on behalf of the authority, told The Times of Israel that the find gives archaeologists their “big bang” moment.

“It’s a game-changer, a site that will drastically shift what we know about the Neolithic era,” Mr. Vardi said.

He explained that the Neolithic period was a time where “more and more” human populations curbed migration and transitioned to permanent settlements.

Site touted as the Middle East’s largest Neolithic find

A small figurine depicting a human face was found by the team.

Before the discovery, it was widely believed the entire area had been uninhabited in that period, during which people were shifting away from hunting for survival to a more sedentary lifestyle that included farming.

“This is most probably the largest excavation of this time period in the Middle East, which will allow the research to advance leaps and bounds ahead of where we are today, just by the amount of material that we are able to save and preserve from this site,” said Lauren Davis, an archaeologist with Israel’s antiquities authority.

Ancient burial sites in the city showed advanced levels of planning.

The excavation exposed large buildings, alleyways and burial places, evidence of a relatively advanced level of planning, the antiquities authority said in a statement.

The team also found storage sheds that contained large quantities of legumes, particularly lentils, whose seeds were remarkably preserved throughout the millennia.

“This finding is evidence of an intensive practice of agriculture,” the statement read.

“Animal bones found on the site show that the settlement’s residents became increasingly specialized in sheep-keeping, while the use of hunting for survival gradually decreased”.

Also found were flint tools, including thousands of arrowheads, axes for chopping down trees, sickle blades, and knives.

If date estimates are correct, this civilization’s form of agriculture would also pre-date that of Victoria’s Gunditjmara people, who created an elaborate series of channels and pools to harvest eels 6,600 years ago.

A 1,600-year-old cargo of a Roman merchant ship has been discovered in Caesarea

A 1,600-year-old cargo of a Roman merchant ship has been discovered in Caesarea

In recent times, divers have discovered some rarity of archaeological artifacts on the bottom of the sea off the coast of Israel in Caesarea.

The objects that seem to have been part of a Roman merchant ship cargo that sank some 1,600 years ago include coins, bronze statues, equipment used in running the ship, such as anchors, and numerous decorative items.

The treasure trove was discovered by accident by two amateur divers from Ra’anana, Ran Feinstein, and Ofer Ra’anan, who were swimming in the ancient harbor.

The rare bronze artifacts that were discovered in Caesarea.
The rare bronze artifacts that were discovered in Caesarea.

Upon emerging from the sea, they immediately contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority. Since then, the IAA’s marine archaeology unit has been conducting an underwater excavation of the site, in cooperation with the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation.

Among other finds, the cargo of the ship, which apparently sank in the latter years of the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. – 476 C.E.), included a bronze lamp depicting the image of the Roman sun god Sol; a figurine of the moon goddess Luna; a lamp resembling the head of an African slave; parts of three life-size bronze statues; a bronze faucet in the form of a wild boar with a swan on its head; and other objects in the shape of animals. Also unearthed were shards of large containers used for carrying drinking water for the ship’s crew.

An Ancient Roman figurine discovered from the shipwreck.

One of the biggest surprises was the discovery of two metallic lumps each composed of thousands of coins, in the shape of the ceramic vessel in which they were transported before they oxidized and became stuck together.

The coins bear the images of the Constantine, who ruled the Western Roman Empire (312 – 324 C.E.) and was later known as Constantine the Great, ruler of the entire Roman Empire (324 – 337 C.E.), and of Licinius, a rival of Constantine’s who ruled the eastern part of the empire and was slain in battle in the year 324 C.E.  

According to Jacob Sharvit, director of the IAA’s marine archaeology unit, and his deputy Dror Planer, “These are extremely exciting finds, which apart from their extraordinary beauty, are of historical significance.

The location and distribution of the ancient artifacts on the seabed indicate that a large merchant ship was carrying a cargo of metal slated to be recycled, which apparently encountered a storm at the entrance to the harbor and drifted until it smashed into the seawall and the rocks.”

A preliminary study of the iron anchors unearthed at the site suggests that there was an attempt to stop the drifting vessel before it reached shore by casting them into the sea; however, the anchors broke, which constitutes “evidence of the power of the waves and the wind in which the ship was caught up,” say the researchers.

The discovery comes just a year after a trove of over 2,000 gold coins, dating to the Fatimid era about 1,000 years ago, was found nearby by divers and IAA staff. The coins are currently on public display in the Caesarea marina.

“A marine assemblage such as this has not been found in Israel in the past 30 years,” Sharvit and Planer explain. “Statues made of metallic materials are rare archaeological finds because they were always melted down and recycled in antiquity.

When we find bronze artifacts it usually occurs at sea. Because these statues were wrecked together with the ship, they sank in the water and were thus ‘saved’ from the recycling process.”

The archaeologists said the underwater treasures were discovered because of the diminishing amount of sand in the Caesarea harbor as a result of construction along the coastline south of the site, and due to the increased mining of sand – as well as the growing number of amateur divers in the area.

The IAA praised the two amateur divers for their good citizenship in reporting their find and announced that they will accordingly be awarded certificates.

Lumps of coins that were discovered at sea, weighing a total of around 20 kilograms.

Rare trove of 1,100-year-old gold coins discovered in Israel

Rare trove of 1,100-year-old gold coins discovered in Israel

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Monday that a rare hoard of 425 gold coins from the Abbasid Caliphate, dating back around 1,100 years ago, was discovered by teenage volunteers at an archaeological excavation in the centre of the country.

The IAA may not have defined the exact location of the place where gold was discovered for obvious reasons.

A group of young people carrying out volunteer work ahead of their mandatory army service found the trove.

Workers excavate a site where a hoard of gold coins dating to the Abbasid Caliphate was unearthed, at an archaeological site near Tel Aviv in central Israel

“It was amazing. I dug in the ground and when I excavated the soil, saw what looked like very thin leaves,” said teen Oz Cohen. “When I looked again I saw these were gold coins. It was really exciting to find such a special and ancient treasure.”

Old coins found at central Israel archaeological dig

Excavation directors Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr Elie Haddad said that it was assumed that whoever buried the coins would have expected they would be able to retrieve the hoard and that the find could point to international trade carried out by the area’s residents.

“Finding gold coins, certainly in such a considerable quantity, is extremely rare.

We almost never find them in archaeological excavations, given that gold has always been extremely valuable, melted down and reused from generation to generation,” the directors said in a statement.

“The coins, made of pure gold that does not oxidize in air, were found in excellent condition as if buried the day before. Their finding may indicate that international trade took place between the area’s residents and remote areas,” the statement read.

Gold coins found at central Israel archaeological dig

Dr Robert Kool, a coin expert at the IAA, said that the total weight of the hoard — around 845 grams of pure gold — would have been a significant amount of money at the end of the 9th century.

“For example, with such a sum, a person could buy a luxurious house in one of the best neighbourhoods in Fustat, the enormous wealthy capital of Egypt in those days,” Kool said, noting that at the time, the region was part of the Abbasid Caliphate, which stretched from Persia to North Africa, with a central seat of government in Baghdad.

“The hoard consists of full gold dinars, but also — what is unusual — contains about 270 small gold cuttings, pieces of gold dinars cut to serve as small change,” Kool said.

He added that one of those cuttings was exceptionally rare and never before found in excavations in Israel — a fragment of a gold solidus of the Byzantine emperor Theophilos (829 – 842 CE), minted in the empire’s capital of Constantinople.

According to the IAA, the existence of the fragment in a trove of Islamic coins serves as evidence of the connections between the two rival empires.

“This rare treasure will certainly be a major contribution to research, as finds from the Abbasid period in Israel are relatively few. Hopefully, the study of the hoard will tell us more about a period of which we still know very little,” Kool said.

1,300-year-old colorful mosaics Discovered by Archaeologists in Israel

1,300-year-old colorful mosaics Discovered by Archaeologists in Israel

The remains of a 1,300-year-old church in the Circassian village of Kfar Kama in Israel were discovered by archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Kinneret Academic University.

“The church measures 12 by 36 m (39.4 by 118 feet) and includes a large courtyard, a narthex foyer, and a central hall,” said Dr. Nurit Feig, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Actually, the excavators suspect the villagers carried out their devotions at a smaller local church with two chapels in the village dating to about the same time, which had been discovered half a century ago. The newly discovered, rather bigger edifice may have been a monastery, the archaeologists think, based on adjacent rooms that remain underground after being discovered by Shani Libbi using ground-penetrating radar.

Kafr Kama’s proximity to the iconic site of Mount Tabor – where some believe Jesus underwent the Transfiguration and began to radiate light – piqued the interest of Archbishop Youssef Matta, the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Israel. He was invited by the Israel Antiquities Authority and came to see the site in person.

“And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart; And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light” – Matthew 17:1.

The main body of the newly discovered church is 12 by 36 meters (39 by 118 feet), which is medium-sized for the region, says Prof. Moti Aviam of the Kinneret Academic College, who is researching the Byzantine period in the Galilee and is collaborating with the Israel Antiquities Authority on this dig.

The discovery of the church was not expected, said Nurit Feig, the archaeologist leading the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “This was a small salvage excavation that we expanded,” she told Haaretz. Usually, a salvage excavation of this sort is defined in scope, but then she began to see the border of the nave wall and an apse – and realized they were on top of an ancient church. Now they know the area includes a courtyard, a narthex foyer, a central hall, and three apses. Churches in the Galilee normally have one or three apses, Feig and Aviam explained.

Wondrously, the archaeologists also found a reliquary: a stone box used to hold “sacred relics.” Sad to relate, it was empty. “The other ancient church found in Kafr Kama also had a reliquary, a closed one, that had bones inside,” Aviam said.

“In light of our many studies in Israel in general and the Galilee in particular, we know there were a lot of village rural monasteries. The monks weren’t hermits like in the desert monasteries. They lived alongside the villages, sometimes inside the villages, with villagers working at the monastery,” Aviam said. He added that they have no proof this new discovery is actually a monastery – no inscriptions have been found, for instance. But that’s his gut feeling.

Nor is there evidence for how the monks made their living if monks there were. It has been found that at other Galilean monasteries, the monks engaged mostly in agriculture, producing olive oil and wine, Aviam said.

Church or monastery, it had mosaics on the floor of the nave and apses, which is very much the norm for the Galilean churches. But they were badly damaged, Aviam said. All we can see are geometrical motifs and some flowers in blue, black, and red, but there may have been other images that are now gone.

Mosaic floor of the Byzantine-period church at Kfar Kama, Israel.

Faith in the Galilee

In fact, the two sixth-century churches of Kafr Kama fit the bigger picture that Aviam is discovering in his research of the Byzantine Galilee, conducted with Jacob Ashkenazi of the Kinneret Institute of Galilean Archaeology in the Kinneret Academic College. In Western Galilee alone, there are about 100 churches from the Byzantine time, very roughly speaking, Aviam told Haaretz.

The western side of the Upper Galilee was actually Christianized in the Byzantine period while the eastern side was Jewish, he explained. Down in the Lower Galilee, the towns were almost entirely Jewish, but Christianity gradually penetrated – resulting in villages like Kafr Kama, with its two churches. Or one church and one monastery.

The attraction for early Christians in the Galilee included the city of Nazareth: Jesus was reportedly born in Bethlehem, but grew up in the Galilee. Nazareth was actually mixed during the Byzantine period, Aviam said – Jewish with some churches. Like so many places in the region, occupation in the town now known as Kafr Kama goes back to the Bronze Age, and possibly earlier. But we may never know (much) more about the Christian era in this village.

This very week, the mosaics are going to be re-blanketed on earth for the sake of their conservation, Feig told Haaretz. That will protect them for the future masses that will probably never see them. The site is earmarked for a playground, and unless the local council and Jewish National Fund change their minds, a playground it will be.

“We can’t say at this stage how much may be covered and if anything will be preserved,” Feig said. The IAA may warmly recommend that the site be conserved, preserved, and opened for visitors; but the initiators of the real estate project in the village have the ultimate decision, she explained. And if they decide to preserve the ancient church or monastery, whichever it is, then the IAA experts can happily get to work.

The first church from early Christianity found in the Circassian village is also gone, partly covered, partly built over, the archaeologists say. Discovering the new one was an emotional moment for the excavators and villagers alike, who flocked to see it during the “open days” the archaeologists held – joined by the archbishop.

Asked why there was so much excitement if there are around 100 ancient churches in the Galilee, Feig said that this one is in a quite good state of preservation after all those 1,400 years: they know where all its parts are. But they may remain the only ones with that knowledge.

Israeli family discovers ancient treasure under the living room

Israeli family discovers ancient treasure under the living room

Sunday, Israeli authorities said they identified a rare, well-preserved 2,000-year-old Jewish ritual bath hidden beneath the floorboards of a Jerusalem home.

Oriya looks down at the ladder from her living room, leading to an ancient Jewish ritual bath (mikveh), dating from the Second Temple Period and believed to be over 2,000 years old.

The discovery in Ein Kerem neighborhood in Jerusalem, archeologists said, sheds new light on the area’s ancient Jewish and early Christian communities.

But the discovery might be most noteworthy because the couple that owns the home literally kept the treasure hidden under a rug for three years before choosing to come clean.

In an interview, the wife said the family found evidence of the mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath while renovating their home three years ago.

Construction workers were using heavy machinery that sunk through a hole, leading the crew to discover the bath.

She said that she and her husband were unsure of the significance and continued with the planned construction. But they also preserved the discovery, adding a pair of wooden doors in the floor to allow access to the bath and concealing the entrance with a rug.

The couple’s curiosity, however, persisted. Earlier this week, they contacted the Israeli Antiquities Authority and reported their finding. The family asked that their names be withheld to protect their privacy.

Amit Reem, an archaeologist with the authority, estimated the ritual bath dates back to the first century B.C., around the time of the Second Jewish Temple.

The bath remains largely intact and includes a staircase leading to what was once a pool. Archeologists also found pottery and unique stone vessels dating to the same period.

According to Christian tradition, John the Baptist is said to have been born in the Jewish community around Ein Kerem around the first century. Reem said the discovery adds to the physical evidence of the Jewish community in the area, which he said has been “sporadic.”

Reem said it is not uncommon for households around Jerusalem to unearth Jewish antiquities under their floorboards, though he did not know how many cases there were.

The family does not have to move and will keep the ritual bath preserved with the help of the Antiquities Authority.

1,200-Year-Old Soap Factory Unearthed in Negev Desert

1,200-Year-Old Soap Factory Unearthed in Negev Desert

Israel’s earliest soap factory, dating back approximately 1,200 years, was uncovered in the Bedouin city of Rahat, the Israel Antiquities Authority reported on Sunday.

According to the report, hundreds of local youths were involved in the IAA dig, whose purpose was to re-establish the connection between the community and the history of the area.

It is an indication of Islam’s influence in the region, even when it started making roots in Israel, that the soap was made of olive oil.  “This city has [deep] Islamic roots and we are proud of these roots,” said Mayor of Rahat Fahiz Abu Saheeben in an IAA Hebrew-language video.

During the Abbasid Era, olive oil soapery was founded, archeologist Dr. Elena Kogen-Zehavi told The Times of Israel. The Abbasids were one of the first Arab rulers to bring Islam to Israel. The soap was a precious product for exports and traveled to Egypt and other Arab lands, she said.

The key to the production of this soap is olive oil as its fatty base, as opposed to the pig fat used in Europe of the same period, which is anathema to Islam.

Aerial view of Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. 

The Arab conquest of the Holy Land took place in 636, but Islam only became the majority religion in the ninth century. An earlier 2019 excavation in Rahat has shown, however, that Islam came early to this region of the Negev. IAA archaeologists uncovered a rare, very early rural mosque, dating to circa seventh-eighth century CE. It is one of the earliest known examples in the world.

The new find of industrial soap production was uncovered in a large pillared structure that the archaeologists believe belonged to a wealthy family who made its living by soap production, local sales, and potentially even export. The harsh desert conditions, including wind and dust storms, made good personal hygiene a necessity, not just during today’s coronavirus, said Kogen-Zehavi in the IAA video, but also 1,200 years ago.

For millennia, Kogen-Zehavi told The Times of Israel, residents of the Middle East and elsewhere used olive oil in their hygienic practices. She said that while bathing is documented in Babylonian and Greece records, the concept was entirely different. Rather than washing up with a soapy lather, these ancient peoples would anoint themselves in oil, which was scraped off their bodies.

The industrial production of soap only truly began in the Middle Ages in Europe, she said. While Christians could use lard, which was easier to manipulate, making olive oil into hard cakes is much more complicated. The expertise in producing this olive oil soap is carefully guarded until today and passed from generation to generation, said Kogen-Zehavi. A modern olive oil factory in the Arab city of Nablus continues the meticulous ancient methods.

Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, in the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev Desert. 

According to the IAA press release, the Rahat complex includes all the facilities needed for the making of olive oil soap. Additionally, researchers were able to obtain organic samples that allowed them to identify materials used in the production process.

The archaeologists found that to make this special soap, olive oil was used as the base and mixed with ashes from the saltwort plants, which contain potash and water.

“The mixture was cooked for about seven days, after which the liquid material was transferred to a shallow pool, where the soap hardened for about 10 days, until it could be cut into bars,” according to the press release. The bars were then dried for a further two months, prior to export.

“This is the first time that a soap workshop as ancient as this has been discovered, allowing us to recreate the traditional production process of the soap industry. For this reason, it is quite unique. We are familiar with important soap-making centers from a much later period – the Ottoman period. These were discovered in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa, and Gaza,” said Kogen-Zehavi in the press release.

Mayor of Rahat Fahiz Abu Saheeben said in the press release that he was pleased “the excavation has revealed the Islamic roots of Rahat.” The dig took place in cooperation with the IAA, the local Bedouin community and the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood in Rahat. “We hope to construct a visitors’ center that tourists and the local community will be able to enjoy,” said Abu Saheeben.

Assuming the community center is built, in addition to possible souvenirs of ancient olive oil soap, visitors will be able to play one of the two ancient games discovered in an underground chamber at the site.

One of the board games is called the Windmill, a game of strategy known from excavations from the Roman period in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

The second is a board game with dice or sticks called Hounds and Jackals or 58 Holes, which was played in early Egypt and spread to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia in circa 2,000 BCE, according to the press release.

The ‘Windmill’ game board in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the Negev Desert.

Early Neolithic Cremation Burial in Israel Examined

Early Neolithic Cremation Burial in Israel Examined

Ancient people in the Near East had begun the practice of intentionally cremating their dead by the beginning of the 7th millennium BC.

According to a study published on August 12, 2020, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Fanny Bocquentin of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and colleagues.

Excavations at the Neolithic site of Beisamoun in Northern Israel have uncovered an ancient cremation pit containing the remains of a corpse that appears to have been intentionally incinerated as part of a funerary practice.

Picture of bones in situ: A. Segment of the axial skeleton: ribs and vertebrae exposed in the middle of the structure. B. Right coxal in situ; preserved almost complete by a piece of collapsed mud wall (see Fig 2D). C. Four right pedal proximal phalanges found directly under the right coxal.

These remains were directly dated to between 7013-6700 BC, making them the oldest known example of cremation in the Near East.

The remains comprise most of one skeleton of a young adult. The bones show evidence of having been heated to temperatures of over 500°C shortly after death, and they sit inside a pit that appears to have been constructed with an open top and strong insulating walls.

Microscopic plant remains found inside the pyre-pit is likely leftover from the fuel for the fire.

This evidence leads the authors to identify this as an intentional cremation of a fresh corpse, as opposed to the burning of dry remains or a tragic fire accident.

This early cremation comes at an important period of transition in funerary practices in this region of the world. Old traditions were on the way out, such as the removal of the cranium of the dead and the burial of the dead within the settlement, while practices like cremation were new.

This change in the funeral procedure might also signify a transition in rituals surrounding death and the significance of the deceased within society.

Further examination of other possible cremation sites in the region will help elucidate this important cultural shift.

The Beisamoun pyre fields, where the cremated burial was discovered, during the crepuscular hours.

Bocquentin says: “The funerary treatment involved in situ cremations within a pyre-pit of a young adult individual who previously survived from a flint projectile injury— the inventory of bones and their relative position strongly supports the deposit of an articulated corpse and not dislocated bones.” She adds, “This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society.”

Middle Paleolithic Site Discovered in Southern Israel

Middle Paleolithic Site Discovered in Southern Israel

A mid paleolithic flint knapping site that occurs between 250,000-50,000 years ago has been found in recent excavations undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority, in conjunction with local youth in Dimona, in preparation for construction of solar energy, funded by the electricity company.

The youth from the city who were interested in the exploration as a summer work during the economically challenging period of the COVID-19 helped discover the unusual prehistoric site.

The site near Dimona was newly found to be small. Prehistoric human beings apparently came here and made their tools from the abundant natural flint they made

The site here is unique because of the flint knapping technology, known as ‘Nubian Levallois,’ which originated in Africa.

Researchers trace the path of this technology to understand the migration routes of modern humans from Africa to the rest of the world, about 100,000 years ago.

According to the excavation directors, the prehistory researchers Talia Abulafia and Maya Oron from the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first evidence of a ‘Nubian’ flint industry in an archeological excavation in Israel.

The knapped flint artifacts remained right in the first place where the humans sat and created the tools. This manufacturing is identified with modern human populations who lived in East Africa 150-100 thousand years ago and migrated from there around the world.

In the last decade, quite a few Nubian sites have been discovered in the Arabian Peninsula. This has led many scholars to claim that modern humans left Africa through the Arabian Peninsula.

The Dimona site appears to present the northernmost example of Nubian flint output found in situ, thus marking the migration route: from Africa to Saudi Arabia, and from there, perhaps, to the Negev.

The excavation took place while dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19, which affect the health and economy of Israeli citizens in general, and the residents of Dimona in particular.

According to Svetlana Talis, Northern Negev District Archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Dimona is one of the most severely affected towns in the second wave of the Corona outbreak and was even on the verge of lockdown.

After wondering what to do about summer holidays, local youths from Dimona came to the excavation to work and help their families, and to uncover a site of particular importance.

All of this is part of a project promoted and directed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in recent years, which seeks to bring our youth closer to their cultural heritage.”