Category Archives: ISRAEL

Huge Cache of Stolen Antiquities Found in Central Israel

Huge Cache of Stolen Antiquities Found in Central Israel

A vast cache of antiquities looted from sites in the West Bank was revealed on Thursday by the Israel Antiquities Authority. While antiquities theft is common in Israel, and thieves and traders are often caught, this was a big catch.

A figurine of the Greek deity Hermes.

Ancient cuneiform tablets, a bronze figurine, jewellery, seals, and no less than 1,800 coins were seized from the home of an antiquities trader in Modi’in on Sunday by police working with the Israel Antiquities Authority theft prevention team.

A coin from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt.

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According to the IAA, the trader admitted to buying antiquities from looters operating in the West Bank, smuggling them into Israel, and illegally trading them.

Some of the items and coins appear to have fresh dirt on them, the inspectors reported, lending credence to the suspicion that they were looted recently.

Some of the coins bear the name of Shimon Bar Kochba, the leader of the ill-fated revolt against the Romans from 132 to 135 C.E.

The inspectors also seized coins from the Persian period, silver coins from the Hellenistic period, more from the Hasmonean period and others from the time of the rebellion, the IAA announced on Thursday.

Ancient coins

One rare item was a silver “shekel” coin from the time of the First Jewish-Roman War in 67 C.E., the IAA stated. It bears the legend “Holy Jerusalem” in Hebrew on one side with the image of a bunch of three pomegranates. The other side says “Shekel Israel Year 2” (the letter bet) and the image of a goblet.

That particular coin seems to have been in the process of being cleaned, a job only half done, the IAA says.

An ancient shekel coin.

Some of the seized coins had already been packaged in envelopes for mailing abroad.

The suspect is not licensed to sell antiquities overseas, said IAA theft prevention chief Ilan Hadad. The next stage of this case is to track down the thieves, the anti-theft unit said.

Eli Eskosido, the director-general of the IAA, mourned that the illegal trade encourages looters who do not cavil at destroying ancient sites, to the detriment of posterity.

“The worst thing about destroying a site is that you only have one shot at excavating,” antiquities inspector Hillel Silberklang told Haaretz in February.  “Whatever information it had is lost forever, and damage to an archaeological site is final.”

Ancient DNA Sheds New Light on the Biblical Philistines

Ancient DNA Sheds New Light on the Biblical Philistines

An international team, led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Leon Levy Expedition, retrieved and analyzed, for the first time, genome-wide data from people who lived during the Bronze and Iron Ages (~3,600-2,800 years ago) in the ancient port city of Ashkelon, one of the core Philistine cities during the Iron Age. The team found that a European-derived ancestry was introduced in Ashkelon around the time of the Philistines’ estimated arrival, suggesting that ancestors of the Philistines migrated across the Mediterranean, reaching Ashkelon by the early Iron Age.

Ancient DNA Sheds New Light on the Biblical Philistines
Excavation of the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.

This European-related genetic component was subsequently diluted by the local Levantine gene pool over the succeeding centuries, suggesting intensive admixture between local and foreign populations. These genetic results, published in Science Advances, are a critical step toward understanding the long-disputed origins of the Philistines.

The Philistines are famous for their appearance in the Hebrew Bible as the arch-enemies of the Israelites. However, the ancient texts tell little about the Philistine origins other than a later memory that the Philistines came from “Caphtor” (a Bronze Age name for Crete; Amos 9:7). More than a century ago, Egyptologists proposed that a group called the Peleset in texts of the late twelfth century BCE were the same as the Biblical Philistines.

The Egyptians claimed that the Peleset traveled from the “the islands,” attacking what is today Cyprus and the Turkish and Syrian coasts, finally attempting to invade Egypt. These hieroglyphic inscriptions were the first indication that the search for the origins of the Philistines should be focused on the late second millennium BCE. From 1985-to 2016, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, a project of the Harvard Semitic Museum, took up the search for the origin of the Philistines at Ashkelon, one of the five “Philistine” cities according to the Hebrew Bible. Led by its founder, the late Lawrence E. Stager, and then by Daniel M. Master, and author of the study and director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, the team found substantial changes in ways of life during the 12th century BCE which they connected to the arrival of the Philistines.

Many scholars, however, argued that these cultural changes were merely the result of trade or a local imitation of foreign styles and not the result of a substantial movement of people.

This new study represents the culmination of more than thirty years of archaeological work and of genetic research utilizing state-of-the-art technologies, concluding that the advent of the Philistines in the southern Levant involved a movement of people from the west during the Bronze to Iron Age transition.

An infant burial at the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.

Genetic discontinuity between the Bronze and Iron Age people of Ashkelon

The researchers successfully recovered genomic data from the remains of 10 individuals who lived in Ashkelon during the Bronze and Iron Ages.

This data allowed the team to compare the DNA of the Bronze and Iron Age people of Ashkelon to determine how they were related.

The researchers found that individuals across all time periods derived most of their ancestry from the local Levantine gene pool, but that individuals who lived in early Iron Age Ashkelon had a European derived ancestral component that was not present in their Bronze Age predecessors.

“This genetic distinction is due to European-related gene flow introduced in Ashkelon during either the end of the Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron Age. This timing is in accord with estimates of the Philistine’s arrival to the coast of the Levant, based on archaeological and textual records,” explains Michal Feldman of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, leading author of the study.

“While our modeling suggests a southern European gene pool as a plausible source, future sampling could identify more precisely the populations introducing the European-related component to Ashkelon.”

Transient impact of the “European related” gene flow

In analyzing later Iron Age individuals from Ashkelon, the researchers found that the European-related component could no longer be traced.

“Within no more than two centuries, this genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and seems to be diluted by a local Levantine related gene pool,” states Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History, one of the corresponding authors of the study.

“While, according to ancient texts, the people of Ashkelon in the first millennium BCE remained ‘Philistines’ to their neighbors, the distinctiveness of their genetic makeup was no longer clear, perhaps due to intermarriage with Levantine groups around them,” notes Master.

“This data begins to fill a temporal gap in the genetic map of the southern Levant,” explains Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author of the study.

“At the same time, by the zoomed-in comparative analysis of the Ashkelon genetic time transect, we find that the unique cultural features in the early Iron Age are mirrored by a distinct genetic composition of the early Iron Age people.”

First-ever portrait of Jesus found in 1 of 70 ancient books?

First-ever portrait of Jesus found in 1 of 70 ancient books?

The image is eerily familiar: a bearded young man with flowing curly hair. After lying for nearly 2,000 years hidden in a cave in the Holy Land, the fine detail is difficult to determine. But in a certain light, it is not difficult to interpret the marks around the figure’s brow as a crown of thorns. The extraordinary picture of one of the recently discovered hoards of up to 70 lead codices – booklets – found in a cave in the hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee is one reason Bible historians are clamouring to get their hands on the ancient artefacts. If genuine, this could be the first-ever portrait of Jesus Christ, possibly even created in the lifetime of those who knew him. The tiny booklet, a little smaller than a modern credit card, is sealed on all sides and has a three-dimensional representation of a human head on both the front and the back. One appears to have a beard and the other is without. Even the maker’s fingerprint can be seen in the lead impression. Beneath both figures is a line of as-yet undeciphered text in an ancient Hebrew script.

Discovery: The impression on this booklet cover shows what could be the earliest image of Christ

Astonishingly, one of the booklets appears to bear the words ‘Saviour of Israel’ – one of the few phrases so far translated. The owner of the cache is Bedouin trucker Hassan Saida who lives in the Arab village of Umm al-Ghanim, Shibli. He has refused to sell the booklets but two samples were sent to England and Switzerland for testing.

A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed that the artefacts were originally found in a cave in the village of Saham in Jordan, close to where Israel, Jordan and Syria’s Golan Heights converge – and within three miles of the Israeli spa and hot springs of Hamat Gader, a religious site for thousands of years.

Precious: This booklet shows what scholars believe to be the map of Christian Jerusalem

According to sources in Saham, they were discovered five years ago after a flash flood scoured away the dusty mountain soil to reveal what looked like a large capstone. When this was levered aside, a cave was discovered with a large number of small niches set into the walls. Each of these niches contained a booklet. There were also other objects, including some metal plates and rolled lead scrolls. The area is renowned as an age-old refuge for ancient Jews fleeing the bloody aftermath of a series of revolts against the Roman empire in the First and early Second Century AD. The cave is less than 100 miles from Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and around 60 miles from Masada, the scene of the last stand and mass suicide of an extremist Zealot sect in the face of a Roman Army siege in 72AD – two years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It is also close to caves that have been used as sanctuaries by refugees from the Bar Kokhba revolt, the third and final Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in 132AD.

The era is of critical importance to Biblical scholars because it encompasses the political, social and religious upheavals that led to the split between Judaism and Christianity. It ended with the triumph of Christianity over its rivals as the dominant new religion first for dissident Jews and then for Gentiles. In this context, it is important that while the Dead Sea Scrolls are rolled pieces of parchment or papyrus containing the earliest-known versions of books of the Hebrew Bible and other texts – the traditional Jewish format for written work – these lead discoveries are in the book, or codex, form which has long been associated with the rise of Christianity.

The codices are seen by The Mail on Sunday range in size from smaller than 3in x 2 to around 10in x 8in. They each contain an average of eight or nine pages and appear to be cast, rather than inscribed, with images on both sides and bound with lead-ring bindings. Many of them were severely corroded when they were first discovered, although it has been possible to open them with care. The codex showing what may be the face of Christ is not thought to have been opened yet. Some codices show signs of having been buried – although this could simply be the detritus resulting from lying in a cave for hundreds of years. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, the lead codices appear to consist of stylised pictures, rather than text, with a relatively small amount of script that appears to be in a Phoenician language, although the exact dialect is yet to be identified. At the time these codices were created, the Holy Land was populated by different sects, including Essenes, Samaritans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Dositheans and Nazoreans.

First-ever portrait of Jesus found in 1 of 70 ancient books?
One lucky owner: Hassan Saida with some of the artefacts that he says he inherited

There was no common script and considerable intermingling of language and writing systems between groups. This means it could take years of detailed scholarship to accurately interpret the codices. Many of the books are sealed on all sides with metal rings, suggesting they were not intended to be opened. This could be because they contained holy words which should never be read. For example, the early Jews fiercely protected the sacred name of God, which was only ever uttered by The High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem at Yom Kippur. The original pronunciation has been lost, but has been transcribed into Roman letters as YHWH – known as the Tetragrammaton – and is usually translated either as Yahweh or Jehovah. A sealed book containing sacred information was mentioned in the biblical Book of Revelations.

One plate has been interpreted as a schematic map of Christian Jerusalem showing the Roman crosses outside the city walls. At the top can be seen a ladder-type shape. This is thought to be a balustrade mentioned in a biblical description of the Temple in Jerusalem. Below that are three groups of brickwork, to represent the walls of the city. A fruiting palm tree suggests the House of David and there are three or four shapes that appear to be horizontal lines intersected by short vertical lines from below. These are the T-shaped crosses believed to have been used in biblical times (the familiar crucifix shape is said to date from the 4th Century). The star shapes in a long line represent the House of Jesse – and then the pattern is repeated.

This interpretation of the books as proto-Christian artefacts is supported by Margaret Barker, former president of the Society for Old Testament Study and one of Britain’s leading experts on early Christianity. The fact that a figure is portrayed would appear to rule out these codices being connected to mainstream Judaism of the time, where the portrayal of lifelike figures was strictly forbidden because it was considered idolatry. If genuine, it seems clear that these books were, in fact, created by an early Messianic Jewish sect, perhaps closely allied to the early Christian church and that these images represent Christ himself. However another theory, put forward by Robert Feather – an authority on The Dead Sea Scrolls and author of The Mystery Of The Copper Scroll Of Qumran – is that these books are connected to the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-136AD, the third major rebellion by the Jews of Judea Province and the last of the Jewish-Roman Wars.

The revolt established an independent state of Israel over parts of Judea for two years before the Roman army finally crushed it, with the result that all Jews, including the early Christians, were barred from Jerusalem. The followers of Simon Bar Kokhba, the commander of the revolt, acclaimed him as a Messiah, a heroic figure who could restore Israel. Although Jewish Christians hailed Jesus as the Messiah and did not support Bar Kokhba, they were barred from Jerusalem along with the rest of the Jews. The war and its aftermath helped differentiate Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism.

Wonder: The cave in Jordan where the metal books were discovered

The spiritual leader of the revolt was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who laid the foundations for a mystical form of Judaism known today as Kabbalah, which is followed by Madonna, Britney Spears and others. Yochai hid in a cave for 13 years and wrote a secret commentary on the Bible, the Zohar, which evolved into the teaching of Kabbalah. Feather is convinced that some of the text on

The codices carry the name of Rabbi Bar Yochai.

Feather says that all known codices prior to around 400AD were made of parchment and that cast lead is unknown. They were clearly designed to exist forever and never to be opened. The use of metal as a writing material at this time is well documented – however, the text was always inscribed, not cast.

The books are currently in the possession of Hassan Saida, in Umm al-Ghanim, Shibli, which is at the foot of Mount Tabor, 18 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. Saida owns and operates a haulage business consisting of at least nine large flatbed lorries. He is regarded in his village as a wealthy man. His grandfather settled there more than 50 years ago and his mother and four brothers still live there. Saida, who is in his mid-30s and married with five or six children, claims he inherited the booklets from his grandfather. However, The Mail on Sunday has learned of claims that they first came to light five years ago when his Bedouin business partner met a villager in Jordan who said he had some ancient artefacts to sell. The business partner was apparently shown two very small metal books. He brought them back over the border to Israel and Saida became entranced by them, coming to believe they had magical properties and that it was his fate to collect as many as he could. The arid, mountainous area where they were found is both militarily sensitive and agriculturally poor. The local people have for generations supplemented their income by hoarding and selling archaeological artefacts found in caves.

More of the booklets were clandestinely smuggled across the border by drivers working for Saida – the smaller ones were typically worn openly as charms hanging from chains around the drivers’ necks, the larger concealed behind car and lorry dashboards. In order to finance the purchase of booklets from the Jordanians who had initially discovered them, Saida allegedly went into partnership with a number of other people – including his lawyer from Haifa, Israel. Saida’s motives are complex. He constantly studies the booklets but does not take particularly good care of them, opening some and coating them in olive oil in order to ‘preserve’ them.

Masterpiece: Later versions of Christ, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s interpretation in his fresco The Last Supper, give Jesus similar characteristics

The artefacts have been seen by multi-millionaire collectors of antiquities in both Israel and Europe – and Saida has been offered tens of millions of pounds for just a few of them, but has declined to sell any. When he first obtained the booklets, he had no idea what they were or even if they were genuine. He contacted Sotheby’s in London in 2007 in an attempt to find an expert opinion, but the famous auction house declined to handle them because their provenance was not known.

Soon afterwards, the British author and journalist Nick Fielding was approached by a Palestinian woman who was concerned that the booklets would be sold on the black market. Fielding was asked to approach the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and other places. Fielding travelled to Israel and obtained a letter from the Israeli Antiquities Authority saying it had no objection to their being taken abroad for analysis. It appears the IAA believed the booklets were forgeries on the basis that nothing like them had been discovered before.

None of the museums wanted to get involved, again because of concerns over provenance. Fielding was then asked to approach experts to find out what they were and if they were genuine. David Feather, who is a metallurgist as well as an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, recommended submitting the samples for metal analysis at Oxford University. The work was carried out by Dr Peter Northover, head of the Materials Science-based Archaeology Group and a world expert on the analysis of ancient metal materials. The samples were then sent to the Swiss National Materials Laboratory at Dubendorf, Switzerland. The results show they were consistent with ancient (Roman) period lead production and that the metal was smelted from ore that originated in the Mediterranean. Dr Northover also said that corrosion on the books was unlikely to be modern.

Meanwhile, the politics surrounding the provenance of the books is intensifying. Most professional scholars are cautious pending further research and point to the ongoing forgery trial in Israel over the ancient limestone ossuary purporting to have housed the bones of James, brother of Jesus. The Israeli archaeological establishment has sought to defuse problems of provenance by casting doubt on the authenticity of the codices, but Jordan says it will ‘exert all efforts at every level’ to get the relics repatriated. The debate over whether these booklets are genuine and, if so, whether they represent the first known artefacts of the early Christian church or the first stirrings of mystical Kabbalah will undoubtedly rage for years to come.

The director of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad Al-Saad, has few doubts. He believes they may indeed have been made by followers of Jesus in the few decades immediately following his crucifixion.

‘They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls,’ he says. ‘The initial information is very encouraging and it seems that we are looking at a very important and significant discovery – maybe the most important discovery in the history of archaeology.’

If he is right, then we really may be gazing at the face of Jesus Christ.

Flammable Residues Detected in Medieval Vessels from Jerusalem

Flammable Residues Detected in Medieval Vessels from Jerusalem

A new analysis of residue in ancient ceramic vessels from 11th and 12th century Jerusalem has found that the jars may have had a more sinister purpose than storage.

Previous research into the iconic vessels, which are held in museums around the world, identified them as vessels for beer drinking, and containers for mercury, oil and medicines.

The jars are easily identifiable, spherical in shape with conical bases, and have been found in all sorts of archaeological contexts throughout the Middle East between the 9th and 15th centuries.

Flammable Residues Detected in Medieval Vessels from Jerusalem
Conico-spherical jars are found throughout the Middle East in archaeological contexts dating from the 9th-15th centuries.

But a new study, led by Carney Matheson, of Griffith University in Queensland, has found that while some of the vessels were indeed used for these purposes, others contained a flammable and likely explosive material, suggesting they may have been used as a kind of crude hand grenade – an explanation supported by evidence from ancient texts.

The sherds studied were excavated from the Armenian Garden in Jerusalem in the 1960s, and analysed for trace residue to determine their contents.

“These vessels have been reported during the time of the Crusades as grenades thrown against Crusader strongholds, producing loud noises and bright flashes of light,” says Matheson. 

The Crusades (1095-1291), were a series of violent religious wars initiated by the Latin Church during the Medieval period, culminating most famously in the attempted seizure of Jerusalem from Islamic rule. Jerusalem’s inhabitants, it seems, found ingenious ways to fight back.

So, what were these ancient grenades made from?

“Some researchers had proposed the vessels were used as grenades and held black powder, an explosive invented in ancient China and known to have been introduced into the Middle East and Europe by the 13th century,” Matheson says. “It has been proposed that black powder may have been introduced to the Middle East earlier, as early as these vessels from the 9th to 11th century.”  

But the new study rules out black powder: “This research has shown that it is not black powder and likely a locally invented explosive material.” 

The research also found that some of the vessels had been sealed with a resin.

“More research on these vessels and their explosive content will allow us to understand ancient explosive technology of the medieval period and the history of explosive weapons in the Eastern Mediterranean,” says Matheson. 

Judahite Elite in Jerusalem Drank Wine Flavored With Vanilla 2,600 Years Ago

Judahite Elite in Jerusalem Drank Wine Flavored With Vanilla 2,600 Years Ago

Analysis of smashed wine jars in Jerusalem houses destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. finds unexpected flavour in jars that the rich reused

Ancient wine and amphorae.

In the year 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians laid waste to Jerusalem in a fury at the rebellion by King Zedekiah of Judah. Ahead of which, we learn – at least some of the elites in Jerusalem were drinking their wine flavoured with exotic vanilla, archaeologists revealed on Tuesday.

This startling discovery was a result of residue analysis of shattered wine jars from the time of King Zedekiah, found in two destroyed buildings in Iron Age Jerusalem, researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority announced. Signals of vanilla were found in five of eight jars, says Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the IAA.

The reconstructed wine jars from the time of King Zedekiah, which were found to contain traces of vanilla.

Its presence was a surprise, but not a shock in the sense that traces of vanilla had been detected in graves in Megiddo dating to the Bronze Age, around 500 years earlier, Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University explains.

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These jars date to the Iron Age. In some cases, their handles are marked with the rosette seal impression of the Kingdom of Judah. That symbol indicates that the clay jar and its content, the wine, were the possession of the royal Judahite administration.

How secure is the identification of the vanilla? One hundred per cent, Gadot answers. But where the flavouring came from is anybody’s guess. Harvested as pods produced by vanilla plants, it isn’t known to have been cultivated back then and had to be harvested from the wild. It could have originated in Madagascar or another part of tropical Africa, or India, and then reached Iron Age Judah by long-distance trading from either source.

The rosette seal impression of the Kingdom of Judah, on a wine jar handle.

Long-distance trading was common then, by sea and by land. From that perspective, finding spices from far, far away is plausible. In this case, the researchers believe the bean was likely imported via Arabia, through the trade route crossing the Negev Desert: possibly under the auspices of Assyrians, or their heirs the Egyptians, or even, possibly, the Babylonians.

Wine-bibbing was common, but vanilla was not: “Its discovery in so many jars in Jerusalem stresses the relative wealth of the residents of Jerusalem at the time,” Shalev says – at least before the irate Babylonians arrived and levelled the city.

Wine evoked mixed feelings in biblical times, as it does today. Psalms 104:15 extols its virtue: “And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, making the face brighter than oil” – a lovely sentiment. The book of Isaiah admonishes: “Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink; that justify the wicked for a reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him” (5:22-23). Hosea is worse: “Harlotry [sensual idolatry], wine, and new wine take away the heart” (4:11). You stand warned.

Cinnamon in Phoenicia

No trace of other spices was detected in these Judahite wine jars, Gadot and Shalev confirm. But it bears noting that the locals of the Levant were augmenting their range of flavours from overseas going back to the Bronze Age, if not before. Cinnamon has been detected in Phoenician flasks found at Tel Dor from 3,000 years ago. The cinnamon residue was in wine jugs, mark you, but in tiny vessels with narrow necks and a capacity of about three tablespoons.

Remnants of the smashed wine jars in Jerusalem.
Restored wine jars.

The wine jars analyzed in the new study have been dated to roughly the time of King Zedekiah, whose rebellion against the Babylonian overlords about 2,600 years ago did not go well. The vessels were found inside two destroyed buildings, in two different digs in the City of David. The Israel Antiquities Authority is excavating “Beit Shalem” on the eastern slopes of the City of David hill. The other, a joint venture by the IAA and TAU, is at the site formerly known as the Givati parking lot, west of the hill.

All the jars contained chemicals typical of wine, and two, as said, had signals of vanilla bean and seem to have been placed in storage rooms in the two buildings. Both of the buildings show the marks of the furious destruction and the jars had, fittingly to the occasion, been smashed. But residue analysis, a technique that has taken off in recent years, could identify molecules adhering to the clay.

The analysis was performed by Ayala Amir, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, performing the tests in laboratories at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, and Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. “Vanilla markers are an unusual find, especially in light of the fire that occurred in the buildings where the jars were found. The results of the analysis of the organic residues allow me to say with confidence that the jars contained wine and that it was seasoned with vanilla,” she said.

Ortal Chalaf and Dr. Joe Uziel were the excavation directors on behalf of the IAA who uncovered one group of jars, on the eastern slopes of the City of David hill. “The opportunity to combine innovative scientific studies examining the contents of jars opened a window for us, to find out what they ate – and, in this case, what they drank – in Jerusalem on the eve of the destruction,” they stated.

The second set of jars was found by Gadot and Shalev beneath the Givati parking lot, where a sort of surviving two-story building was unearthed. The researchers suggest it may have been an administrative building, which, unlike today’s equivalents, apparently had a wine cellar. More than 15 jars were found there, as well as other storage vessels.

The analysis also revealed that the ancients sensibly reused their pottery jars – big clay jars are a labour to make and lug about. Some of the jars produced signals of having previously held olive oil (the manufacture of olive oil goes back at least 8,000 years).

In short, finding jars of wine is no surprise; discovering that some of the jars had also been used to store olive oil is horse sense. But, as the archaeologists put it: finding vanilla in the wine is amazing.

Christian, Muslim symbols were found in a 7th-century shipwreck in Israel

Christian, Muslim symbols were found in a 7th-century shipwreck in Israel

About 1,300 years ago, a 25-meter-long ship sank just a few dozen meters from the coast of Israel. Most likely, nobody perished in the incident.

But its plentiful cargo included 103 amphorae filled with all forms of agricultural products, numerous daily objects used by the crew and many other unique features, such as several Greek and Arabic inscriptions. They were swallowed by the sea and the sand, which preserved their secrets for centuries.

First spotted by two members of nearby Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, about 35 km. south of Haifa, the site was again covered by sand and rediscovered in 2015.

Students Maayan Cohen and Michelle Creisher examine the pottery near the bulkhead at Ma‘agan Mikhael B shipwreck.

The shipwreck has been excavated by the University of Haifa’s Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies since 2016.

It has offered archaeologists unique insights into the life of the region at the time of the transition between Byzantine and Islamic rule, trade routes and ship construction.

Christian, Muslim symbols were found in a 7th-century shipwreck in Israel

Moreover, the site presents the largest maritime cargo collection of Byzantine and early Islamic pottery discovered in Israel, not devoid of mystery, since two of the six types of amphorae had never before been uncovered.

The first results of the excavations were examined in two academic papers recently published in the journals the Levant and Near Eastern Archaeology.

 “We have not been able to determine with certainty what caused the ship to wreck, but we think it was probably a navigational mistake,” University of Haifa archaeologist Deborah Cvikel, an author of both papers, told The Jerusalem Post. “We are talking about an unusually large vessel, which was carefully built and is beautifully conserved.”

Based on the findings, the researchers believe the ship must have made stops in Cyprus, Egypt and possibly a port along the coast of Israel before sinking, she said, adding: “It was definitely travelling around the Levant.”

The size and richness of the cargo seem to contradict the notion, currently popular among scholars, that during the transition between Byzantine and Islamic rule between the seventh and eighth centuries, commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean was limited.

Inscriptions found by the archaeologists have provided a glimpse of the fascinating complexity of the period, with both Greek and Arabic letters, as well as Christian and Muslim religious symbols, making their way to the ship – whether carved in the wood of the vessel or on the amphorae.

“We do not know whether the crew was Christian or Muslim, but we found traces of both religions,” Cvikel said.

The symbols include the name of Allah written in Arabic, as well as several crosses. Among the products found in the pottery were olives, dates, figs, fish bones, pine nuts, grapes and raisins. Many animal bones were found on the ship, perhaps do to eating practices or because they were kept by the crew as pets.

“We have not found any human bone, but we assume that because the ship sank so close to the coast, nobody died in the wreckage,” Cvikel said.

What also makes the site unique is that among the six types of amphorae identified by the archaeologists, two typologies had never emerged anywhere else. Most of the other vessels appeared to have been made in Egypt.

Moreover, the ship also offers important insights in terms of ship construction techniques.

“Ships were built using a method called ‘shell-first’ construction, which was based on strakes, giving the hull its shape and integrity,” Cvikel told the Post. “The main characteristic of this method is the use of mortise-and-tenon joints to connect hull planks. During the fifth to sixth centuries CE, ‘skeleton-first’ construction, in which strakes were fastened to the preconstructed keel and frames, was used.

“This process of ‘transition in ship construction’ has been one of the main topics in the history of shipbuilding for about 70 years, and some issues have remained unanswered. Therefore, each shipwreck of this period holds a vast amount of information that can shed further light onto the process.”

The excavation of the site, which is carried out with the involvement of several master’s and doctoral students, is ongoing, even though this summer the coronavirus emergency has prevented the archaeologist from going back to it.

“We still need to uncover the rear part of the ship, where presumably the captain lived,” Cvikel said. “We also need to carry out more analysis on many of the findings, including the amphorae, their content, the everyday objects, such as the cookware, and the animal bones.”

Archaeologists believe they found the oldest Hebrew text in Israel – including the name of God

Archaeologists believe they found the oldest Hebrew text in Israel – including the name of God

Archaeologist Dr. Scott Stripling and a team of international scholars held a press conference on Thursday in Houston, Texas, unveiling what he claims is the earliest proto-alphabetic Hebrew text — including the name of God, “YHWH” — ever discovered in ancient Israel. It was found at Mount Ebal, known from Deuteronomy 11:29 as a place of curses.

If the Late Bronze Age (circa 1200 BCE) date is verified, this tiny, 2-centimeter x 2 centimeter folded-lead “curse tablet” may be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever. It would be the first attested use of the name of God in the Land of Israel and would set the clock back on proven Israelite literacy by several centuries — showing that the Israelites were literate when they entered the Holy Land, and therefore could have written the Bible as some of the events it documents took place.

“This is a text you find only every 1,000 years,” Haifa University Prof. Gershon Galil told The Times of Israel on Thursday. Galil helped decipher the hidden internal text of the folded lead tablet based on high-tech scans carried out in Prague at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Based on epigraphical analysis of the scans and lead analysis of the artifact, Stripling and his team date the curse tablet (or defixio) to the late Bronze Age, before or around 1200 BCE. If this dating is verified, it would make the text centuries older than the previous recordholder for oldest Hebrew text in Israel and 500 years older than the previously attested use of the tetragrammaton YHWH, according to Galil. Writing in a similar alphabet was discovered in the Sinai Peninsula dating to the beginning of the 16th century BCE.

However, the researchers have not yet published the find in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Likewise, they are not yet releasing clear images and scans of the inscription for other academics to weigh in on.

Also challenging the secure dating of the object is the fact that the tablet was not discovered during a carefully excavated stratified context. Rather, it was found during a 2019 re-examination of earth from a dump pile formed during 1980s excavations at Mount Ebal that were held under Prof. Adam Zertal. The earth had been dry-sifted then, and in 2019 Stripling’s team resifted it using a wet sifting technique that was developed at the Temple Mount Sifting Project, where Stripling once worked. Stripling current heads ongoing excavations at biblical Shiloh.

Archaeologists approached by The Times of Israel were unwilling to comment on the record until they viewed the hopefully forthcoming academic paper and scans.

“The fact that they are publishing it in the news before being published scientifically is a bit off,” said one established academic. Another cautioned that since he hasn’t been able to view the inscription himself, it was impossible to know whether the claims were factual or a case of “overdeveloped imagination.”

However, both skeptics said that “everything is possible” and that “it may be valid,” even though the images were not yet being made available. While it is irregular to promote an unpublished work in the lay press before an academic journal, Galil noted that the team felt obligated to share news of the tablet’s existence and their initial findings because of its history-changing potential.

Dr. Scott Stripling, head of the current excavation at biblical Shiloh, exhibits a find. May 22, 2017.

A curse tablet from the mount of curses

The curse tablet was discovered in earth originally taken from a cultic site at Mount Ebal, near biblical Shechem and today’s Nablus. Mount Ebal appears in Deuteronomy 11:29 as a place of “curses” and is revered by some Christians and Jews as the place where the biblical Joshua built an altar as commanded in Deuteronomy 27. It is described in Joshua 8:31 as “an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron.”

The site known is known by locals as “Al-Burnat,” or “top hat” in Arabic, and is regarded by archaeologists as an exceedingly rare and significant illustration of early Israelite settlement. It is the only one of its type in the area. A consensus of archaeologists date the clearly cultic site to the early Iron Age, somewhere around the 11th century BCE, or when the Israelites evidently began to settle the land of Canaan. Other archaeologists push that date back to the 12th century or Late Bronze Age.

‘Joshua’s Altar’ at the Mount Ebal archaeological site, February 15, 2021.

“This is an important site, belonging to the wave of settlement in the highlands in the early phase of the Iron Age,” said Prof. Israel Finkelstein, one of the world’s leading researchers on Iron Age settlement in the region. Finkelstein spoke with The Times of Israel in February 2021 when Mount Ebal was in the news after allegations were made that it was being destroyed by local Arab towns in the course of construction of a road.

“As far as I can judge, it dates to the 11th century BCE. As such, it can be understood as representing the groups which established the kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) in the 10th century BCE. In other words, it is an early Israelite site,” he told The Times of Israel.

The late University of Haifa professor Zertal excavated the site in the 1980s, including a large rectangular altar that was apparently constructed over an earlier round altar. Stripling said the tablet came from earth originally excavated from this round altar.

Artist’s rendering of the Mt. Ebal archaeological site and the dump piles sifted by Dr. Scott Stripling and his team in 2019.

“As soon as I saw it [the tablet], I knew what it was because these curse tablets are known. My heart almost jumped out of my chest,” said Stripling.

In addition to the fact of an early — if not the earliest — Hebrew inscription found in the Land of Israel, Galil told The Times of Israel that this find sets to rest the ongoing academic discussion of whether the Israelites were literate.

“We know that from the moment they came to Israel, the Israelites knew how to write, including the name of God, clearly,” said Galil. “It’s not too surprising; people already knew how to write in other places,” he added.

Arguably the earliest written evidence of the name of God, YHWH, according to epigrapher Haifa University Prof. Gershon Galil.

The scans were read by Galil and Pieter Gert van der Veen of Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. Speaking with The Times of Israel, Stripling said the reading includes the words “arur” (cursed) and “YHWH” (including the three main letters of the tetragrammaton).

“We recovered 40 letters, 40 on the inside and outside of the tablet. And they were all in this proto-alphabetic script which dates to the Late Bronze Age,” said Stripling.

Galil told The Times of Israel that the text is largely written in an archaic proto-Canaanite script, with some letters coming from hieroglyphs. The latest date of the epigraphic analysis would put it circa the 12th century, while some elements are dated to even earlier.

The majority Hebrew-language text, he posited, was written by Israelites as an internal legal document, a form of social contract, warning the person under contract what would happen if he did not fulfill his obligations.

An English translation of Prof. Gershon Galil’s reading of the arguably 13th century BCE lead curse tablet found on Mt. Ebal.

According to the researchers, it reads: “Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW./ You will die cursed./ Cursed you will surely die./ Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”

Galil said the structure is a parallel chiastic, which is found elsewhere in the Bible, as well as in other Near Eastern texts of the period and even earlier. But until now, researchers have held that the Bible was only written down — if not composed — hundreds of years after the posited dating of this text.

“Now we see that someone could write a chiastic” in the 12th century BCE. No longer should the conversation be about whether the Israelites were literate during the time of King David, he said.

“The person who wrote this text had the ability to write every text in the Bible,” Galil stated.

1,900-year-old Roman ‘battle spoils’ recovered from robbers in Jerusalem

1,900-year-old Roman ‘battle spoils’ recovered from robbers in Jerusalem

Police in Jerusalem seized a hoard of stolen antiquities that date to a 1,900-year-old Jewish rebellion against the Romans. The cache had been dug up by tomb robbers from a tunnel complex. 

1,900-year-old Roman 'battle spoils' recovered from robbers in Jerusalem
Police in Jerusalem has seized a hoard of stolen antiquities in Jerusalem, including coins, incense burners and ceramics.

The hoard included hundreds of coins, incense burners and a number of ceramics with decorations on them, including a jug that has a carving of a reclining figure holding a jug of wine.

Researchers believe that during the Bar Kokhba revolt (A.D. 132-135), Jewish rebels captured the items from Roman soldiers and stored them in a tunnel complex where modern-day robbers found them, the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement released on their Facebook page on Wednesday. 

Inspectors from the Robbery Prevention Unit examine the artefacts seized in Jerusalem.
Police in Jerusalem has seized a hoard of stolen antiquities in Jerusalem, including coins, incense burners and ceramics.

During the Bar Kokhba revolt, Shimon Ben Kosva (also called Simon Bar-Kokhba or just Bar-Kokhba) led the Jews in a revolt against Roman rule.

The rebels initially captured a substantial amount of territory. However, the Romans counterattacked and gradually wiped out the rebels and killed many civilians.

The ancient writer Cassius Dio claimed that more than 500,000 Jewish men were killed in the revolts. Archaeologists have found numerous hideouts that the Jews used to hide goods or people from the Roman army. 

Despite stealing the goods, the Jewish rebels may not have used many of the artefacts, because they had images that may have gone against Jewish religious beliefs.

“The Jewish fighters did not use them, since they are typical Roman cult artefacts and are decorated with figures and pagan symbols,” the Israel Antiquities Authority said in the statement. 

Police officers found the artefacts after they stopped a car that was “driving in the wrong direction up a one-way street,” the statement said.

Inside the car, they found the artefacts, which researchers think the robbers stole during illegal excavations of a tunnel complex.

While the artefacts were seized in the Musrara neighbourhood of Jerusalem the precise location of the tunnel complex was not released.