Category Archives: ISRAEL

Ancient Mosaic Floors in Israel May Depict Biblical Heroines

Ancient Mosaic Floors in Israel May Depict Biblical Heroines

A team of specialists and students led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness recently returned to Israel’s Lower Galilee to continue unearthing nearly 1,600-year-old mosaics in an ancient Jewish synagogue at Huqoq.

Ancient Mosaic Floors in Israel May Depict Biblical Heroines
Left: The Israelite commander Barak is depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic. Right: Fox-eating grapes depicted in Huqoq synagogue mosaics.

Discoveries made this year include the first known depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael as described in the book of Judges.

The Huqoq Excavation Project is now in its 10th season after recent seasons were paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Project director Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of religious studies in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences, and assistant director Dennis Mizzi of the University of Malta focused this season on the southwest part of the synagogue, which was built in the late fourth-early fifth century C.E.

Israelite commander Barak is depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic.

This season, the project team unearthed a part of the synagogue’s floor decorated with a large mosaic panel that is divided into three horizontal strips (called registers), which depicts an episode from the book of Judges chapter 4: The victory of the Israelite forces led by the prophetess and judge Deborah and the military commander Barak over the Canaanite army led by the general Sisera.

The Bible relates that after the battle, Sisera took refuge in the tent of a Kenite woman named Jael (Yael), who killed him by driving a tent stake through his temple as he slept.

The uppermost register of the newly-discovered Huqoq mosaic shows Deborah under a palm tree, gazing at Barak, who is equipped with a shield. Only a small part of the middle register is preserved, which appears to show Sisera seated.

The lowest register depicts Sisera lying deceased on the ground, bleeding from the head as Jael hammers a tent stake through his temple.

“This is the first depiction of this episode and the first time we’ve seen a depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael in ancient Jewish art,” Magness said. “Looking at the book of Joshua chapter 19, we can see how the story might have had special resonance for the Jewish community at Huqoq, as it is described as taking place in the same geographical region – the territory of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon.”

Also among the newly discovered mosaics is a fragmentary Hebrew dedicatory inscription inside a wreath, flanked by panels measuring 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide, which show two vases that hold sprouting vines. The vines form medallions that frame four animals eating clusters of grapes: a hare, a fox, a leopard and a wild boar.

Mosaic depicting a fox eating grapes in the ancient synagogue at Huqoq.

A decade of discovery  

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work continued each summer until the COVID-19 pandemic paused work after the dig in 2019.

The mosaics exposed in the last 10 active seasons cover the synagogue’s aisles and main hall.

Discoveries along the east aisle include:  
  • Panels depicting Samson and the foxes (as related in Judges 15:4)  
  • Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3)  
  • A Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti, or cupids  
  • The first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest   

The mosaic floor in the north aisle is divided into two rows of panels containing figures and objects accompanied by Hebrew inscriptions identifying them as biblical stories, including:  

  • One panel depicts two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes, labelled “a pole between two” (from Numbers 13:23)  
  • Another panel showing a man leading an animal on a rope is accompanied by the inscription “a small child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)
The mosaics panels in the nave, or main hall, include:  
  • A portrayal of Noah’s Ark  
  • The parting of the Red Sea  
  • A Helios-zodiac cycle  
  • Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish
  • The building of the Tower of Babel  

In 2019, the team uncovered panels in the north aisle that frame figures of animals identified by an Aramaic inscription as the four beasts representing four kingdoms in the book of Daniel, chapter 7. A large panel in the northwest aisle depicts Elim, the spot where the Israelites camped by 12 springs and 70 date palms after departing Egypt and wandering in the wilderness without water (Exodus 15:27).

In the 14th century C.E. (the Mamluk period), the synagogue was rebuilt and expanded in size, perhaps in connection with the rise of a tradition that the Tomb of Habakkuk was located nearby, which became a focal point of late medieval Jewish pilgrimage.

“The 14th century C.E. building appears to be the first Mamluk period synagogue ever discovered in Israel, making it no less important than the earlier building,” said Magness.

The sponsors of the project are UNC-Chapel Hill, Austin College, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Students and staff from Carolina and the consortium schools participated in the dig. Financial support for the 2022 season was also provided by the National Geographic Society, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, the Kenan Charitable Trust and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2023. For additional information and updates, visit the project’s website: www.huqoq.org.

Images of the most recent discoveries may be downloaded here using password huqoq. Photos by Jim Haberman.

Convert’s ‘Bloody’ Curse Against Robbers Found in Ancient Galilee Grave

Convert’s ‘Bloody’ Curse Against Robbers Found in Ancient Galilee Grave

Dated back to the 2nd or 3rd century AD (Late Roman or Early Byzantine period) this painted bloody-looking burial curse inscription was found in a tomb in Beit She’arim Necropolis of Lower Galilee in Israel.

Convert’s ‘Bloody’ Curse Against Robbers Found in Ancient Galilee Grave
The curse, written in red paint on stone at an ancient grave in Beit She’arim.

The full text and the story of its discovery were presented at the Northern Conference, held jointly on June 1, 2022, by the University of Haifa and the northern region of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

Though the Beit She’arim necropolis had been studied extensively, the catacomb in which Jacob had been buried had been unknown until last year. This curse was the first inscription archaeologists have found in Beit She’arim for 65 years!

Necropolis of Bet She’arim, Catacomb 20, Copyright: © Tsvika Tsuk

Beit She’arim site

Beit She’arim, located in the Lower Galilee, was a central Jewish settlement during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, in the 2nd to 5th centuries CE. The Jewish Sanhedrin Council moved there after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Jewish Sanhedrin Council moved there and it became an important centre of Jewish learning and culture.

Inside the innermost chamber, the researchers discovered two inscriptions written in Greek, in red paint. Both were deciphered by Jonathan Price, professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University. The small one, was found on the limestone wall near a burial lodge, with the name “Judah” on it, who archaeologists believe was the owner of the tomb.

The larger inscription, which was found on a stone slab leaning against the opening of the same alcove, consisted of the eight lines warning people to stay away from Jacob/Yaakov ‘the Convert’s’ (Koine Greek: ΙΑΚΩΒΟC Ο ΠΡΟCΗΛΥΤΟC) tomb and let the deceased rest in peace.

It was specifically written to deter grave robbers, and as such it says:

“Jacob the Proselyte vows to curse anybody who would open this grave, so nobody will open it. He was 60.”

The last three words of the curse were written in a different script and the researchers believe that they may were written after his death by someone else (possibly relatives), following his demise.

An emblem of a menorah carved in the stone, inside a structure at Beit She’arim National Park, an archaeological site in the Lower Galilee.

Why Proselyte?

This title means that he converted to Judaism, perhaps from Christianity or another pagan cult of the time, such as those of Isis or Mithras that thrived in the Late Roman period. During this period, we know that people were desperately seeking life meaning in different philosophical movements, cults, or religions of the united Roman world.

The Christian faith was growing stronger, however, there are indications that many people in the area choose also to join the Jewish religion. Jerusalem, for instance, is littered with remnants from the burials of converts to Judaism during the second and third centuries AD.

However, converting to Judaism is difficult and involves many serious life changes. After studying Jewish law, converts not only have to hearty accept and be sincerely devoted to the Jewish faith, but they also become members of the Jewish People, and they must embrace the totality of Jewish history and culture.

Greek-speaking areas during the Hellenistic period (323 to 31 BC) Dark blue: areas where Greek speakers probably were a majority Light blue: areas that were Hellenized. Wikipedia.

Why in Greek?

Greek, specifically Koine Greek (Common Greek) served as a lingua franca of the time. Also known as Alexandrian dialect, common Attic, Hellenistic, or Biblical Greek, was the common supra-regional form of Greek spoken and written during the Hellenistic period, the Roman Empire and the early Byzantine Empire.

It evolved from the spread of Greek following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, and was the language commonly spoken in much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East during the following centuries, including Roman-period Palestine. It was based mainly on Attic and related Ionic speech forms, with various admixtures brought about through dialect levelling with other varieties.

The excavation of the Beit She’arim ancient necropolis began 80 years ago. The burial inscriptions that were found belong to Jews and are written in various languages, but mostly Greek.

Second Possible Seventh-Century Mosque Uncovered in Israel

Second Possible Seventh-Century Mosque Uncovered in Israel

Archaeologists working on the site of the mosque at Rahat.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

Three years after finding one of the world’s earliest rural mosques in southern Israel, archaeologists have found a second one in the same town. Both mosques were discovered during different stages of salvation excavations in the Bedouin town of Rahat, in the northern Negev, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. The excavations are directed by Oren Shmueli, Dr. Elena Kogan-Zehavi and Dr. Noe David Michael on behalf of the IAA.

The two mosques are both approximately 1,200 years old, though precise dating is challenging under the circumstances – and the newly unearthed one was built a few hundred meters from the ruins of a strangely magnificent mansion that had apparently belonged to wealthy Byzantine Christians.

An aerial view of the seventh-century mosque.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

Facing Mecca

The newly found mosque is classic in structure, including a square room and a wall facing the “sacred” direction of the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca. The structure also contains a niche shaped in a half-circle, called a mihrab, located along the center of the wall and also pointing southward toward Mecca.

Why is dating the mosques a problem? In the case of the one found first and reported in 2019, it seems the people who came to pray came empty-handed, Kogan-Zehavi explains. Since the sites at Rahat – five are presently under excavation – are dated mainly by pottery, if the worshippers came without any, that is a problem. That one was dated based on finds in the buildings around it, Kogan-Zehavi says.

This second one did contain finds – in the sense that it had been built above a Christian farm, which had been discovered earlier. Thus, they reached the conclusion that it dates to the early days of Islam, the seventh century. In other words, we cannot say whether the two mosques operated at the same time – but there is no reason to think they didn’t, she says.

An aerial view of the mosque at Rahat in southern Israel.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The ancient farming settlement at Rahat operated in the late Byzantine and early Islamic periods. It is not known, certainly not regarding the house, whether the inhabitants were Islamic nomads who swept in from the desert and settled down, or were local converts from Christianity, Kogan-Zehavi says. In any case, a city this was not; ancient Rahat was farmland, and the mosques were not central in the town; they were on its periphery. Located a few kilometres apart, each could have served its immediately local community, calling the faithful in adjacent farms to prayer, Kogan-Zehavi says. So, even though there may have been two contemporary mosques in the same settlement, this was still not a town, let alone a city, and they can still be called extremely early rural mosques.

Elsewhere, in Har Hanegev – a range of rather small, barren mountains deep in the desert – archaeologists have found early mosques built in open land, not associated with settlements. They may have been open to the air, without roofs, and served to call people in the area to convene, Kogan-Zehavi says. The ones at Rahat are closer to settlement, but do stand alone. The newly unearthed one could have been used by several dozen worshippers at a time.

She adds that in urban areas, one finds more early mosques but this was hinterland, and people didn’t move to farm in the Negev because that was their dream. Nicer places in Israel were “full” and they had no choice, Kogan-Zehavi explains.

Remains of the palatial Byzantine structure at Rahat.Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Family secrets

This leads us to the Byzantine manse by which the second early mosque in Rahat had been built, which was first reported in 2020. It was an extraordinary structure for the Negev, more akin to a small palace. Around 30 by 30 meters (nearly 100 by 100 feet) in area, it featured lovely frescoed walls – a thing not found before in ancient domiciles in this region. It had halls with stone pavement, some paved with imported marble (Israel has enormous amounts of chalkstone and limestone but no marble worthy of mention), plastered floors and was divided into sections.

Remains of fine tableware and precious glassware were found, also indicative of wealth. This structure was not a fortified citadel built to repel invaders from the desert, though it may have had a small guardhouse, plausibly built to deter thieves. Not one but two wells were dug by this mansion. A quick dig showed that the western section had large, elaborate rooms that could have served for hosting because of the great breeze, the archaeologists say. The eastern section also featured a large hall.

And what does this mini-palace in seventh-century Rahat indicate? That somebody had money. In one section Kogan-Zehavi and the team discovered two ovens, one of which was far too big to have served just for the culinary arts. Right by it was a water cistern, which leads her to theorize just how the occupants got so rich. They were making soap, she postulates.

Pottery from the early Muslim period found at the site.Credit: Yasmin Orbach / Israel Antiquities Authority
Items from the Early Muslim period that were found during the dig in Rahat.Credit: Yasmin Orbach / Israel Antiquities Authority

“Soap made from olive oil is one of the industries that Islam brought to civilisation. And Israel, according to Islamic historians, is one of the areas where soap was made and exported throughout the Islamic world,” she says. “The actual recipe for the soap would be kept secret and passed down through generations, and made some families very rich.”

It bears adding that soap was not invented in the Islamic period, early or otherwise, it goes back to Babylonian and Roman times. But what the earliest soap was used for is not clear; it may have been to clean clothes, not the body. And the word soap apparently derives from the Celtic word, sipa.

Why would anybody build a soap factory in the Negev of all places? Possibly because their recipe included a wild herb plant indigenous to the Negev – and the site is near the South Hebron Hills, where there was heavy production of olive oil during the period in question.

“You don’t need quality oil to make soap. You can use the residue,” Kogan-Zehavi explains.

Yet this lovely manse was abandoned, for reasons we do not know.

An aerial view of the luxurious estate building at Rahat.Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

No evidence of destruction, violence or hostilities has been found, Kogan-Zehavi says. None. It seems to have been abandoned, after which the mosque arose at the site. On a nearby hilltop, the archaeologists found other well-to-do estates that were constructed in a completely different manner – apparently mudbrick-walled rooms surrounding a courtyard – and seem to be from a later time.

In any case, the sites in this area operated continuously from the Byzantine to the early Islamic period and were then all abandoned in the ninth century, after 150 to 200 years. The cause was not marauders or war, and likely not even a passing pestilence, because the signs all show the people packed up in a leisurely and orderly manner before decamping, Kogan-Zehavi notes.

Wall decoration in the estate building from the Early Islamic period.Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“They packed up all their goodies and left. So there isn’t much left for us to analyze. We don’t know where they went,” she says.

So the new discoveries shed a little more light, but not much at this point, on the relations between the late Byzantine Christians and early Islamic rulers in the Negev. The evidence by and large indicates that relations were decent – as said, there is no sign of aggression in the archaeological record.

“We know that nearby there was a monastery that operated until the seventh century, and was abandoned. There’s no sign of violence there either, and it seems to have continued to operate under Islamic rule,” Kogan-Zehavi says. “But there was abandonment at some stage. We also do find farms that continued to operate from the Byzantine to the Islamic periods, but we can’t say if the occupants converted. And we also find new sites from the Islamic period that aren’t built atop older structures: they show expansion, the gain of new territory.”

Finds discovered at the site dated to the Early Islamic period.Credit: Yasmin Orbach / Israel Antiquities Authority
Finds discovered at the site dated to the Early Islamic period.Credit: Yasmin Orbach, Israel Antiquities Authority

Olive Trees Were First Domesticated 7,000 Years Ago

Olive Trees Were First Domesticated 7,000 Years Ago

Olive Trees Were First Domesticated 7,000 Years Ago

A joint study by researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University unravelled the earliest evidence for the domestication of a fruit tree. The researchers analyzed remnants of charcoal from the Chalcolithic site of Tel Zaf in the Jordan Valley and determined that they came from olive trees.

Since the olive did not grow naturally in the Jordan Valley, this means that the inhabitants planted the tree intentionally about 7,000 years ago. Some of the earliest stamps were also found at the site, and as a whole, the researchers say the findings indicate wealth and early steps toward the formation of a complex multilevel society.

The groundbreaking study was led by Dr. Dafna Langgut of The Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology & Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, The Sonia & Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University.

The charcoal remnants were found in the archaeological excavation directed by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University. The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports from the publishers of Nature.

‘Indisputable Proof of Domestication’

According to Dr. Langgut, Head of the Laboratory of Archaeobotany & Ancient Environments which specializes in microscopic identification of plant remains, “trees, even when burned down to charcoal, can be identified by their anatomic structure. Wood was the ‘plastic’ of the ancient world.

It was used for construction, for making tools and furniture, and as a source of energy. That’s why identifying tree remnants found at archaeological sites, such as charcoal from hearths, is a key to understanding what kinds of trees grew in the natural environment at the time, and when humans began to cultivate fruit trees.”

In her lab, Dr. Langgut identified the charcoal from Tel Zaf as belonging to olive and fig trees. “Olive trees grow in the wild in the land of Israel, but they do not grow in the Jordan Valley,” she says. “This means that someone brought them there intentionally – took the knowledge and the plant itself to a place that is outside its natural habitat. In archaeobotany, this is considered indisputable proof of domestication, which means that we have here the earliest evidence of the olive’s domestication anywhere in the world.”

7,000 years-old microscopic remains of charred olive wood (Olea) recovered from Tel Tsaf

“I also identified many remnants of young fig branches. The fig tree did grow naturally in the Jordan Valley, but its branches had little value as either firewood or raw materials for tools or furniture, so people had no reason to gather large quantities and bring them to the village.

Apparently, these fig branches resulted from pruning, a method still used today to increase the yield of fruit trees.”

Evidence of Luxury

The tree remnants examined by Dr. Langgut were collected by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University, who headed the dig at Tel Zaf. Prof. Garfinkel: “Tel Zaf was a large prehistoric village in the middle Jordan Valley south of Beit She’an, inhabited between 7,200 and 6,700 years ago. Large houses with courtyards were discovered at the site, each with several granaries for storing crops.

Storage capacities were up to 20 times greater than any single family’s calorie consumption, so clearly these were caches for storing great wealth.

The wealth of the village was manifested in the production of elaborate pottery, painted with remarkable skill. In addition, we found articles brought from afar: pottery of the Ubaid culture from Mesopotamia, obsidian from Anatolia, a copper awl from the Caucasus, and more.”

Dr. Langgut and Prof. Garfinkel were not surprised to discover that the inhabitants of Tel Zaf were the first in the world to intentionally grow olive and fig groves, since growing fruit trees is evidence of luxury, and this site is known to have been exceptionally wealthy.

Dr. Langgut: “The domestication of fruit trees is a process that takes many years, and therefore befits a society of plenty, rather than one that struggles to survive. Trees give fruit only 3-4 years after being planted. Since groves of fruit trees require a substantial initial investment and then live on for a long time, they have great economic and social significance in terms of owning land and bequeathing it to future generations – procedures suggesting the beginnings of a complex society.

Moreover, it’s quite possible that the residents of Tel Zaf traded in products derived from the fruit trees, such as olives, olive oil, and dried figs, which have a long shelf life.

Such products may have enabled long-distance trade that led to the accumulation of material wealth, and possibly even taxation – initial steps in turning the locals into a society with a socio-economic hierarchy supported by an administrative system.”

Dr. Langgut concludes: “At the Tel Zaf archaeological site we found the first evidence in the world for the domestication of fruit trees, alongside some of the earliest stamps – suggesting the beginnings of administrative procedures. As a whole, the findings indicate wealth, and early steps toward the formation of a complex multilevel society, with the class of farmers supplemented by classes of clerks and merchants.”

Ancient Humans Tamed Fire as Early as 1 Million Years Ago, Study Suggests

Ancient Humans Tamed Fire as Early as 1 Million Years Ago, Study Suggests

Ancient Humans Tamed Fire as Early as 1 Million Years Ago, Study Suggests
The heat of a fire can make lasting changes to nearby stones

An artificial intelligence tool has revealed hidden evidence of ancient fire at a 1-million-year-old archaeological site in Israel. Applying the technology at other sites could revolutionise our understanding of when and where humans first began controlling fire, which is widely considered to be one of the most significant innovations of all time.

Archaeologists already have a few techniques for identifying whether ancient humans used fire. For instance, you can look for signs that prehistoric bones are discoloured – or that stone tools are warped – in a way that is consistent with exposure to temperatures of 450°C or more.

But this sort of evidence is rarely found at sites that are more than 500,000 years old.

Last year, a group of researchers in Israel unveiled a deep-learning AI tool that can identify subtler signs of fire caused by exposure to temperatures of between 200 and 300°C.

The team trained the algorithm by gathering chunks of flint from non-archaeological sites in the Israeli countryside, heating them to particular temperatures in the lab and then tasking the AI with identifying subtle changes in the flint’s response to UV light.

Now, the team, working with Michael Chazan at the University of Toronto in Canada, has used the algorithm to look at flints from a 1-million-year-old ancient human site called Evron Quarry in Israel.

“The reason we chose Evron Quarry was that it uses the same kind of flint they had used in the previous study,” says Chazan. “But there was just no reason to think there would be evidence of burning there.”

To Chazan’s surprise, the AI tool suggested that many of the flint tools at the site had been heated, mostly to temperatures of about 400°C.

Flint tools found at the Evron Quarry.

The team then took a closer look at chunks of bone recovered from the site and, using existing techniques, confirmed that they had been heated too.

Chazan says no one would have bothered testing the bones for heat exposure without the flint results from the AI.

The clustering of the heated stones and bones hints that ancient humans had control over the fire at Evron Quarry, rather than this being evidence of natural wildfire.

At the moment, there is a small amount of evidence that humans were using fire 1.5 million years ago. However, Chazan thinks the AI tool could be used to test a popular hypothesis that fire – and cooking – was widespread between about 1.8 and 2 million years ago.

“In the past, I’ve said: no, I don’t really think that’s right,” says Chazan. Now he isn’t so sure.

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.

Discover the secrets of the Middle East

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.