6 archaeology stories from 2018 that made me rethink my world
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First impressionsWhile digging, 'you’re a very small part in a larger cosmos'

6 archaeology stories from 2018 that made me rethink my world

Who knew? Archaeology is therapy; maybe a meteor destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah; there are still new Dead Sea Scrolls treasures to decipher; and the mighty louse is a wonder

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • American Veterans Archaeological Recovery co-founder Stephen Humphreys (right) at the Beth She'arim Excavation, August 2018. (courtesy)
    American Veterans Archaeological Recovery co-founder Stephen Humphreys (right) at the Beth She'arim Excavation, August 2018. (courtesy)
  • John Martin's 'Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,' 1852. (public domain, via Wikipedia)
    John Martin's 'Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,' 1852. (public domain, via Wikipedia)
  • An illustrative photo from May 2, 2018, of Dead Sea Scrolls displayed at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    An illustrative photo from May 2, 2018, of Dead Sea Scrolls displayed at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Side-by-side, the newly imagined 60,000-year-old skeletal chest and its original, Kebara 2, discovered in the Carmel Mountains in 1983. (A. Gómez-Olivencia, A. Barash and E. Been/J. Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)
    Side-by-side, the newly imagined 60,000-year-old skeletal chest and its original, Kebara 2, discovered in the Carmel Mountains in 1983. (A. Gómez-Olivencia, A. Barash and E. Been/J. Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)
  • Dr. Danny Syon, Israel Antiquities Authority (at right), and Dr. Yinon Shivtiel, Zefat Academic College, in the Lebanon-border cave on June 29, 2018. (Omri Gester)
    Dr. Danny Syon, Israel Antiquities Authority (at right), and Dr. Yinon Shivtiel, Zefat Academic College, in the Lebanon-border cave on June 29, 2018. (Omri Gester)
  • Male human head louse, Pediculus humanus capitis. (Gilles San Martin, CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)
    Male human head louse, Pediculus humanus capitis. (Gilles San Martin, CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)

Turning swords into plowshares, a small group of United States military veterans spent several weeks this summer at Israel’s Beit She’arim National Park archaeological excavation. Unlike many who join seasonal excavations, the former military personnel were as much digging for healing as for artifacts.

While reporting on the field of archaeology, I have been privileged to cover many important finds that may shift the way we understand the ancient world. In this case, it is the very act of looking that shifts the way the veterans see the world today.

In a Skype conversation with Stephen Humphreys, founder of the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR), the former US Airforce aircraft maintenance officer said, “As soon as I touched the dirt, I fell in love.”

In my September article, “US vets combat PTSD by sifting through the past at archaeological dig in Israel,” Humphreys said that for his former troops, coming to a land where military service is still largely compulsory helped his veterans feel normal again. Likewise, they felt at home with Israel’s notoriously brusque communication style.

American Veterans Archaeological Recovery co-founder Stephen Humphreys (right) at the Beth She’arim Excavation, August 2018. (courtesy)

But it was while physically digging into the past that the US veterans’ traumatic experiences in the Middle East (most served in Iraq or Afghanistan) began to recede.

The Beit She’arim dig is headed by Haifa University’s Dr. Adi Erlich and Rona Evyasaf. It is a community excavation open to all — from children to the elderly. The only prerequisite is a desire to work, said Erlich. So the team of veterans found itself alongside Israelis from all walks of life — Jews, Arabs — washing dishes, digging, pushing wheelbarrows.

While being careful to minimize the hype, Humphreys described the excavation as a very healing experience.

Archaeologist Erlich agreed: “I see that excavation, the physical work, dirt, is very good for processing experiences. It’s a way to forget yourself in the past, and understand you’re a very small part in a larger cosmos.”

Here are five other stories from 2018 which made me rethink my world.

Evidence of Sodom? Meteor blast cause of biblical destruction, say scientists

John Martin’s ‘Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,’ 1852. (public domain, via Wikipedia)

Genesis 19:24–25 describes a most horrific sight: “Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah — from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus He overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities — and also the vegetation in the land.”

A team of modern archaeologists has proposed a new theory that just might support this disastrous biblical description.

In a jointly authored paper, “The Civilization-Ending 3.7KYrBP Event: Archaeological Data, Sample Analyses, and Biblical Implications,” from Jordan’s Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project, director of scientific analysis Phillip J. Silvia and co-dig director Dr. Steven Collins write, “The physical evidence from Tall el-Hammam and neighboring sites exhibit signs of a highly destructive concussive and thermal event that one might expect from what is described in Genesis 19.”

According to the authors, a huge aerial meteor explosion could account for the archaeological evidence of a massively disastrous event — such as the one depicted in the Bible.

Based on well-documented evidence of similar modern explosions around the world, their theory made me pause.

2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scroll deciphered, revealing Second Temple power struggles

An illustrative photo from May 2, 2018, of Dead Sea Scrolls displayed at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Sometimes in the academic analysis of archaeological artifacts, if at first you don’t succeed, you try, and try, and try, and try… This year, Haifa University’s Dr. Eshbal Ratson succeeded in deciphering the encrypted ancient Hebrew of one of the last unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls.

According to Ratson, the almost impossible year-long mission was like “putting together a jigsaw puzzle — without knowing what the picture was.”

Ratson perhaps more than anyone is surprised by the results of her intensive work. During a lengthy conversation with The Times of Israel, Ratson said she assumed she was undertaking technical busy work. “But the puzzle came into being and I realized that I had something in hand.”

Dr. Eshbal Ratson, who helped decipher a previously unpublished Dead Sea Scroll. (University of Haifa)

Ratson’s work made a well-deserved international media splash. This year as well, minuscule previously unseen Dead Sea Scroll fragments, stored in cigar boxes since archaeologists unearthed them in the 1950s, were identified and unveiled at an international conference marking the 70th anniversary of the scroll’s discovery.

“It’s always exciting to discover a pile of tiny fragments that were basically considered to be a hopeless conglomerate of fragments and realize that meaningful text can be extracted from that,” said Tel Aviv University Prof. Noam Mizrahi about Ratson’s analysis. “It is important on a number of levels.”

3D model of Neanderthal rib cage busts myth of ‘hunched-over cavemen’

Side-by-side, the newly imagined 60,000-year-old skeletal chest and its original, Kebara 2, discovered in the Carmel Mountains in 1983. (A. Gómez-Olivencia, A. Barash and E. Been/J. Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)

My yoga classes will never be the same. As the instructor liltingly tells my class to inhale and exhale, I — ever since speaking with Ono Academic College’s Dr. Ella Been — invariably imagine a 3D model of a Neanderthal rib cage that has forever changed how I think about these early humans.

Neanderthals walked upright, had spines straighter than those of modern man, would have been strong and sturdy, and breathed deeply from their bell-, not barrel-shaped rib cages, according to Been, a member of the international team of scientists that recently published “3D virtual reconstruction of the Kebara 2 Neandertal thorax” in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications.

Ono Academic College’s Dr. Ella Been is a researcher and a physical therapist. (courtesy)

They drew their conclusions from a recently completed 3D virtual reconstruction of the rib cage of the Kebara 2 skeleton — aka “Moshe” — the headless but almost complete Neanderthal remains unearthed in 1983 in a northern Israel cave and now housed at Tel Aviv University.

What is striking in the new study is its geometric morphometric analysis — basically a comparison between the reconstructed structure and skeletons of modern man. The 3D model of the Neanderthal rib cage compared with that of modern man “made us realize things we couldn’t see or measure before,” said Been.

Studying Neanderthals, she said, could allow medical practitioners more space for increased acceptance of variations within the population.

“I think that understanding where we come from gives us perspective for who we are. In the medical field we often have to think of things in one way, ‘normal and abnormal.’ We forget to look at diversity,” she said.

On Lebanon border, salvage op rappels 2,000-year-old vessels down sheer cliff

Dr. Danny Syon, Israel Antiquities Authority (at right), and Dr. Yinon Shivtiel, Zefat Academic College, in the Lebanon-border cave on June 29, 2018. (Omri Gester)

A duo of 60-something-year-old researchers scaled a 30-meter cliff to retrieve 2,000-year-old vessels as 18-year-old IDF soldiers guarded them near the Lebanon border in July.

Inside the small cave, 3 meters (10 feet) by 1.5, the team found an array of pottery of all sizes — large cooking vessels as well as upright wine containers — taking up all the floor space. “In the beginning I was doing acrobatics to not step on the pottery,” said Dr. Danny Syon, senior archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Climbing to a cliff cave on the Lebanon border on June 29, 2018. (Yoav Negev)

Dr. Yinon Shivtiel of the Zefat Academic College, who has surveyed many of the cave dwellings of the Galilee over the past 30 years, said that according to his experience, “people who go to such a dangerous cave are under stress. They had to hide to live,” he said. These aren’t people going on vacation, he joked. “All the equipment we found in the cave was for survival,” said Shivtiel.

As the IDF continues its destruction of Hezbollah’s tunnels not far from this cave, these ancient artifacts, brought again to light by a couple of die-hard scholars, takes on a surprisingly resonant contemporary spin.

A bit player in human history, the mighty louse is important — and here to stay

Female human head louse, Pediculus humanus capitis. (Gilles San Martin, CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)

Spurred by an unfortunate infestation at home, I finally had a practical application for my work in plumbing the past: Lice. Looking into the little critters became almost an obsession and, as my long-suffering friends and family will testify, my most-talked about project of the year.

In researching my report on the mighty louse, I read numerous scientific studies and spoke with experts. It brought me to investigate the very origins of early humankind, some 6-7 million years ago.

Louse comb, Murabaat, Roman period, made of Boxwood. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)

It turned out that Israel has some of the best preserved evidence of early lice: At prehistoric Nahal Hever, archaeologists discovered remains of 9,000-year-old head lice, and at lofty Masada, they’ve found lice-infested clothing and combs. Analysis of hair fragments from two millennia ago give direct evidence of the harsh conditions under the Romans’ siege on the mountain top.

Israel’s top lice expert, medical entomologist Prof. Kosta Y. Mumcuoglu, is an unabashed fan of the little creatures. But he offered little hope of full eradication any time soon from our children’s heads.

“We are doing so many things to get rid of them, but I can guarantee they will continue surviving for many, many hundreds of years to come,” said Mumcuoglu.

The magnificently adaptable critters have not (tfu, tfu, tfu) returned to our household. But when they inevitably do, I’ll greet them with newfound respect.

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