There will be blood: Earliest evidence of ritual vengeance found near Jerusalem
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There will be blood: Earliest evidence of ritual vengeance found near Jerusalem

Found in a cave outside capital, millennium-old skull cracked in two by a sword, and two bones from the palm of a hand, point to ancient roots of Bedouin tradition of Al-Tar

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

Researchers who are studying the first evidence of blood vengeance, discovered in a cave in the Jerusalem Hills. From left to right: Prof. Boaz Zissu Dr. Yossi Nagar and Dr. Haim Cohen with the skull (Chen Galili/Israel Antiquities Authority)
Researchers who are studying the first evidence of blood vengeance, discovered in a cave in the Jerusalem Hills. From left to right: Prof. Boaz Zissu Dr. Yossi Nagar and Dr. Haim Cohen with the skull (Chen Galili/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A 1,000-year-old skull cracked by a sword and desiccated bones of the palm of a right hand recently discovered by a team of Israeli researchers in the Jerusalem Hills are the earliest evidence of ritual blood vengeance in the world.

According to the multi-disciplinary team, the vendetta was carried out in the 10th-11th centuries CE by the Bedouin residents of the region.

At the 44th Archaeological Congress at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on Thursday, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University will present their joint study and tie the ancient bones to the skeletal morphology of local Bedouin residents of Israel today.

Under the definition for “vendetta” found in the 2015 “Historical Dictionary of the Bedouins,” author Muhammad Suwaed writes, “Blood vengeance is considered an ancient custom — the roots of which come from the pre-Islamic period.”

Suwaed describes the tradition of vendetta, or Al-Tar, as one of the most prominent customs of the Bedouin and writes, “They do not give up blood vengeance until the last day of their human lives.”

Murder of Ma’sum Beg, the envoy of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp, by Beduins in the Hejaz, 16th century (public domain, via wikipedia)

The cave’s gruesome archaeological evidence shows this wasn’t the 25-40-year-old male’s first rodeo. His skull shows at least two occasions of near-lethal sword fighting.

According to the researchers, “The skull cap shows signs of two traumatic injuries that eventually healed — evidence of previous violence experienced by the victim — as well as a small cut-mark caused close to the time of death, and a blow by a sword that caused certain and immediate death.”

These findings are in line with Suwaed’s description of the tenacity of the Bedouin avenger, who may be on the trail of his victim for up to 40 years.

“Blood vengeance with the Bedouins is absolute and they have to avenge in order to get back their honor and the trust of their tribe’s members… The vengeance comes for settling scores and for creation of balance. Moreover the Bedouin balance states ‘A grave versus a grave,'” writes Suwaed.

An IAA press release on the skeletal evidence refers to an early 20th century text portraying a blood vengeance case in which the avenger presented his family with the skull and right hand of his victim — “precisely the parts of the body that were discovered in the present case.”

The cracks in the skull, the first evidence of blood vengeance, which was discovered in a cave in the Jerusalem Hills. (Clara Amit/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to a video of IAA anthropologist Dr. Yossi Nagar, the Bedouin, who came from Jordan and northern Arabia, were the sole inhabitants of the Jerusalem Hills at this time. Likewise, the team’s morphological examination of the skull “shows a great resemblance to the local Bedouin population.”

The cave’s skeletal remains were discovered during an archaeological survey conducted by Prof. Boaz Zissu, of the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, and identified by IAA’s Nagar and Dr. Haim Cohen, of the National Center for Forensic Medicine and Tel Aviv University.

Researchers who are studying the first evidence of blood vengeance, discovered in a cave in the Jerusalem Hills. From left to right: Prof. Boaz Zissu Dr. Yossi Nagar and Dr. Haim Cohen with the skull (Chen Galili/Israel Antiquities Authority)
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