As a mother of six, I know that while it’s not kosher to pick a child I like the most, there are definitely times that I like them differently. That is also the case with my articles on archaeology for The Times of Israel.
Looking back on what I’ve written in 2019, it was a challenge to pick only a handful of pieces to highlight since each and every topic is so innately interesting. However, since I often find myself sitting behind a computer for hours on end, on a purely subjective level my favorite pieces usually involved visiting a fascinating laboratory or going out to an excavation site. And if there was a sweaty hike to see the finds — all the better.
For the following list, I’ve also included the academically “important” discoveries that take our knowledge of ancient eras or issues forward, or bring us some really nice treats from the past.
Below are excerpts from a selection of 10 stories written in 2019.
From tiny seal impressions to structures built for a giant of a man
In March, we reported on two minuscule 2,600-year-old inscriptions uncovered in the City of David’s Givati Parking Lot excavation that are vastly enlarging the understanding of ancient Jerusalem in the late 8th century BCE.
The two inscriptions, in paleo-Hebrew writing, were found separately in a large First Temple structure within the span of a few weeks. One is a bluish agate stone seal “(belonging) to Ikkar son of Matanyahu” (LeIkkar Ben Matanyahu). The other is a clay seal impression, “(belonging) to Nathan-Melech, Servant of the King” (LeNathan-Melech Eved HaMelech). Nathan-Melech is named in 2 Kings as an official in the court of King Josiah.
The inscriptions are “not just another discovery,” said archaeologist Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Rather, they “paint a much larger picture of the era in Jerusalem.” According to Shalev, while both discoveries are of immense scholarly value as inscriptions, their primary value is their archaeological context.
Another discovery of a First Temple seal impression made news in September and involved the discovery in the City of David’s sifting project of a minuscule 7th century BCE clay sealing reading “Belonging to Adoniyahu, the Royal Steward.”
In earth excavated from the foundations of the Western Wall under Robinson’s Arch in 2013, a national service volunteer unearthed the one-centimeter inscribed letter sealer bearing the ancient Hebrew name of a character found several times in the Hebrew Bible, Adoniyahu, literally, “The Lord is my Master.” (In English translations of the Bible, the name is written Adonijah.)
According to archaeologist Eli Shukron, this inscription is unique and “of utmost importance.” The role of the Royal Steward (Asher al Habayit), he said, appears several times in the Bible and is used for the highest-level minister in the royal court. For example, the title of Royal Steward was used in the Book of Genesis for Joseph’s high-powered position in Egypt.
The name Adoniyahu appears in several iterations in the Bible, but not during eras that correspond to the 7th century BCE — the time period of the clay sealing.
The new Adoniyahu inscription gives a potential link to a 150-year-old mystery: a First Temple, 7th century BCE rock cave grave, which is also inscribed with “Asher al Habayit.” The inscription, today found in the British Museum, has a partial name ending with the same three Hebrew letters as that of the new clay bulla.
A giant of a man may have sprouted from an equally giant-sized city. Super-sized remains of “enormous” architecture and fortifications from a new, unexpected “biblical-era” layer of the Philistine city of Gath were unearthed this summer at the ongoing Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.
Whereas most of the site’s previously excavated areas date to the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, this new layer dates to the 11th century, when, according to the biblical narrative in 1 Samuel 17, the future king David slew the giant Goliath.
“For those scholars that accept that David was a historical figure — and I’m among them — the late 11th-, early 10th century BCE, the time of the earlier phase of the city of Gath, whose impressive remains were just found, is the time frame in which David existed,” Bar-Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir, the 23-year excavation director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath dig, told The Times of Israel. The dating follows the chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah as presented in the Bible.
“If in fact David did confront an opponent in single combat, most often identified as Goliath, this would, more or less, be the time of this early Iron Age phase of the city of Gath,” said Maeir. He emphasized that “it is hard to say whether or not there is a historical kernel to the story, and if there is in fact a kernel, what this kernel was.”
Second Temple and beyond:
From Qumran to the Second Temple’s ‘Pilgrim’s Path’
A Bedouin huntsman and his dog, climbing on rocky mountainous cliffs above the Dead Sea, spotted a likely prey. The dog chased it into the mouth of a cave where inside, the Bedouin discovered jars containing scrolls with writing upon them. The find was reported to Jews living in Jerusalem, who mounted an expedition into the Judean Desert to retrieve them. They discovered many scrolls written in Hebrew script, including books of the Bible.
The year was 790 CE.
The events, recorded in a letter written by the East Syriac patriarch Timothy I in 800 CE, eerily anticipate the famous 1946 (re)discovery at Qumran of the trove of ancient sacred texts we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For a new team of Qumran excavators, who finished a third dig season high above the Dead Sea in January, the story is a beacon of hope.
“The Bedouin were not the first ones to find the scrolls in 1947,” said Dr. Oren Gutfeld, co-director of the Cave 53-Qumran Excavation.
The question is, will looters — or archaeologists — be the ones to discover any remaining scrolls?
We’re walking a newly excavated two-millennia-old road that was once used by tens of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem during the three annual pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
Archaeologists and historians call the subterranean road the “Stepped Street.” Those who prefer to link Jerusalem’s Jewish past to its present tend to call it the “Pilgrims’ Path” or the “Pilgrimage Road.” It was built starting in 20 CE by the Romans, said Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Ari Levy, and completed under the governance of Pontius Pilate in about 30 CE. A recent study of 100 coins collected under pavement at the site appears to confirm this dating.
But the Romans covered up all their hard work just 40 years later as a side effect of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Buried under dirt and debris, the paving stones are thus beautifully preserved, in near-mint condition.
Today, an Arab neighborhood of 20,000 souls thrives five meters above these ancient paving stones. That’s one reason the excavations have drawn criticism from international governments and media, which condemn the City of David National Park, and its funder, the private right-wing Elad organization, for digging there. The neighborhood only became part of modern Israeli Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War.
The City of David Park is a wildly popular tourist site, but also a hot spot where ancient and modern politics meet. Alongside its controversial location, however, it is the excavation’s methodology — its horizontal excavation — that has some archaeologists up in arms.
Treasures from the 5th and 6th centuries
Two new technicolor biblical mosaics were recently uncovered at a 1,600-year-old synagogue in the Galilean town of Huqoq, joining a growing collection of art, announced UNC-Chapel Hill’s Prof. Jodi Magness in July.
The newly unearthed mosaics include the earliest known artistic rendering of the little-known Exodus story of Elim, and a partially preserved depiction of the Book of Daniel’s grotesque four beasts, which signal the end of time.
The identification of Elim in the depiction is confirmed with an inscription above the gate, which reads, “And they came to Elim.”
The Elim panel is interesting to Magness, as it is generally considered a fairly minor episode in the Israelites’ desert wanderings – which raises the question of why it was significant to this Jewish congregation in Lower Galilee,” she said.
According to the biblical commentary of the French rabbinical scholar Rashi (Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105), who quoted earlier rabbinical sources, the 12 springs of water mentioned in Exodus 15 correspond with the 12 tribes of Israel and the 70 palms are the 70 elders.
As the synagogue is thought to have been constructed in the early fifth century, could the mosaic, assembled in the fifth century, be a subliminal message about the waning powers of the elders of the Great Sanhedrin, disbanded by the Byzantine Empire in 425 CE?
Located in the middle of nowhere, a massive 6th-century church was an unexpected find when archaeologists performed routine tests in Ramat Beit Shemesh four years ago prior to the construction of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.
But while the church itself came as a surprise, its intriguing mosaic dedication to a “glorious martyr” is even more of a mystery. Just who was he — or, perhaps, she?
Delving into the intrigue, The Times of Israel toured the impressively large church compound, its companion exhibit in the Bible Lands Museum, and went down a rabbit hole. After consultation with an ancient Greek expert, the Hebrew University’s Dr. Leah di Segni, we now know that according to the inscription’s grammar, the glorious martyr could have been a female.
Di Segni even offered up one candidate, the Holy First Martyr Thecla the Equal to the Apostles, whose feast day was celebrated in October, the month the church and its mosaics were announced to the public.
Modern scientific breakthroughs:
Tastes, and pictures, of the past
Using yeast that lay dormant for thousands of years, a team of Israeli biologists, archaeologists and beer makers has successfully brewed the beer that Goliath of Gath may have quaffed as he set out to meet a young shepherd named David. And assuming seed funding is secured, soon the brew will hit supermarket shelves, too.
In a multi-layered, interdisciplinary long-term experiment, scientists isolated six yeast strains from 21 sherds of beer or wine vessels excavated from four ancient Holy Land sites.
Once populated by Philistines, Canaanites, Egyptians, or Judeans, the sites include biblical Tell es-Safi/Gath (ca. 850 BCE), Bronze Age En-Besor in the Negev and an Egyptian brewery found in Tel Aviv’s Ha-Masger Street (both ca. 3100 BCE), and Jerusalem’s Ramat Rachel (ca. 8th to 4th century BCE).
After DNA sequencing and other high-tech medical imaging and identification methods, the six isolated strains of viable yeast were successfully revitalized and used to brew potable “ancient beers.” Each brew had a different aroma depending upon the yeast strain, according to the recent peer-reviewed mBio journal paper “Isolation and Characterization of Live Yeast Cells from Ancient Vessels as a Tool in Bio-Archaeology.”
An international team of underwater archaeologists has uncovered the oldest known man-made seawall off the coast of Haifa, according to an article published in the Public Library of Science’s scientific journal PLOS ONE.
The ancient seawall is located at the underwater archaeological site of Tel Hreiz, a Neolithic settlement that thrived near today’s Haifa circa 7,500-7,000 years ago. According to the article’s authors, the wall was constructed to stave off rising seawater from melting glaciers. It predates other ancient breakwalls by 3,000 years.
“The seawall is unique for the period and is the oldest known coastal defense worldwide,” write the group of researchers from University of Haifa, Flinders University in Australia, the Israel Antiquities Authority and The Hebrew University.
The wall was discovered in 2012. After years of study, the researchers concluded that the residents constructed the over 100-meter-long seawall from boulders of up to 1 meter in size that were taken from riverbeds some 1-2 kilometers from their village. The large boulders were from limestone or kurkar stone and weigh 200-1,000 kilograms each.
The zigzagging seawall was intentionally planned and constructed with several building styles to keep out the rising water, write the authors.
A breakthrough Israeli method of genetic analysis finally gives a face to humanity’s “newest” ancient relative, the Denisovans.
Discovered in a Siberian cave in 2008, the Denisovans coexisted with Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens some 100,000 years ago. However, unlike their Neanderthal relatives, the paucity of verified Denisovan remains — and their highly fragmented state — has until now made it impossible to create an anatomical picture of this early man (or woman).
A groundbreaking Israeli technique, published in the prestigious Cell journal in September, claims to finally lift the veil.
Using open-source sequencing of ancient Denisovan DNA taken from a single bone fragment, a team of researchers headed by Hebrew University’s Prof. Liran Carmel and Dr. David Gokhman says it has discovered a method of reconstructing what our long-ago relatives may have looked like. Professors Eran Meshorer from the Hebrew University, Yoel Rak from Tel Aviv University, and Tomas Marques-Bonet from Barcelona’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology (UPF-CSIC) also contributed to the study.
As unveiled at a Hebrew University of Jerusalem press conference in September, the Denisovans looked a lot like us.
The prestigious scientific journal Science announced in December that the scientists’ reconstruction of the face of an ancient girl, an elusive cousin to modern humans and Neanderthals, won the “People’s Choice” category of its Breakthrough of the Year contest.