ToI Podcast Interview

LISTEN: Purloined pottery from Tomb of Patriarchs gets 1st scientific study

Prof. David Ben-Shlomo speaks about new ceramics study, history of Judaism’s second holiest site where Abraham buried Sarah, and findings from his recent excavations at Tel Hebron

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is revered by all Abrahamic religions and is considered by Jews to be the second holiest spot after the Temple Mount. Like at the Temple Mount, no recent archaeological study has been permitted at the site, but a recent scientific study was conducted by Ariel University archaeologist, Prof. David Ben-Shlomo. This is the first high-tech study of the cave’s pottery.

Ben-Shlomo co-authored an article charting the systematic compositional analysis of four vessels that were taken from the cave (in Arabic: al-Ḥaram al-Ibrahimi or Ḥaram el-Khalil) in an unauthorized underground incursion in 1981.

Ben-Shlomo is aware that the purloined sherds’ lack of stratified provenance would normally exclude them from academic consideration. But as the site is forbidden from methodical modern excavation, said Ben-Shlomo, and since this is the only information at hand, why not make use of it?

Ben-Shlomo speaks on The Times of Israel Podcast about the history and archaeology of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, from biblical times until today. An expert in ancient pottery, Ben-Shlomo excavated in ancient Hebron from 2014 to 2017. The site is now an archaeological park in the modern city’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood.

According to the Book of Genesis, the Tomb of the Patriarchs — and Matriarchs, if one takes the biblical account literally — is the site of the burial plot purchased by Abraham. The cave is located about a kilometer outside the ancient city of Hebron in the southern West Bank. Today, a magnificent 2,000-year-old building, likely built by King Herod, stands atop the underground chambers.

Noam Arnon, a veteran advocate for Hebron’s Jewish community, speaks to pro-Israel foreign lawmakers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, October 19, 2016. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The Early Roman period building was used by many peoples over history, including perhaps Idumeans, Jews, and Christians prior to the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century, when it was turned into a mosque. For a brief period during the Crusades in the 12th century it was again a Christian site, but reverted to a mosque in the 14th century after the Mameluke conquest.

There are some scant accounts of the cave, including one mentioned in Ben-Shlomo’s recent article. “The traveler ‘Ali el-Harawi notes that in 1119 CE, a group of Frankish canons visited the structure, entered the spaces under it, and after ‘working’ for four days reached three caves or cavities filled with bones, pottery vessels and coffins.”

Ariel University Prof. David Ben-Shlomo during a Zoom interview with The Times of Israel, July 2020. (Screenshot)

From Mameluke period until the 1967 war, for some 700 years, Jews were limited to the building’s fifth, and then seventh step in a denigrating measure inaugurated under Muslim rule. Due to the continued high sensitivity of the site and tragedies there since the Six Day War, including the 1994 massacre of 29 worshipers by American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein, Jewish prayer is still restricted to certain parts of the National Heritage Site’s building for most days of the year.

Under the status quo agreement formed after the Six Day War, it is also still not accessible to archaeologists.

So it was a clandestine visit to the site that gleaned the material that formed the basis of archaeologist Ben-Shlomo’s recent “Iron Age Pottery from the Cave of the Patriarchs at Hebron.” The article was co-authored with Ben-Gurion University’s Noam Arnon and Bonn University’s Hans Mommsen and which was published in the Israel Exploration Journal.

Images of the recently analyzed four vessels, which taken from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1981, and date to the First Temple period. (Courtesy David Ben-Shlomo)

The small study (with arguably big impact) offers the first truly scientific compositional analysis of four vessels taken from the cave. Among the tests, the team of archaeologists and scientists completed petrography and neutron activation analysis.

Ben-Shlomo’s new scientific study found that these vessels are typical of Iron Age IIB (late ninth and eighth centuries BCE) Kingdom of Judah, confirming an earlier assessment by archaeologist Dr. Zeev Yeivin shortly after the vessels were taken from their cache near a pile of human bones in the cave.

In the current article, Ben-Shlomo briefly discusses the four vessels — a bowl, chalice, “jar shoulder” and jug — and gives parallels from other sites in the Kingdom of Judah. Intriguingly, there is a black residue inside the jug, which may lead to new information after further analysis.

According to the petrographic analysis conducted on the four vessels, they were all made of different materials and probably produced in different locations. The chalice and jar may originate close to Hebron or the central hills, while the jug and possibly the bowl came from the Shephelah or Lowland region.

Going a high-tech step further, neutron activation analysis (NAA) was conducted at the Bonn Laboratory. The analysis showed that the bowl and jug were likely produced in the Jerusalem region, the chalice is likely local to Hebron, and the jar could be from anywhere in the Judean region.

When the tests are combined, writes the article, “Petrographic and chemical analysis indicated, more specifically, that while one vessel (the chalice) came from the Hebron region, another (the jug) came from the Jerusalem area. A third vessel (the bowl) may have also come from the Jerusalem region, while the fourth (the jar), possibly also came from the central hills.”

The unusual Second Temple period ritual bath or mikveh discovered at Tel Hebron, circa 2017. (David Ben-Shlomo)

The stuff of legends

Just how Ben-Shlomo’s samples arrived in a laboratory took an adventure, but interestingly, the first Jew to enter the caves in centuries was actually a young girl called Michal Arbel, shortly after the Six Day War. In October 1968, Michal joined her father, Yehuda Arbel, then chief of Shin Bet operations in the West Bank, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who was a well-known archaeology enthusiast — and collector.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan talks with Younis el Gubte, a wounded civilian injured during the recent fighting in the Gaza strip, July 5, 1967, during a visit to the Gaza strip. (AP Photo)

They lowered Michal down a narrow gap in the floor and she reported back her findings.

According to a first-person report recorded on the Hebron settlement website in an excerpt from Dayan’s book, Michal wrote at the time, “Ropes were tied round me, I was given a torch and matches (to test the air below) and I was lowered. I landed on a heap of papers and money-bills. I found myself in a square room. Opposite me were three tombstones, the middle one higher and more decorated than the other two. There was a small square opening in the wall opposite me. They released more rope and I went through the opening, and found myself walking through a low, narrow corridor whose walls were cut out of the rock. The corridor had the shape of a box; its corners were right-angled. At the end of the corridor was a stairwell and the steps ended in a built wall.”

Michal was pulled up and down through the narrow 11-inch (28-centimeter) hole several times, including one last time to retrieve a dropped flashlight.

Jews pray at the Hall of Isaac at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron on August 29, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

According to the research article, “The cave is situated under a lower, underground ‘tombstone chamber,’ lying under the current ‘Hall of Isaac.’ This chamber was probably built to emphasize the caves under it. It is possible that this was an earlier (Hasmonean?) structure, its roof shaped as a dome or pyramid, which was the ‘memorial’ or ‘nefesh’ of the tombs, as suggested by the shape of the chamber, as well as by the remains of its roof seen from the inside. When the Herodian structure was built, its top part was removed to construct the floor.”

As fantastical as the 1968 cave visit sounds, the event in which the vessels were taken from the cave is even more made-for-Hollywood: In September 1981 a group of settlers led by Noam Arnon — who is a co-author on the paper — conducted an unauthorized incursion into the cave while another part of the group used raucous prayer to distract the Jordanian Waqf religious authorities as they opened a sealed passage.

In the Tomb of the Patriarchs, September 1981. (Courtesy David Ben-Shlomo)

The settlers toured underground and came back with large clay pottery pieces, which were stuffed into pockets. The reconstructed vessels are now housed at the Museum of the Land of Judah in Kiryat Arba.

Later, during October–November 1981, a more organized expedition entered the cave, which included archaeologist Yeivin and representatives of the IDF and the Muslim Waqf. Although Yeivin did subsequently briefly report on his walk-throughs in the cave, no scientific excavation was, or has been made at the site since.

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