Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Samaritan's Temple: History and New Findings

The original article from which these excerpts are drawn is quite anti-Semitic. But the story is quite interesting nonetheless:

The archaeologist Yitzhak Magen has been digging on the windswept summit of Mount Gerizim.

His findings, which have only been partially published, are a virtual sensation: As early as 2,500 years ago, the mountain was already crowned with a huge, dazzling shrine, surrounded by a 96 by 98-meter (315 by 321-foot) enclosure. The wall had six-chamber gates with colossal wooden doors.

At the time, the Temple of Jerusalem was, at most, but a simple structure.

Magen has discovered 400,000 bone remains from sacrificial animals. Inscriptions identify the site as the "House of the Lord." A silver ring is adorned with the tetragrammaton YHWH, which stands for Yahweh.

All of this means that a vast, rival place of worship stood only 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Jerusalem...

Mount Gerizim's history

Abraham ...stopped there because God had appeared to him in a wondrous vision. Later, Jacob...traveled there to build the original shrine.

In the fifth book of Moses, the mountain summit finally earns a prominent place in biblical history: After the flight from Egypt, the Israelites wandered through the Sinai desert for 40 years. At last, they reached the Jordan River from the east. Their old and weary leader gazed across the river to the promised land, where "milk and honey flow."

Shortly before his death, Moses issued an important command: The people must first travel to Mount Gerizim. He said that six tribes should climb it and proclaim blessings, while the other six tribes should proclaim curses from the top of nearby Mount Ebal. It was a kind of ritual taking possession of the promised land.

Finally, the prophet tells the Israelites to build a shrine "made of stones" on Mount Gerizim and coat it with "plaster." Indeed, he said, this is "the place that the Lord has chosen."

That, in any case, is what stands in the oldest Bible texts. They are brittle papyrus scrolls that were made over 2,000 years ago in Qumran... In today's Bible...there is no longer any mention of a "chosen place."

Final Fate

Around the year 180 BC, the ceremonial building grew to a size of roughly 200 by 200 meters. The Samaritans added a monumental staircase and rooms for "thousands of pilgrims." There were apparently huge crowds of devout visitors. None of this is mentioned in the Bible.

In the year 128 BC, John Hyrcanos, a Jewish prince, ascended Mount Gerizim with an army and burned the proud sanctuary to the ground. Archaeologists have found a "burn layer" along with arrow heads, swords, daggers and lead missiles for slings.

The Samaritans never rebuilt their temple...

Ancient Egyptian scarab found within the City of David

Original article

Another article

When the Egyptians ruled Jerusalem: The ancient scarab bears the name of the sun god. | Photo credit: Vladimir Neihin

Excavations have recovered an ancient Egyptian scarab dated to the 13th century B.C.E. (the Late Bronze Age). Found within the City of David National Park, which is situated within the most ancient part of Jerusalem, the scarab is attributed to Egypt's 19th Dynasty, a period of Egyptian hegemony over the city that was actually a Jebusite settlement at the time. The Jebusites were a tribe of Canaanites that built and developed Jerusalem before its conquest by King David during the 10th century, according to the Biblical account.  

The seal is about a centimeter and a half in length and was used to stamp documents.

It bears the name, in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, of the sun god Amon-Ra, one of Egypt's most important deities. It is made of soft gray stone and also bears the imprint of a duck, which was apparently one of the sun god's symbols.

"This is the first time we've found a scarab of this kind in the City of David," said Shukron. "The seal is from the late Bronze period, during which time the land of Israel was under Egyptian rule. It's exciting and interesting to have discovered this unique artifact, and it gives us a glimpse into Jerusalem during that era.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Inhabitants of Madrid' ate elephants’ meat and bone marrow 80,000 years ago

Humans that populated the banks of the river Manzanares (Madrid, Spain) during the Middle Palaeolithic (between 127,000 and 40,000 years ago) fed themselves on pachyderm meat and bone marrow. This is what a Spanish study shows and has found percussion and cut marks on elephant remains in the site of Preresa (Madrid).
In prehistoric times, hunting animals implied a risk and required a considerable amount of energy. Therefore, when the people of the Middle Palaeolithic (between 127,000 and 40,000 years ago) had an elephant in the larder, they did not leave a scrap.
Humans that populated the Madrid region 84,000 years ago fed themselves on these prosbocideans' meat and they consumed their bone marrow, according to this new study. Until now, the scientific community doubted that consuming elephant meat was a common practice in that era due to the lack of direct evidence on the bones. It is still to be determined whether they are from the Mammuthus species of the Palaleoloxodon subspecies.
The researchers found bones with cut marks, made for consuming the meat, and percussion for obtaining the bone marrow. "There are many sites, but few with fossil remains with marks that demonstrate humans' purpose" Jose Yravedra, researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science points out to SINC.
This is the first time that percussion marks that showed an intentional bone fracture to get to the edible part inside have been documented. These had always been associated with tool manufacturing but in the remains found, this hypothesis was discarded. The tools found in the same area were made of flint and quartzite.
The team, made up of archaeologists, zooarchaeologists and geologists from UCM, the Institute of Human Evolution in Africa (IDEA) in Madrid and the Spanish National Research Centre for Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, collected 82 bones from one elephant, linked to 754 stone tools, in an area of 255 metres squared, in the site of Preresa, on the banks of the river Manzanares.
In the case of the cut marks on the fossil remains, these add to the "oldest evidence of exploiting elephants" in the site of Áridos, close to the river Jarama, according to another study published by Yravedra in the same journal. "There are few records about the exploitation of elephants in Siberia, North America and central Europe", the zooarchaeologist explains.
The risk of hunting an elephant
The internal organs were what the predator ate first, be they human or any kind of carnivore. The prehistoric signs of the banquet help researchers to find out who was the first to sit down at the table, as the risk of hunting an elephant posed the question as to whether humans hunted it or were scavengers.
"This is the next mystery to be solved" Yravedra replies, who reminds us that there is evidence of hunting in other smaller animals in the same site. However, due to the thickness of fibrous membranes and other elephant meat tissues, humans did not always leave marks on the bones. "And for this reason, sometimes it is difficult to determine if humans used their meat".
The 'Holy Grail' of Palaeolithic diet
Animal fat was highly valued by hunters and gatherers that had a diet rich in meat and low in carbohydrates. When there was little meat, other resources such as bone marrow became a source of lipids.
According to the study, this practice was not very common due to the difficulty of extracting the marrow from the bones. Furthermore "exploiting the fat is something that has not been reported until now" the researcher says. Other food sources, such as brains, had the same nutritional benefits.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Meat Eating Behind Evolutionary Success of Humankind


Carnivory is behind the evolutionary success of humankind. When early humans started to eat meat and eventually hunt, their new, higher-quality diet meant that women could wean their children earlier. Women could then give birth to more children during their reproductive life, which is a possible contribution to the population gradually spreading over the world. The connection between eating meat and a faster weaning process is shown by a research group from Lund University in Sweden, which compared close to 70 mammalian species and found clear patterns.

Learning to hunt was a decisive step in human evolution. Hunting necessitated communication, planning and the use of tools, all of which demanded a larger brain. At the same time, adding meat to the diet made it possible to develop this larger brain.

"This has been known for a long time. However, no one has previously shown the strong connection between meat eating and the duration of breast-feeding, which is a crucial piece of the puzzle in this context. Eating meat enabled the breast-feeding periods and thereby the time between births, to be shortened. This must have had a crucial impact on human evolution," says Elia Psouni of Lund University.

She is a developmental psychologist and has, together with neurophysiologist Martin Garwicz (also in Lund) and evolutionary geneticist Axel Janke (currently in Frankfurt but previously in Lund) published her findings in the journal PLoS ONE.

Among natural fertility societies, the average duration of breast-feeding is 2 years and 4 months. This is not much in relation to the maximum lifespan of our species, around 120 years. It is even less if compared to our closest relatives: female chimpanzees suckle their young for 4-5 years, whereas the maximum lifespan for chimpanzees is only 60 years.

Many researchers have tried to explain the relatively shorter breast-feeding period of humans based on social and behavioral theories of parenting and family size. But the Lund group has now shown that humans are in fact no different than other mammals with respect to the timing of weaning. If you enter brain development and diet composition into the equation, the time when our young stop suckling fits precisely with the pattern in other mammals.

This is the type of mathematical model that Elia Psouni and her colleagues have built. They entered data on close to 70 mammalian species of various types into the model -- data on brain size and diet. Species for which at least 20 per cent of the energy content of their diet comes from meat were categorised as carnivores. The model shows that the young of all species cease to suckle when their brains have reached a particular stage of development on the path from conception to full brain-size. Carnivores, due to their high quality diet, can wean earlier than herbivores and omnivores.

The model also shows that humans do not differ from other carnivores with respect to timing of weaning. All carnivorous species, from small animals such as ferrets and raccoons to large ones like panthers, killer whales and humans, have a relatively short breast-feeding period. The difference between us and the great apes, which has puzzled previous researchers, seems to depend merely on the fact that as a species we are carnivores, whereas gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees are herbivores or omnivores.

A few years ago, the Lund group published an acclaimed study on the point at which the young of various animals start to walk. Here too, similar patterns were discovered between mammalian species that diverged in evolution millions of years ago. A particular stage in brain development seems quite simply to be the time to start to walk, independently of whether you are a hedgehog, a ferret or a human being.

"That humans seem to be so similar to other animals can of course be taken as provocative. We like to think that culture makes us different as a species. But when it comes to breast-feeding and weaning, no social or cultural explanations are needed; for our species as a whole it is a question of simple biology. Social and cultural factors surely influence the variation between humans," says Elia Psouni.

She is careful to emphasize that their results concern human evolution. The research is about how carnivory can have contributed to the human species' spreading on earth and says nothing about what we should or should not eat today in order to have a good diet.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hebrew inscription appears to confirm 'sign of Jonah' and Christian reference on ancient artifact


Following the recent announcement of the discovery of the earliest known Christian imagery in the exploration of a sealed first century Jerusalem tomb, controversy predictably erupted, with numerous members of the community of biblical scholars offering alternate interpretations of the iconography and disputing the tomb's claimed Christian connections.

Now, the exploration team has announced a previously unnoticed but highly specific detail that appears to confirm the original interpretation of the inscribed images. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary has announced the identification and deciphering of a previously overlooked four letter inscription written in ancient Hebrew on the controversial "Jonah" ossuary. The inscription appears to spell out the name "Jonah" in Hebrew.

The first century CE tomb in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot, now two meters under a condominium building, was explored through the use of robot cameras. The associated images and their controversial interpretation were announced on February 28, 2012.

The expedition, carried out in 2010-2011, was directed by historian James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and archaeologist Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, funded by the Discovery Channel, and is the subject of a documentary produced by filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici that aired on the Discover Channel on April 12.

Among the robotic exploration's more controversial finds was an ossuary or "bone box" with an engraving of what the team identified as "Jonah and the fish," a symbol associated with the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. If correct, this interpretation would make the ossuary engraving the earliest Christian art ever found as well as the first archaeological evidence related to faith in Jesus' resurrection.

The image of Jonah and the fish was used by later early Christian groups as a symbol of Christ and his resurrection, based on a reference by Jesus to Jonah in a passage in the gospel of Matthew (12:39-40). The Jonah "sign" became the quintessential expression of Christian resurrection faith in later centuries with over a hundred examples of Jonah images in the Christian catacombs at Rome.

The discovery of a Jonah image in first century Jerusalem tomb—a type of tomb that went out of use in 70 CE when the Romans destroyed the city—was a surprise and predictably controversial. Various scholars have disputed the Jonah identification insisting that the image is more likely a funerary monument or an amphora-like vase of some type and not a fish at all.

After the February announcement of the exploration's results, the team continued to examine the photographs of the engraving. In puzzling over cryptic marks on the fish's head they noticed what appeared to be Hebrew script inside the design. Charlesworth, being an expert in Hebrew script of the period, was called upon to analyze the markings.

Charlesworth's discovery appears to confirm the original interpretation of the team. It appears that the lines the team originally interpreted as representing the stick figure in the mouth of the fish also form four cryptic Hebrew letters (in the Hebrew script familiar from the Dead Sea Scrolls): Yod, Vav, Nun, Heh, spelling out (from right to left) Y O N H or YONAH—the Hebrew name of the prophet Jonah. The inscription is engraved in letters less than 4 centimeters in height—too deep to have been natural scratches in the stone, too intricate in shape to be random marks by the engraver.

Charlesworth is the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton. He has devoted his career to the epigraphical study of the original texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and specializes deciphering the Herodian script of this period. So far, Israeli epigrapher Robert Deutsch has confirmed Charlesworth's reading of YONAH and Haggai Misgav of Hebrew University says there are definitely letters there although he reads them as ZOLAH rather than YONAH. Charlesworth has invited other epigraphers to evaluate the inscription as well.

"This discovery by Prof. Charlesworth is quite remarkable and had been overlooked in our initial analysis," noted Tabor. "The engraver has apparently rather ingeniously combined what we took to be the stick-figure of Jonah with the four Hebrew letters spelling out his name."

Tabor believes that the inscription now confirms the image as "the sign of Jonah," thus strongly supporting the view that the tomb provides the first archaeological evidence ever found that can linked to the early Jewish followers of Jesus. The significance of this tomb is compounded in that it is less than 60 meters away from the controversial "Jesus family tomb," discovered in 1980, that had ossuaries inscribed "Jesus son of Joseph," "Mariamene," "Yose" and "Jude son of Jesus," names Tabor has linked to Jesus of Nazareth in his recent book, co-authored with Simcha Jacobovici, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity (Simon & Schuster, 2012).


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Archaeologists Excavate Tel Achziv, Ancient Phoenician Port City


Complete article

The ruins of the site rest atop a sandstone hill, hugging the far northern coast of the current State of Israel near the border with Lebanon. One can see later-period standing structures that provide the backdrop for what is now a national park and beach resort. But below the surface, and beneath the ocean waves, lie the remains of an ancient harbor town that reach back in history to as long ago as Chalcolithic times (4500 - 3200 BC). After decades, a team of archaeologists will return to the site to investigate evidence of a settlement that played a chief role in the ancient commerce of the area and the civilizations that crossed and controlled its strategic location.

Known today as Tel Achziv, its remnants have been explored and excavated before, by Moshe Prausnitz from 1963 through 1964 and, in the vicinity of the site, by E. Ben-Dor, M. Prausnitz and E. Mazar, who uncovered large-scale Phoenician cemeteries. Anciently, it was a fortified Canaanite harbor city protected by a massive rampart, rising to prominence as a major Phoenician port for maritime commerce, connected to a coastal road for trade. The city flourished under the Phoenicians during the ninth century, was conquered by King Sennacherib of Assyria at the end of the eighth century, and continued to function as an important port city during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The city was mentioned in the writings of Josephus Flavius, who referred to it as the place where Herod's brother was captured, and was also referrenced by Plinius (23-79AD) and appears in the Claudius Ptolemy World map (~150AD). It functioned later as an administrative center during Crusader times...

Ancient grinding stones at Achziv National Park. Wikimedia Commons

Discovery of the first evidence for Pre-Columbian sources of Maya Blue


Once again, science and anthropology have teamed up to solve questions concerning the fascinating, brilliantly hued pigment known as Maya Blue. Impervious to the effects of chemical or physical weathering, the pigment was applied to pottery, sculpture, and murals in Mesoamerica largely during the Classic and Postclassic periods (AD 250-1520), playing a central role in ancient Maya religious practice. This unusual blue paint was used to coat the victims of human sacrifice and the altars on which they were dispatched.

For some time, scientists have known that Maya Blue is formed through the chemical combination of indigo and the clay mineral palygorskite. Only now, however, have researchers established a link between contemporary indigenous knowledge and ancient sources of the mineral.

In a paper published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science on March 16, 2012, researchers from Wheaton College, The Field Museum of Natural History, the United States Geological Survey, California State University of Long Beach, and the Smithsonian Institution, demonstrated that the palygorskite component in some of the Maya Blue samples came from mines in two locations in Mexico's northern Yucatan Peninsula

Research on sources for palygorskite has been ongoing since the late 1960's. Through a combination of ethnographic research and mineralogical analyses, Dean E. Arnold, Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College, and now Adjunct Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum, discovered that palygorskite was well known among indigenous potters of Ticul, Yucatán. These contemporary Maya used palygorskite as a key component of pottery and also prescribed the mineral for medicinal purposes. Indigenous knowledge further extends to sources of palygorskite: potters extracted the mineral from two mines in Yucatán – one in Sacalum and the other near the city of Ticul at a location called Yo' Sah Kab.

As part of his research, Arnold noted Terminal Classic (800-1000 AD) pottery and other signs of ancient site occupation at both of the modern sources. This suggested that the mines were used by the Maya as sources for the palygorskite used in Maya Blue. However, further tests were needed to convincingly link the present-day mines with the ancient Maya.

Between 1965 and 1997, Dean Arnold and Bruce E. Bohor of the United States Geological Survey collected 33 samples of the mineral from the Yucatán region. After mineralogical analysis, it was possible to differentiate between samples of palygorskite based on composition, which meant the palygorskite within specific samples of Maya Blue could be traced to specific locations.

With funding from the National Geographic Society, Arnold and Bohor collected additional 167 samples of palygorskite from five different sites in Yucatan in 2008. The analyses of these samples were then compared to analyses of the Maya Blue pigment found on pottery originally taken from Chichén Itzá and Palenque, Yucatán. The Chichén Itzá material was collected by E. H. Thompson and J. E. S. Thompson in the late 19th and early 20th century and is curated at The Field Museum. These objects were analyzed in the museum's Elemental Analysis Facility (EAF).

The analysis confirmed that all the samples of Maya Blue from the ancient Maya site of Chichén Itzá were created with palygorskite derived from Sacalum, while the Maya Blue samples from Palenque could have been from Sacalum, Yo' Sah Kab, or another unknown source.

"Utilizing ground-breaking chemical sourcing techniques, we have unlocked data from collections held in The Field Museum for more than 100 years," reported The Field Museum's EAF Director and Curator and Chair of Anthropology, Ryan Williams.

"The data resulting from this study provides definitive evidence that Sacalum was the source for palygorskite used in Maya Blue from Chichén Itzá," Williams added.

Noting that the ancient Maya would have been limited by available technology and using this new data, senior author Arnold and his colleagues argue that sources of palygorskite for the ancient Maya were limited by available technology and the ancient landscape. Thus, Sacalum and Yo' Sah Kab, because of their accessibility and size, would have been prime sources of palygorskite used by the ancient Maya.

"Overall this study illustrates the key benefits of scientific teamwork to unravel the mysteries of a key ancient technology," said study participant and Field Museum curator, Gary Feinman.


"Breathtaking" Mummy Coffin Covers Seized in Israel


The wooden cover, which would have held a mummy in the past, had been cut in half, likely by smugglers who needed to fit the artifacts into a suitcase.
Image: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Complete article

Two decorated covers of coffins that once contained mummies have been seized by Israeli authorities, authenticated and dated to thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt.

Inspectors of the Unit for Prevention of Antiquities Robbery found the artifacts while checking shops in a marketplace in the Old City of Jerusalem. The inspectors confiscated the items under suspicion of being stolen property.

The ancient covers are made of wood and adorned with "breathtaking decorations and paintings of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics," says the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Researchers examined the covers with carbon dating — which looks at a radioactive form of carbon in a sample to determine its age — and other tools, finding the artifacts are authentic. They dated one of the covers to the period between the 10th and eighth centuries B.C., considered the Iron Age, and the other to between the 16th and 14th centuries B.C. (Late Bronze Age)...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Human Ancestors Used Fire One Million Years Ago


An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University has identified the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, were found in a layer dated to one million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.

"The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life," said U of T anthropologist Michael Chazan, co-director of the project and director of U of T's Archaeology Centre.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 2.

Wonderwerk is a massive cave located near the edge of the Kalahari where earlier excavations by Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, South Africa, had uncovered an extensive record of human occupation. A research project, co-directed by U of T's Chazan and Liora Kolska Horwitz of Hebrew University, has been doing detailed analysis of the material from Beaumont's excavation along with renewed field work on the Wonderwerk site.

Analysis of sediment by lead authors Francesco Berna and Paul Goldberg (pictured below right) of Boston University revealed ashed plant remains and burned bone fragments, both of which appear to have been burned locally rather than carried into the cave by wind or water. The researchers also found extensive evidence of surface discoloration that is typical of burning.

"The control of fire would have been a major turning point in human evolution," said Chazan. "The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society.

"Socializing around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human."


Monday, April 2, 2012

“Lucy” was not the only hominin on the block


Newly Discovered Foot Points to a New Kid on the Hominin Block

It seems that “Lucy” was not the only hominin on the block in northern Africa about 3 million years ago.

A team of researchers that included Johns Hopkins University geologist Naomi Levin has announced the discovery of a partial foot skeleton with characteristics (such as an opposable big toe bone) that don’t match those of Lucy, the human ancestor (or hominin) known to inhabit that region and considered by many to be the ancestor of all modern humans.

The discovery is important because it provides first-ever evidence that at least two pre-human ancestors lived between 3 million and 4 million years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia, and that they had different ways of moving around the landscape.

“The foot belonged to a hominin species—not yet named—that overlaps in age with Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis). Although it was found in a neighboring project area that is relatively close to the Lucy fossil site, it does not look like an A. afarensis foot,” explains Levin, an assistant professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

A paper in the March 29 issue of Nature describes this foot, which is similar in some ways to the remains of another hominin fossil, called Ardipithecus ramidus, but which has different features.

Its discovery could shed light on how our ancestors learned to walk upright, according to Levin.

“What is clear is that the foot of the Burtele hominin was able to grasp items much better than its contemporary, A. afarensis, would have been able to do, which suggests that it was adept at moving around in trees,” says Levin, who was part of the team led by Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and included researchers from Case Western Reserve University and the Berkeley Geochronology Center as well.

The finding is important, Levin says, because it shows that there is much more to learn about the role of locomotion in human evolution.

“This fossil makes the story of locomotion more complex, and it shows that we have a lot more to learn about how humans transitioned from moving around in trees to moving around on the ground—on two legs. This fossil shows that some hominins may have been capable of doing both,” she says.

The fossil, dated to approximately 3.4 million years ago, was discovered in 2009 in sediments along the Burtele drainage in the Afar region of Ethiopia that is now very hot and dry but which the researchers view as having been wetter and more wooded when the Burtele hominin lived, based on its deltaic sedimentary context, results from isotopic studies and the range of fossil animals found near the site.

“We’re just at the beginning of understanding the environmental context for this important fossil. It will be a critical part of understanding this hominin, its habitat and the role that the environment played in its evolution,” she says.