Saturday, June 29, 2013

New mosaics discovered in synagogue excavations in Galilee

Credit: Jim Haberman

Excavations in the Late Roman (fifth century) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel's Lower Galilee, have brought to light stunning mosaics that decorated the floor.

The Huqoq excavations are directed by Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-directed by Shua Kisilevitz of the . Sponsors are UNC, Brigham Young University, Trinity University in Texas, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Toronto and the University of Wyoming. Students and staff from UNC and the consortium schools are participating in the dig.

Last summer, a mosaic showing Samson and the foxes (as related in the Bible's Judges 15:4) was discovered in the synagogue's east aisle. This summer, another mosaic was found that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3). Adjacent to Samson are riders with horses, apparently representing Philistines.Although he is not described as such in the , Samson is depicted as a giant in both scenes, reflecting later Jewish traditions that developed about the biblical judge and hero.

Biblical scenes are not uncommon in Late Roman synagogue mosaics, but only one other ancient synagogue in Israel (at Khirbet Wadi Hamam) is decorated with a scene showing Samson.

"The discovery of two Samson scenes in the Huqoq synagogue suggests that it was decorated with a Samson cycle—the first such cycle known in Israel," said Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor in the religious studies department in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. "A cycle is a series of scenes about Samson, in which different episodes relating to Samson are depicted."

Another portion of mosaic discovered in the synagogue's east aisle preserves a scene that includes several male figures and an elephant. Below that is an arcade, with the arches framing young men arranged around a seated elderly man holding a scroll. The strip below shows a bull pierced by spears, with blood gushing from his wounds, and a dying or dead soldier holding a shield.

This mosaic differs in style, quality and content from the Samson scenes, Magness said.

"It might depict a triumphal parade or perhaps a martyrdom story based on Maccabees 1-4, in which case it would be the first example of an apocryphal story decorating an ," she said. "Apocryphal books were not included in the Hebrew Bible/Jewish canon of sacred scripture."

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2014.

Two Thousand Year Old Evidence of the Siege in Jerusalem (June 2013)

Three complete cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp were uncovered inside a small cistern in a drainage channel that runs from the Shiloah Pool in the City of David to Robinson’s Arch.

Photograph of the finds in the cistern: Vladimir Naykhin.

The artifacts will be exhibited in a study conference on the City of David organized by the Megalim Institute, which will be held this coming Thursday, July 4, at Ramat Rahel

Recently a small cistern belonging to a building was exposed in an archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting near the Western Wall, in the vicinity of Robinson’s Arch in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Inside the cistern were three intact cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp that date to the time of the Great Revolt.

The vessels were discovered inside the drainage channel that was exposed in its entirety from the Shiloah Pool in the City of David to the beginning of Robinson’s Arch.

According to Eli Shukron, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first time we are able to connect archaeological finds with the famine that occurred during the siege of Jerusalem at the time of the Great Revolt. The complete cooking pots and ceramic oil lamp indicate that the people went down into the cistern where they secretly ate the food that was contained in the pots, without anyone seeing them, and this is consistent with the account provided by Josephus”.

In his book The Jewish War Josephus describes the Roman siege of Jerusalem and in its wake the dire hunger that prevailed in the blockaded city.

In his dramatic description of the famine in Jerusalem he tells about the Jewish rebels who sought food in the homes of their fellow Jews in the city. These, Josephus said, concealed the food they possessed for fear it would be stolen by the rebels and they ate it in hidden places in their homes.

“As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the partisans increased with it….For as nowhere was there corn to be seen, men broke into the houses and ransacked them. If they found some they maltreated the occupants for saying there was none; if they did not, they suspected them of having hidden it more carefully and tortured them.”
“Many secretly exchanged their possessions for one measure of corn-wheat if they happened to be rich, barley if they were poor. They shut themselves up in the darkest corners of the their houses, where some through extreme hunger ate their grain as it was, others made bread, necessity and fear being their only guides. Nowhere was a table laid…” (Josephus The Jewish War. Translated by G.A. Williamson 1959. P. 290).

The artifacts will be on display in a study conference on the City of David organized by the Megalim Institute which will take place this coming Thursday, July 4. For details about the conference visit the institute’s website at

Monday, June 24, 2013

More on a woman in Da Vinci's Last Supper

I have previously expressed the view, after careful analyis of the painting in question, that there is a woman seated to the right of Jesus in Da Vinci's Last Supper, painted in 1520.

See discussion here:

Another masterful Last Supper, Federico Barocci's, painted in 1580, seems to follow

Da Vinci's, and also has a woman seated in the same position:

Federico Barocci, The Last Supper, c. 1580. Oil on canvas, Urbino Cathedral.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mysterious monument found beneath the Sea of Galilee

The shores of the Sea of Galilee, located in the North of Israel, are home to a number of significant archaeological sites. Now researchers from Tel Aviv University have found an ancient structure deep beneath the waves as well.

Researchers stumbled upon a cone-shaped monument, approximately 230 feet in diameter, 39 feet high, and weighing an estimated 60,000 tons, while conducting a geophysical survey on the southern Sea of Galilee, reports Prof. Shmulik Marco of TAU's Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences. The team also included TAU Profs. Zvi Ben-Avraham and Moshe Reshef, and TAU alumni Dr. Gideon Tibor of the Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute.

Initial findings indicate that the structure was built on dry land approximately 6,000 years ago, and later submerged under the water. Prof. Marco calls it an impressive feat, noting that the stones, which comprise the structure, were probably brought from more than a mile away and arranged according to a specific construction plan.

Dr. Yitzhak Paz of the Antiquities Authority and Ben-Gurion University says that the site, which was recently detailed in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, resembles early burial sites in Europe and was likely built in the early Bronze Age. He believes that there may be a connection to the nearby ancient city of Beit Yerah, the largest and most fortified city in the area.

Ancient structure revealed by sonar

The team of researchers initially set out to uncover the origins of alluvium pebbles found in this area of the Sea of Galilee, which they believe were deposited by the ancient Yavniel Creek, a precursor to the Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee. While using sonar technology to survey the bottom of the lake, they observed a massive pile of stones in the midst of the otherwise smooth basin.

Curious about the unusual blip on their sonar, Prof. Marco went diving to learn more. A closer look revealed that the pile was not a random accumulation of stones, but a purposefully-built structure composed of three-foot-long volcanic stones called basalt. Because the closest deposit of the stone is more than a mile away, he believes that they were brought to the site specifically for this structure.

To estimate the age of the structure, researchers turned to the accumulation of sand around its base. Due to a natural build-up of sand throughout the years, the base is now six to ten feet below the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. Taking into account the height of the sand and the rate of accumulation, researchers deduced that the monument is several thousand years old.

Looking deeper

Next, the researchers plan to organize a specialized underwater excavations team to learn more about the origins of the structure, including an investigation of the surface the structure was built on. A hunt for artefacts will help to more accurately date the monument and give clues as to its purpose and builders. And while it is sure to interest archaeologists, Prof. Marco says that the findings could also illuminate the geological history of the region.

"The base of the structure — which was once on dry land — is lower than any water level that we know of in the ancient Sea of Galilee. But this doesn't necessarily mean that water levels have been steadily rising," he says. Because the Sea of Galilee is a tectonically active region, the bottom of the lake, and therefore the structure, may have shifted over time. Further investigation is planned to increase the understanding of past tectonic movements, the accumulation of sediment, and the changing water levels throughout history.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Existence of Babylonian official mentioned in the book of Jeremiah confirmed in cuneiform tablet

(Old news but I just ran into it)

Working at the British Museum, Assyriologist Michael Jursa has made a breakthrough discovery whilst examining a small clay tablet with a Babylonian cuneiform inscription. The document is dated to the 10th year of Nebuchadnezzar II (595 BC). It names a Babylonian officer, Nebo-Sarsekim, who according to chapter 39 of the Book of Jeremiah was present at the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC with Nebuchadnezzar himself. The tablet thus confirms the historical existence of the Biblical figure. Evidence from non-Biblical sources for individuals named in the Bible other than kings is incredibly rare.

Nebo-Sarsekim is described in the book of Jeremiah as ‘chief eunuch’ (as the title is now translated, rather than ‘chief officer’). The Babylonian tablet proves that his name was really pronounced as Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, and gives the same title, ‘chief eunuch,’ in cuneiform script, thereby confirming the accuracy of the Biblical account.

The discovery highlights the importance of the study of cuneiform. The British Museum’s collection contains well over one hundred thousand inscribed tablets which are examined by international scholars on a daily basis. Reading and piecing together fragments is painstaking and slow work, but cuneiform tablets are our only chance of obtaining knowledge of this fateful period of human history. Other discoveries made whilst examining tablets include an Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story, observations of Halley’s Comet and even rules for the world’s oldest board game.

Dr Jursa, Associate Professor of the University of Vienna, has been studying tablets at the British Museum since 1991. He says of this discovery:
“Reading Babylonian tablets is often laborious, but also very satisfying: there is so much new information yet to be discovered. But finding something like this tablet, where we see a person mentioned in the Bible making an everyday payment to the temple in Babylon and quoting the exact date is quite extraordinary.”

Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, commented: “Cuneiform tablets might all look the same, but sometimes they contain treasure. Here a mundane commercial transaction takes its place as a primary witness to one of the turning points in Old Testament history. This is a tablet that deserves to be famous.’

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

'World's oldest Torah' scroll found in Italy

The University of Bologna in Italy has found what it says may be the oldest complete scroll of Judaism's most important text, the Torah.

The scroll was in the university library but had been mislabelled, a professor at the university says.

It was previously thought the scroll was no more that a few hundred years old.

However, after carbon dating tests, the university has said the text may have been written more than 850 years ago.

The university's Professor of Hebrew Mauro Perani says this would make it the oldest complete text of the Torah known to exist, and an object of extraordinary worth.

The university says that in 1889 one of its librarians, Leonello Modona, had examined the scroll and dated it to the 17th Century.

However, when Prof Perani recently re-examined the scroll, he realised the script used was that of the oriental Babylonian tradition, meaning that the scroll must be extremely old.

Another reason for the dating is that the text has many features forbidden in later copies under rules laid down by the scholar Maimonides in the 12th Century, the university says.