Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Oldest European fort in the inland US discovered in Appalachians

The remains of the earliest European fort in the interior of what is now the United States have been discovered by a team of archaeologists, providing new insight into the start of the U.S. colonial era and the all-too-human reasons spoiling Spanish dreams of gold and glory.

Spanish Captain Juan Pardo and his men built Fort San Juan in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in 1567, nearly 20 years before Sir Walter Raleigh's "lost colony" at Roanoke and 40 years before the Jamestown settlement established England's presence in the region.

"Fort San Juan and six others that together stretched from coastal South Carolina into eastern Tennessee were occupied for less than 18 months before the Native Americans destroyed them, killing all but one of the Spanish soldiers who manned the garrisons," said University of Michigan archaeologist Robin Beck.

Beck, an assistant professor in the U-M Department of Anthropology and assistant curator at the U-M Museum of Anthropology, is working with archaeologists Christopher Rodning of Tulane University and David Moore of Warren Wilson College to excavate the site near the city of Morganton in western North Carolina, nearly 300 miles from the Atlantic Coast.

The Berry site, named in honor of the stewardship of landowners James and the late Pat Berry, is located along a tributary of the Catawba River and was the location of the Native American town of Joara, part of the mound-building Mississippian culture that flourished in the southeastern U.S. between 800 and about 1500 CE.

In 2004, with support from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, Beck and his colleagues began excavating several of the houses occupied by Spanish soldiers at Joara, where Pardo built Fort San Juan. Pardo named this small colony of Spanish houses Cuenca, after his own hometown in Spain. Yet the remains of the fort itself eluded discovery until last month.

"We have known for more than a decade where the Spanish soldiers were living," Rodning said. "This summer we were trying to learn more about the Mississippian mound at Berry, one that was built by the people of Joara, and instead we discovered part of the fort. For all of us, it was an incredible moment."

Using a combination of large-scale excavations and geophysical techniques like magnetometry, which provides x-ray-like images of what lies below the surface, the archaeologists have now been able to identify sections of the fort's defensive moat or ditch, a likely corner bastion and a graveled surface that formed an entryway to the garrison.

Excavations in the moat conducted in late June reveal it to have been a large V-shaped feature measuring 5.5 feet deep and 15 feet across. Spanish artifacts recovered this summer include iron nails and tacks, Spanish majolica pottery, and an iron clothing hook of the sort used for fastening doublets and attaching sword scabbards to belts.

Fort San Juan was the first and largest of the garrisons that Pardo founded as part of an ambitious effort to colonize the American South. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had established the Spanish colonies of St. Augustine and Santa Elena in 1565 and 1566, respectively, spearheaded this effort. Of the six garrisons that Pardo built, Fort San Juan is the only one to have been discovered by archaeologists.

During the brief time the Spaniards were at Joara, Beck says, they were actively prospecting for gold but never found it. Yet the gold was there: in the early 1800s, American settlers found so much just lying on the surface near rivers that a 17-pound gold nugget was used as a doorstop and a U.S. mint was established in Charlotte, triggering the first gold rush in U.S. history.

Had the people of Joara given Pardo's soldiers more time to discover this gold, Spain would probably have launched a full-scale colonial invasion of the area, England would have had difficulty establishing its foothold at Jamestown, and the entire southeastern part of what is now the U.S. might instead have become part of Latin America.

Why did the Mississipians wipe the Spaniards out so quickly? Beck and colleagues argue that originally, the Spanish bartered with the natives for food.

"The soldiers believed that when their gifts were accepted, it meant that the native people were their subjects," Beck said. "But to the natives, it was simply an exchange. When the soldiers ran out of gifts, they expected the natives to keep on feeding them. By that time, they had also committed what Spanish documents refer to as "indiscretions" with native women, which may have been another reason that native men decided they had to go. So food and sex were probably two of the main reasons for destroying Spanish settlements and forts."

Moore said the significance of Fort San Juan extends far beyond the Carolina Piedmont.

"The events at Fort San Juan represent a microcosm of the colonial experience across the continent," he said. "Spain's failure created an opening that England exploited at Jamestown in 1607, when America's familiar frontier narrative begins. For Native Americans, though, this was the beginning of a long-term and often tragic reshaping of their precolonial world."

Friday, July 19, 2013

King David’s Palace was Uncovered in the Judean Shephelah

Two royal public buildings, the likes of which have not previously been found in the Kingdom of Judah of the tenth century BCE, were uncovered this past year by researchers of the Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority at Khirbet Qeiyafa – a fortified city in Judah dating to the time of King David and identified with the biblical city of Shaarayim.

One of the buildings is identified by the researchers, Professor Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as David’s palace,

An aerial picture of David’s palace and the Byzantine farmhouse. Photograph: Sky View, courtesy of the Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority

and the other structure served as an enormous royal storeroom.

According to Professor Yossi Garfinkel and Sa'ar Ganor, “Khirbet Qeiyafa is the best example exposed to date of a fortified city from the time of King David. The southern part of a large palace that extended across an area of c. 1,000 sq m was revealed at the top of the city. The wall enclosing the palace is c. 30 m long and an impressive entrance is fixed it through which one descended to the southern gate of the city, opposite the Valley of Elah. Around the palace’s perimeter were rooms in which various installations were found – evidence of a metal industry, special pottery vessels and fragments of alabaster vessels that were imported from Egypt. The palace is located in the center of the site and controls all of the houses lower than it in the city. From here one has an excellent vantage looking out into the distance, from as far as the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Hebron Mountains and Jerusalem in the east. This is an ideal location from which to send messages by means of fire signals. Unfortunately, much of this palace was destroyed c. 1,400 years later when a fortified farmhouse was built there in the Byzantine period”.

Finds from the site. Photographic Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A pillared building c. 15 m long by 6 m wide was exposed in the north of the city, which was used as an administrative storeroom. According to the researchers, “It was in this building the kingdom stored taxes it received in the form of agricultural produce collected from the residents of the different villages in the Judean Shephelah. Hundreds of large store jars were found at the site whose handles were stamped with an official seal as was customary in the Kingdom of Judah for centuries”.

The palace and storerooms are evidence of state sponsored construction and an administrative organization during King David’s reign. “This is unequivocal evidence of a kingdom’s existence, which knew to establish administrative centers at strategic points”, the archaeologists say. “To date no palaces have been found that can clearly be ascribed to the early tenth century BCE as we can do now. Khirbet Qeiyafa was probably destroyed in one of the battles that were fought against the Philistines circa 980 BCE. The palace that is now being revealed and the fortified city that was uncovered in recent years are another tier in understanding the beginning of the Kingdom of Judah”.

The exposure of the biblical city at Khirbet Qeiyafa and the importance of the finds discovered there have led the Israel Antiquities Authority to act together with the Nature and Parks Authority and the planning agencies to cancel the intended construction of a new neighborhood nearby and to promote declaring the area around the site a national park. This plan stems from the belief that the site will quickly become a place that will attract large numbers of visitors who will be greatly interested in it, and from it one will be able to learn about the culture of the country at the time of King David.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Inscription from time of David & Solomon found near Temple Mount in Hebrew University excavation

Dated to the 10th century BCE, the inscription is written in the Canaanite language

Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar has unearthed the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.

The inscription is engraved on a large pithos, a neckless ceramic jar found with six others at the Ophel excavation site. According to Dr. Mazar, the inscription, in the Canaanite language, is the only one of its kind discovered in Jerusalem and an important addition to the city's history.

Dated to the tenth century BCE, the artifact predates by two hundred and fifty years the earliest known Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem, which is from the period of King Hezekiah at the end of the eighth century BCE.

A third-generation archaeologist working at the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Mazar directs archaeological excavations on the summit of the City of David and at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

The discovery will be announced in a paper by Dr. Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University, following their extensive research on the artifact. Prof. Ahituv studied the inscription and Dr. Ben-Shlomo studied the composition of the ceramic materials. The paper, "An Inscribed Pithos From the Ophel," appears in the Israel Exploration Journal 63/1 (2013).

This jar fragment from the time of Kings David and Solomon is the earliest alphabetical written text ever discovered in Jerusalem. Unearthed near Jerusalem's Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, it is dated to the tenth century BCE and bears an inscription in the Canaanite language. The text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which from left to right translate to m, q, p, h, n, (possibly) l, and n. The archaeologists suspect the inscription could specify the jar's contents or the name of its owner.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Ouria Tadmor.

The inscription was engraved near the edge of the jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six large jars of the same type. The fragments were used to stabilize the earth fill under the second floor of the building they were discovered in, which dates to the Early Iron IIA period (10th century BCE). An analysis of the jars' clay composition indicates that they are all of a similar make, and probably originate in the central hill country near Jerusalem.

According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar's shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning. The inscription is engraved in a proto-Canaanite / early Canaanite script of the eleventh-to-tenth centuries BCE, which pre-dates the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script.

Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to m, q, p, h, n, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, the inscription's meaning is unknown.

The archaeologists suspect the inscription specifies the jar's contents or the name of its owner. Because the inscription is not in Hebrew, it is likely to have been written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.

Intriguing evidence of a Viking-age trading area mentioned in the Norse Sagas

It was a routine archaeological dig, necessitated by the expansion of Norway's main north-south highway, the E6, just north of Trondheim, the country's third largest city. But the finds surprised archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's University Museum, who now believe they have solved a centuries-old puzzle posed in Norse sagas.

A silver button.

A set of balance scales.

When archaeologists Geir Grønnesby and Ellen Grav Ellingsen found these and other artefacts during a dig in mid-Norway, they realized they had intriguing evidence of a Viking-age trading area mentioned in the Norse Sagas.

The finds came from two separate boat graves in an area in Nord-Trøndelag County called Lø, a farm in part of Steinkjer. The archaeologists, who both work at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's University Museum, were there to conduct a routine investigation required because of an upgrade to Norway's main national highway, the E6.

But instead of a simple highway dig, the researchers found themselves with a potential answer to an unsolved puzzle about a mysterious Viking trading place that is named in ancient sagas, but that has never before been located.

"These finds got us thinking about the descriptions in the Sagas that describe Steinkjer as a trading place," the researchers wrote of their findings in Vitark, an academic journal published by the University Museum from Dec. 2012. "The Sagas say that Steinkjer, under the rule of Eirik Jarl, was briefly even more important than Nidaros, before Olav Haraldsson re-established Nidaros as the king's residence and trading city."

Norway's medieval capital

Nidaros, now the modern city of Trondheim, was Norway's capital during Viking times, and the country's religious centre. The world's northernmost Gothic Cathedral, Nidarosdomen, was built in Trondheim, with its first stones laid in 1070 over the grave of Olav Haraldsson. The oldest existing parts of the cathedral date from 1183.

As a medieval city and a religious capital, Nidaros played an important role in international trade throughout the Middle Ages. The Lewis Chessmen, an exquisite set of 12th century chess pieces worked out of walrus ivory and whales' teeth, are widely believed to have been crafted in the Trondheim/Nidaros area, and traded away.

Olav Haraldsson was the Norwegian king who is often credited with bringing Christianity to Norway and whose sainthood, first proclaimed in 1031, a year after his death, was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164.

Not surprisingly, he features in a number of different Norse and Icelandic sagas. It was these sagas that mention a major trading place in Steinkjer that was even larger than Nidaros. But until archaeologists started the dig in Lø, they had few clues as to where this Viking-age commercial powerhouse might be found.

1000 years of dirt and development

Archaeologists seeking to find a 1000-year-old trading place have precious few leads to pursue.

Almost certainly there were no permanent buildings, which would be the easiest to find, and many items that would have been traded would be made of organic materials that might not survive the ravages of the centuries.

Apart from finding obvious clues, such as coins or metal or glass items that were clearly from foreign lands, archeologists have to rely on much more subtle evidence that can stand the test of time.

One such hint that a location might be a trading place is the geography of the place itself, the researchers wrote in Vitark.

"Even though there is no archaeological proof that there was a trading place in Steinkjer during Viking times, there are several aspects that support this idea," the researchers wrote.

Most importantly, they note, Steinjker is located in a natural trading areas, at the mouth of a river at the innermost part of Trondheim fjord. It is also in a place where farmers have been working flat fields for centuries.

Swords, beads and jewelry

Another clue that archaeologists use to locate the possible trading place is a detailed map of the locations of all kinds of different archaeological finds that might suggest trade.

The logic here is that greater numbers of traded goods are more likely to be found in close proximity to a place of trade, with fewer traded goods found farther and farther from trading areas.

So the researchers plotted all relevant finds from Nord-Trøndelag County, and again and again, the finds suggested a major trading area in Steinkjer.

Beads made of amber and glass are commonly traded, and the area around Steinkjer was rich with finds of these goods, with 254 beads found in 28 different locales, the researchers said.

While nearby Stjørdal had a higher number of bead finds -- 485 beads, all told -- the researchers noted that most of those beads came from two large finds, which makes it less likely that the beads were linked directly to a trading place.

Twenty-two examples of a special kind of Viking-age sword, called the H sword based on the design of its hilt and one that is associated with trade, were also found in Steinkjer, the most of any area in Nord-Trøndelag.

Five of six pieces of imported jewelry found in Nord-Trøndelag were found in Steinkjer, while six of 10 imported brooches from Nord-Trøndelag also came from Steinkjer.

Scales and a button

While beads, swords and imported jewelry help suggest that Steinkjer was home to a major trading place, two specific finds, in boat graves in Lø, were among the most persuasive finds.

One, a silver button made of braided silver threads that appears to have originated in the British Isles, suggests that the person in the grave had a high status.

The second is a set of balance scales found in another boat grave. The balance scales were constructed in a way that led the archaeologists to believe it came from the west -- not from Norway.

Scales themselves naturally suggest trade, and when the researchers looked at all the scales found in Nord-Trøndelag, they again found a clear concentration in the Steinkjer area.

Under the church, in the city centre

If all of these concentrations of finds support the location of a major trading place in Steinkjer as mentioned in the Norse sagas, then where is it?

Here, the archaeologists can only make an educated guess. Based on the fact that sea levels were four or five metres higher in this area 1000 years ago, the location of the existing church in Steinkjer is the most logical place for the trading place to have been, the researchers say.

But confirmation of the fact that Steinkjer was a major trading area in the Viking age raises yet another puzzle: If Steinkjer was such an important area for international trade, why did trade eventually shift to Trondheim, as it did?

Grønnesby says that the shift in trading areas was surely due to the tremendous power struggles between different rulers in the area. Nidaros along with Levanger, another trading area, simply had more support than Steinkjer. "We see that Steinkjer disappears in the sources in the Middle Ages while the same sources show that (nearby) Levanger was a trading post," he notes.

Nevertheless, determining the exact answer will require finding more than silver buttons, scales and beads -- and may be an answer that we will never really know.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Egyptian leader makes surprise appearance at archaeological dig in Israel

This fragment of a Sphinx statue was found by Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologists at the excavations at Tel Hazor, Israel, north of the Sea of Galilee. A hieroglyphic inscription ties the Sphinx to an Egyptian king who was a builder of the Giza pyramids, approximately 2500 BCE. The statue is unique, as the only one anywhere bearing this pharaoh's name.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Hebrew University archaeologists, Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman.

As modern Egypt searches for a new leader, Israeli archaeologists have found evidence of an ancient Egyptian leader in northern Israel.

At a site in Tel Hazor National Park, north of the Sea of Galilee, archeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have unearthed part of a unique Sphinx belonging to one of the ancient pyramid-building pharaohs.

The Hazor Excavations are headed by Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor, the Yigael Yadin Professor in the Archaeology of Eretz Israel at the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman, a lecturer at the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology.

Working with a team from the Institute of Archaeology, they discovered part of a Sphinx brought over from Egypt, with a hieroglyphic inscription between its front legs. The inscription bears the name of the Egyptian king Mycerinus, who ruled in the third millennium BCE, more than 4,000 years ago. The king was one of the builders of the famous Giza pyramids.

As the only known Sphinx of this king discovered anywhere in the world — including in Egypt — the find at Hazor is an unexpected and important discovery. Moreover, it is only piece of a royal Sphinx sculpture discovered in the entire Levant area (the eastern part of the Mediterranean).

Along with the king's name, the hieroglyphic inscription includes the descriptor "Beloved by the divine manifestation… that gave him eternal life." According to Prof. Ben-Tor and Dr. Zuckerman, this text indicates that the Sphinx probably originated in the ancient city of Heliopolis (the city of 'On' in the Bible), north of modern Cairo.

The Sphinx was discovered in the destruction layer of Hazor that was destroyed during the 13th century BCE, at the entrance to the city palace. According to the archaeologists, it is highly unlikely that the Sphinx was brought to Hazor during the time of Mycerinus, since there is no record of any relationship between Egypt and Israel in the third millennium BCE.

More likely, the statue was brought to Israel in the second millennium BCE during the dynasty of the kings known as the Hyksos, who originated in Canaan. It could also have arrived during the 15th to 13th centuries BCE, when Canaan was under Egyptian rule, as a gift from an Egyptian king to the king of Hazor, which was the most important city in the southern Levant at the time.

Hazor is the largest biblical-era site in Israel, covering some 200 acres, and has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The population of Hazor in the second millennium BCE is estimated to have been about 20,000, making it the largest and most important city in the entire region. Its size and strategic location on the route connecting Egypt and Babylon made it "the head of all those kingdoms" according to the biblical book of Joshua (Joshua 11:10). Hazor's conquest by the Israelites opened the way to the conquest and settlement of the Israelites in Canaan. The city was rebuilt and fortified by King Solomon and prospered in the days of Ahab and Jeroboam II, until its final destruction by the Assyrians in 732 BCE.

Documents discovered at Hazor and at sites in Egypt and Iraq attest that Hazor maintained cultural and trade relations with both Egypt and Babylon. Artistic artifacts, including those imported to Hazor from near and far, have been unearthed at the site. Hazor is currently one of Israel's national parks.

The Hebrew University began the Hazor excavation in the mid-1950s and continued them in the late 1960s. Excavations at the site were resumed in 1990 by Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor, who was joined in 2006 by Dr. Sharon Zuckerman, as part of the Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin. The present excavation area is managed by Shlomit Becher, a doctoral student of the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, and is sponsored by the Israel Exploration Society (IES) in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Related article

Neandertals shared speech and language with modern humans

Fast-accumulating data seem to indicate that our close cousins, the Neandertals, were much more similar to us than imagined even a decade ago. But did they have anything like modern speech and language? And if so, what are the implications for understanding present-day linguistic diversity? The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson argue in their paper in Frontiers in Language Sciences that modern language and speech can be traced back to the last common ancestor we shared with the Neandertals roughly half a million years ago.

The Neandertals have fascinated both the academic world and the general public ever since their discovery almost 200 years ago. Initially thought to be subhuman brutes incapable of anything but the most primitive of grunts, they were a successful form of humanity inhabiting vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundreds of thousands of years, during harsh ages and milder interglacial periods. We knew that they were our closest cousins, sharing a common ancestor with us around half a million years ago (probably Homo heidelbergensis), but it was unclear what their cognitive capacities were like, or why modern humans succeeded in replacing them after thousands of years of cohabitation. Recently, due to new palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries and the reassessment of older data, but especially to the availability of ancient DNA, we have started to realise that their fate was much more intertwined with ours and that, far from being slow brutes, their cognitive capacities and culture were comparable to ours.

Dediu and Levinson review all these strands of literature and argue that essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neandertals and the Denisovans (another form of humanity known mostly from their genome). Their interpretation of the intrinsically ambiguous and scant evidence goes against the scenario usually assumed by most language scientists, namely that of a sudden and recent emergence of modernity, presumably due to a single – or very few – genetic mutations. This pushes back the origins of modern language by a factor of 10 from the often-cited 50 or so thousand years, to around a million years ago – somewhere between the origins of our genus, Homo, some 1.8 million years ago, and the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis. This reassessment of the evidence goes against a saltationist scenario where a single catastrophic mutation in a single individual would suddenly give rise to language, and suggests that a gradual accumulation of biological and cultural innovations is much more plausible.

Interestingly, given that we know from the archaeological record and recent genetic data that the modern humans spreading out of Africa interacted both genetically and culturally with the Neandertals and Denisovans, then just as our bodies carry around some of their genes, maybe our languages preserve traces of their languages too. This would mean that at least some of the observed linguistic diversity is due to these ancient encounters, an idea testable by comparing the structural properties of the African and non-African languages, and by detailed computer simulations of language spread.

Cave used by Israelite and Judahite kings and escapees from the much later First Jewish Revolt?

Complete article

Archaeologists excavating in the ancient Ophel area near the Temple Mount (or Haram Ash-Sharif) of Jerusalem have uncovered a plaster-lined cave with an associated system of subterranean tunnels that may tell a story about life there when the Romans besieged the city during the First Jewish Revolt in 70 CE... The cave also appeared to be connected to a structure dated to the First Temple period (10th to 6th centuries BCE) above it, which featured water channels for directing water into the cave. This suggested to the archaeologists that they were actually exploring what was originally an ancient water cistern. Given the location, the water cistern, which was not an atypical feature of ancient Jerusalem during the centuries when Jerusalem was ruled by Israelite and Judahite kings before Babylonian captivity in 586 BC, may have been used by Jerusalem's royalty for collecting and storing water.

Excavators found that the Herodian Period walls related to yet another key feature of the cave or cistern -- a system of tunnels carved from the rock, large enough to accommodate the passage of individuals from one location to another. The tunnels also revealed numerous shards of Herodian Period pottery, a ceramic type used to date the tunnels and shafts.

The project archaeologists suggest that the tunnels and shafts may possibly have been made and used by inhabitants of the city hiding or protecting themselves from the Roman siege of Jerusalem during the height of the First Jewish Revolt, an event well documented by the Jewish historian Josephus in his writing, The Jewish War. In it, he writes about the creation of subterranean caverns carved out of bedrock, used by individuals hiding or escaping from Roman soldiers as the city was being besieged. In the end, however, their efforts proved fruitless, as they were eventually discovered by their Roman pursuers and captured.

Ancient Mosaic Depicting Samson Uncovered in a Galilee Synagogue

Complete, fascinating article

Excavations in a late Roman era synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s eastern lower Galilee have uncovered a new mosaic depicting the biblical hero and judge, Samson. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been conducting archaeological excavations at Huqoq since 2011, notes that while scenes from the Bible are not uncommon in ancient synagogues, mosaics featuring Samson are. Last summer (2012), excavations in the Huqoq synagogue brought to light a scene depicting Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4). This summer, another section of the mosaic floor was discovered which shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza (Judges 16:1-3).

Photo: James Haberman

Wadi Hamam is the only other ancient synagogue in Israel which has a mosaic with a scene of Samson, while outside of Israel only one ancient building in Turkey which may be a synagogue has a Samson mosaic. However, the Samson mosaics are not the only unusual aspect about the excavations at Huqoq. Magness states, “In most ancient synagogues in Israel with a decorated floor featuring figured designs such as people and animals, the figured decoration is in the center of the synagogue and the aisles have geometric patterns.” However, at Huqoq, there are mosaics with figured scenes in the aisles.”

Magness is puzzled by why mosaics depicting Samson are found at Huqoq, as it was not in the tribal area of Dan. Furthermore, many rabbis of the Talmudic period were not fond of Samson because of his attraction to non-Jewish women. While Magness stated that some positive depictions of Samson survive in rabbinic literature, these traditions are preserved mainly in the Babylonian Talmud, not in the Jerusalem Talmud. Thus, the glorification of Samson in a synagogue mosaic in Galilee goes against the generally negative view of Samson held by many rabbis at that time.

According to Magness, the surviving rabbinic traditions that depict Samson positively “suggest that some Jews considered Samson as a prototype or forerunner of the messiah. He had the potential to be the messiah but wasn’t. The popularity of Samson is connected with those traditions, with traditions that viewed Samson as a deliver and redeemer of Israel. In the area of Mount Arbel and Tiberias, these traditions were popular. This may be why the Samson scenes appear here.”

Monday, July 8, 2013

Origins of Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent: Farming Started in Several Places at Once

For decades archaeologists have been searching for the origins of agriculture. Their findings indicated that early plant domestication took place in the western and northern Fertile Crescent. In the July 5 edition of the journal Science, researchers from the University of Tübingen, the Tübingen Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, and the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research demonstrate that the foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran in the eastern Fertile Crescent also served as a key center for early domestication.

Archaeologists Nicholas Conard and Mohsen Zeidi from Tübingen led excavations at the aceramic tell site of Chogha Golan in 2009 and 2010. They documented an 8 meter thick sequence of exclusively aceramic Neolithic deposits dating from 11,700 to 9,800 years ago. These excavations produced a wealth of architectural remains, stone tools, depictions of humans and animals, bone tools, animal bones, and -- perhaps most importantly -- the richest deposits of charred plant remains ever recovered from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East.

Simone Riehl, head of the archaeobotany laboratory in Tübingen, analyzed over 30,000 plant remains of 75 taxa from Chogha Golan, spanning a period of more than 2,000 years. Her results show that the origins of agriculture in the Near East can be attributed to multiple centers rather than a single core area and that the eastern Fertile Crescent played a key role in the process of domestication.

Many pre-pottery Neolithic sites preserve comparatively short sequences of occupation, making the long sequence form Chogha Golan particularly valuable for reconstructing the development of new patterns of human subsistence. The most numerous species from Chogha Golan are wild barley, goat-grass and lentil, which are all wild ancestors of modern crops. These and many other species are present in large numbers starting in the lowest deposits, horizon XI, dating to the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,700 years ago. In horizon II dating to 9.800 years ago, domesticated emmer wheat appears.

The plant remains from Chogha Golan represent a unique, long-term record of cultivation of wild plant species in the eastern Fertile Crescent. Over a period of two millennia the economy of the site shifted toward the domesticated species that formed the economic basis for the rise of village life and subsequent civilizations in the Near East. Plants including multiple forms of wheat, barley and lentils together with domestic animals later accompanied farmers as they spread across western Eurasia, gradually replacing the indigenous hunter-gather societies. Many of the plants that were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent form the economic basis for the world population today.

Earliest Evidence of Using Flower Beds for Burial Found in Cave in Mt. Carmel

The earliest evidence of using flower beds for burial, dating back to 13,700 years ago, was discovered in Raqefet Cave in Mt. Carmel (northern Israel), during excavations led by the University of Haifa. In four different graves from the Natufian period, dating back to 13,700-11,700 years ago, dozens of impressions of Salvia plants and other species of sedges and mints (the Lamiaceae family), were found under human skeletons.

"This is another evidence that as far back as 13,700 years ago, our ancestors, the Natufians, had burial rituals similar to ours, nowadays," said Prof. Dani Nadel, from the University of Haifa, who led the excavations.

The Natufians, who lived some 15,000-11,500 years ago, were of the first in the world to abandon nomadic life and settle in permanent settlements, setting up structures with stone foundations. They were also among the first to establish cemeteries -- confined areas in which they buried their community members for generations. The cemeteries were usually located at the first chambers of caves or on terraces located below the caves. In contrast, earlier cultures used to bury their dead (if at all) randomly. Mt. Carmel was one of the most important and densely populated areas in the Natufian settlement system. Its sites have been explored by University of Haifa archeologists for dozens of years.

A Natufian cemetery containing 29 skeletons of babies, children and adults was discovered at Raqefet cave. Most of the burials were single interments, although some were double, in which two bodies were interred together in the same pit. In fours graves, researchers found plant impressions on a thin layer of mud veneer which was presumably spread like plaster inside the grave. Before burying the bodies, the Natufians spread a bed of blooming green plants inside the graves. The impressions are mostly of plants with square stems, common among the mint family. In one incident, flowering stems of Judean Sage were found, one of three Sage species currently growing in the vicinity of the cave. This led the researchers to suggest that the burials were conducted in springtime, using colorful and aromatic flowers. The Raqefet cave remains are the earliest example found of graves lined with green and flowering plants.

According to the researchers, apparently flowerbeds were not restricted to adults alone and graves of children and adolescents were also lined with flowers. Since the mud veneer doesn't include impressions of stone objects and bones, despite the presence of thousands of these hard and durable artifacts within the cave and grave fills, the researchers suggest that the green lining was thick and continuous, covering the entire grave floor and sides, preventing objects from leaving impressions on the moist mud veneer.

The researchers even found evidence of Natufian bedrock chiseling in the graveyard, demonstrating grave preparation to fit their needs. The Natufians also chiseled a variety of mortars and cupmarks in close vicinity to the graves and on rock exposures on the terrace below the cave. The graves were directly radiocarbon dated. Samples from three different human skeletons were dated to 13,700-11,700 years ago.

"The Natufians lived at a time of many changes -- a time when population density was rising and the struggle for land, food and resources was increasing. The establishment of grave yards and unique burial rituals reflects the complexity of the Natufian society. Communal burial sites and elaborate rituals such as funeral ceremonies must have strengthened the sense of solidarity among the community members, and their feeling of unity in the face of other groups," concluded Prof. Nadel.