Friday, November 29, 2013

Fascinating Glimpse into Thousands of Years of Human Development in Israel

Among the rare finds uncovered in the excavation: evidence of a 6,000 year old cultic temple and the first 10,000 year old building to be discovered in the Judean Shephelah

An extensive archaeological excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority prior to widening Highway 38, which is being underwritten by the Netivei Israel Company, is producing amazing finds that provide a broad picture covering thousands of years of development of human society. Settlement remains were unearthed at the site, the earliest of which dates to the beginning of the eighth millennium BCE and latest to the end of the fourth millennium BCE.

The finds revealed at the site range from the period when man first started to domesticate plants and animals, instead of searching for them in the wild, until the period when we see the beginnings of proper urban planning.

The oldest artifacts that were exposed at the site are ascribed to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (10,000 YBP). According to Dr. Amir Golani, Dr. Ya‘akov Vardi, Benyamin Storchan and Dr. Ron Be’eri, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first time that such an ancient structure has been discovered in the Judean Shephelah. The building, almost all of which was found, underwent a number of construction and repair phases that allude to its importance. It should be emphasized that whoever built the house did something that was totally innovative because up until this period man migrated from place to place in search of food. Here we have evidence of man’s transition to permanent dwellings and that in fact is the beginning of the domestication of animals and plants; instead of searching out wild sheep, ancient man started raising them near the house”.

A cluster of nine flint and limestone axes that were discovered lying side by side was found near this prehistoric building. “It is apparent that the axes, some of which were used as tools and some as cultic objects, were highly valued by their owners. Just as today we are unable to get along without a cellular telephone and a computer, they too attributed great importance to their tools. Based on how it was arranged at the time of its discovery it seems that the cluster of axes was abandoned by its owner for some unknown reason”.

In the archaeological excavation conducted at Eshta’ol an important and rare find from the end of the Chalcolithic period (second half of the fifth millennium BCE) was discovered in the adjacent area. During the course of the excavation six thousand year old buildings were exposed and a stone column (called a standing stone or mazzevā) was discovered alongside one of them. The standing stone is 1.30 meters high and weighs several hundred kilos. According to the excavation directors, “The standing stone was smoothed and worked on all six of its sides, and was erected with one of its sides facing east. This unique find alludes to the presence of a cultic temple at the site”. The archaeologists said, “In the past numerous manifestations have been found of the cultic practice that existed in the Chalcolithic period; however, from the research we know of only a few temples at ‘En Gedi and at Teleilat Ghassul in Transjordan”.

“We uncovered a multitude of unique finds during the excavation”, says Dr. Amir Golani, one of the excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “The large excavation affords us a broad picture of the progression and development of the society in the settlement throughout the ages. Thus we can clearly see that in the Early Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago, the rural society made the transition to an urban society. We can see distinctly a settlement that gradually became planned, which included alleys and buildings that were extremely impressive from the standpoint of their size and the manner of their construction. We can clearly trace the urban planning and see the guiding hand of the settlement’s leadership that chose to regulate the construction in the crowded regions in the center of the settlement and allowed less planning along its periphery. It is fascinating to see how in such an ancient period a planned settlement was established in which there is orderly construction, and trace the development of the society which became increasingly hierarchical”.

A typical jar of the Early Bronze Age was discovered buried beneath the floor of a building. Photograph: Dr. Ron Be’eri, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Archaeological discoveries confirm early date of Buddha's life

Evidence found at world's earliest Buddhist shrine in Nepal

Archaeologists Robin Coningham (left) and Kosh Prasad Acharya direct excavations within the Maya Devi Temple, uncovering a series of ancient temples contemporary with the Buddha. Thai monks meditate.Credit: Ira Block/National Geographic

Archaeologists working in Nepal have uncovered evidence of a structure at the birthplace of the Buddha dating to the sixth century B.C. This is the first archaeological material linking the life of the Buddha — and thus the first flowering of Buddhism — to a specific century.

Pioneering excavations within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha, uncovered the remains of a previously unknown sixth-century B.C. timber structure under a series of brick temples. Laid out on the same design as those above it, the timber structure contains an open space in the center that links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself.

Until now, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the third century B.C., the time of the patronage of the Emperor Asoka, who promoted the spread of Buddhism from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.

"Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," said archaeologist Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation. Some scholars, he said, have maintained that the Buddha was born in the third century B.C. "We thought 'why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?' Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B.C."

Early Buddhism revealed

The international team of archaeologists, led by Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal, say the discovery contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of Lumbini. Their peer-reviewed findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity. The research is partly supported by the National Geographic Society.

To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. Geoarchaeological research also confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple's central void.

"UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world's oldest religions," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who urged "more archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management" to ensure Lumbini's protection.

"These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha," said Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal's minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation. "The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site."

Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Coningham and his colleagues postulate that the open space in the center of the most ancient, timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the timber shrine also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.

Four main Buddhist sites

Lumbini is one of the key sites associated with the life of the Buddha; others are Bodh Gaya, where he became a Buddha or enlightened one; Sarnath, where he first preached; and Kusinagara, where he passed away. At his passing at the age of 80, the Buddha is recorded as having recommended that all Buddhists visit "Lumbini." The shrine was still popular in the middle of the first millennium A.D. and was recorded by Chinese pilgrims as having a shrine beside a tree.

The Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini remains a living shrine; the archaeologists worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.

In the scientific paper in Antiquity, the authors write: "The sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion."

Lost and overgrown in the jungles of Nepal in the medieval period, ancient Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and identified as the birthplace of the Buddha on account of the presence of a third-century B.C. sandstone pillar. The pillar, which still stands, bears an inscription documenting a visit by Emperor Asoka to the site of the Buddha's birth as well as the site's name — Lumbini.

Despite the rediscovery of the key Buddhist sites, their earliest levels were buried deep or destroyed by later construction, leaving evidence of the very earliest stages of Buddhism inaccessible to archaeological investigation, until now.

Half a billion people around the world are Buddhists, and many hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year. T

Friday, November 22, 2013

Archaeologists discover largest, oldest wine cellar in Near East

These 3,700-year-old jars were discovered in an ancient palatial wine cellar unearthed by researchers at Tel Kabri in July 2013. The team worked in day and night shifts to excavate a total of 40 intact vessels during its six-week dig.

Credit: Eric H. Cline, George Washington University.

A team of American and Israeli researchers has unearthed what could be the largest and oldest wine cellar in the Near East.

The group made the discovery at the 75-acre Tel Kabri site in Israel, the ruins of a northern Canaanite city that dates back to approximately 1700 B.C. The excavations at the vast palace of the rulers of the city are co-directed by Eric H. Cline of the George Washington University (GW), and Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, with Andrew Koh of Brandeis University as associate director. As researchers excavated at the site, they uncovered a three-foot-long jug, later christened "Bessie."

"We dug and dug, and all of a sudden, Bessie's friends started appearing—five, 10, 15, ultimately 40 jars packed in a 15-by-25-foot storage room," said Dr. Cline, chair of GW's Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. "This is a hugely significant discovery—it's a wine cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in its age and size."

The 40 jars have a capacity of roughly 2,000 liters, meaning the cellar could have held the equivalent of nearly 3,000 bottles of reds and whites.

"The wine cellar was located near a hall where banquets took place, a place where the Kabri elite and possibly foreign guests consumed goat meat and wine," said Dr. Yasur-Landau, chair of the Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa. "The wine cellar and the banquet hall were destroyed during the same violent event, perhaps an earthquake, which covered them with thick debris of mud bricks and plaster."

It wasn't immediately clear it was wine the jugs once held. To make that determination, Dr. Koh, an assistant professor of classical studies at Brandeis University and associate director of the excavation, analyzed the jar fragments using organic residue analysis. He found traces of tartaric and syringic acids, both key components in wine, as well as compounds suggesting the presence of ingredients popular in ancient wine-making, including honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries and resins. The recipe is similar to medicinal wines used for 2,000 years in ancient Egypt.

"This wasn't moonshine that someone was brewing in their basement, eyeballing the measurements," Dr. Koh said. "This wine's recipe was strictly followed in each and every jar."

Researchers now want to continue analyzing the composition of each solution, possibly discovering enough information to recreate the flavor.

Luckily, they'll have more evidence in a couple of years. A few days before the team members wrapped up work this summer, they discovered two doors leading out of the wine cellar—one to the south, and one to the west.

Both probably lead to additional storage rooms. They'll have to wait until their next dig in 2015 to find out for sure.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

First Americans came directly from Siberia confirmed

Results from a DNA study of a young boy’s skeletal remains believed to be 24,000 years old could turn the archaeological world upside down – it’s been proven that nearly 30 percent of modern Native American’s ancestry came from this youngster’s gene pool, suggesting First Americans came directly from Siberia, according to a research team that includes a Texas A&M University professor.

Kelly Graf, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of First Americans and Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, is part of an international team spearheaded by Eske Willerslev and Maanasa Raghaven from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and additional researchers from Sweden, Russia, United Kingdom, University of Chicago and University of California-Berkeley. Their work, funded by the Danish National Science Foundation, Lundbeck Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, is published in the current issue of Nature magazine.

Graf and Willerslev conceived the project and traveled to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the remains are now housed to collect samples for ancient DNA. The skeleton was first discovered in the late 1920s near the village of Mal’ta in south-central Siberia, and since then it has been referred to as “the Mal’ta child” because until this DNA study the biological sex of the skeleton was unknown.

Texas A&M Prof Kelly Graf Points to Map of Russia where skeleton was found

Texas A&M Prof Kelly Graf Points to Map of Russia where skeleton was found. Photo: Texas A&M

“Now we can say with confidence that this individual was a male” says Graf.

Graf helped extract DNA material from the boy’s upper arm and “the results surprised all of us quite a bit,” she explains.

“It shows he had close genetic ties to today’s Native Americans and some western Eurasians, specifically some groups living in central Asia, South Asia, and Europe. Also, he shared close genetic ties with other Ice-Age western Eurasians living in European Russia, Czech Republic and even Germany. We think these Ice-Age people were quite mobile and capable of maintaining a far-reaching gene pool that extended from central Siberia all the way west to central Europe.”

Another significant result of the study is that the Mal’ta boy’s people were also ancestors of Native Americans, explaining why some early Native American skeletons such as Kennewick Man were interpreted to have some European traits.

“Our study proves that Native Americans ancestors migrated to the Americas from Siberia and not directly from Europe as some have recently suggested,” Graf explains.

Remains of 24,000 Year-Old Mal'ta Boy (photo courtesy of State Hermitage Museum in Russia)

Remains of 24,000 Year-Old Mal'ta Boy (photo courtesy of State Hermitage Museum in Russia)

The DNA work performed on the boy is the oldest complete genome of a human sequenced so far, the study shows. Also found near the boy’s remains were flint tools, a beaded necklace and what appears to be pendant-like items, all apparently placed in the burial as grave goods.

The discovery raises new questions about the timing of human entry in Alaska and ultimately North America, a topic hotly debated in First Americans studies.

“Though our results cannot speak directly to this debate, they do indicate Native American ancestors could have been in Beringia—extreme northeastern Russia and Alaska—any time after 24,000 years ago and therefore could have colonized Alaska and the Americas much earlier than 14,500 years ago, the age suggested by the archaeological record.”

“What we need to do is continue searching for earlier sites and additional clues to piece together this very big puzzle.”

Monday, November 4, 2013

A climate crisis traumatized the Near East and brought about the collapse of the great empires of the Bronze Age.

Read more at:

A study of fossil pollen particles in sediments extracted from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee has revealed evidence of a climate crisis that traumatized the Near East from the middle of the 13th to the late 12th century BCE. The crisis brought about the collapse of the great empires of the Bronze Age.

“In a short period of time, the entire world of the Bronze Age crumbled,” explains Tel Aviv University archaeologist Prof. Finkelstein. “The Hittite empire, Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Mycenaean culture in Greece, the copper producing kingdom located on the island of Cyprus, the great trade emporium of Ugarit on the Syrian coast and the Canaanite city-states under Egyptian hegemony – all disappeared and only after a while were replaced by the territorial kingdoms of the Iron Age, including Israel and Judah.”

...The counting and the identification of the pollen grains revealed a period of severe droughts between ca. 1250 and 1100 BCE.

...Another novelty in the current research is in the chronological correlation between the pollen results and two other records of the past. At the end of the Bronze Age many Eastern Mediterranean cities were assaulted and destroyed by fire. The dates of these events indeed fall between ca. 1250-1100 BCE. The same holds true for ancient Near Eastern written documents that testify to severe droughts and famine in exactly the same period. Such documents are known from across the entire region – from the Hittite capital in Anatolia in the north, via Ugarit on the Syrian coast and Aphek in Israel to Egypt in the south...

Prof. Ronny Ellenblum of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem studied written documents that describe similar conditions – of severe droughts and famine – in the 10th‒11th centuries CE. He showed that in the northern parts of the Near East, such as northern Iran and Anatolia, shrinkage in precipitation was accompanied by devastating cold spells that destroyed crops.

...Severe cold spells destroyed the crops in the northern parts of the ancient Near East and shrinkage in precipitation damaged agricultural output in the eastern steppe parts of the region. This brought about the droughts and famine so well-described in the ancient texts, and motivated “large groups of people to start moving to the south in search of food,” says Egyptologist Shirly Ben-Dor Evian of the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University.

These groups, including the Sea Peoples known from the texts of the period, moved by land and sea, assaulted cities and disrupted trade routes. All this caused a severe economic crisis which developed from north to south and reached Canaan. “It was an all-out war on dwindling resources,” says Ben-Dor Evian.

Norwegian Vikings Purchased Silk from Persia

The Norwegian Vikings were more oriented towards the East than we have previously assumed, says Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo in Norway. After four years of in-depth investigation of the silk trade of the Viking Age, she may change our perceptions of the history of the Norwegian Vikings. The silk trade was far more comprehensive than we have hitherto assumed.

The Norwegian Vikings maintained trade connections with Persia and the Byzantine Empire. A network of traders from a variety of places and cultures brought the silk to the Nordic countries. Her details are presented in the book "Silk for the Vikings," to be published by Oxbow publishers this winter, but in this article you can glimpse some of her key findings.

In the Oseberg ship, which was excavated nearly a hundred years ago, more than one hundred small silk fragments were found. This is the oldest find of Viking Age silk in Norway.

At the time when the Oseberg silk was discovered, nobody conceived that it could have been imported from Persia. It was generally believed that most of it had been looted from churches and monasteries in England and Ireland.

Lots of Viking silk

Since the Oseberg excavation, silk from the Viking Age has been found in several locations in the Nordic countries. The last finding was made two years ago at Ness in Hamarøy municipality, Nordland county. Other Norwegian findings of silk from the Viking Age include Gokstad in Vestfold county, Sandanger in the Sunnmøre district and Nedre Haugen in Østfold county.

The highest number of burial sites containing silk from the Viking Age have been found at Birka in the Uppland region, a few miles west of Stockholm.

"Even though Birka has the highest number of burial sites containing silk, there are no other places where so much and such varied silk has been found in a single burial site as in Oseberg," says Marianne Vedeler to the research magazine Apollon.

In Oseberg alone, silk from fifteen different textiles, as well as embroideries and tablet-woven silk and wool bands were discovered. Many of the silk pieces had been cut into thin strips and used for articles of clothing. The textiles had been imported, while the tablet-woven bands most likely were made locally from imported silk thread.

Marianne Vedeler has collected information on silk and its trade in the Nordic countries. She has also studied manuscripts on silk production and trade along the Russian rivers as well as in Byzantium and Persia.

"When seeing it all in its totality, it's more logical to assume that most of the silk was purchased in the East, rather than being looted from the British Isles."


Vedeler believes that in the Viking Age, silk was imported from two main areas. One was Byzantium, meaning in and around Constantinople, or Miklagard, which was the Vikings' name for present-day Istanbul. The other large core area was Persia.

The silk may have been brought northwards along different routes.

One possibility is from the South through Central Europe and onwards to Norway, but I believe that most of the silk came by way of the Russian rivers Dnepr and Volga.

The Dnepr was the main route to Constantinople, while the Volga leads to the Caspian Sea. The river trade routes were extremely dangerous and difficult. One of the sources describes the laborious journey along the Dnepr to Constantinople:

"A band of traders joined up in Kiev. Along the river they were attacked by dangerous tribesmen. They needed to pass through rapids and cataracts. Then, slaves had to carry their boat."

Persian patterns

On the basis of the silk that has been found, there are indications that more silk came to Norway from Persia than from Constantinople.

Large amounts of the Oseberg silk have patterns from the Persian Empire. This silk is woven using a technique called samitum, a sophisticated Oriental weaving method. Many of the silk motifs can be linked to religious motifs from Central Asia.

Another pattern depicts a shahrokh, a bird that has a very specific meaning in Persian mythology; it represents a royal blessing. In the Persian myth, the shahrokh bird is the messenger that brings the blessing to a selected prince. In a dream, the bird visits the prince holding a tiara, a tall head adornment, in its beak. The prince then wakes up and knows that he is the chosen one. The image of the imperial bird was popular not only in silk weaving, but also in other art forms in Persia. The motif gained widespread popularity in Persian art.

It's an amusing paradox that silk textiles with such religious and mythological images were highly prized and used in heathen burial sites in the Nordic countries as well as in European churches.


In the Orient, silk was essential for symbolizing power and strength. There was an entire hierarchy of different silk qualities and patterns reserved for civil servants and royalty.

Even though silk was a prominent status symbol for the Vikings, they failed to get their hands on the best silk.

Most likely, the bulk of the silk imported to Scandinavia was of medium or below-medium quality.

In Byzantium, major restrictions were imposed on the sale of silk to foreign lands. The punishment for illegal sale of silk was draconian. The Persian lands also imposed strict restrictions on the sale and production of silk.

In Byzantium, it was illegal to buy more silk than what could be bought for the price of a horse. A foreign trader was allowed to buy silk for ten numismata, while the price of a horse was twelve numismata.

"However, several trade agreements that have been preserved show that traders from the North nevertheless had special trade privileges in Byzantium."

Silk was not only a trade commodity. Certain types of silk were reserved for diplomatic gifts to foreign countries, as described in Byzantine as well as Persian sources. In Europe, silk became especially popular for wrapping sacred relics in churches.

Some of the silk found in Norway may be gifts or spoils of war, but archaeological as well as written sources indicate that silk was traded in the Nordic countries.

"We may safely assume that the Vikings engaged in trade, plunder, exchange of gifts and diplomatic relations in equal measure."

A possible example of loot found in the Oseberg ship is a piece of silk with an image of a cross.

This was long before the introduction of Christianity. The silk piece may have been sewn locally, but it is also highly likely that it was purloined from an Irish church.

Possibly China

At Gokstad, thin strips of hammered gold wrapped around silk threads were among the findings.

"These threads are highly exclusive. We do not know their origin, but we suspect that they may have come from even further east, in the direction of China," says Vedeler, who will now travel to China to find out more.

As yet, Vedeler must draw conclusions regarding the origin of the silk by investigating weaving technologies and patterns. With time, she wishes to make use of a new method which is being developed at the University of Copenhagen and which will be able to reveal the geographic origin of artefacts.