Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Biblical Wall May Have Been Located

A wall mentioned in the Bible's Book of Nehemiah and long sought by archaeologists apparently has been found, an Israeli archaeologist says.
A team of archaeologists discovered the wall in Jerusalem's ancient City of David during a rescue attempt on a tower that was in danger of collapse, said Eilat Mazar, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research and educational institute, and leader of the dig.
Artifacts including pottery shards and arrowheads found under the tower suggested that both the tower and the nearby wall are from the 5th century B.C., the time of Nehemiah, Mazar said this week. Scholars previously thought the wall dated to the Hasmonean period from about 142 B.C. to 37 B.C.
The findings suggest that the structure was actually part of the same city wall the Bible says Nehemiah rebuilt, Mazar said. The Book of Nehemiah gives a detailed description of construction of the walls, destroyed earlier by the Babylonians.
"We were amazed," she said, noting that the discovery was made at a time when many scholars argued that the wall did not exist.
"This was a great surprise. It was something we didn't plan," Mazar said.
The first phase of the dig, completed in 2005, uncovered what Mazar believes to be the remains of King David's palace, built by King Hiram of Tyre, and also mentioned in the Bible.
Ephraim Stern, professor emeritus of archaeology at Hebrew University and chairman of the state of Israel archaeological council, offered support for Mazar's claim.
"The material she showed me is from the Persian period," the period of Nehemiah, he said. "I can sign on the date of the material she found."
However, another scholar disputed the significance of the discovery.
Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, called the discovery "an interesting find," but said the pottery and other artifacts do not indicate that the wall was built in the time of Nehemiah. Because the debris was not connected to a floor or other structural part of the wall, the wall could have been built later, Finkelstein said.
"The wall could have been built, theoretically, in the Ottoman period," he said. "It's not later than the pottery — that's all we know."

Rethinking Byzantine-era Judaism

A row of artisans and laborers - one with a saw in his hand, another with a chisel, and others with various sized hammers - are depicted on the mosaic floor recently uncovered in a Roman- or Byzantine-era synagogue at Khirbet Wadi Hamam, on Mount Nitai in the Lower Galilee. The workers appear next to a very large building, which they seem to be constructing.

Because the image appears on the synagogue floor, the researchers have assumed it depicts the construction of an important Biblical structure. Is it the Temple, Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel, or some other well-known work?

Dr. Uzi Leibner of the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology and Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center in Jewish Studies, who is leading the excavation, has no clear answer at this stage. What is clear is that the mosaic, constructed from very small stones - whose sides measure about four millimeters each - is unique. No such scenes have been found in other ancient synagogues or structures in Israel from that period. But which period exactly are we referring to - the Roman or the Byzantine? The dig at the synagogue is being carried out to answer that question.

To judge by the findings, the synagogue, which sits within the Arbel National Park, is a "Galilean synagogue" - a high-quality Romanesque structure with an elaborate facade facing toward Jerusalem and attractive stone carvings. Synagogues of this type were thought to date from the late Roman period, between the second and fourth centuries. However, in the last few years, researchers have discovered that synagogues of this type were built in the Byzantine era, too - between the fifth and sixth centuries.

The debate was sparked by the synagogue at Capernaum, a fine example of a Galilean synagogue that clearly was built in the fifth century. The findings from that synagogue and others led some researchers to consider the hypothesis that the Galilean synagogues were built mainly in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Contradictory evidence

On the face of it, this theory contradicts everything known about Judaism in the beginning of the first millennium C.E., and its relations with the ruling empires at the time. The common wisdom is that Jewish settlement flourished in the Galilee in the late Roman era - Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi compiled the Mishna at Zippori, and remarkable public buildings were constructed in many Jewish communities. However, from the mid-fourth century, when the Christian Byzantine empire rose to power, Jewish life was hampered, and some of the laws at that time even forbade the establishment of synagogues.

However, the archaeological findings from Capernaum and other synagogues indicate that things were more complex than historical records may indicate. More evidence now supports the theory that most of the Galilean synagogues actually were built during the Byzantine period, and that their Romanesque components were initially parts of earlier structures.

The synagogue at Khirbet Wadi Hamam was large and elaborate. It had a long hall running from north to south, of which about one quarter was exposed in the last excavation season, with a southern facade facing Jerusalem. The hall contained three rows of columns, and had two rows of benches along the northern, western and eastern walls.

The uniqueness of the building lies not only in its mosaic floor, but also in its combination of basalt and limestone. The walls were built from layers of basalt topped by layers of limestone; the stone benches incorporated limestone as well. The researchers believe the limestone was integrated into the structure during a massive repair. As in other Galilean synagogues, this one also contains late Roman-era architectural details - most of them also from limestone. However, the researchers believe that the signs of renovation could indicate the structure was actually built at a later stage, and that these items actually were part of an earlier structure.

The synagogue lies inside a large village, of more than 50 dunams, one of the larger, late Roman-era and Byzantine-era Jewish villages discovered in the rural Galilee. It is located strategically above the source of the Arbel river and the ancient road that wound from the Kinneret basin to the Lower Galilee and from there, via the Beit Netofa valley, to the Mediterranean sea.

Not far away were two large, well-known communities - Kfar Arbel and Migdal - as well as the big Jewish centers of the period, Tiberias and Zippori. Despite all these facts, the original name of the community was not preserved there, and it is still unknown. Findings indicate the village was abandoned permanently in the fourth century. Researchers are hoping to learn at what stage the synagogue, with its unique mosaic floor, was built.

Judging by other buildings unearthed close to the synagogue - an oil press and a two-story dwelling - the residents of the village were fairly well-off. The homes in the community were built on terraces along the slopes of the hill, separated by lanes. Since the village apparently was abandoned in the fourth century - which contradicts the claim that the synagogue dates to the Byzantine era - that period's architecture can be examined without interference from later structures. Leibner believes the synagogue could be a test case that would help researchers improve their dating methods for Galilean synagogues. In the upcoming excavation seasons, he says he intends to find more clues that would provide a precise date, and thus possibly solve the riddle.

Queen Helene's mansion in ancient Jerusalem

Israeli archaeologists digging in an east Jerusalem parking lot have uncovered a 2,000-year-old mansion they believe likely belonged to Queen Helene of Adiabene, a minor but exceptional character in the city's history.

The remains of the building were unearthed just outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, underneath layers of later settlement that were themselves hidden until recently under the asphalt of a small parking lot.

The dig site is in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, built on a slope that houses the most ancient remnants of settlement in Jerusalem and is known to scholars as the City of David.

The building, which includes storerooms, living quarters and ritual baths, is by far the largest and most elaborate structure discovered by archaeologists in the City of David area, which was home 2,000 years ago almost exclusively to the city's poor. The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who penned detailed descriptions of Jerusalem, mentions only one wealthy family that lived there — the family of Queen Helene.

According to Josephus and Jewish texts, Helene was from a royal clan that ruled Adiabene, a region now in northern Iraq. Along with her family, she converted to Judaism and came to Jerusalem in the first half of the first century A.D.

Helene merited grateful mention in the Mishna, the written version of Judaism's oral tradition, where she is praised for her generosity to Jerusalem's poor and for making contributions to the Second Temple, the center of the Jewish faith, which was just a few hundred meters (yards) uphill from her house. She was buried in an elaborate tomb not far away.

Today there is a downtown Jerusalem street named for her.

There is a "high probability" that the mansion belonged to Helene's family, simply because no other building comes close to matching the historical description, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Doron Ben-Ami said at a news conference announcing the discovery Wednesday.

Built when Jerusalem was capital of the Roman-ruled territory of Judea, the building was destroyed along with the temple and the rest of the city when Roman legions quelled a Jewish revolt nearly two millennia ago, he said.

Diggers at the site discerned that the massive stones of the second floor had been purposely toppled onto the arches of the first, causing the house to collapse, he said, and in the ruins they found ceramic shards and coins dating to the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome.

"This amazing structure was destroyed with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.," Ben-Ami said.

Aren Maier, an archaeology professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said Ben-Ami's hypothesis about the house's famous resident was a good one, because no similar building has yet been found anywhere nearby.

"If he did find a massive building of this kind, of course you can't say for sure, but it's certainly logical," Maier said.

Some of the most interesting archaeological finds in Jerusalem in recent years have come from the City of David dig, which has also become a popular tourist site.

But the dig is controversial, because it's largely funded by a foundation affiliated with hardline Jewish settlers that is also buying up Palestinian property in the neighborhood and moving Jewish families in.

Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War. Palestinians see the eastern part of the city as capital of a future state.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Southwestern Indians ferment corn and make beer?

The belief among some archeologists that Europeans introduced alcohol to the Indians of the American Southwest may be faulty.

Ancient and modern pot sherds collected by New Mexico state archeologist Glenna Dean, in conjunction with analyses by Sandia National Laboratories researcher Ted Borek, open the possibility that food or beverages made from fermenting corn were consumed by native inhabitants centuries before the Spanish arrived.

Dean, researching through her small business Archeobotanical Services, says, “There’s been an artificial construct among archeologists working in New Mexico that no one had alcohol here until the Spanish brought grapes and wine. That’s so counter-intuitive. It doesn’t make sense to me as a social scientist that New Mexico would have been an island in pre-Columbian times. By this reasoning, ancestral puebloans would have been the only ones in the Southwest not to know about fermentation.”

Not only does historical evidence for fermented beverages exist for surrounding native groups, but people around the world have found ways to alter their consciousness, she says: “Wild yeast blows everywhere.” In the Middle Ages in Europe, “Everyone drank ale because the fermentation purified water.” Egyptian tombs contained loaves of bread “that we used to assume were to eat, but they’re actually dry beer: put bread in water, you get beer.”

Closer to home, the Tarahumara Indians in northern Mexico to this day drink a weak beer called tiswin, made by fermenting corn kernels.

Could ancestral puebloan farmers — whose ancient mud and rock homes have been found in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado — have done the same?

To check her hypothesis, Dean presented Borek with three types of samples: pots in which she herself brewed tiswin, brewing pots used by Tarahumara Indians, and pot sherds from 800-year-old settlements in west-central New Mexico. The question: would analysis support the idea that ancient farmers enhanced their nutrition — and perhaps enjoyment of foods — by manipulating wild yeast and corn mixtures centuries before Columbus?

Borek, working under a Sandia program that permits limited use of Sandia tools to aid local small businesses, used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (rather than destructive solvents) to analyze vapors produced by mild heating of the pot samples.

Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration laboratory.

From Dean’s pots, Borek developed a profile of gasses emitted from a known tiswin source. Then he examined Tarahumaran pots to see whether the gaseous profiles corresponded. Finally he examined pot sherds that had been buried for centuries to see if the obviously weakened fumes would match, in kind if not in volume, his previous two samples.

Comparing peaks across the three data sets showed the presence of similar organic species, Borek says, though more work must be done before positive conclusions can be drawn.

“We see similarities. We have not found that ‘smoking gun’ that definitely provides evidence of intentional fermentation. It’s always possible that corn fermented in a pot without the intent of the owner,” he says, “and that it wasn’t meant to be drunk.”

Analysis is now underway to highlight patterns of organic species that might provide a more definite, intentional result.

“There appear to be consistencies across the modern home brew and Tarahumaran pots,” Borek says. “We are currently examining all data to look for markers that would indicate intentional fermentation occurred on archeological articles.”

The work opens new, unexpected doors, he says, for understanding the human past by means of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.

Sandia researcher Curt Mowry is examining data and comparing all sets across the provided references, Tarahumaran pots, and ancient samples.

The results were presented by Borek in a talk at the Materials Research Society fall meeting in Boston last week.

The equipment used in this study is commercially available hardware, modified by Sandia to investigate traces of organic materials in the ambient air of the Washington DC Metro system and on weapon components and materials.