Monday, December 22, 2008

Earliest evidence of cave-dwelling humans.

A research team led by Professor Michael Chazan, director of the University of Toronto's Archaeology Centre, has discovered the earliest evidence of our cave-dwelling human ancestors at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.
Stone tools found at the bottom level of the cave — believed to be 2 million years old — show that human ancestors were in the cave earlier than ever thought before. Geological evidence indicates that these tools were left in the cave and not washed into the site from the outside world.
Archaeological investigations of the Wonderwerk cave — a South African National Heritage site due to its role in discovering the human and environmental history of the area — began in the 1940s and research continues to this day.

Wonderwerk Cave: Basic Information

Location: Northern Cape Province, South Africa between Danielskuil and Kuruman
How did the Cave Form: The cave formed by water action in the Dolemite rocks of the
Asbestos Hills. This rock formation is over 2 billion years old, some of the oldest rock
on earth, so we do not know when exactly the cave formed.

Basic properties of the cave; The cave runs 130 meters from front to back.
How was Wonderwerk discovered: Local farmers dug up large parts of the cave in the
1940’s to sell the sediments for fertilizer. Subsequently a series of brief archaeological
excavations began. Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum carried out major
excavations at the site between 1978-1993.

The Discovery
Using a combination of dating methods it has been possible to date the bottom level
reached by Peter Beaumont in the front part of the cave to 2 million years ago.
A small number of very small stone tools have been recovered from excavations in this

Geological evidence indicates that these tools were deposited in the cave by human
ancestors, not washed into the site from the outside.

The combination of stone tools indicating the presence of human ancestors and the dating
of the level leads to the conclusion that human ancestors (hominids) were in the cave 2
million years ago.

This is the earliest evidence for intentional cave occupation by human ancestors.
There were a number of species of hominids in southern Africat 2 million years ago. The
most likely candidate as the manufacturer of the stone tools found at Wonderwerk is
Homo habilis.

The oldest known stone tools from sites in Ethiopia date to 2.4 million years. The
Wonderwerk Cave discoveries are those close in age to the very earliest known stone
tools and similar in date to the bottom levels at Olduvai Gorge.

How Was the Site Dated
The deposits at Wonderwerk Cave built up over time so that the deeper one excavates the
layers become older. The trick is to figure out exactly how old the levels are.
We used two methods that together provide a secure date.

For Paleomagnetic Dating Hagai Ron of the Hebrew University took small samples of
soil from the entire sequence (over fifty samples). These samples allow him to measure
changes in he earth’s magnetic field and to correlate the Wonderwerk sequence with a
global timescale for changes in the magnetic field (known as reversals).

For Cosmogenic Burial Age Ari Matmon, also from the Hebrew University, took soil
samples and carefully prepared them in the lab. He then sent these samples to an atomic
accelerator in the United States where a procedure to measure isotopes, much like the
method used in carbon dating, was carried out. Unlike carbon dating, Cosmogenic Burial
Age dating can provide very old dates.

Why was this so difficult? Most well dated early sites are in East Africa where there are
volcanic ash layers that can be dated using the Argon method. In southern Africa we
lack these ash layers so that we need to develop new methods. The first use of
Cosmogenic Burial Age dating in South Africa was at the Cradle of Humankind. Our
results show the value of this method, particularly when combined with Paleomagnetic
dating, for archaeological research both in the region and globally.

Ancient African exodus mostly involved men

Modern humans left Africa over 60,000 years ago in a migration that many believe was responsible for nearly all of the human population that exist outside Africa today.

Now, researchers have revealed that men and women weren't equal partners in that exodus. By tracing variations in the X chromosome and in the non-sex chromosomes, the researchers found evidence that men probably outnumbered women in that migration. The scientists expect that their method of comparing X chromosomes with the other non-gender specific chromosomes will be a powerful tool for future historical and anthropological studies, since it can illuminate differences in female and male populations that were inaccessible to previous methods.

While the researchers cannot say for sure why more men than women participated in the dispersion from Africa—or how natural selection might also contribute to these genetic patterns—the study's lead author, Alon Keinan, notes that these findings are "in line with what anthropologists have taught us about hunter-gatherer populations, in which short distance migration is primarily by women and long distance migration primarily by men."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Late Neandertals & human contact in Iberia

Late Neandertals and modern human contact in southeastern Iberia

It is widely accepted that Upper Paleolithic early modern humans spread westward across Europe about 42,000 years ago, variably displacing and absorbing Neandertal populations in the process. However, Middle Paleolithic assemblages persisted for another 8,000 years in Iberia, presumably made by Neandertals. It has been unclear whether these late Middle Paleolithic Iberian assemblages were made by Neandertals, and what the nature of those humans might have been.

New research, published Dec. 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is now shedding some light on what were probably the last Neandertals.

The research is based on a study of human fossils found during the past decade at the Sima de la Palomas, Murcia, Spain by Michael Walker, professor at Universidad de Murcia, and colleagues, and published by Michael Walker, Erik Trinkaus, professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and colleagues.

The human fossils from the upper levels of the Sima de las Palomas are anatomically clearly Neandertals, and they are now securely dated to 40,000 years ago. They therefore establish the late persistence of Neandertals in this southwestern cul-de-sac of Europe. This reinforces the conclusion that the Neandertals were not merely swept away by advancing modern humans. The behavioral differences between these human groups must have been more subtle than the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic technological contrasts might imply.

In addition, the Palomas Neandertals variably exhibit a series of modern human features rare or absent in earlier Neandertals. Either they were evolving on their own towards the modern human pattern, or more likely, they had contact with early modern humans around the Pyrenees. If the latter, it implies that the persistence of the Middle Paleolithic in Iberia was a matter of choice, and not cultural retardation.

From the Sima de las Palomas, other late Neandertal sites, and recent discoveries of the earliest modern humans across Europe, a complex picture is emerging of shifting contact between behaviorally similar, if culturally and biologically different, human populations. Researchers are coming to see them all more as people, flexibly making a living through the changing human and natural landscapes of the Late Pleistocene.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Ancient empires declined during dry spell

Cave's climate clues show ancient empires declined during dry spell

The decline of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 1,400 years ago may have been driven by unfavorable climate changes.

Based on chemical signatures in a piece of calcite from a cave near Jerusalem, a team of American and Israeli geologists pieced together a detailed record of the area's climate from roughly 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. Their analysis, to be reported in an upcoming issue of the journal Quaternary Research, reveals increasingly dry weather from 100 A.D. to 700 A.D. that coincided with the fall of both Roman and Byzantine rule in the region.

The researchers, led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geology graduate student Ian Orland and professor John Valley, reconstructed the high-resolution climate record based on geochemical analysis of a stalagmite from Soreq Cave, located in the Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve near Jerusalem.

"It looks sort of like tree rings in cross-section. You have many concentric rings and you can analyze across these rings, but instead of looking at the ring widths, we're looking at the geochemical composition of each ring," says Orland.

Using oxygen isotope signatures and impurities — such as organic matter flushed into the cave by surface rain — trapped in the layered mineral deposits, Orland determined annual rainfall levels for the years the stalagmite was growing, from approximately 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D.

While cave formations have previously been used as climate indicators, past analyses have relied on relatively crude sampling tools, typically small dental drills, which required averaging across 10 or even 100 years at a time. The current analysis used an advanced ion microprobe in the Wisconsin Secondary-Ion Mass-Spectrometer (Wisc-SIMS) laboratory to sample spots just one-hundredth of a millimeter across. That represents about 100 times sharper detail than previous methods. With such fine resolution, the scientists were able to discriminate weather patterns from individual years and seasons.

Their detailed climate record shows that the Eastern Mediterranean became drier between 100 A.D. and 700 A.D., a time when Roman and Byzantine power in the region waned, including steep drops in precipitation around 100 A.D. and 400 A.D. "Whether this is what weakened the Byzantines or not isn't known, but it is an interesting correlation," Valley says. "These things were certainly going on at the time that those historic changes occurred."

The team is now applying the same techniques to older samples from the same cave. "One period of interest is the last glacial termination, around 19,000 years ago — the most recent period in Earth's history when the whole globe experienced a warming of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius," Orland says.

Formations from this period of rapid change may help them better understand how weather patterns respond to quickly warming temperatures.

Soreq Cave — at least 185,000 years old and still active — also offers the hope of creating a high-resolution long-term climate change record to parallel those generated from Greenland and Antarctic ice cores.

"No one knows what happened on the continents… At the poles, the climate might have been quite different," says Valley. "This is a record of what was going on in a very different part of the world."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Modern Iberia: Sephardic Jewish lineage: 19.8%

Past religious diversity and intolerance have profound impact on genetics of Iberian people

New research suggests that relatively recent events had a substantial impact on patterns of genetic diversity in the southwest region of Europe. The study, published by Cell Press on December 4th in the American Journal of Human Genetics, shows that geographical patterns of ancestry appear to have been influenced by religious conversions of both Jews and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.

"Most studies of European genetic diversity have focused on large-scale variation and interpretations based on events in prehistory, but migrations and invasions in historical times may also have profound effects on genetic landscapes," explains senior study author Prof. Mark A. Jobling from the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester. Prof. Jobling and colleagues performed a sophisticated genetic analysis of 1140 males from the Iberian Peninsula and the Balearic Islands, focusing on the Y chromosome, which is passed down from fathers to sons.

The researchers found a remarkably high level of Sephardic Jewish (19.8%) and North African (10.6%) ancestry in their large sample of Y chromosomes from the modern population. The Iberian Peninsula has a complex recent history that involves the long-term residence of these two diverse populations with distinct geographical origins and unique cultural and religious characteristics.

The large proportion of Sephardic Jewish ancestry does not fit with simple expectations from the historical record. "Despite alternative possible sources for lineages [to which] we ascribe a Sephardic Jewish origin, these proportions attest to a high level of religious conversion, whether voluntary or enforced, driven by historical episodes of social and religious intolerance that ultimately led to the integration of descendants," offers Prof. Jobling.

Additionally, the prominent North African lineage in Iberian populations exhibits low diversity, which favors its arrival after the conquest of 711 AD, and the geographical distribution of North African Ancestry in the peninsula does not reflect the initial colonization and subsequent withdrawal. "This is likely to result from later enforced population movement – more marked in some regions than others," explains Prof. Jobling.

The research demonstrates that both immigration events from the Middle East and North Africa over the last two millennia and introduction of new Y-chromosome types driven by religious conversion and intermarriage have had a dramatic impact on modern populations in Spain, Portugal, and the Balearic Islands. In addition, the findings indicate that recent history should be considered when investigating the impact of events occurring during the earlier prehistory of Europe. The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mosses from the Tyrolean Iceman’s alimentary tract

What we eat can say a lot about us – where we live, how we live and eventually even when we lived. From the analysis of the intestinal contents of the 5,200-year-old Iceman from the Eastern Alps, Professor James Dickson from the University of Glasgow in the UK and his team have shed some light on the mummy’s lifestyle and some of the events leading up to his death. By identifying six different mosses in his alimentary tract, they suggest that the Iceman may have travelled, injured himself and dressed his wounds. Their findings1 are published in the December issue of Springer’s journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, which is specially dedicated to Oetzi the Iceman.

The Iceman is the first glacier mummy to have fragments of mosses in his intestine. This is surprising as mosses are neither palatable nor nutritious and there are few reports of mosses used for internal medical treatments. Rather, mosses recovered from archaeological sites tend to have been used for stuffing, wiping and wrapping.

Dickson and colleagues studied the moss remains from the intestines of the Iceman on microscope slides, to find out more about his lifestyle and events during the last few days of his life. Their paper describes in detail the six different mosses identified and seeks to provide answers to two key questions in each case. Firstly, where did the Iceman come in contact with each species; secondly, how did each come to enter his alimentary tract.

In particular, the authors suggest that one type of moss is likely to have been used to wrap food, another is likely to have been swallowed when the Iceman drank water during the last few days of his life, and yet another would have been used as a wound dressing. One type of moss in the Iceman’s gut is not known in the region where the mummy was found, implying that the Iceman must have travelled.

Other papers in this special issue of Vegetation History and Archaeobotany look at subfossil caprine dung from the discovery site of the Iceman, plant economy and village life in Neolithic lake dwellings at the time of the Alpine Iceman, and the significance of the Tyrolean Iceman for the archaeobotany of Central Europe.

Evidence from dirty teeth: Ancient Peruvians ate well

Earliest human consumption of beans, pacay

Starch grains preserved on human teeth reveal that ancient Peruvians ate a variety of cultivated crops including squash, beans, peanuts and the fruit of cultivated pacay trees. This finding by Dolores Piperno, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the National Museum of Natural History, and Tom Dillehay, professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt University, sets the date of the earliest human consumption of beans and pacay back by more than 2,000 years and indicates that New World people were committed farmers earlier than previously thought.

In northern Peru’s √Ďanchoc Valley, Dillehay and colleagues recovered human teeth from hearths and floors of permanent, roundhouse structures. Human bone, plant remains and charcoal closely associated with the teeth are approximately 6,000 to 8,000 years old according to carbon- dating techniques.

Piperno examined 39 human teeth, probably from six to eight individuals. “Some teeth were dirtier than others. We found starch grains on most of the teeth. About a third of the teeth contained large numbers of starch grains,” Piperno said.

To identify the starch grains, Piperno compared the particles in tooth scrapings with her modern reference collection of starch grains from more than 500 economically important plants. “We found starch from a variety of cultivated plants: squash, Phaseolus beans—either limas or common beans, possibly, but not certainly the former, pacay and peanuts,” said Piperno. “Parts of plants that often are not evident in archeological remains, such as the flesh of squash fruits and the nuts of peanuts, do produce identifiable starch grains.”

Starch from squash found on the teeth affirms that early people were eating the plants and not simply using them for nonfood purposes, such as for making containers or net floats. Whether or not some of the earliest cultivated plants, such as squashes, were grown as dietary items has been a long-debated question among students of early agriculture.

Evidence that foods had been cooked was also visible on some of the starch grains. “We boiled beans in the lab to see what cooked starch grains looked like—and recognized these gelatinized or heat-damaged grains in the samples from the teeth,” said Piperno. Starch from raw and roasted peanuts looks similar, probably because it is protected within the hull.

Starch grains from four of the crops were found consistently through time indicating that beans, peanuts, squash and pacay were important food sources then, as they are today. “Starch analysis of teeth, which, unlike other archaeobotanical techniques, provides direct evidence of plant consumption, should greatly improve our ability to address other important questions in human dietary change relating to even earlier time periods,” said Piperno.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rare Hebrew Seal from the First Temple Period

In archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out at the behest of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, in the northwestern part of the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, a rare and impressive Hebrew seal was discovered that dates to the latter part of the First Temple period. The seal was found in a building that is currently being uncovered, which dates to the seventh century BCE – to the time when the kings Manasseh and Josiah reigned.

According to the excavation director, archaeologist Shlomit Wexler-Bdolah of the IAA, “The seal, which apparently belonged to a private individual, is made of black stone, is elliptical in shape and measures 1.2 x 1.4 cm. It is adorned with an engraved decoration of an archer shooting a bow and arrow. The name of the archer is engraved in ancient Hebrew script next to him and reads LHGB (meaning: for Hagab). The name Hagab is mentioned in the Bible in Ezra 2:46, as well as in the Lachish Letters, which also date to the time of the First Temple”.

The seal was sent for expert evaluation to Professor Benjamin Sass of the Tel Aviv University and Dr. Tali Ornan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. According to them the image of the archer was influenced by Assyrian wall reliefs in which archers are portrayed shooting bows and arrows – such as those that are known from the Lachish relief. The image of the archer appears in profile: he is standing in a firing position with his right foot in front of his left. His face is portrayed schematically but his body, his dress and especially the muscles of his arms and legs stand out prominently. He is barefoot. His attire includes a headband and a skirt that is wrapped around his hips. A quiver hangs from his back and its straps are drawn tightly across his exposed chest. He is holding a bow and arrow in his hands. His right hand is extended forward holding the bow while his left is pulled back grasping the arrow. The seal is quite unique since this is the first time that a private seal has been discovered that bears a Hebrew name and is decorated in the Assyrian style. The seal attests to the strong Assyrian influence that existed in Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE. It is usually assumed that the owner of private seals were individuals who held government positions. We can suggest that the owner of the seal – Hagab, who chose to portray himself as a Hebrew archer depicted in the Assyrian style – served in a senior military role in Judah.

In the building where Hagab’s seal was discovered, archaeologist Wexler-Bdolah has previously found a number of Hebrew seals of individuals that held public positions, as well as ten handles of storage jars for oil and wine that are stamped with royal impressions. According to her, “This building was erected at the foot of the Upper City, at a distance of about one hundred meters from the Western Wall and it looks out over the Temple Mount. The walls of the structure were preserved to an amazing height of approximately five meters. The high quality of its construction and the artifacts that were discovered inside it indicate that the building and especially its inhabitants had a very important status in Jerusalem at the end of the First Temple period.”

Southern Wall Of Jerusalem Discovered On Mount Zion

Southern Wall Of Jerusalem That Dates To Time Of Hasmonean Dynasty Discovered On Mount Zion

An exciting discovery in Jerusalem constituting extraordinary remains of the wall of the city from the time of the Second Temple (second century BCE-70 CE) that was built by the Hasmonean kings and was destroyed during the Great Revolt, and also the remains of a city wall from the Byzantine period (324-640 CE) which was built on top of it, were uncovered in an extensive excavation that is currently underway on Mount Zion.

The lines of these fortifications delineated Jerusalem from the south in periods when the ancient city had reached its largest size.

The excavation has been in progress for the past year and a half, under the direction of archaeologist Yehiel Zelinger of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and with financial support provided by the Ir David Foundation.

The project is being implemented as part of the master plan for the Jerusalem City Wall National Park, the purpose of which is to preserve the region around the Old City of Jerusalem as an open area for tourism. In the future the remains of the ancient city walls will be incorporated in a promenade that will encircle the southern side of Mount Zion and will continue along the northern bank of Gai Ben Hinnom and terminate in the City of David.

The lines of the wall that delineate Mount Zion from the west and the south were first discovered and excavated at the end of the nineteenth century (1894-1897) by the Palestine Exploration Fund, under the direction of the archaeologist Frederick Jones Bliss and his architect assistant, Archibald Dickie. The work methods they employed involved the excavation of shafts that were linked by subterranean tunnels which ran along the outer face of the city walls.

Over the years their shafts and tunnels have filled up with soil and a year and a half ago when archaeologists were asked to determine the location of the areas that were excavated one hundred years ago they were unsuccessful in doing so. By cross-referencing the plans of the old excavation with updated maps of the area from today archaeologist Yehiel Zelinger was able to locate the tunnel which the British expedition had dug. There remained in it “souvenirs” that were left behind by the early excavators in the form of one of the laborer’s shoes, the top of a gas light which was used to illuminate the tunnels, as well as fragments of beer and wine bottles from 120 years ago.

According to Yehiel Zelinger, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Having located the two city walls on Mount Zion corroborates our theory regarding the expansion of the city toward the south during these two periods, when Jerusalem reached its largest size. In the Second Temple period the city, with the temple at its center, was a focal point for Jewish pilgrimage from all over the ancient world and in the Byzantine period it attracted Christian pilgrims who came in the footsteps of the story of the life and death of their messiah. The exposure of the Hasmonean city wall and the line of fortifications from the Byzantine period, which is dated 400 years later and is right on top of the former, prove that this is the most advantageous topographic location for the defense of the city.

The artifacts indicate that in spite of the fact that the builders of the Byzantine wall were unaware of the existence of the wall from the time of the Second Temple they constructed their wall precisely along the same route”. Zelinger adds, “The fact that after 2,100 years the remains of the first city wall were preserved to a height of three meters is amazing. This is one of the most beautiful and complete sections of construction in the Hasmonean building style to be found in Jerusalem”.

Discovery of King David-era fort

Under a sky of darkening clouds on a hill above the valley where tradition says David and Goliath battled, archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel triumphantly rests his hands on a 10-ton limestone rock, part of a newly discovered second gate to an ancient fortified city he is unearthing.

Garfinkel sees the massive gate, the largest ever found from the period, as potentially further evidence that the first kingdom of the Israelites was as grand as the Bible describes.

"Here we are in the footsteps of David," says Garfinkel, a Hebrew University professor, his voice quickening with excitement. Noting the gate's eastward direction, he adds, "It's facing Jerusalem, another indication that it is part of the Judean kingdom."

This 3,000-year-old fortress with two gates, to this day surrounded by a stone wall that contains original stones from the period, is the only one of its kind ever uncovered. Garfinkel believes it could be the remains of a town referred to in the Bible as Sha'arayim, meaning "two gates" in Hebrew.

The unearthing of the two gates, along with a pottery shard found by a teenage dig-site volunteer inscribed with what is believed to be the earliest known Hebrew text written in a Proto-Canaanite script, are being heralded as significant historical finds for a period -- the 10th century B.C.E. -- with scant physical evidence.

But the site also provides a lens on the wider debate over how vast and unified a kingdom David did or did not build so many centuries ago -- a question of present-day interest and controversy, as the founders of Israel declared their modern Jewish state the long-interrupted continuation of the kingdom this legendary ancient figure is thought to have established.

Some scholars argue that David's Jerusalem was merely a backwater village glorified into a mythical place by those they say penned the Bible centuries later. Others suggest that true to its biblical description, it was a genuine power overseeing a strong and united kingdom. The discovery of what is being called the Elah Fortress has quickly been used to reinforce the latter argument.

Located on the road to Jerusalem, the fortress could have been a front-line defense of the city against enemy Philistines, Garfinkel says, and evidence of a powerful and centralized kingdom that needed protection.

An Israeli-based Jewish educational group called Foundation Stone ( has embraced the idea that the site could help confirm the historic footprints of the Bible. The group is helping to raise funds for its excavation and hopes to develop the site into a first-rate tourism and educational facility, for Jews and non-Jews. Foundation Stone wants the site to become a must-see part of travels to Israel and even have tourists participate in its uncovering as volunteers at the dig.

Garfinkel is bold in his pronouncements against the school of archaeologists skeptical that the Bible left behind a chronologically reliable physical trail of evidence, arguing that the Elah Fortress, located in the Elah Valley near the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, is an important new weapon in the ongoing discourse.

"It's telling them that they are wrong," he says. "A certain amount of the biblical tradition indeed preserves historical stories and historical events. This is the first time in the history of archaeology of Israel that you have a fortified city dated to the time of David."

Even in Jerusalem, he says, there is no clear physical record of what occurred in the 10th century B.C.E., when David, and later his son, Saul, were to have ruled. In large part that's because the city, inhabited continuously since David's time, is extremely difficult to excavate.

"No archaeological site gave you such a clear picture about the Kingdom of David" as this one, Garfinkel says.

He was scheduled to present his findings Tuesday to colleagues at Harvard University.

However, disagreeing with him is Israel Finkelstein, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist and author of "David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition."

"David and Solomon were historical figures, but we have to look at every piece of evidence very carefully," Finkelstein says.

Finkelstein, a father of the scholarly group that is skeptical that the biblical narrative can be proven through archaeology, thinks it's too early to say whether the city was in fact Judean. He suggests it is even more likely a Philistine city because of its physical proximity to Gath, a major Philistine town and, according to the Bible, Goliath's hometown.

Garfinkel says he is open to the possibility that the site could turn out to be Philistine, but he thinks it is unlikely because of a lack of pig bones found there and the writing on the pottery shard.

Finkelstein, however, also casts doubt on whether the Proto-Canaanite script found on the pottery shard will be confirmed as Hebrew and dismisses outright the notion that the site could be the Sha'arayim mentioned in the Bible.

He says it could not be the same town, because when Sha'arayim is listed as a Judean town in the Book of Joshua, it is clustered with a group of places that have all been dated to the seventh century B.C.E., and the site of the Elah Fortress was shown to have been abandoned at least 200 years earlier.

"Archaeology has always been used in many places in the world to support this or that idea or theory that have to deal with the holy and nation building," says Finkelstein, seeing the way this site is being approached as another example.

Barnea Selevan, co-director of Foundation Stone, says the significance of the site for his organization is at least in part "because some people say the Bible has no historical basis to it."

Garfinkel cautions that the excavation is still in very early stages and that it will take the next decade to unearth even 30 to 40 percent of the city. He notes that it was first surveyed by British archaeologists in the 19th century but was then largely forgotten until his carbon dating of its stones found that it dated to the elusive but important 10th century B.C.E. period.

"All throughout the 20th century it was forgotten," and now it could be a turning point find, he muses.

"It's very exciting," Garfinkel says. "You have a theory, and then you begin to be able to prove it."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Herod's grave at Herodium

New Hebrew University excavations strengthen identification of Herod's grave at Herodium

Including revelation of more family sarcophagi, theater and 'VIP' room
Analysis of newly revealed items found at the site of the mausoleum of King Herod at Herodium (Herodion in Greek) have provided Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeological researchers with further assurances that this was indeed the site of the famed ruler's 1st century B.C.E. grave.

Herod was the Roman-appointed king of Judea from 37 to 4 B.C.E., who was renowned for his many monumental building projects, including the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the palace at Masada, the harbor and city of Caesarea, as well as the palatial complex at Herodium, 15 kilometers south of Jerusalem.

On the basis of a study of the architectural elements uncovered at the site, the researchers have been able to determine that the mausoleum, among the remains of which Herod's sarcophagus was found, was a lavish two-story structure with a concave-conical roof, about 25 meters high – a structure fully appropriate to Herod's status and taste. The excavations there have also yielded many fragments of two additional sarcophagi, which the researchers estimate to have been members of Herod's family.

The mausoleum, says Prof. Ehud Netzer, director of the excavations, was deliberately destroyed by the Jewish rebels who occupied the site during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans which started in about 66 C.E.

Also found in the latest excavations are the remains of an intimate theater just below and to the west of the mausoleum, with seats for some 650 to 750 spectators, and a loggia (a kind of VIP viewing and hospitality room) located at the top of the theater seats and decorated with wall paintings and plaster moldings in a style that has not been seen thus far in Israel. The style is known to have existed in Rome and Campania in Italy and is dateable between 15 and 10 B.C.E. Thus far only one wall painting scene has been found intact, though there are traces of others in the room. .

The dating of the wall paintings makes it reasonable to assume, says Prof. Netzer, that the construction of the theater might be linked to Roman general and politician Marcus Agrippa's visit to Herodium in 15 B.C.E. The theater and its lavish loggia were deliberately destroyed for the creation of the conical artificial mount that constitutes the widely known popular image of the Herodium site and that apparently was built at the very end of Herod's reign.

Prof. Netzer is convinced that Herodium would never have been built had it not been for Herod's known determination, made at the beginning of his career, to be buried in this isolated, arid area. He undoubtedly personally chose the exact location for his mausoleum since it overlooks Jerusalem and its surroundings. This led to his decision to make the entire complex the "crowning glory" of his outstanding building career and to name it after himself.

The extensive site, which probably will not be fully excavated for many years to come, if ever, includes a huge palatial complex, the theater, and a "country club" of sorts, including a large pool, baths and gardens, in addition to Herod's burial installations and mausoleum. The palace was the largest of its kind in the Roman world of that time and must have attracted yearly hundreds, if not thousands, of guests, says Prof. Netzer.

A description of Herodium, as well as of Herod's funeral procession there, can be found in the writings of the ancient Roman-era historian, Flavius Josephus.

The excavations, on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have been conducted with the assistance of the Israel Exploration Society, with contributions by individuals and Yad-Hanadiv foundation. There also has been financial aid from the National Geographic Society. Also collaborating in the excavations are the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Gush Etzion Regional Council. The Israel Museum will launch in 2010 an exhibition of the findings there.

Working with Prof. Netzer at the site have been Yaakov Kalman, Roi Porath and Rachel Chachy-Laureys of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology. Restoration work of the coffins was carried out by Orna Cohen, and the laboratory of the Israel Museum helped with the consolidation of the wall paintings.

Prof. Netzer is hopeful that with the further findings at Herodium, there will be increased visits to the site by Israelis and tourists, and that the overall area might be converted into a national park.

Shaul Goldstein, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, said that "the Gush Etzion Regional Council views the Herodium National Park as an important historic site worthy of great investment in order to assure its preservation. In recent years, the council has worked diligently in order to preserve and develop the site through the investment of millions of shekels, half of which has been devoted to the excavations by Prof. Netzer, and half in the development of the visitor facilities there. Additionally, the council also allocates significant sums every year in publicizing the site, along with the Nature and Parks Authority."

Note: For photos from the site and reconstruction drawings, click on the following:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Iron Age belief: the soul lived in the stone

Funerary monument reveals Iron Age belief that the soul lived in the stone

Discovery in Turkey comes from major Iron Age site

Archaeologists in southeastern Turkey have discovered an Iron Age chiseled stone slab that provides the first written evidence in the region that people believed the soul was separate from the body.

University of Chicago researchers will describe the discovery, a testimony created by an Iron Age official that includes an incised image of the man, on Nov. 22-23 at conferences of biblical and Middle Eastern archaeological scholars in Boston.

The Neubauer Expedition of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago found the 800-pound basalt stele, 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, at Zincirli (pronounced "Zin-jeer-lee"), the site of the ancient city of Sam'al. Once the capital of a prosperous kingdom, it is now one of the most important Iron Age sites under excavation.

The stele is the first of its kind to be found intact in its original location, enabling scholars to learn about funerary customs and life in the eighth century B.C. At the time, vast empires emerged in the ancient Middle East, and cultures such as the Israelites and Phoenicians became part of a vibrant mix.

The man featured on the stele was probably cremated, a practice that Jewish and other cultures shun because of a belief in the unity of body and soul. According to the inscription, the soul of the deceased resided in the stele.

"The stele is in almost pristine condition. It is unique in its combination of pictorial and textual features and thus provides an important addition to our knowledge of ancient language and culture," said David Schloen, Associate Professor at the Oriental Institute and Director of the University's Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli.

Schloen will present the Kuttamuwa stele to a scholarly audience at the meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research on Nov. 22 in Boston, the major annual conference for Middle Eastern archaeology. Dennis Pardee, Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Chicago, will present his translation of the stele's 13-line inscription the following day at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, also in Boston, in a session on "Paleographical Studies in the Near East."

German archaeologists first excavated the 100-acre site in the 1890s and unearthed massive city walls, gates and palaces. A number of royal inscriptions and other finds are now on display in museums in Istanbul and Berlin. Schloen and his team from the University of Chicago have excavated Zincirli for two months annually since 2006.

"Zincirli is a remarkable site," said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. "Because no other cities were built on top of it, we have excellent Iron Age materials right under the surface. It is rare also in having written evidence together with artistic and archaeological evidence from the Iron Age. Having all of that information helps an archaeologist study the ethnicity of the inhabitants, trade and migration, as well as the relationships of the groups who lived there."

The stele was discovered last summer in a small room that had been converted into a mortuary shrine for the royal official Kuttamuwa, self-described in the inscription as a "servant" of King Panamuwa of the eighth century B.C. It was found in the outer part of the walled city in a domestic area—most likely the house of Kuttamuwa himself—far from the royal palaces, where inscriptions had previously been found.

The inscription reads in part: "I, Kuttamuwa, servant of Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber(?) and established a feast at this chamber(?): a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad, ... a ram for [the sun-god] Shamash, ... and a ram for my soul that is in this stele. …" It was written in a script derived from the Phoenician alphabet and in a local West Semitic dialect similar to Aramaic and Hebrew. It is of keen interest to linguists as well as biblical scholars and religious historians because it comes from a kingdom contemporary with ancient Israel that shared a similar language and cultural features.

The finding sheds a striking new light on Iron Age beliefs about the afterlife. In this case, it was the belief that the enduring identity or "soul" of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded.

The stele was set against a stone wall in the corner of the small room, with its protruding tenon or "tab" still inserted into a slot in a flagstone platform. A handsome, bearded figure, Kuttamuwa wore a tasseled cap and fringed cloak and raised a cup of wine in his right hand. He was seated on a chair in front of a table laden with food, symbolizing the pleasant afterlife he expected to enjoy. Beside him is his inscription, elegantly carved in raised relief, enjoining upon his descendants the regular duty of bringing food for his soul. Indeed, in front of the stele were remains of food offerings and fragments of polished stone bowls of the type depicted on Kuttamuwa's table.

According to Schloen, the stele vividly demonstrates that Iron Age Sam'al, located in the border zone between Anatolia and Syria, inherited both Semitic and Indo-European cultural traditions. Kuttamuwa and his king, Panamuwa, had non-Semitic names, reflecting the migration of Indo-European speakers into the region centuries earlier under the Hittite Empire based in central Anatolia (modern Turkey), which had conquered the region.

But by the eighth century B.C., they were speaking the local West Semitic dialect and were fully integrated into local culture. Kuttumuwa's inscription shows a fascinating mixture of non-Semitic and Semitic cultural elements, including a belief in the enduring human soul—which did not inhabit the bones of the deceased, as in traditional Semitic thought, but inhabited his stone monument, possibly because the remains of the deceased were cremated. Cremation was considered to be abhorrent in the Old Testament and in traditional West Semitic culture, but there is archaeological evidence for Indo-European-style cremation in neighboring Iron Age sites, although not yet at Zincirli itself.

In future excavation campaigns, the Neubauer Expedition, under Schloen's direction, plans to excavate large areas of the site in order to understand the social and economic organization of the city and its cultural development over the centuries. Schloen hopes to illuminate Iron Age culture more widely, of which Zincirli provides a richly documented example.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

12,000 year-old Natufian Shaman in northern Israel

The skeleton of a 12,000 year-old Natufian Shaman has been discovered in northern Israel by archaeologists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The burial is described as being accompanied by "exceptional" grave offerings - including 50 complete tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard and a human foot. The shaman burial is thought to be one of the earliest known from the archaeological record and the only shaman grave in the whole region.

Dr. Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, who is heading the excavation at the Natufian site of Hilazon Tachtit in the western Galilee, says that the elaborate and invested interment rituals and method used to construct and seal the grave suggest that this woman had a very high standing within the community. Details of the discovery were published in the PNAS journal on November 3, 2008.

What was found in the shaman's grave?

The grave contained body parts of several animals that rarely occur in Natufian assemblages. These include fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild boar which was directly aligned with the woman's left humerus.

A human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave.

Dr. Grosman believes this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave. Burials of shamans often reflect their role in life (i.e., remains of particular animals and contents of healing kits). It seems that the woman was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits.

Method of burial

The body was buried in an unusual position. It was laid on its side with the spinal column, pelvis and right femur resting against the curved southern wall of the oval-shaped grave. The legs were spread apart and folded inward at the knees.

According to Dr. Grosman, ten large stones were placed directly on the head, pelvis and arms of the buried individual at the time of burial. Following decomposition of the body, the weight of the stones caused disarticulation of some parts of the skeleton, including the separation of the pelvis from the vertebral column.

Speculating why the body was held in place in such a way and covered with rocks, Dr. Grosman suggests it could have been to protect the body from being eaten by wild animals or because the community was trying to keep the shaman and her spirit inside the grave.

Analysis of the bones show that the shaman was 45 years old, petite and had an unnatural, asymmetrical appearance due to a spinal disability that would have affected the woman's gait, causing her to limp or drag her foot.

Fifty tortoises

Most remarkably, the woman was buried with 50 complete tortoise shells. The inside of the tortoises were likely eaten as part of a feast surrounding the interment of the deceased. High representation of limb bones indicates that most tortoise remains were thrown into the grave along with the shells after consumption.

The recovery of the limb bones also indicates that entire tortoises, not only their shells, were transported to the cave for the burial. The collection of 50 living tortoises at the time of burial would have required a significant investment, as these are solitary animals. Alternatively, these animals could have been collected and confined by humans for a period preceding the event.

Shaman graves in archaeology

According to Dr. Grosman, the burial of the woman is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Paleolithic periods. "Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement, and sealing of the grave." This was coupled with the special treatment of the buried body.

Shamans are universally recorded cross-culturally in hunter-gatherer groups and small-scale agricultural societies. Nevertheless, they have rarely been documented in the archaeological record and none have been reported from the Paleolithic of Southwest Asia.

The Natufians existed in the Mediterranean region of the Levant 15,000 to 11,500 years ago. Dr. Grosman suggests this grave could point to ideological shifts that took place due to the transition to agriculture in the region at that time.

Natufian grave site

Hilazon Tachtit is a small cave site next to Carmiel that functioned first and foremost as a Natufian burial ground for at least 28 individuals representing an array of ages.

The collective graves found at the site likely served as primary burial areas that were later re-opened to remove skulls and long bones for secondary burial – a practice common to the Natufian and the following Neolithic cultures.

Only three partially complete primary burials were recovered at Hilazon Tachtit. One was a skeleton of a young adult (sex unknown) reposed in a flexed position on its right side with both hands under his face. The scattered bones of a newborn were found in the area of the missing pelvis and it appears that the newborn and the young adult, possibly the mother, were buried together.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Earliest Hebrew text in Proto-Canaanite script found

Discovery of oldest Judaic city fortress proof of United Monarchy

The earliest known Hebrew text written in a Proto-Canaanite script has been discovered by Hebrew University archaeologists in an ancient city in the area where David slew Goliath – the earliest Judean city found to date. The 3,000 year old finding is thought to be the most significant archaeological discovery in Israel since the Dead Sea Scrolls – predating them by 1,000 years.

The ostracon (pottery shard inscribed with writing in ink) comprises five lines of text divided by black lines and measures 15 x 15 cm. and was found at excavations of a 10th century B.C.E. fortress - the oldest known Judaic city.

The ostracon was found lying on the floor inside a building near the city gate of the site, known as the Elah Fortress at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Excavations are being led by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigal Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his partner Saar Ganur, in partnership with Foundation Stone, a non-profit educational organization which works to provide a contemporary voice to ancient stories. The excavations and analysis are also being supported by J.B. Silver and the Brennan Foundation.

Why is this inscription so special?

Carbon-14 dating of organic material found with the ostracon, administered by Oxford University, along with pottery analysis dates this inscription to the time of King David ca. 3,000 years ago – predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by approximately a millennium, and placing it earlier than the famed Gezer Calendar.

It is hoped the text inscribed on the 'Qeiyafa Ostracon' will serve as an anchor in our understanding of the development of all alphabetic scripts.

While the inscription has yet to be deciphered, initial interpretation indicates the text was part of a letter and contains the roots of the words "judge", "slave" and "king". This may indicate that this is a legal text that could provide insights into Hebrew law, society and beliefs. Archaeologists say that it was clearly written as a deliberate message by a trained scribe.

What is the Elah Fortress?

Dating to the 10th century B.C.E., the Elah Fortress is the earliest known fortified city of the biblical period in Israel. Excavations began on the site in June 2008.

Comprising 23 dunams [2.3 hectares], the Elah Fortress (Khirbet Qeiyafa) was situated on the border between Philistia and the Kingdom of Judea (5 kilometers south of current day Bet Shemesh.). It is thought to have been a major strategic checkpoint guarding the main road from Philistia and the Coastal Plain to Jerusalem, which was just a day's walk away.

Nearly 600 square meters of the Elah Fortress have so far been unearthed. Surrounded by a 700 meter-long massive city wall, the fortress was built with megalithic stones - some weighing four to five tons. The city wall is four meters wide, constructed with casemates. Archaeologists estimate that 200,000 tons of rock were hewn, moved and used in the construction of these fortifications.

A four-chambered gate, 10.5 meters across, is the dominant feature of the massive fortifications. Further excavations will reveal whether it is really six chambers and whether there are other gates. The larger rocks in the gate structure weigh five to eight tons.

To date, only four percent of the site has been excavated, promising many more incredible discoveries in the remaining 96 percent in the future.

How do we know this is a Judean fortress?

The early Hebrew ostracon, Judean pottery similar to that found at other Israelite settlements, and the absence of pig bones among the animal bones found at the site all point to this fortress being a city of the Kingdom of Judea.

Elah Fortress proof of United Monarchy

The Elah Fortress archaeological site could prove the existence of the United Monarchy, which scholars often question ever existed. The artifacts found at the site thus far all indicate that there was most likely a strong king and central government in Jerusalem - earlier than any discovered until now - rather than a number of small villages scattered throughout Judea. This would verify descriptions and narratives found in Samuel and Chronicles.

Over 100 jar handles bear distinct impressions which may indicate a link to royal vessels. Such a large quantity of this feature found in one small locale is unprecedented.

David & Goliath

The site of Khirbet Qeiyafa is situated among four biblical cities in Judea's inheritance chronicled in the Book of Joshua 35:15 - Azeka, Socho, Yarmut and Adulam. The biblical narrative located the battle between David and Goliath between Socho and Azeka. According to legend, David selected five stones from the nearby Elah Creek with which to slay Goliath.

According to Prof. Garfinkel, this is the only site in Israel where one can investigate the historical King David. "The chronology and geography of Khirbet Qeiyafa create a unique meeting point between the mythology, history, historiography and archaeology of Kind David."

Related article:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

King Solomon's (Copper) Mines?

Did the Bible's King David and his son Solomon control the copper industry in present-day southern Jordan? Though that remains an open question, the possibility is raised once again by research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Led by Thomas Levy of UC San Diego and Mohammad Najjar of Jordan's Friends of Archaeology, an international team of archaeologists has excavated an ancient copper-production center at Khirbat en-Nahas down to virgin soil, through more than 20 feet of industrial smelting debris, or slag. The 2006 dig has brought up new artifacts and with them a new suite of radiocarbon dates placing the bulk of industrial-scale production at Khirbat en-Nahas in the 10th century BCE – in line with biblical narrative on the legendary rule of David and Solomon. The new data pushes back the archaeological chronology some three centuries earlier than the current scholarly consensus.

The research also documents a spike in metallurgic activity at the site during the 9th century BCE, which may also support the history of the Edomites as related by the Bible.

Khirbat en-Nahas, which means "ruins of copper" in Arabic, is in the lowlands of a desolate, arid region south of the Dead Sea in what was once Edom and is today Jordan's Faynan district. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) identifies the area with the Kingdom of Edom, foe of ancient Israel.

For years, scholars have argued whether the Edomites were sufficiently organized by the 10th to 9th centuries BCE to seriously threaten the neighboring Israelites as a true "kingdom." Between the World Wars, during the "Golden Age" of biblical archaeology, scholars explored, as Levy describes it, with a trowel in one hand and Bible in the other, seeking to fit their Holy Land findings into the sacred story. Based on his 1930s surveys, American archaeologist Nelson Glueck even asserted that he had found King Solomon's mines in Faynan/Edom. By the 1980s, however, Glueck's claim had been largely dismissed. A consensus had emerged that the Bible was heavily edited in the 5th century BCE, long after the supposed events, while British excavations of the Edomite highlands in the 1970s-80s suggested the Iron Age had not even come to Edom until the 7th century BCE.

"Now," said Levy, director of the Levantine Archaeology Lab at UCSD and associate director of the new Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), "with data from the first large-scale stratified and systematic excavation of a site in the southern Levant to focus specifically on the role of metallurgy in Edom, we have evidence that complex societies were indeed active in 10th and 9th centuries BCE and that brings us back to the debate about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible narratives related to this period."

Khirbat en-Nahas, comprising some 100 ancient buildings including a fortress, is situated in the midst of a large area covered by black slag – more than 24 acres that you can clearly see on Google Earth's satellite imagery. Mining trails and mines abound. The size argues for industrial-scale production at Khirbat en-Nahas, Levy explained. And the depth of the waste at the site, more than 20 feet, he said, provides a "measuring stick" to monitor social and technological change during the Iron Age, which spans around 1200 to 500 BCE, a key period in the histories of ancient Israel and Edom.

The archaeological team, Levy said, used high-precision radiocarbon dating on date seeds, sticks of tamarisk and other woods used for charcoal in smelting (along with Bayesian analysis) to obtain the 10th- and 9th-century BCE dates. The analyses were carried out by Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford.

Additional evidence comes from ancient Egyptian artifacts found at the site. The artifacts, a scarab and an amulet, were in a layer of the excavation associated with a serious disruption in production at the end of the 10th century BCE – possibly tying Khirbat en-Nahas to the well-documented military campaign of Pharaoh Sheshonq I (aka "Shishak" in the Bible) who, following Solomon's death, sought to crush economic activity in the area.

For a comprehensive picture, the researchers marshaled the "the newest and most accurate digital archaeology tools," Levy said: electronic surveying linked to GIS that all but eliminates human error, as well as digital reconstruction of the site in the "StarCAVE," a 3-D virtual environment at UC San Diego's California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.

The present findings, Levy noted, support early results he and his colleagues obtained from digs at Khirbat en-Nahas in 2002 and 2004.

"We can't believe everything ancient writings tell us," Levy said. "But this research represents a confluence between the archaeological and scientific data and the Bible.

"Our work also demonstrates methods that are objective and enable researchers to evaluate the data in a dispassionate way. This is especially important for 'historical archaeologies' around the world where sacred texts – whether the Mahabharata in India or the Sagas of Iceland – and the archaeological record are arenas for fierce ideological and cultural debates."

Future research at Khirbat en-Nahas, Levy said, will focus on who actually controlled the copper industry there – Kings David and Solomon or perhaps regional Edomite leaders (who had not been written about in the biblical texts) – and also on the environmental impacts of all this ancient smelting.

Meanwhile, Levy is working with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan and other organizations to have Khirbat en-Nahas and the more than 450-square mile ancient mining and metallurgy district declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to protect it from possible mining in the future and preserve "its spectacular desert landscape and rare, ancient character."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Fire was key to migration of man out of Africa

The ability to make fire millennia ago was likely a key factor in the migration of prehistoric hominids from Africa into Eurasia, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology believes on the basis of findings at the Gesher Benot Ya'aqov archaeological site in Israel.

Earlier excavations there, carried out under the direction of Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar of the Institute of Archaeology, showed that the occupants of the site – who are identified as being part of the Acheulian culture that arose in Africa about 1.6 million years ago -- had mastered fire-making ability as long as 790,000 years ago. This revelation pushed back previously accepted dates for man's fire-making ability by a half-million years.

The Gesher Benot Ya'aqov site is located along the Dead Sea rift in the Hula Valley of northern Israel.

Dr. Nira Alperson-Afil, a member of Goren-Inbar's team, said that further, detailed investigation of burned flint at designated areas in all eight levels of civilization found at the site now shows that "concentrations of burned flint items were found in distinct areas, interpreted as representing the remnants of ancient hearths." This tells us, she said, that once acquired, this fire-making ability was carried on over a period of many generations. Alperson-Afil's findings are reported in an article published in the most recent edition of Quaternary Science Reviews.

She said that other studies which have reported on the use of fire only verified the presence of burned archaeological materials, but were unable to penetrate further into the question of whether humans were "fire-makers" from the very early stages of fire-use.

"The new data from Gesher Benot Ya'akov is exceptional as it preserved evidence for fire-use throughout a very long occupational sequence. This continual, habitual, use of fire suggests that these early humans were not compelled to collect that fire from natural conflagrations, rather they were able to make fire at will," Alperson-Afil said.

The manipulation of fire by early man was clearly a turning point for man's ancestors, Once "domesticated," fire enabled protection from predators and provided warmth and light as well as enabling the exploitation of a new range of foods.

Said Alperson-Afil: "The powerful tool of fire-making provided ancient humans with confidence, enabling them to leave their early circumscribed surroundings and eventually populate new, unfamiliar environments."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Indiana: oldest such artifact ever documented

A prehistoric bone tool discovered by University of Indianapolis archeologists is the oldest such artifact ever documented in Indiana, the researchers say.

Radiocarbon dating shows that the tool – an awl fashioned from the leg bone of a white tail deer, with one end ground to a point – is 10,400 years old.

The find supports the growing notion that, in the wake of the most recent Ice Age, the first Hoosiers migrated northward earlier than previously thought. Sites from the Paleoindian and Early Archaic eras are more common in surrounding states such as Illinois and Ohio, which were not as heavily glaciated as Indiana.

“Indiana has been such a void,” said Associate Professor Christopher Schmidt, director of UIndy’s Indiana Prehistory Laboratory and president of the Indiana Archeology Council. “This bodes well for the future.”

The tool was found in 2003 in northwestern Indiana’s Carroll County by students participating in the university’s annual summer archeology field school. Schmidt has directed ongoing excavations since 2002 at the site near the small town of Flora, where a glacial lake attracted mastodon, giant beaver and smaller wildlife for thousands of years.

Stone tools thought to be from the same era have been found in Indiana, but because they are not made from organic materials, their age cannot determined precisely, only inferred from surrounding materials and comparison with similar artifacts. Tools made from biodegradable materials, such as bone, rarely survive intact from such ancient times.

Scratches and notches on the 5-inch bone awl indicate it probably was used in conjunction with a stone knife to punch holes in leather, perhaps for clothing. The nature of the activity suggests that the lifestyle of its users was more settled than nomadic.

“This tells us they’re pretty well established in northern Indiana,” Schmidt says. “This isn’t just people passing through. This is people settling down, making homes.”

The tool has undergone further analysis by Christopher Moore, who was among the UIndy students who found the tool and is now a graduate student at the University of Kentucky.

Moore and Schmidt describe the bone tool in the context of similar artifacts from around the country in an article titled “Paleoindian and Early Archaic Organic Technologies: A Review and Analysis,” to be published in an upcoming edition of North American Archaeologist.

The people who lived in Indiana 10,000 years ago are not well known, Schmidt says. No burials of this age have been found, and only a few sites this old have been documented.

“That’s what makes this site so interesting,” Schmidt says. “It gives us a glimpse into life not long after the glaciers had receded. It shows us a lake that was rich with life, some of which would soon go extinct, some of which is still with us today. And, despite the changes, it is clear those first people in Indiana were hardy and later flourished.”

Schmidt also offered praise for the residents of the Flora area, a close-knit German Baptist community that adheres to traditional farming practices but has been enthusiastic and generous toward the archeologists working in their midst.

“This particular dig has been wonderful because the people of Flora have been so gracious and supportive of our efforts,” Schmidt says. “They helped us at every turn. They gave us food, helped with our pumps, and even jumped into the pits to help with the digging.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Lost Capital of the (Jewish) Khazars

A Russian archaeologist says he has found the lost capital of the Khazars, a powerful nation that adopted Judaism as its official religion more than 1,000 years ago, only to disappear leaving little trace of its culture.

Dmitry Vasilyev, a professor at Astrakhan State University, said his nine-year excavation near the Caspian Sea has finally unearthed the foundations of a triangular fortress of flamed brick, along with modest yurt-shaped dwellings, and he believes these are part of what was once Itil, the Khazar capital.

By law Khazars could use flamed bricks only in the capital, Vasilyev said. The general location of the city on the Silk Road was confirmed in medieval chronicles by Arab, Jewish and European authors.

"The discovery of the capital of Eastern Europe's first feudal state is of great significance," he told The Associated Press. "We should view it as part of Russian history."

Kevin Brook, the American author of "The Jews of Khazaria," e-mailed Wednesday that he has followed the Itil dig over the years, and even though it has yielded no Jewish artifacts, "Now I'm as confident as the archaeological team is that they've truly found the long-lost city,

The Khazars were a Turkic tribe that roamed the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea. Between the 7th and 10th centuries they conquered huge swaths of what is now southern Russia and Ukraine, the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia as far as the Aral Sea.

Itil, about 800 miles south of Moscow, had a population of up to 60,000 and occupied 0.8 square miles of marshy plains southwest of the Russian Caspian Sea port of Astrakhan, Vasilyev said.

It lay at a major junction of the Silk Road, the trade route between Europe and China, which "helped Khazars amass giant profits," he said.

The Khazar empire was once a regional superpower, and Vasilyev said his team has found "luxurious collections" of well-preserved ceramics that help identify cultural ties of the Khazar state with Europe, the Byzantine Empire and even Northern Africa. They also found armor, wooden kitchenware, glass lamps and cups, jewelry and vessels for transporting precious balms dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, he said.

But a scholar in Israel, while calling the excavations interesting, said the challenge was to find Khazar inscriptions.

"If they found a few buildings, or remains of buildings, that's interesting but does not make a big difference," said Dr. Simon Kraiz, an expert on Eastern European Jewry at Haifa University. "If they found Khazar writings, that would be very important."

Vasilyev says no Jewish artifacts have been found at the site, and in general, most of what is known about the Khazars comes from chroniclers from other, sometimes competing cultures and empires.

"We know a lot about them, and yet we know almost nothing: Jews wrote about them, and so did Russians, Georgians, and Armenians, to name a few," said Kraiz. "But from the Khazars themselves we have nearly nothing."

The Khazars' ruling dynasty and nobility converted to Judaism sometime in the 8th or 9th centuries. Vasilyev said the limited number of Jewish religious artifacts such as mezuzas and Stars of David found at other Khazar sites prove that ordinary Khazars preferred traditional beliefs such as shamanism, or newly introduced religions including Islam.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, director of the Middle Eastern Institute in Moscow, said he believes the Khazar elite chose Judaism out of political expediency — to remain independent of neighboring Muslim and Christian states. "They embraced Judaism because they wanted to remain neutral, like Switzerland these days," he said.

In particular, he said, the Khazars opposed the Arab advance into the Caucasus Mountains and were instrumental in containing a Muslim push toward eastern Europe. He compared their role in eastern Europe to that of the French knights who defeated Arab forces at the Battle of Tours in France in 732.

The Khazars succeeded in holding off the Arabs, but a young, expanding Russian state vanquished the Khazar empire in the late 10th century. Medieval Russian epic poems mention Russian warriors fighting the "Jewish Giant."

"In many ways, Russia is a successor of the Khazar state," Vasilyev said.

He said his dig revealed traces of a large fire that was probably caused by the Russian conquest. He said Itil was rebuilt following the fall of the Khazar empire, when ethnic Khazars were slowly assimilated by Turkic-speaking tribes, Tatars and Mongols, who inhabited the city until it was flooded by the rising Caspian Sea around the 14th century.

The study of the Khazar empire was discouraged in the Soviet Union. The dictator Josef Stalin, in particular, detested the idea that a Jewish empire had come before Russia's own. He ordered references to Khazar history removed from textbooks because they "disproved his theory of Russian statehood," Satanovsky said.

Only now are Russian scholars free to explore Khazar culture. The Itil excavations have been sponsored by the Russian-Jewish Congress, a nonprofit organization that supports cultural projects in Russia.

"Khazar studies are just beginning," Satanovsky said.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Are the Dead Sea Scrolls Palestinian treasures?

Are the Dead Sea Scrolls Palestinian national treasures that ought to be displayed in Palestinian Authority museums?

The very question sounds bizarre, and even offensive, to many Israelis. After all, the scrolls occupy a central place in world-wide Jewish discourse. The Israel Museum has dedicated a major and visually striking portion of its grounds to a "Shrine of the Book" housing Dead Sea Scrolls across the street from the Knesset building, and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the custodian of the scrolls, treats them as crown jewels.

The timing of their discovery in 1947-1948 was incredibly fortuitous for the nascent Jewish state insistent on proving its connection with an historical Jewish presence in the land. Here was physical proof-positive, which one could touch, of Jews living in Judea and composing Hebrew texts more than 2,000 years ago.

But the Palestinian view-which is rejected out of hand by the IAA - is strikingly different, and emphasizes the fact that the scrolls were found in the West Bank, in territory that they regard as part of a future Palestinian state. "The Dead Sea Scrolls are part of the Palestinian cultural heritage and should by right be returned to the Palestinians," says Nazmi Al Jubeh, Director of the Riwaq Center for Architectural and Archaeological Conservation in Ramallah. "There is a general principle that archaeological artifacts belong to the place in which they were discovered, and if removed must be repatriated. This holds true of the scrolls, which were found on Palestinian territory in Qumran, and were taken by Israeli occupation authorities from the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem."

Jubeh readily concedes that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish documents, but contends that "the historical Jewish community is part of the Palestinian heritage and history, just as ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins comprise part of our history".

"No one would claim that Roman ruins found in Israel should be sent to Rome," Jubeh tells The Report. "They are properly displayed where they were found. History is accumulated layer upon layer, and the ancient Jewish history here is part of my identity, among the other layers."

Does that mean that if the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments of Moses were to be discovered on Mount Sinai, they would be Egyptian relics? "Yes, exactly," says Jubeh. "Just like a mummy found in Beit Shean from a period of Egyptian rule there would be Israeli."

In response, Yoli Shwartz, spokesperson for the IAA, told The Report that the IAA categorically rejects any demand that the State of Israel part with the Dead Sea Scrolls. "From the perspective of international law, there is no requirement that antiquities found in the West Bank or Gaza Strip be given to the Palestinian Authority," says Shwartz. "The scrolls are a national Jewish treasure of enormous importance to the Jewish heritage, as well as being of world-wide importance. They are available to be studied by researchers of any nationality, but they will not be removed from the responsibility or ownership of the State of Israel, to anyone."

Who Lived at Qumran?

The Judean desert in the vicinity of the Qumran caves, on the west coast of the Dead Sea, is bleak, dusty, hot and barren. Little life stirs here. The bright blue of the vast salt lake belies its own lifelessness. It is easy to see why the original view of those who lived here 2,000 years ago and apparently wrote over 900 parchment manuscripts is that of ascetic monks who spent all their time laboriously copying sacred texts in an isolated community.

But 60 years after the discovery of the first Dead Sea scrolls by two Beduin shepherds - and seven years after the last of the scrolls to be unearthed was published and made available to scholars - that view has largely been discarded. In its place are a plethora of competing theories about who lived at Qumran, what their relationship to the scrolls was, and what legacy they left behind.

Archaeological digs at Qumran and surrounding settlements have revealed not an isolated, penurious community, but in some respects a rather flourishing one, which in the Second Temple period contained installations for blacksmithing and tanning and what seems to be an immense pottery factory. The residents there traded with other settlements, kept a stable, grew crops and raised sheep. Based on theories that the residents lived a communal lifestyle, some have termed it "the first kibbutz," complete with agriculture, light industry, a communal dining room and a common treasury - a cache of hundreds of silver coins was found on the site.

Loud rows are now erupting at academic conferences over a question that was once considered too ridiculous to ask: did the Qumran community include women and children? And the recent stunning discovery of a "Dead Sea Stone" - a first century BCE tablet found on the east coast of the lake, and possibly describing a suffering messiah who dies and is resurrected three days later - has stirred renewed interest in tracing the precursors of early Christian theology in the desert.

These were just a few of the hotly-debated topics at an early July conference in Jerusalem to mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the scrolls. Some 36 researchers from Israel, the United States, Canada, Austria, Germany, Britain and Belgium gathered in the Shrine of the Book - which houses the most famous scroll, that containing the complete text of the Book of Isaiah - on the grounds of the Israel Museum. The event was a testament to the persistent and even increasing interest in what are some of the world's most renowned historical documents.

Nearly everything about the scrolls is perennially fascinating, from their very existence, surviving intact in the dryness of the Judean Desert and the story of their chance discovery, supposedly by boys looking for lost goats, to the continuing, sometimes highly charged and emotional debates about their content and what they imply about Judaism in the Second Temple Period and early Christianity, which was just beginning to emerge in those years.

Add to that the drama of the rush by an Israeli archaeologist to acquire the first discovered scrolls against the backdrop of the approaching War of Independence, when the caves in which they were found were to fall under Jordanian control; the 35 years of delay in their publication by a team of scholars sworn to secrecy - generating multiple conspiracy theories; the circulation of controversial "bootleg" copies of the scrolls; and unsubstantiated claims that went as far as postulating that John the Baptist or even Jesus had lived in Qumran, and one has the makings of stories that could rival "The Da Vinci Code."
"When I first held the scrolls in my hand, I could feel history jumping across the millennia," says Lawrence Schiffman, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. "After all my years of studying them, they are still emotionally moving."

Despite the fact that six decades have passed since their discovery, the complete publication of the contents of the more than 900 manuscripts (most in extremely fragmentary condition) found over the years at Qumran was only completed in 2001, under the direction of Hebrew University Professor Emanuel Tov. The scrolls include at least fragments from every book of the Hebrew Scriptures except for the Books of Esther and Nehemiah, with several copies of major books such as the Five Books of Moses and Isaiah. Alongside them were apocryphal scriptures, some previously unknown, and scrolls detailing the rituals and beliefs of an extreme sect living an ascetic, communal lifestyle and obsessed with ritual purity as it awaited the end of days.

One of the most significant effects of the publication has been the explosion of interdisciplinary approaches to their study over the past decade, rejuvenating the field. "There are scholars from a wide range of disciplines now working on the study of the scrolls, including Biblical studies, Judaic Studies, Christology, Women's Studies, Textual Studies, anthropology and philology," says Schiffman. "This has led to new developments. The scrolls are being studied within their own context, as reflecting what the people who wrote them believed, instead of being conceived solely as a prism for understanding Rabbinic Judaism or early Christianity."

The full publication of the scrolls has also enabled a new generation of researchers to distance themselves from the views of Yigael Yadin and Roland de Vaux, the two scholars who laid the foundations of the mainstream theories regarding the origins of the scrolls and the identity of the community in Qumran.

Yadin, a colourful public figure who was chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces before composing his doctoral thesis on the scrolls, was the most prominent archaeologist in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s (following in the footsteps of his father, Prof Eleazar Sukenik, who had acquired the first scrolls). De Vaux, a French Dominican priest, oversaw the archaeological excavation at Qumran in the 1950s (when the site was under Jordanian control) and was the editor-in-chief of the publication of Dead Sea Scrolls until his death in 1971. He never published a definitive archaeological report of his work at Qumran, and he and the editors succeeding him, prior to Tov, were accused of moving too slowly in opening the content of the scrolls to wider study.

The availability of the scrolls has reopened a wide range of questions.

Scholars agree about only some basic facts:

The settlement in Qumran was founded some time between 120 BCE to 100 BCE, and existed until 68 CE, when it was destroyed by Roman forces savagely putting down the Great Jewish Revolt against Roman occupation. The scrolls found in jars in Qumran were produced roughly during that same period, an assertion based on palaeographical analysis of the Hebrew letters (mostly in the familiar square Hebrew script, with some biblical manuscripts written in palaeo-Hebrew letters), allusions to historical events in some scrolls, and carbon-14 testing.

Beyond that, there is little consensus about anything. Who lived in the Qumran settlement? Was it an all-male, celibate commune, or did it include children and women? What drove people to live in the extreme desert conditions prevalent in the Qumran area? Was the Qumran community a unique sect, or was it part of a larger sect that had other centers in Judea? Were the scrolls written by the Qumran sect, or brought there from elsewhere?

The earliest and most widely-known theory is that the scrolls were the sacred texts of a radical dissident Jewish sect called the Essenes. That theory was put forth by Yadin and de Vaux in the 1950s, based on the content of several of the scrolls expressing hatred and enmity to the normative Jewish leadership of the Second Temple and detailing the beliefs, initiation ceremonies and rituals of a sect devoted to unbending ritual observance, strict discipline, communal lives of shared property and absolute purity.

Given similarities between these descriptions and accounts of Essene practices in the writings of first century Jewish historian Josephus, along with a reference to an Essene settlement "on the west side of the Dead Sea" in an ancient text penned by Pliny the Elder, Qumran and the Essenes were identified with each other. According to that narrative, the Essenes in Qumran, chose to live in the desert in order to purify themselves and distance themselves from a world they rejected as they awaited an eschatological final battle between good and evil, hastily hiding their most sacred items - the scrolls - in nearby caves as the Roman legions marched ever closer in 68 CE.

Doubts regarding this theory began to be cast when scholars questioned the sheer physical plausibility that a tiny community - the Qumran settlement probably never contained more than 150 individuals at any given time - could produce the nearly one thousand Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written in many different styles of handwriting and calligraphy. Nor do the rituals mentioned in the scrolls fit precisely with Josephus' descriptions.

Pliny apparently never visited the area and relied on second-hand sources. He and Philo, a Jewish author of the first century writing in Greek, both ascribed celibacy to the Essene community, yet celibacy is not discussed in the scrolls, which seem to describe a community containing women, men and children, complete with ritual rules for matrimony and divorce - although a reference in Josephus to two types of Essenes, some of whom did marry in contrast to a celibate sub-sect, further clouds the issue.

Other anomalies cropped up as archaeological evidence was unearthed. The Essenes were described as forbidding defecation on the Sabbath and requiring toilets to be located far outside settlements - but a latrine has been identified within the Qumran ruins. When the bodies of women and children were reported to have been found in the Qumran graveyard, the celibate Essene theory took another hit.

There is no lack of alternative theories which have been proposed over the years. They include speculation that the Qumran settlement was a military fortress, a country manor house, a roadside inn, or even a pottery factory, based on large pottery kilns and thousands of clay fragments found at the site. Some scholars have claimed the scrolls had nothing to do with the Qumran site, and are books taken from the Temple library and buried to protect them from Roman destruction, drawing inspiration from a copper scroll found in Qumran that details hidden burial locations of gold and silver treasures from the Temple in the desert. Mainstream opinion in the academic community, however, has delegated nearly all of these suggestions to the margins, and most scholars regard the Dead Sea Scrolls as the texts of a sect that resided in Qumran - but not necessarily the Essenes.

Schiffman points to a major puzzle relating to the Essenes - they are not mentioned in any ancient Hebrew text. "The first time the word 'Essenes' is written in Hebrew is during the Renaissance," asserts Schiffman. This is particularly anomalous given that Josephus portrayed the Essenes as the third major political-religious movement in the late Second Temple period, alongside the Pharisees and Sadducees - yet, in contrast to the latter two groupings, neither the New Testament nor the entire corpus of Talmudic writings ever once speak of the Essenes. Nor does the word appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

The current practice in scholarly circles is to refer to the sect at Qumran as "the Yahad" - a term that can roughly be described as "togetherness" or "community" - because this appears to be what sect members called themselves, based on writing in the scrolls and on pottery sherds found at the site.

But who, then, were the "Yahad"? Schiffman posits that they were originally a mystical priestly sect that split off from the Sadducees, angered at the growing influence of the Pharisees in Hasmonean royal courts in the mid-second century BCE. He arrives at this conclusion through parallels in descriptions of Temple-related rituals appearing in the scrolls and Sadducee halakha as recorded in Rabbinic texts. "They followed their 'Righteous Teacher' into the desert at Qumran because they gave up on society," says Schiffman. "Their teacher eventually died and their messiah never materialized, but as we know that doesn't prevent a sect from existing for many generations."

There is evidence that Qumran was not the only settlement containing members of the Yahad community. Charlotte Hempel of the University of Birmingham told The Report that "the Yahad was not a single community based at Qumran but was spread out." In support of this she points to several statements in the Community Rule, one of the major sectarian scrolls found near Qumran, that speaks of "all of their dwelling places." The Qumran site was in this interpretation the gathering place of the elite members of a widespread umbrella organization. This might also explain how so many texts came to be collected at Qumran - the settlement could have served as a central library for Yahad scrolls which were produced by scribes in many different locations and time periods.

Despite the growing chorus of scholars calling for disassociating the Qumran sect from the Essenes of Josephus and Pliny, there are still plenty of researchers who defend the original De Vaux/Yadin identification. "If they were not Essenes, then they were extraordinarily similar to Essenes," says Jodi Magness, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her view, the similarities are too strong to be dismissed. "To take just one example, compare how Josephus describes the communal meals of the Essenes with what appears in the scrolls," says Magness. "In sharp contrast to Hellenstic symposia meals, which involved eating while reclining, dining from large communal bowls, and holding conversations, both Josephus' Essenes and the community described in the scrolls dined in silence while seated and ate from individual bowls instead of a communal bowl - because they were concerned impurity could be transmitted through food eaten in common. That also explains why there was a pottery factory on the site."

The fact that the word Essenes appears only in Greek sources is not sufficient to dissociate the Qumran sect from the Essenes, in Magness' view. "They might have called themselves the Yahad, or hassidim, while in Greek they were called Essenes," she says, "just as the Mormons officially term themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."

Nor does the toilet at the Qumran site spoil the identification. "The Essene strictures regarding the placement of toilets may have applied only to an ideal description of Jerusalem. And the main concerns they had were avoidance of impure contact with excrement and an insistence that defecation be conducted entirely in private, out of sight from others - in Hellenistic times privacy in toilet habits was not common. The latrine found in Qumran conforms to this exactly - it was completely enclosed, and the excrement was collected in a deep pit." She also notes that the Qumran toilet was destroyed along with most of the buildings in an earthquake in the year 31 BCE, but was not included in the rebuilt and re-inhabited site - which might indicate that the sect was becoming more stringent in its observances. "Josephus and Pliny were writing late in the first century CE, but the scrolls were composed much earlier," says Magness. "Discrepancies between the sources might reflect evolving beliefs and rituals among the Essenes."

If the Yahad community was not an Essene sect, or at least not exactly the Essenes described by Philo and Pliny, is it conceivable that women formed part of the community? That option, long ignored by scholars influenced by Pliny's lyrical description of the Essenes living "as partners of the palm trees, without any women," was the focus of two lively debated sessions at the Jerusalem conference. The readiness to consider that possibility is, in part, the result of interest in the scrolls by Gender Studies researchers. Eileen Schuller, Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Canada, who advocates the position that women lived in Qumran, praised this as progress, noting that as recently as ten years ago "no one would have even conceived of a session on women and the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Evidence in favor of a co-ed Qumran, however, is still scarce, and there are more questions than answers. Eyal Regev, lecturer in archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, who is composing a study comparing the Yahad community with Christian sects such as Amish, Shakers and Quakers, sees the textual evidence as indicating a community of both sexes. "Celibate sects, such as the Shakers, always fill their writings with discussions stressing the importance of celibacy," he notes. "The Dead Sea Scrolls have nothing comparable, and in fact they describe a community of families." He nevertheless qualifies his statements by adding that there may not necessarily be an exact correspondence between what is described in the scrolls and the actual Qumran community.

Schiffman is also cautious. He praises the tendency to move away from regarding the Qumran community as "proto-Christian monks," and reiterates Regev's observation that women are mentioned in nearly every single scroll, but concludes that "the question is still open." One possibility he raises is that the geographically broader sectarian community was composed of families, but that there were virtually no women at Qumran because it was a site to which elite men in the community would repair for prolonged periods of textual study, leaving their families behind in their home settlements.

Magness, reviewing archaeological evidence, finds proof of only minimal presence of women at the site. She notes that consensus is growing that the graves of women and children uncovered at Qumran are those of Beduin buried long after the settlement was destroyed. Her review of de Vaux's excavations reveal an extreme paucity of artifacts that would indicate a female presence, such as cosmetics vessels, jewellery, or spindle whorls. But she cautions that the full record of de Vaux's findings is still to be published, and stresses that absence of evidence is not evidence of the absence of women.

One person emphatic that there were no women at Qumran is Joe Zias, retired former Senior Curator of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Israel Antiquities Authority, based on his examination of bodies removed from the Qumran graveyard by de Vaux - which is a story in itself. Over 1,200 bodies were buried at Qumran during its habitation, in individual burials contrasting with the familial burial customs of the time. De Vaux exhumed a sample of about 40 skeletons from the cemetery, and had most of them shipped to Europe for study - where they were nearly forgotten, lying for many years in the cellar of a private home in Munich.

Zias, who travelled to Munich to see the skeletons, told The Report that "I could tell within minutes that they were virtually all male. Apart from the Beduin remains, there was only one woman in the sample, and she was buried at a considerable distance from the men. The only conclusion is that Qumran was an all-male, celibate settlement." Another nine Qumran skeletons excavated by de Vaux were recently discovered in Jerusalem, and a similar group of eight skeletons were located in Paris - and again, these include only one skeleton identified as female.

Schuller remains unconvinced by the skeletal evidence. "A sample of a few dozen out of more than a thousand is insufficient, given the complexity of the subject," she insists. "At minimum, this requires further excavations."

Zias relates that when he presented a paper at a recent Boston conference claiming that Qumran was an all-male enclave, "the reaction resembled a Jerry Springer show. People get very emotional about the subject." He sticks to his conclusions as "supported by science and physical anthropology," and expresses broad criticism of Scrolls scholarship that is rooted solely in textual reading. "They have been endlessly debating issues for 60 years based on the texts but ignoring the physical anthropological evidence," he complains.

One of the conclusions he has arrived at through physical study of the human remains is that the Qumran community suffered from extensive diseases. "The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group I have ever seen," he claims. "Two thousand years ago in Jericho, adult males had a 40 percent chance of living past 40. But at Qumran, the figure for surviving to 40 falls to six percent." His theory, perhaps surprising to modern ears, is that the diseases contracted by residents of Qumran were the result of their insistence on bathing several times a day. "After they went to the latrines, they were required to immerse in pools of water, in addition to regular twice-a-day immersions," he told The Report. "The problem is that in the desert, there are only three months of rain, so the water in the pools was stagnant for nine months, filled with bacteria shared by everyone dipping in them. And this was total immersion, which means that it gets in the eyes, the ears and the mouth. Young men entering the sect often contracted infections and died."

Zias has also conducted a physical study of the toilet habits of the Qumran sect. Based on descriptions in the scrolls of sect members walking several thousand cubits "to the north-west" out of sight of settlements for bowel movements, carrying shovels in order to bury their waste deeply, researchers set out from the Qumran settlement in a north-westerly direction and located a bluff about 500 yards away that was concealed from view. Zias reports that there are indications the ground there was once intensely shovelled, and soil samples unearthed the presence of desiccated eggs from intestinal parasites, indicating the area was used as an outdoor toilet.

Critics of Zias' findings argue that without precise dating of the desiccated parasites, they cannot definitively be related to the ancient Qumran sect, and also point to the on-site toilet at Qumran as counter-evidence. "Instead of just talking about the toilet, take a hands-on look at it," is Zias' reply. He has done just that himself, drawing samples from the excrement pit of the Qumran latrine, essentially studying the remains of 2,000 year-old fecal matter. The samples, he says, are rife with intestinal parasites, leading him to conjecture that the Qumran toilet was reserved for "emergency use" when the sect members felt they couldn't make the long trek up the hill. "With all the infections they contracted, they suffered from diarrhoea," he concludes.

Sensational claims that the Qumran sect was the cradle of early Christianity have long been dismissed by scholars as unsubstantiated. Studies relating the Dead Sea Scrolls to later Rabbinic Judaism or early Christianity usually avoid drawing direct lines of relationships between them, and instead concentrate on learning about general facts about Second Temple Judaism through the scrolls, or try to tease out subtle textual similarities between the scrolls and Rabbinic writings or the New Testament. The study of Christology, however, has recently been stirred by new theories emerging from the discovery of an unusual stone tablet, containing writing from the first century BCE, that was the subject of a lecture at the recent conference. The stone table, however, only came to the attention of scholars through a series of coincidences.

About ten years ago, David Jeselsohn, a Swiss-Israeli collector of antiquities, was visiting London when he was contacted by a Jordanian dealer with ties to the Jordanian Antiquities Authority. The dealer offered to sell him a mysterious, three-foot long and one-foot wide stone tablet with Hebrew lettering. "I don't think he really knew what he had on his hands," Jeselsohn told The Report. "He was willing to say anything about it if it would persuade me to buy it." Intrigued, Jeselsohn bought the tablet, but he sheepishly admits that he, too, did not know what he had on his hands. It was placed in his Zurich home alongside other collected antiquities, and he gave it little thought for several years. Three years ago an expert in Hebrew palaeography, Ada Yardeni, visiting Jeselsohn's home to view ancient Aramaic pottery sherds he had recently purchased, happened to glimpse the stone - and couldn't believe what she had stumbled upon.

The tablet, named "Gabriel's Vision" by Yardeni, is a rare find that has been dated to the end of the first century BCE. In contrast to most artefacts from the time containing writing, which are either engravings on stone or ink calligraphy on parchment or papyrus, Gabriel's Vision is composed of two columns of 87 lines of ancient Hebrew written in ink on stone - Yardeni terms it a "Dead Sea scroll in stone."

A lengthy analysis of the tablet co-authored by Yardeni last year caught the eye of Israel Knohl, professor of Bible Studies at Hebrew University. Although the stone is broken and much of the text has faded away, enough of it could be deciphered by experts for Knohl to develop a theory relating it to pre-Christian messianic theology.

"The story it tells is of an apocalyptic vision of a future war around Jerusalem, as told by the angel Gabriel to an unnamed person," Knohl tells The Report. Lines 80 and 81 of the text were of especial interest to Knohl. Line 80 begins with the words "by three days," followed by a word that Knohl reads as "you shall live" and which he construes, not without controversy, as meaning resurrection. The next line speaks of a "prince of princes" who is cast on "rocky crevices," which he interprets as indicating a bloody death.

In this, says Knohl, we can see an expression of what he terms "catastrophic, suffering messianism." Under this theory, messianic theology of the late Second Temple period spoke of not one but two messiahs - a militarily triumphal Messiah Son of David, and a suffering Messiah Son of Joseph, both of whom are needed for Israel's national redemption. In what he calls "Gabriel's Revelation," Knohl says, "we see firsthand the telling of the story of a suffering messiah, who is called the prince of princes. This messiah suffers for the sake of the people, is killed and then resurrected after three days."

The parallels to the New Testament are too strong to be ignored, in Knohl's opinion. When Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, tells his disciples that he will be betrayed, killed and then rise again after three days, according to Knohl he is repeating a well-established motif that predated his birth, identifying himself, son of a man named Joseph, as the suffering Messiah Son of Joseph - and perhaps dispensing with the need for a Messiah Son of David.

Other scholars caution against jumping to conclusions too hastily. "Gabriel's Vision is an important, first-rate archaeological find," says Schiffman. "But we need to guard against repeating mistakes made with the Dead Sea Scrolls, looking too hard to find pre-Christian themes based on a word here or there. The stone should be studied for its own sake, in its own context."

Schiffman also expresses a common complaint raised by academic scholars when archaeological artefacts emerge from dealers' shops instead of scientific excavations. "Where was the stone found?" he asks. "Who wrote it? Was it found in isolation or near an ancient settlement? What else was found in its vicinity? No one knows." Both Jeselsohn and Knohl tell The Report that they do not know where the stone was unearthed, saying only that it was somewhere in Jordan, apparently on the east coast of the Dead Sea. Knohl says that based on the geological composition of the stone, it was hewn near the narrow peninsula between the two main basins of the Dead Sea - and that there was a Jewish community in that vicinity in antiquity. He also posits the existence of another tablet containing earlier parts of the story, which seems to begin in the middle in the stone Jeselsohn purchased. Without definite knowledge of the site in which the stone was found, however, there is no telling what other secrets from the ancient past might still lie nearby, waiting to be discovered.

Near the Shrine of the Book, on the grounds of the Israel Museum, sits a replica of Second Temple Jerusalem. The model buildings, mute in the sun, seem peaceful, belying the turmoil of the time as reflected in the scrolls.

The museum is now making a three-dimensional rendering of the Shrine of the Book, along with the entire corpus of the texts of the scrolls, available to the whole world through the Internet. That is something the composers of the scrolls could hardly have envisaged. Nor could they have known that by hiding them in desert caves, they were bequeathing a legacy that would keep generations fascinated two millennia on.