Friday, March 14, 2008

8th-6th centuries BCE inscribed seal near Temple

In an excavation being carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority in partnership with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation in the northwestern part of the Western Wall plaza a rich layer of finds from the latter part of the First Temple period was recently discovered. Also found was a seal that bears an inscription in ancient Hebrew which reads: [belonging] to Netanyahu ben Yaush.

A rich layer of finds from the latter part of the First Temple period (8th-6th centuries BCE) was recently discovered in archaeological salvage excavations that are being carried out in the northwestern part of the Western Wall plaza, c. 100 meters west of the Temple Mount.

In the excavations, which the Israel Antiquties Authority has been conducting for the past two years under the direction of archaeologists Shlomit Wexler-Bdoulah and Alexander Onn, in cooperation with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, remains of a magnificent colonnaded street from the Late Roman period (2nd century CE) were uncovered that appears on the mosaic Madaba map and is referred to by the name - the Eastern Cardo. The level of the Eastern Cardo is paved with large heavy limestone pavers that were set directly on top of the layer that dates to the end of the First Temple period. Thus the Roman road "seals" beneath it the finds from the First Temple period and has protected them from being plundered in later periods.

This is actually the first time in the history of the archaeological research of Jerusalem that building remains from the First Temple period were exposed so close to the Temple Mount - on the eastern slopes of the Upper City. The walls of the buildings are preserved to a height of more than 2 meters.

Personal Hebrew seal made of a semi-precious stone (IAA)
Another impressive artifact that was found in the salvage excavations is a that was apparently inlaid in a ring. The scarab-like seal is elliptical and measures c. 1.1 cm x 1.4 cm. The surface of the seal is divided into three strips separated by a double line: in the upper strip is a chain decoration in which there are four pomegranates and in the two bottom strips is the name of the owner of the seal, engraved in ancient Hebrew script. It reads: לנתניהו בן יאש ([belonging] to Netanyahu ben Yaush).

The two names are known in the treasury of biblical names: the name נתניהו (Netanyahu) is mentioned a number of times in the Bible (in the Book of Jeremiah and in Chronicles) and the name יאש (Yaush) appears in the Lachish letters. The name Yaush, like the name יאשיהו (Yoshiyahu) is, in the opinion of Professor Shmuel Ahituv, derived from the root או"ש which means “he gave a present” (based on Arabic and Ugaritic). It is customary to assume that the owners of personal seals were people that held senior governmental positions.

It should nevertheless be emphasized that this combination of names - נתניהו בן יאוש (Netanyahu ben Yaush) - was unknown until now.

In addition to the personal seal, a vast amount of pottery vessels was discovered, among them three jar handles that bear LMLK stamped impressions. An inscription written in ancient Hebrew script is preserved on one these impressions and it reads: למלך חברון ([belonging] to the king of Hebron).

These finds, as well as the numerous fertility and animal figurines, are characteristic of the Kingdom of Judah in the latter part of the First Temple period - the end of the 8th century BCE to the destruction of the Temple in the year 586 BCE.

6 Women Ancestors Of Almost All Native Americans

Nearly all of today's Native Americans in North, Central and South America can trace part of their ancestry to six women whose descendants immigrated around 20,000 years ago, a DNA study sugge

Those women left a particular DNA legacy that persists to today in about about 95 percent of Native Americans, researchers said.

The finding does not mean that only these six women gave rise to the migrants who crossed into North America from Asia in the initial populating of the continent, said study co-author Ugo Perego.

The women lived between 18,000 and 21,000 years ago, though not necessarily at exactly the same time, he said.

The work was published this week by the journal PLoS One. Perego is from the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in Salt Lake City and the University of Pavia in Italy.

The work confirms previous indications of the six maternal lineages, he said. But an expert unconnected with the study said the findings left some questions unanswered.

Perego and his colleagues traced the history of a particular kind of DNA that represents just a tiny fraction of the human genetic material, and reflects only a piece of a person's ancestry.

This DNA is found in the mitochondria, the power plants of cells. Unlike the DNA found in the nucleus, mitochondrial DNA is passed along only by the mother. So it follows a lineage that connects a person to his or her mother, then the mother's mother, and so on.

The researchers created a "family tree" that traces the different mitochondrial DNA lineages found in today's Native Americans. By noting mutations in each branch and applying a formula for how often such mutations arise, they calculated how old each branch was. That indicated when each branch arose in a single woman.

The six "founding mothers" apparently did not live in Asia because the DNA signatures they left behind aren't found there, Perego said. They probably lived in Beringia, the now-submerged land bridge that stetched to North America, he said.

Connie Mulligan of the University of Florida, an anthropolgist who studies the colonization of the Americas but didn't participate in the new work, said it's not surprising to trace the mitochondrial DNA to six women. "It's an OK number to start with right now," but further work may change it slightly, she said.

That finding doesn't answer the bigger questions of where those women lived, or of how many people left Beringia to colonize the Americas, she said Thursday.

The estimate for when the women lived is open to question because it's not clear whether the researchers properly accounted for differing mutation rates in mitochondrial DNA, she said. Further

Amulet with a Jewish prayer in a Roman child’s grave

Archaeologists from the Institute of Prehistory and Early History of the University of Vienna have found an amulet inscribed with a Jewish prayer in a Roman child’s grave dating back to the 3rd century CE at a burial ground in the Austrian town of Halbturn.

The 2.2-centimeter-long gold scroll represents the earliest sign of Jewish inhabitants in present-day Austria.

This amulet shows that people of Jewish faith lived in what is today Austria since the Roman Empire. Up to now, the earliest evidence of a Jewish presence within the borders of Austria has been letters from the 9th century CE. In the areas of the Roman province of Pannonia that are now part of Hungary, Croatia and Serbia, gravestones and small finds attest to Jewish inhabitants even in antiquity. Jews have been settling in all parts of the ancient world at the latest since the 3rd century BCE. Particularly following the second Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire, the victorious Romans sold large numbers of Jews as slaves to all corners of the empire. This, coupled with voluntary migration, is how Jews also might have come to present-day Austria.

Child’s grave
The one or two year old child, which presumably wore the silver amulet capsule around its neck, was buried in one of around 300 graves in a Roman cemetery which dates back to the 2nd to 5th century CE and is situated next to a Roman estate ("villa rustica"). This estate was an agricultural enterprise that provided food for the surrounding Roman towns (Carnuntum, Györ, Sopron).

The gravesite, discovered in 1986 in the region of Seewinkel, around 20 kilometres from Carnuntum, was completely excavated between 1988 and 2002 by a team led by Falko Daim, who is now General Director of the Roman-German Central Museum of Mainz, with the financial backing of the Austrian Science Fund FWF and the Austrian state of Burgenland. All in all, more than 10,000 individual finds were assessed, most notably pieces of glass, shards of ceramic and metal finds. The gold amulet, whose inscription was incomprehensible at first, was only discovered in 2006 by Nives Doneus from the Institute for Prehistory and Early History of the University of Vienna.

The inscription on the amulet is a Jewish prayer

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

Greek script, Hebrew language
Greek is common with amulet inscriptions, although Latin and Hebrew and amulet inscriptions are known. In this case, the scribe's hand is definitely familiar with Greek. However, the inscription is Greek in appearance only, for the text itself is nothing other than a Greek transcription of the common Jewish prayer from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy, 6:4): "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one."

Amulet to protect against demons
Other non-Jewish amulets have been found in Carnuntum. One gold- and three silver-plated amulets with magical texts were found in a stone sarcophagus unearthed west of the camp of the Roman legion, including one beseeching Artemis to intervene against the migraine demon, Antaura. Amulets have also been found in Vindobona and the Hungarian part of Pannonia. What is different about the Halbturn gold amulet is its Jewish inscription. It uses the confession to the center of Jewish faith and not magic formulae.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Was Jesus's Tomb Found or Is It a Statistical Error?

When Associated Producers, the production company behind the new documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, contacted Andrey Feuerverger, he was, to put it mildly, surprised. "This is not in the usual run of things one gets to do," says the University of Toronto statistician, alluding to Associated Producers' somewhat unusual request that he calculate the odds that a particular tomb in Israel is the last resting place of Jesus Christ.

Despite his previous lack of interest in biblical archaeology, Feuerverger spent two years crunching numbers for what turned out to be a labor of love. At the end of all of his figuring, he told the documentarians, including director James Cameron of Titanic fame and award-winning investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici, that there was a one in 600 chance that the names—Jesus, Matthew, two versions of Mary, and Joseph—scribbled on five of the 10 ossuaries (or caskets for bones) found in the Talpiot tomb could have belonged to a different family than the one described in the New Testament.

When Cameron and Simcha announced Feuerverger's calculations along with a package of other evidence (including forensics, DNA and archaeology) earlier this week, it sparked a media firestorm.

Some news outlets reported that Feuerverger's odds had really been as high as one in a million, which the statistician denies. That "is not a number I would want to ever think originates with me," he says.

Meanwhile biblical historian James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the primary historical advisor on the production team, reported on his blog that he calculated the odds were one in 250,000 that another family of that period would have the same names as those scrawled on the bone boxes.

Even the Discovery Channel, which is set to air the controversial documentary on Sunday, March 4, seemed confused by Feuerverger's calculations, declaring on its Web site that that the odds are "600 to one in favor of this being the JESUS FAMILY TOMB."

What Are We Calculating Here, Anyway?

Feuerverger says he was neither asked nor did he attempt to calculate the odds that the Talpiot tomb was the final resting place of Christ, the Messiah. As Aleks Jakulin, a statistician at Columbia University, points out, "I doubt Professor Feuerverger really estimated 'the odds that these ossuaries were not Jesus's family's final resting place.' Instead & one should say that one in 600 families (on the conservative side) would have that particular combination of names purely by chance, based on the distribution of individual names in the population."

Such a calculation assumes all kinds of things, and is highly dependent on one's starting assumptions. For instance, "A Christian would use [the probability that Jesus is in a coffin] equals zero, because of ascension, so the discussion stops right there," Jakulin says. "Someone else would instead assume that there was a single Jesus, one out of five million."

A Statistical Analysis Is Only as Good as Its Starting Assumptions

"I have to tell you that a statistician working with a subject matter expert, in this case biblical historical scholars, essentially is obliged to rely on assumptions that come from them," explains Feuerverger. "It's not a secret that the assumptions are contestable. I tried to stay with things that vaguely seemed reasonable to me, but I'm not a biblical scholar. At the end of the day, I went with specific assumptions and I try to make clear what those assumptions were."

Among the assumptions that Feuerverger made to yield his odds: that the scholarly text he used as a source of names (to determine the frequency and distribution of Jewish monikers in the era of Jesus) was a representative sample of the five million Jews who lived during that era. He assumed this even though the text, called the Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity was published in 2002 and only includes 2,509 names.

Scan The Lexicon of Jewish Names, which includes names from ossuaries, ancient texts and every other source available, and you will learn that the names unearthed in the so-called Jesus Family Tomb were among the most common of that era. One in every three women listed in the Lexicon was named Mary, for instance, and, at that time, one in every 20 Jewish men was called Yeshua, or Jesus.

Tal Ilan, who compiled the Lexicon of Jewish Names and who vehemently disagrees with the assertion that this could be Jeus's tomb, says that the names found in the tomb "are in every tomb in Jerusalem. You can get all kinds of clever people who know statistics who will tell you that the combination is the unique thing about [these names], and probably they're right - if you want just exactly this combination it's more difficult to find. But my research proves exactly the opposite - these are the most common names that you could expect to find anywhere."

It was only when Feuerverger assumed that some of the names were exceptional, and fit with scholars' beliefs about the historical family of Jesus, that his calculation became worthy of advertising. According to Feuerverger, the most important assumption by far was the one that dealt with the inscription that appears on the ossuary that the documentarians assert belonged to Mary Magdalene.

"The extraordinariness of the Mariemene e Mara inscription gets factored into the calculation as a very rare name," says Feuerverger. By the logic of the historians and archaeologists enlisted by the production team, this inscription is so rare that Feuerverger could safely assume that this was the only woman who possessed this name out of all of those listed in the Lexicon. This changed the odds that this tomb belonged to just any Mary Magdalene from roughly one in three to one in 80.

A Debate Rages Over the Archaeology Behind the Statistics

Other scholars think the assertion that the inscription Mariemene e Mara, written in Greek, refers specifically to Mary Magdalene is ridiculous. Jodi Magness, an archaeologist with an interest in early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that any Jews buried in Jerusalem who were not natives would have had their home towns appended to their names when they were inscribed on ossuaries. (Despite scholars' beliefs that Jesus's entire family hailed from outside Jerusalem, none of the inscriptions on the ossuaries in the contested burial cave include other birthplaces.) Magness also believes that if Jesus's family were wealthy enough to own a burial cave, it would have been in his home town of Nazareth and not in Jerusalem.

U.N.C. Charlotte historian Tabor, a consultant on the documentary, pooh-poohs the naysayers. "Mariemene e Mara means 'of Mariemenu, the Master,'" he says. "This is a title. It means 'This is the ossuary of Mariemene, known as the Mara.'" His opinion—which is consistent with Feuerverger's assumptions but clashes with those of many of his peers—is that this is a completely unique name, supporting his hypothesis that this is the grave of the Mary Magdalene.

Tabor also disagrees with critics who dismiss the fundamental premise of his and Feuerverger's calculations—that the family of Jesus would have been buried in caves typical of wealthier Jews and not in the shallow dirt graves that were common in that era. To some extent, this is a debate over the nature of evidence. Many biblical scholars and archaeologists, including Magness, accept that the gospels of the New Testament have some historicity to them, because they are the only direct historical accounts of the death of Jesus. But Tabor, on his blog, quotes scholars who argue that there is no reason these texts should be given more weight than any other piece of evidence.

Tabor responds to the charges that it is improbable that Jesus and his family had a burial cave in Jerusalem by noting that "if you know anything about messianic movements, the followers provide for their leader—they don't just throw him in a ditch when he dies. & Think of any Jewish sect—they take care of their rabbi. There's no evidence this family ever went back to Galilee. James [Jesus's brother] dies in Jerusalem, Mary and his brothers are there—there's no indication that anybody went back to Nazareth."

In other words, Tabor argues that it is not only likely that the family of the Jesus could have afforded a burial cave, but that it most likely would have opted for one in Jerusalem.

Both sides of this debate are extraordinarily difficult to prove given the paucity of historical evidence, something this controversy has in common with nearly all archaeological and historical disputes. "As archaeologists we are always reconstructing a picture based on incomplete evidence," notes Magness.

As a result, the calculations made by Feuerverger and others rest on premises that must be decided by historians and archaeologists, who are still far from agreement on even the basics of the Talpiot tomb. "I did permit the number one in 600 to be used in the film—I'm prepared to stand behind that but on the understanding that these numbers were calculated based on assumptions that I was asked to use," says Feuerverger. "These assumptions don't seem unreasonable to me, but I have to remember that I'm not a biblical scholar."

Cannibalism May Have Wiped Out Neanderthals

A Neanderthal-eat-Neanderthal world may have spread a mad cow-like disease that weakened and reduced populations of the large Eurasian human, thereby contributing to its extinction, according to a new theory based on cannibalism that took place in more recent history.

Aside from illustrating that consumption of one's own species isn't exactly a healthy way to eat, the new theoretical model could resolve the longstanding mystery as to what caused Neanderthals, which emerged around 250,000 years ago, to disappear off the face of the Earth about 30,000 years ago.

"The story of Neanderthal extinction is one of the most intriguing in all of human evolution," author Simon Underdown told Discovery News. "Why did a large-brained, intelligent hominid that shared so many traits with us disappear?"

To resolve that question, Underdown, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, studied a well-documented tribal group, the Fore of Papua New Guinea, who practiced ritualistic cannibalism.

Gory evidence uncovered in a French cave in 1999 revealed Neanderthals likely practiced cannibalism. The 100,000-120,000 year-old bones discovered at the cave site of Moula-Guercy near the west bank of the Rhone river suggested a group of Neanderthals defleshed the bones of at least six other individuals and then broke the bones apart with a hammerstone and anvil to remove the marrow and brains.

Although it's not clear why Neanderthals may have eaten each other, research on the Fore determined that maternal kin of certain deceased Fore individuals used to dismember corpses and regarded some human flesh as a valuable food source.
Beginning in the early 1900's, anthropologists additionally began to take note of an affliction named Kuru among the Fore. By the 1960's, Kuru reached epidemic levels and killed over 1,100 people.

Subsequent investigations determined that Kuru was related to the Fore's cannibalistic activities and was a form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy, or TSE. This is a class of disease that includes mad cow disease. Underdown said TSE's have been in existence for possibly millions of years.

According to his new paper, published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, TSE's "cause brain tissue to take on an almost sponge-like appearance, caused by the formation of small holes during the development of the disease."

The disease's latter stages often result in severe mental impairment, loss of speech and an inability to move.

He created a model, based on the Kuru findings, to figure out how the spread of such a disease via cannibalism could reduce a population's size. For example, he calculated that within a hypothetical group of 15,000 individuals, such a disease could reduce the population to non-viable levels within 250 years.

When added to other pressures, this type of disease could therefore have wiped out the Neanderthals, Underdown believes.
"TSE's could have thinned the population, reducing numbers and contributing to their extinction in combination with other factors (such as climate change and the emergence of modern humans)," he said.

Such diseases have very long incubation periods, he further explained, so affected individuals may not show symptoms for a very long time. Similarly, people who consume TSE victims may not exhibit signs of illness immediately after eating.
"Neanderthals would have been unlikely to spot any causal relationship between cannibalism and TSE symptoms," Underdown said.

Since modern clinical tests show that medical instruments can carry infectious prions, which spread TSE's, even after such tools have been sterilized, it's also possible that sharing of stone tools could have additionally spread the disease among Neanderthals, even those that did not practice cannibalism.

Nick Barton, Director of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, told Discovery News that he thinks the new paper presents "an extremely novel and very interesting theory."

"Most scholars now believe that the demise of the Neanderthals was not down to a single causal factor," Barton said. "However, if genetic studies eventually show that Neanderthals were susceptible to TSE, or other empirical evidence emerges for persistent cannibalism and consumption of brain tissues in late Neanderthal populations, then we may have to rethink our ideas on extinction."

City of David's Ancient Postal System

City of David Dig Reveals Information on Ancient Postal System

Artifacts from City of David excavations in Jerusalem reveal an interesting tidbit of information about the ancient postal system in Israel.

In an archaeological excavation being carried out at the “Spring House,” near the Gihon Spring in the City of David – in the valley east of Jerusalem’s Old City, soil was excavated which contained pottery shards that date to the Iron Age 2 (eighth century BCE).

“Whereas during the ninth century BCE, letters and goods were dispatched on behalf of their senders without names, by the eighth century BCE the clerks and merchants had already begun to add their names to the seals,” concluded the Antiquities Authority.

Wet sifting and sorting through the soil revealed three fragments of clay stamps used to seal letters or goods in ancient times. Two more stone seals were recently found as well. All of the objects bear Hebrew names and all date to the eighth century BCE.

Among them is a seal that was discovered intact, bearing the Hebrew name “Rephaihu (ben) Shalem”, who lived in the City of David in Jerusalem during this period. The seals were primarily used by public officials, according to Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa and Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who oversee the dig.

“In contrast with the large cluster of bullae (seals) that was found two years ago, in which all of its items contain graphic symbols (such as a boat or different animals – fish, lizards and birds) but are of an earlier date (end of the ninth-beginning of the eighth century BCE), the new items indicate that during the eighth century BCE the practice had changed and the clerks who used the seals began to add their own names to them.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority, together with the Nature and Parks Authority and the Elad Association, discovered the seals during ongoing intensive excavations being carried out on the eastern side of the Old City of Jerusalem.