Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Lady Ruler in Pre-Exodus Canaan?

A recent dig by Tel Aviv University archaeologists at Tel Beth-Shemesh uncovered possible evidence of a mysterious female ruler in Canaan.

Tel Aviv University archaeologists Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations have uncovered an unusual ceramic plaque of a goddess in female dress, suggesting that a mighty female “king” may have ruled the city. If true, they say, the plaque would depict the only known female ruler of the region.

The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures and deities once appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art. The figure’s hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers -- attributes given to women. This plaque, art historians suggest, may be an artistic representation of the “Mistress of the Lionesses,” a female Canaanite ruler who was known to have sent distress letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt reporting unrest and destruction in her kingdom.

“We took this finding to an art historian who confirmed our hypothesis that the figure was a female,” says Dr. Lederman. “Obviously something very different was happening in this city. We may have found the ‘Mistress of the Lionesses’ who’d been sending letters from Canaan to Egypt. The destruction we uncovered at the site last summer, along with the plaque, may just be the key to the puzzle.”

Around 1350 BCE, there was unrest in the region. Canaanite kings conveyed their fears via clay tablet letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt, requesting military help. But among all the correspondence by kings were two rare letters that stuck out among the 382 el‑Amarna tablets uncovered a few decades ago by Egyptian farmers. The two letters came from a “Mistress of the Lionesses” in Canaan. She wrote that bands of rough people and rebels had entered the region, and that her city might not be safe. Because the el-Amarna tablets were found in Egypt rather than Canaan, historians have tried to trace the origin of the tablets.

“The big question became, ‘What city did she rule?’” Dr. Lederman and Prof. Bunimovitz say. The archaeologists believe that she ruled as king (rather than “queen,” which at the time described the wife of a male king) over a city of about 1,500 residents. A few years ago, Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Nadav Naaman suggested that she might have ruled the city of Beth Shemesh. But there has been no proof until now.

“The city had been violently destroyed, in a way we rarely see in archaeology,” says Prof. Bunimovitz, who points to many exotic finds buried under the destruction, including an Egyptian royal seal, bronze arrowheads and complete large storage vessels. They suggest a large and important city-state, well enmeshed within East Mediterranean geo-political and economic networks.

“It was a very well-to-do city,” says Lederman. “Strangely, such extensive destruction, like what we found in our most recent dig, is a great joy for archaeologists because people would not have had time to take their belongings. They left everything in their houses. The site is loaded with finds,” he says, adding that the expensive items found in the recent level points to it as one the most important inland Canaanite cities.

The discovery of the plaque, and the evidence of destruction recorded in the el-Amarna tablets, could confirm that the woman depicted in the figurine was the mysterious “Mistress of the Lionesses” and ruled Canaanite Beth Shemesh. “There is no evidence of other females ruling a major city in this capacity,” Lederman and Bunimovitz say. “She is the only one. We really hope to find out more about her this summer.”

Fragment Of Hebrew Inscription Found

A fragment of a limestone plaque bearing several letters of ancient Hebrew script was discovered while sifting soil that was excavated in the vicinity of the Gihon Spring, within the precincts of the walls around Jerusalem National Park.

The excavation is being carried out on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, under the direction of Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa and Eli Shukron of the IAA, and is sponsored by the ‘Ir David Foundation.

The stone fragment dates to the eighth century BCE and this is based on the numerous pottery sherds that were discovered together with it, as well as the shape of the Hebrew letters that are engraved in the inscription.

The plaque is broken on all sides. All that remains of the inscription are two lines of writing: In the upper line the last part of a given name is preserved: ...]קיה, or as it is transliterated into English …]kiah. Unfortunately the remains of another letter before the kof cannot be discerned. If the letter preceding the kof was a zayin, we could complete the name to read חזקיה, or Hezekiah in English, and perhaps ascribe historical importance to the inscription. On the other hand, there are other first names that were used in Judah and Jerusalem at that time that could be mentioned here such as Hilkia, Amekiya, etc.

In the second line are the remains of two words. Here too, is a suffix of a word: ...]כה, or as it is transliterated into English …]ka. Here we have several possibilities for completing the word such as: בְּרָכָה, or birqa, that is, a greeting expressing best wishes (a possible ending for some sort of commemorative inscription).

Another possibility is the word בְּרֵכָה, or brecha, meaning water reservoir. The reconstruction of this word is possible based on the fact that Brechat HaShiloah, or the Shiloah Pool in English, is located nearby, and also based on the fact that a pool is mentioned in the famous Shiloah inscription that was discovered close by.
In any event the fact that we are dealing with a stone plaque indicates that this is a commemorative inscription that may have been meant to celebrate some sort of building project.

All that remains is to wait and hope that in time other fragments of the inscription will be found.

Neanderthal cousins

THE human genome sequence, published in 2003, is revealing a multitude of secrets. And when the chimpanzee genome followed in 2005, we discovered just how similar humans are to our closest living relative.

Now scientists have a draft genome sequence from the extinct Neanderthals (homo neanderthalensis) and are poised to clear up many long-debated issues, not least how like us our ancient cousins really were.

About 100 years ago, the anthropologist Sir Harry Johnston described Neanderthals as "gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possible cannibalistic tendencies". And 50 years ago, in his novel The Inheritors, William Golding portrayed the Neanderthal hero, Lok, as a gentle giant. Can we now expect an accurate picture of our mysterious cousins?

Modern humans (homo sapiens) and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor in Africa some 500,000 years ago. Neanderthals colonised Europe, and, from around 130,000 to 28,000 years ago, roamed an area stretching from Spain to Siberia, including southern Britain. Modern humans arrived in Eurasia from Africa about 45,000 years ago, and the cousins co-existed in Europe for about 15,000 years before Neanderthals became extinct.

Neanderthals looked very similar to modern humans, although generally they had larger, stockier and more muscular bodies, shorter arms and legs, larger heads with prominent brows, large noses and reddish hair. They had bigger brains than modern humans, but exactly how intelligent they were is not entirely clear. They certainly made stone hunting tools, but there is no evidence of activities such as cave paintings or self-adornment until some 45,000 years ago. Then, they began to make bone tools and jewellery, but since this date coincides with modern humans' arrival in Europe, these may have merely been copied from the invaders.

With regard to brain size, humans develop massive brains while in utero and these continue to grow for several years after birth. But homo erectus, the direct ancestor of Neanderthals and humans from three million years ago, resembled chimps in doing most brain-growing in utero, and so grew up much faster than humans.

Humans have also evolved an extended skill-learning period during adolescence and, overall, take twice as long as chimps to reach adulthood. But what about Neanderthals? A recently discovered fossilised one to two week-old Neanderthal baby who died in Crimea about 70,000 years ago, as well as two infants aged 19 and 24 months from Syria, provide the answer.

It seems Neanderthal babies were more similar to humans than to homo erectus and chimps, with larger heads at birth. There is also some evidence Neanderthals had an extended childhood, indicating, if true, that prolongation of the nurturing period began during the evolution of the genus homo.

Another debate about Neanderthals is why they became extinct. Scientists previously thought they were killed off by humans, but as they co-existed for 15,000 years, and fossil records show no evidence of violent deaths, it seems more likely they were out-competed by humans, or were less able to survive the ice age that peaked 25,000 years ago.

Paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo and his team from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, may soon provide the answers, as they have undertaken the massive task of sequencing the Neanderthal genome. This is a daunting project, not just because of its scale, and the fact the DNA is old and decayed, but also because the material is contaminated by DNA from microbes and modern humans handling the specimens.

Despite these problems, Pääbo is confident he now has a draft DNA sequence derived entirely from 38,000 year-old bone fragments from two female Neanderthals found in Croatia. So far, comparison of three billion human and Neanderthal DNA bases has thrown up a mere 1,000 to 2,000 changes, compared with 50,000 between humans and chimps. Already, scientists are pretty sure Neanderthals and humans did not interbreed, and they ultimately hope to find out how intelligent Neanderthals were, and why they became extinct.

Ancient Hebrew Papyrus Recovered

'Ancient text' seized in Israel

Israeli authorities say they have recovered a papyrus document which appears to be nearly 2,000 years old. The document appears to concern the transfer of property belonging to a widow called Miriam to her late husband's brother. The document measures 15cm by 15cm (6in by 6in), and contains 15 lines of ancient Hebrew script.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said on Wednesday that the scroll was an "exceptional archeological document, of the like but a few exist," reported Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

It said similar scrolls had been sold worldwide for sums as high as $5-10m.

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the document is written in a style of ancient Hebrew primarily associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Unusually, the first line of the document indicates a precise date, the IAA said - "Year 4 [AD] to the destruction of Israel", which could indicate either AD74, four years after Jerusalem's Second Temple was destroyed, or AD139, four years after the date of a Jewish revolt violently put down by Rome.

The IAA's Amir Ganor cautioned that the document would have to undergo laboratory analysis to authenticate it.

Under Israeli law, all archaeological artefacts are state property.

But he expressed excitement about the discovery, suggesting that the "very important" document could "shed light on how the people of the period managed their affairs and supplement our knowledge about their way of life".

Roman Ruins Survive the Ages Thanks to Volcanic Ash

Sandy ash produced by a volcano that erupted 456,000 years ago might have helped a huge ancient Roman complex survive intact for nearly 2,000 years despite three earthquakes, according to research presented last week in Rome.
X-ray analysis of a wall sample from the Trajan's Market ruins in Rome showed that the mortars used by ancient Romans contained stratlingite, a mineral known to strengthen modern cements.

"It is the first time that stratlingite is recognized in ancient mortars," Lucrezia Ungaro, the Trajan Forum archaeological chief, told Discovery News. "This is amazing, and shows the technical expertise of Roman builders."
Including a semicircular set of halls arranged on three levels, the "Market" complex is traditionally attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, a Syrian architect who worked primarily for the Emperor Trajan. A gifted and innovative designer, Apollodorus is credited with most of the Imperial buildings, including the Forum of Trajan and Trajan's column.

Dating to 113 A.D., the enormous complex is no longer believed to be the world's first shopping mall, but rather a sort of "multi-functional center" with administrative buildings for Trajan, who ruled from 98 to 117 A.D.
Amazingly, the huge complex survived three devastating earthquakes -- in 443 A.D., 1349 and 1703.

Neandertals Sophisticated Hunters

Neandertals are often thought of as the 'stupid' cousins of modern humans. However, they were capable of capturing the most impressive animals. This indicates that Neandertals were anything but dim. Dutch researcher Gerrit Dusseldorp analyzed their daily forays for food to gain insights into the complex behavior of the Neandertal. His analysis revealed that the hunting was very knowledge intensive.
It is now clear that Neandertals were hunters and not scavengers,. However, their exact hunting methods are still something of a mystery. Dusseldorp investigated just how sophisticated the Neandertals' hunting methods really were. He analyzed two archaeological sites He found that Neandertals in warm forested areas preferred to hunt solitary game. In colder, less forested areas they preferred to hunt the more difficult to capture herding animals.

The Neandertals were not easily intimidated by their game. Rhinoceroses, bison and even predators such as the brown bear were all on their menu. Dusseldorp established that just as for modern humans, the environment and the availability of food determined the choice of prey and the hunting method adopted. If the circumstances allowed it, Neandertals lived in large groups. Even the most difficult to catch prey were within their reach.

Coordination and communication

Although herding animals are difficult to surprise and isolate, many such game lived on the open steppes. This large supply attracted large groups of Neandertals. That the Neandertals were capable of hunting down such elusive game demonstrates that they had good coordination skills and could communicate well with each other.

Each prey has a specific cost-benefit scenario. For example, game that are more difficult to catch yield more calories and have a more usable, thick fleece. Dusseldorp used these data to examine the Neandertal's preferences. He also analyzed the prey of hyenas in the same manner. Hyenas were important competitors of Neandertals as they had a similar dietary pattern.

Dusseldorp demonstrated that Neandertals, thanks to their intelligence, even surpassed hyenas at capturing the strongest game. All things being considered, the Neandertals were skilled and highly intelligent hunters. So the idea that Neandertals were brute musclemen can be dismissed.

First Temple period bone seal with name Shaul

A Hebrew seal that dates to the time of the First Temple was displayed for the first time during the visit. The seal was found in an excavation that is being conducted in the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park.

The seal, which is made of bone, was found broken and is missing a piece from its upper right side. Two parallel lines divide the surface of the seal into two registers in which Hebrew letters are engraved:



A period followed by a floral image or a tiny fruit appear at the end of the bottom name.

The name of the seal’s owner was completely preserved and it is written in the shortened form of the name שאול (Shaul). The name is known from both the Bible (Genesis 36:37; 1 Samuel 9:2; 1 Chronicles 4:24 and 6:9) and from other Hebrew seals.

According to Professor Reich, “This seal joins another Hebrew seal that was previously found and three Hebrew bullae (pieces of clay stamped with seal impressions) that were discovered nearby. These five items have great chronological importance regarding the study of the development of the use of seals. While the numerous bullae that were discovered in the adjacent rock-hewn pool were found together with pottery sherds from the end of the ninth and beginning of the eighth centuries BCE, they do not bear any Semitic letters. On the other hand, the five Hebrew epigraphic artifacts were recovered from the soil that was excavated outside the pool, which contained pottery sherds that date to the last part of the eighth century.

It seems that the development in the design of the seals occurred in Judah during the course of the eighth century BCE. At the same time as they engraved figures on the seal, at some point they also started to engrave them with the names of the seals’ owners. This was apparently when they started to identify the owner of the seal by his name rather than by some sort of graphic representation.”

It appears that the “office” which administered the correspondence and received the goods that were all sealed with bullae continued to exist and operate within a regular format even after a residential dwelling was constructed inside the same “rock-hewn pool” and the soil and the refuse that contained the many aforementioned bullae were trapped beneath its floor. This “office” continued to generate refuse that included bullae, which were opened and broken, as well as seals that were no longer used and were discarded into the heap of rubbish that continued to accumulate in the vicinity.

Menachem' on ancient jug was found in Jerusalem

Israeli archaeologists in Jerusalem have discovered a biblical-era handle of a water pitcher with an ancient Hebrew inscription of the name "Menachem," marking the first time such a handle bearing this name has been found in Jerusalem.

The discovery was made at the footprint of a new girls' school being constructed in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood in the eastern part of the capital. The handle is estimated to originate somewhere between the Canaanite era (2200 - 1900 B.C.E.) and the end of the first Temple period (the 7th - 8th centuries B.C.E.).

Scientists at the Israel Antiquities Authority are now trying to decipher the identity of the "Menachem," whose name is inscribed in ancient Hebrew.

"This important finding joins similar names that were found in archaeological digs in the ancient east, particularly in the Land of Israel," said Dr. Ron Be'eri, who is supervising the dig for the IAA. "The names 'Menachem' and 'Yenachem' express comforting, perhaps over the death of loved ones."

"These names appeared have appeared before, going back to the Canaanite period," Be'eri said. "The name 'Yenachem' appears on an Egyptian clay vase from the 18th Dynasty, and the name 'Yenachmu' is mentioned in the Amarna letters (14th century B.C.E.) as that of the Egyptian representative on the coast of Lebanon.