A Hellenistic-era golden earring, discovered in the Givati Parking Lot in the City of David National Park. (photo from IAA courtesy Ashernet)
A Hellenistic-era golden earring, featuring ornamentation of a horned animal, was discovered in the Givati Parking Lot in the City of David National Park encircling the Old City walls. The discovery was made during archeological digs carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University. According to the researchers, “It is unclear whether the gold earring was worn by a man or a woman, nor do we know their cultural or religious identity, but we can say for certain that whoever wore this earring definitely belonged to Jerusalem’s upper class. This can be determined by the proximity to the Temple Mount and the Temple, which was functional at the time, as well as the quality of the gold piece of jewelry.”
Dr. Yinon Shivtiel, left, and Dr. Danny Syon inside the cave where large wine jars, a cooking pot and other pottery more than 2,000 years old were salvaged two weeks ago in a joint operation of the Sefad Academic College, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the Israel Cave Research Centre and the Israel Cave Explorers Club. (photo by IAA from Ashernet)
In 2017, Dr. Yinon Shivtiel, a speleologist and senior lecturer at Sefad, conducted a survey in Western Galilee, aided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, to locate caves that served as shelters and hiding places. He discovered a cave high on a sheer cliff, under an overhang, which contained ancient pottery vessels. “As a first impression,” said Dr. Danny Syon, senior archeologist with the IAA, “the finds seem to date to the Hellenistic period: between the third and first centuries BCE…. We assume that whoever hid here escaped some violent event that occurred in the area. Perhaps by dating the vessels more closely, we shall be able to tie them to a known historic event. It is mind-boggling how the vessels were carried to the cave, which is extremely difficult to access. Maybe an easier way that once existed disappeared over time?”
In the ancient city of Gath, now Tell es-Safi, an international team of archeologists has uncovered the earliest example of the use of a bridle bit with an equid in the Near East.(photo from Ashernet)
“The use of a bridle bit on a donkey during this period is surprising, since it was commonly assumed that donkeys were controlled with nose rings, as depicted in Mesopotamian art,” said Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Aren Maeir, who has led the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archeological Project since its inception more than 20 years ago. Evidence of the bit was derived from the skeleton of an ancient donkey dating to the Early Bronze Age III (approximately 2700 BCE). The donkey is one of four that were found buried under neighbourhood houses, indicating the importance of the donkey in this society. Studies of the dental isotopes from this particular donkey (with the bit) demonstrate that it was born and raised in Egypt and brought to the site only in the last few months of its life, before it was sacrificed and buried beneath the floor of the house as it was being rebuilt. The research has been funded by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council, with additional funds from BIU and the University of Manitoba; the researchers come from BIU, U of M, University of Saskatchewan, Ariel University and Grand Valley State University; their findings were published in the May 16 edition of the journal PLOS ONE.
Pigeon bones from 1,500 years ago. (photo from University of Haifa via Ashernet)
Israel’s Negev Desert has not always been a dusty, almost treeless place – 1,500 years ago, many parts of the Negev were green and produced basic foods. And a new study – led by Dr. Nimrod Marom of the University of Haifa and Tel Hai College, in cooperation with Prof. Guy Bar-Oz and Dr. Yotam Tepper of the Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa and Dr. Baruch Rosen of the Volcani Centre – reveals the first archeological evidence of the role played by pigeons in Byzantine agriculture: improving and fertilizing soil in vineyards and orchards. Among other goals, the researchers are interested in understanding how the Byzantines managed to maintain a broad-based agricultural system in the desert, and what led to the sudden abandonment and eventual collapse of these flourishing communities.
The date palm Methuselah “is a big boy now.” (photo from Arava Institute)
When I contacted Dr. Elaine Solowey, a California-born botanist of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, for an update on the date palm Methuselah, she said, “He is a big boy now. He has flowered several times and his pollen is good. I hope to have some good news about companions for him.”
In honour of Tu b’Shevat in 2011, I wrote about Methuselah for the Jewish Independent and other publications. What best symbolizes the holiday known in the Talmud as Rosh Hashanah l’Ilanot, the New Year of the Trees, more than dates?
For that 2011 article, I interviewed London-born Dr. Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Centre at Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, who is friends and colleagues with Solowey.
Sallon said that, in 2005, “we were interested in rejuvenating lost flora of Eretz Yisrael,” including the Judaean date. During a conversation with scientists about extracting DNA from ancient seeds, she wondered about the possibility of growing such seeds, and Masada came up.
In the early 1960s, during excavations of Masada – the fortress built by King Herod more than 2,000 years ago – archeologists Yigal Yadin and Ehud Netzer found date palm seeds. Under the custodianship of Netzer, the seeds were stored at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
At the Louis Borick Centre, Sallon directs research on complementary alternative and integrated medicine through the Middle Eastern Medicinal Plant Project. After studying medicines of Tibet, as an introduction to the ancient world of traditional medicine, the centre began to look at the medicinal plants of Eretz Yisrael, of which there are approximately 2,900 species. Sallon asked Netzer if she and her researchers could have a few seeds, and they were given five palm seeds, which Sallon took to Solowey.
Solowey took three of the ancient seeds and planted them in January 2005. Other seeds were sent to the University of Zurich, Switzerland, for radiocarbon dating and other testing. The date palm, which can be male or female, was domesticated more than 6,000 years ago, and is used for lung disease, colds, heart disease, hair growth and other things.
After eight weeks, in March 2005, one seed successfully germinated and was named Methuselah, after the biblical person who was said to have lived 969 years. Initially, the leaves had white spots because of a lack of chlorophyll. At 15 months, the seedling was transferred to a larger pot. After 26 months, the plant showed normal development, and Sallon said Methuselah is accepted by Guinness World Records as the oldest seed cultivated.
In 2011, I saw a photograph of Methuselah on a computer when its location was secret. At that time, it was two metres high (about six-and-a-half feet) and in a “protected quarantine site,” due to its scientific and financial value. In April of that year, a white flower appeared on the inner part of the tree, indicating that Methuselah was a male date palm. And, on Nov. 24, 2011, Methuselah was planted at Kibbutz Ketura.
Today, Methuselah has a permanent home at the Arava Institute research park on Kibbutz Ketura. As I wrote this update, there was hope for Methuselah to be bred with a female tree to produce the same date variety eaten commonly in ancient Judea, where it was valued as much for its flavour as for its medicinal properties.
Solowey continues to work with palms and has grown other date palms from ancient seeds found in archeological sites around the Dead Sea, as well.
“I’m trying to figure out how to plant an ancient date grove,” she said. And, if she can succeed in bringing forth a modern grove of ancient trees, it would provide unique insight into history. “We would know what kind of dates they ate in those days and what they were like,” she said. “That would be very exciting.”
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
(photo from Israel Antiquities Authority via Ashernet)
A 1,500-year-old mosaic floor, with a Greek inscription, was discovered this summer following groundwork for a communications cable infrastructure near the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. David Gellman, the director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Authority, said, “The fact that the inscription survived is an archeological miracle…. We were about to close the excavation when, all of a sudden, a corner of the mosaic inscription peeked out between the pipes and cables. Amazingly, it had not been damaged.” Hebrew University in Jerusalem’s Dr. Leah Di Segni deciphered the inscription, which “commemorates the founding of the building by Constantine, the priest. The inscription names the emperor Flavius Justinian. It seems that the building was used as a hostel for pilgrims.”
Students from the Paran and Hinaton pre-military preparatory programs took part in the discovery. (photo from Israel Antiquities Authority via Ashernet)
Late last month, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) uncovered an Ottoman-period well, hundreds of years old, as part of the work being carried out by Netivei Israel Co. to widen Highway 38, north of the main entrance to Ramat Beit Shemesh. Students from the Paran and Hinaton pre-military preparatory programs took part in the discovery of the well that is about 3.5 metres in diameter and joins a series of wells that have been documented over the years along Route 38. The palm tree is an indicator that there is nearby a source of groundwater.
An aerial view of part of the Caesarea excavations. (photo by Griffin Aerial, via IAA and Ashernet)
On April 27, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, Caesarea Development Corporation, Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Israel Nature and Parks Authority announced cooperation on an unprecedented scale in conserving and making accessible the public buildings of ancient Caesarea in Caesarea National Park, as well as developing and making the settlement’s beaches more accessible. The more than $28 million project will hopefully help attract three million tourists to Caesarea by 2030.
Caesarea has been a vibrant port city since its establishment about 2,030 years ago and throughout the various ensuing periods. The archeological excavations have revealed many remains that range from the time of Herod to the Crusader period. According to IAA director Israel Hasson, “To date, only about six percent of Caesarea’s treasures have been discovered, and magnificent finds on a global scale are buried beneath its sand dunes.”
Dr. Ra’anan Boustan of Princeton University delivers the Itta and Eliezer Zeisler Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia on March 23. (photo by Gregg Gardner)
A mosaic from Late Antiquity has lessons for Jewish communities today. According to Dr. Ra’anan Boustan of Princeton University, “Jewish identity, historically, was broader, more porous, and integrated more non-Jewish elements than we might think, and, likewise today, we should not hasten to essentialize or rigidly define Jewish identity or culture.”
Boustan offered this insight when delivering the Itta and Eliezer Zeisler Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia on March 23. Called Greek Kings and Judaean Priests in the Late Antique Synagogue: The Newly Discovered “Elephant Mosaic,” Boustan’s visit was presented by the Archeological Institute of America, Vancouver Society, and co-sponsored by the UBC Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics, and the department of classical, Near Eastern and religious studies (CNERS).
A 2011 dig led by archeologist Jodi Magness excavated several sections at the site of a former village, Huqoq, near the Sea of Galilee. Among the items uncovered was a mosaic that is said to have adorned the floor of an elaborate 1,600-year-old synagogue.
“The discovery of the mosaic was a major find,” Prof. Gregg Gardner of CNERS told the Jewish Independent. “There are very few mosaics from the ancient world that depict biblical scenes.”
The mosaics’ scenes include Samson fighting the Philistines, Noah and the flood, the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, and others. A particularly noteworthy element is that the mosaics also show images from Greek history and mythology. “This confluence of biblical and Greek imagery was quite surprising,” said Gardner.
Boustan was in Vancouver to talk about the “Elephant Panel,” which depicts a battle between unknown actors. Although some have argued that the panel represents Alexander the Great, Boustan interprets the mosaic as the depiction of a Seleucid attack on Jerusalem led by King Antiochus VII in 132 BC. “It shows they had a sense of historical connection to predecessors in a more robust way than we might have expected, and wanted to have that memorialized in synagogue art. This shows a historical consciousness, not just the timeless world of rabbis and scriptural interpretation developing in the Talmud of the same period.”
Boustan is a specialist in Judaism in Late Antiquity (circa 200-700 CE) who has focused particularly on understanding “extra-rabbinic culture,” the Judaism that existed outside of what was preserved in the narratives of the rabbis. “The rabbinic writings – the Talmud, the Midrash – preserve the world through their eyes, what they thought was important and how they wanted things to be viewed. The rabbis did not represent all Jews or all Judaism, and the wider Jewish world may have had different viewpoints and priorities.”
Boustan has focused on studying the piyyutim (hymns) written and preserved outside the rabbinic canon and containing some unusual theological ideas, as well as on apocalyptic and mystical literature, which flourished on the fertile edge between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.
“The mosaic is important for understanding the history of Jews and Judaism and gives us something to think about in terms of Jews living in the Western world today,” he said, noting the broader and more porous nature of Jewish identity in those times, and how we shouldn’t be in a hurry to “rigidly define Jewish identity or culture.”
For example, Boustan explained, “The figural art we are finding at Huqoq and elsewhere upends some of our assumptions that, classically, Jews didn’t do that. In fact, we’ve found many small villages of one to two thousand habitants who built very expensive buildings containing a mixture of folk art and world-class art. In Huqoq, the art is imperial-quality work, which would not be surprising to find in a major landowner’s villa in Antioch. Yet, there it is, being commissioned, paid for and used by a farming village of maybe 2,000 people. That tells us we have a lot more to learn about the Jews of Late Antiquity.”
He noted, “In addition, the synagogue art contains a zodiac wheel with a figure of the sun god, Helios, in the centre. What’s going on there? Is it just a decoration? Was it actually part of religious worship in the synagogue? Was it seen allegorically as a poetic representation of God?
“Helios imagery was adopted by Christians in the third century, along with many other Greek religious symbols,” he said. “As the Greco-Roman world Christianized, however, they distanced themselves from ‘pagan’ imagery. By the late fourth to seventh [century], Jews are the only ones actively cultivating zodiacal and Helios imagery. Ironically, if you find a building with Helios imagery from that period, it’s almost definitely a synagogue.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
A painting from Pompeii showing gladiators fighting. It is housed in the National Archeology Museum in Naples. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
Among the fabulous finds of Pompeii is the helmet of an apparently Jewish gladiator. Who would have thought?
As many readers might know, Pompeii was the unfortunate recipient of Mount Vesuvius’s 79 CE wrath. Many gladiator helmets have been dug up in Pompeii’s excavations. (Unfortunately, this collection is kept in storage at Naples’ National Archeology Museum.)
In the paper “A Jewish Gladiator in Pompeii,” historian Dr. Samuele Rocca notes that one of these stored helmets stands out for its unique decoration. While there are images on other recovered helmets and weapons, they usually come from pagan iconography. On this one helmet’s forehead relief, however, there is a seven-branched palmetto tree with a cluster of dates on each side.
During the time of the gladiators, the palmetto symbol was apparently employed in only one other place – as an engraving on Judaean coins. These coins, Rocca says, were associated with Jews. Indeed, the symbol was jointly chosen by the local Jewish leadership and the Roman procurator. Thus, the palm tree symbolized both the religious and secular ideals of the late Second Temple Jewish leadership.
Moreover, Rocca reports that a small number of other Jews came to Pompeii both before the exile of 70 CE and afterward. In Pompeii, they did not form a Jewish community as such, but apparently Jewish women lived at Pompeii.
Remarkably, archeologists have excavated lists of Pompeian names. Apparently, during this time, Maria was a Jewish name. One Pompeii woman bearing that name worked with textiles.
Another woman with the same name lived in the Casa dei Quattro Stili, although her rank and societal position remain a mystery. It is theorized that the most well-known Maria was a prostitute, who worked in the Thermopolium of Asellina, in Via dell’Abbondanza.
While Prof. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, in Herculaneum, Past and Present, writes that food could not have stayed hot in the thermopolia’s terracotta containers, others maintain that the thermopolia were the precursors of today’s restaurants. In brief, this explanation makes a case for Maria to have been a barmaid or waitress.
Estimates are that, in 70 CE, Titus took 20,000 Jewish slaves to Rome, so it is not surprising that Jews arrived in Pompeii as slaves. In fact, from the many documents salvaged from Herculaneum – another town severely affected by that same Vesuvius eruption – we know that Roman society was organized along the lines of freeborn, enslaved, freed and those holding a special status. According to Wallace-Hadrill, “It is a society in which your legal status has an overwhelming importance…. But a society characterized by movement between status groups … the third group comprised those who were neither freeborn nor regularly set free … but who had nevertheless … been promoted to full citizenship.” On still-legible marble panels listing residents’ names, he writes, “only a sixth of the Roman male citizens in Herculaneum could name their freeborn fathers … it leaves them massively outnumbered.”
After Mount Vesuvius’s horrific 79 CE eruption, you may well wonder how so much Herculaneum documentation is still available. Wallace-Hadrill explains, “Pompeii was blanketed in ash and pumice pebbles, while Herculaneum was covered in the fine, hot dust of pyroclastic surges and flows, result[ing] in the extensive preservation at Herculaneum of organic material – principally wood, but also foodstuffs, papyrus and cloth.”
As somewhat of an aside, Salvatore Ciro Nappo, in Pompeii, notes that the Pompeians apparently did not consider Mount Vesuvius dangerous. One indication of this is that the House of the Centenary has a lararium (shrine niche for household gods) fresco in the servants’ rooms showing Bacchus, a thyrsus (a type of staff or wand) and a panther in front of the mountain. Vineyards entirely cover the mountain, presumably indicating Vesuvius brought festivity and prosperity.
Today, archeology is, for the most part, an appreciated study, but that was not always the case. According to Wallace-Hadrill, when medieval rulers wanted to tunnel down into the ruins of Pompeii, they ran into opposition from the Inquisition. Sanctioned excavation – haphazard as it first was, with some kings taking “the good stuff” or even going so far as to destroy finds so as not to share the wealth – did not begin until the 1700s.
Archeology has shown that nearby Naples, located 14 miles southeast of Pompeii, had a bona fide Jewish community pre-dating the Jewish arrival in Pompeii. For trade reasons, Jews started settling in this port city in the first century BCE. Life was tolerable for them, even as the Roman Empire started falling apart. When, in the late fifth and sixth centuries CE, Justinian tried to regain the Roman Empire from the Germanic Ostrogoths, the Jews of Naples fought against Justinian.
These Jews apparently “blended in” to the extent that they inscribed their tombstones almost entirely in Greek or Latin. Significantly, while the travertine (the land-formed version of limestone) grave markers at Naples’ National Archeology Museum are usually not in chiseled Hebrew, they do contain obvious Jewish symbols such as menorot, lulavim, etrogim and shofarot. On one tombstone, the inscription reads: “Here lies Numerius, a Jew, who lived for 26 years and whose soul is in peace. Shalom, Numeri[u]s, amen.”
The French Angevins oppressed the Jews in the 13th century, but their Aragon successors (in the 1400s) basically left them in peace. Naples thus became a major centre of Jewish book production during the 15th century. Then, as happened in other European countries, the Jews were expelled in 1541, only allowed back in generations later. In the 1800s, the Rothschilds, who were the banking concern in Naples, helped restart the Jewish community. In the 1920s, the community grew to 1,000. While 80% of Italian Jewry survived the Holocaust, Naples’ current Jewish population is about half its former size, with even fewer people belonging to Naples’ synagogue.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.