Archaeology in Israel Update--February/March 2012
By Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research
New Tourism Center on Givati Car Park, Jerusalem
Recently initial approval has been given for a large new tourism center over the site of the former car park opposite the City of David archaeological park and south of the Dung Gate of the Old City. The new complex will be built on stilts over the large site, still partly under excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority. This is considered by some to have been the location of the palace of Queen Helena of Adiabene of the first century CE, where many Roman and Byzantine artifacts have been uncovered. The complex will house facilities for tourists as well as a museum of local finds and will illustrate the history of the area to include details of its Islamic past from the Arab Conquest to the present day. Further approvals have still to be given and costs allocated, but once complete, the complex will make it easier for visitors to access the southern part of the Old City and the excavations below the southern walls where a new area has been prepared alongside the ancient city eastern wall and gate. This is considered by Dr. Elat Mazar and others to be of the Solomonic period.
Cultivation of Ancient Citrons (etrogim) at Ramat Rahel, Jerusalem
Excavations at the royal palace of Ramat Rahel, which dates back to the time of Hezekiah in the eighth century BCE, have been going on for some years under the direction of Prof. Oded Lipschitz and Dr. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Oeming of Heidelberg University. The palace boasted a royal garden where the hard local ground had been replaced in antiquity by finer productive soil and the archaeologists were keen to find out what had been grown there. For evidence they decided to examine the plasterwork of the surrounding walls, based on the theory that in springtime the plant pollen would have been blown onto the walls while they were being plastered. They carefully peeled off some layers of the plaster and were able to identify several wild species and also evidence of citrus plants from a layer of plaster that they identified as having been applied during the Persian period, after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon in the sixth century BCE. The pollen was identified by Dr. Dafna Langut of Tel Aviv University as being that of the citron, the etrog, the fruit that is used as one of the four species to be waved aloft on the festival of Tabernacles. This is the earliest evidence of the etrog in Israel, and it is assumed that the royal palace planted their trees, whose origin is in India, when they were brought to this country by the exiles from Babylon. Further evidence was found of willow and myrtle plants that are also used for the festive Sukkoth (Tabernacles) rituals (Lev. 23:40).
Restoration of Historic Sites, the Montefiore Windmill in Jerusalem
We have mentioned before that the Israeli government has allocated funds to the restoration and preservation of sites of historic interest. At the end of February, a list of 13 heritage sites was published and these included Tel Shiloh, where tradition claims that the desert shrine Mishkan was re-erected; the ancient synagogue of the Second Temple Period at Umm el-Umdam in Modi'in and the Montefiore windmill in the Yemin Moshe area of Jerusalem. The government has pledged 72 million shekels (c. 12 million sterling) for these projects, of which one million is for the windmill, to which further funds will be contributed by the Jerusalem Municipality, the Ministry of Tourism ,and the Christian Friends of Israel from Holland. The plan for the windmill is to put it back in working order using replica parts made in Britain to the designs of the Holman Company of UK that built the original mill in 1857. The parts will be shipped to experts for assembly in Holland and then transported for final fitting to the mill in Jerusalem. It is hoped to complete the work before the end of this summer and then have the four-storied mill turning and working every five-day week on a regular basis.
Another controversial find by Simcha Jacobovici
Simcha Jacobovici, the Canadian-Israeli director of the TV series, "The Naked Archaeologist," claimed recently that he had identified the tomb of some of the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem. The burial cave in question is situated under a residential building in the Armon Hanatziv area of southern Jerusalem. It was first found in the 1990s when local ultra-orthodox residents objected to further investigation and covered the cave with a concrete slab and built a block of flats over it. Jacobovici claimed he got permission from the residents to conduct further exploratory work and, although he was stopped from opening up the cave, he was eventually allowed to make a small hole and investigate below by means of a camera mounted on a robotic arm. The subsequent image that he obtained shows an incised carving of a fish swallowing, or vomiting out, a human head, which Jacobovici claims is an image of Jonah and the Great Fish (usually described as a whale) and that, he says, designates an early Christian image, as it was used as a symbol of Christ and his resurrection. Jacobovici has therefore concluded that the cave contained the remains of some of the early followers of Jesus, and the Israeli archaeologist members of his team are reported as agreeing with his findings. Jacobovici was due to hold a press conference in New York at the beginning of March, but I have no further information on this sensational claim.
Sale of Ancient Shekel in New York Auction
A silver shekel, struck in Jerusalem in year 1 of the Revolt by the Jewish rebels against Roman rule, was sold in early March at auction in New York for $1.1 million. It had been part of the Shoshana Collection of 2,000 ancient Judaean coins formed by a private collector from Los Angeles, who had purchased it 20 years ago for $240,000. The only other known example of this coin belongs to the Israel Museum. The collection as a whole will be sold off over the coming year and is expected to fetch $10 million.
Forgery Trial Verdict Announced
On 14th March, the verdict of Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court was released, declaring that the two defendants were not guilty of forgery. As for the two artifacts in question, it could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt that they were forgeries. The trial had been in progress for nearly seven years and the judge had to consider 12,000 pieces of evidence and the testimony of dozens of experts. The prosecution was brought by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) who had claimed that a number of artifacts had been forged by a number of defendants. In the course of the trial, the number of pieces was reduced to two, the "James, brother of Jesus Ossuary" and the "Yehoash Tablet" and the defendants to two, Oded Golan, an antiquities dealer and Robert Deutsch, an expert in ancient seals. Both were found not guilty, but Golan was convicted of the minor count of dealing in antiquities without a license, for which he will be sentenced later. The judge had been unable to conclude that the pieces were forgeries as the testimony of the experts had weighed in on both sides of the argument and, as the judge had said, who was he to make a decision on a matter of contention between professionals. It was also clear that even if the items were forgeries, the actual work could not be pinned on the defendants. It had been claimed that the alleged forgeries were committed by a named Egyptian craftsman, but the Court had been unable to bring him to court from Cairo.
The judge's decision is a disappointment for the IAA but they claim that the case has highlighted the questionable authenticity of artifacts of unknown provenance acquired on the market, and in fact, the judge's verdict does not prove that the two items in question are not forgeries. It seems to be the opinion among archaeologists that it is quite possible that, of the inscription on the ossuary, "James, the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" the ossuary is genuine and only the last three words were added by a forger. As for the Yehoash (Joash) Tablet, the text is a close to passages found in Second Kings 12 and Second Chronicles 24 and, if genuine, would be a remarkable confirmation of the Temple and its description in the Hebrew Bible. But the texts are so close that experts were very suspicious, and also the origin of the tablet was unclear.