The Land of Israel’s rich, complex and diverse cultural and anthropological history makes it an area of interest for archaeologists. Over the past year, new findings have provided insight into life here as far back as 500,000 years ago, through to the less distant Roman period, which shed light on both Jewish and Roman life and relations before the destruction of the Second Temple. The Jerusalem Post selected several of the most interesting finds in the year 5778.
Decapitated toads shed light on ancient burial customs
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The year 5778 kicked off with the revelation of a strange and gruesome discovery: Archaeologists last September announced the discovery of the remains of nine headless toads inside a well-preserved jar placed in a 4,000-year-old tomb in Jerusalem.
This finding shed light on burial customs during the Canaanite period of the Middle Bronze Age. The excavation took place in 2014, prior to the expansion of the Malha neighborhood near Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo.
According to directors of the excavation, which was conducted by the Antiquities Authority, the Nahal Refaim basin, where the tomb was unearthed, was once fertile ground for settlements, particularly during the Canaanite period.
“For an archaeologist, finding tombs that were intentionally sealed in antiquity is a priceless treasure because they are a time capsule that allows us to encounter objects almost just as they were originally left. At that time, it was customary to bury the dead with offerings that constituted a kind of ‘burial kit,’ which, it was believed, would serve the deceased in the afterworld,” said researchers Shua Kisilevitz and Zohar Turgeman-Yaffe.
A microscopic examination also found that the vessels placed in the tomb had come into with various plants, including date palms and myrtle bushes. The scholars believe that the plants may have been part of an orchard planted in an area where funeral rituals were held, during which offerings of food and objects were made to the deceased, the jar of toads among them.
Jerusalem’s lost theater discovered under Western Wall
Underneath Wilson’s Arch, the only intact, visible structure remaining from the Temple Mount compound of the Second Temple period, excavators uncovered a 200-seat theater from the Roman period, as announced by the Antiquities Authority last October. They also found eight large ancient stone courses, built of enormous stones.
Wilson’s Arch is the last of a series of such arches that once constituted a gigantic bridge leading to the Temple Mount from the west. The arch, which stands high above the foundations of the Western Wall, served as a passageway for people entering the Temple Mount compound and the Temple. A huge aqueduct also passed over the arch.
The site’s excavators, Dr. Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman and Dr. Avi Solomon, said that the dig was initiated in order to date the structure, but turned into far more when the theater was discovered. “From a research perspective, this is a sensational find,” Uziel said.
The archaeologists noted that the structure was small in comparison to known Roman theaters, a fact that, coupled with its location under a roofed space, led them to believe that it was an odeum, used for acoustic performances. Alternatively, they said, the structure might have been what is known as a bouleuterion, the building where the city council met – in this case, the council of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina. However, they believe the theater was never used, due to a number of signs, among them a staircase that was never completely hewn. The researchers suggested that the theater may have been abandoned when the Bar-Kochba Revolt broke out.
Numerous findings were unearthed beneath Wilson’s Arch, including pottery vessels, coins, architectural elements, and other relics.
Western Wall Heritage Foundation director Mordechai Eliav deemed the discovery one of the most important unearthed during his 30-year tenure with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
“The findings symbolize the guests from past empires that were here over the years, as opposed to the Jewish people, who held fast to this place some 3,000 years ago and have been here ever since and always,” he said.
500,000-year-old archaeological site found in central Israel
A unique 500,000-year-old prehistoric site was exposed in the Arab town of Jaljulya in central Israel, as revealed by the Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University in January. Hundreds of thousands of flint-stone tools from the Lower Paleolithic era were uncovered in an area spanning nearly 2.5 acres, a rare find in the Levant region.
According to Ron Barkai, head of the TAU archaeology department, these flint tools “supply us with important information regarding prehistoric man’s lifestyle…. The tools that were found here can be attributed to Homo erectus, the forefather of all human beings alive today.”
In a period when most humans lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, this finding suggested that early humans had a geographical memory as well, which enabled them to return to a specific location, such as this one, on a seasonal basis, Barkai said.
Most of the tools found are hand axes, almond-shaped instruments, and many of them are surprisingly well preserved, providing modern archaeologists a unique window into the lives of our ancestors.
Researchers believe they dug up 2,700-year-old seal of Prophet Isaiah
In February, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced that the Ophel excavations had unearthed clay seals believed to have been used by the biblical Prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah. Isaiah advised Hezekiah in the Kingdom of Judah during the eighth century BCE.
The discovery of an oval, 1-cm. bulla was made by Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who noted that because its upper end is missing and its lower left end is slightly damaged, a definitive determination cannot be made.
The surviving portion of the bulla depicts the lower part of a grazing doe, which Mazar noted was a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah, particularly in Jerusalem, present also on another bullae from the same area.
“The middle register of the bulla reads ‘l’eyesha‘yah[u]’ [belonging to Isaiah]; the damaged left end most likely included the [Hebrew] letter ‘vav,’” she said. “The lower register reads ‘n[ah]vy,’ centered. The damaged left end of this register may have been left empty, as on the right – with no additional letters – but it also may have had an additional letter, such as an alef, which would render the word… “prophet” in Hebrew.” Alternately, Mazar conceded, it’s possible the seal did not belong to the Prophet Isaiah but, rather, to one of King Hezekiah’s officials named Isaiah, with the surname “N[ah]vy.”
Either way, she hailed the finding as a rare window into that time in the history of Jerusalem, and “an almost personal ‘encounter’ with some of the key players who took part in the life of the Ophel’s royal quarter, including King Hezekiah and, perhaps, also the Prophet Isaiah.”
Gate to biblical city of Zer uncovered
In July, the Golan Regional Council announced that archaeologists had uncovered the entrance gate to the biblical city of Zer, in excavations of two different areas of Bethsaida. The ancient fishing village is mentioned more than once in the New Testament as a city where Jesus lived and where he miraculously fed a multitude of people with five loaves and two fish.
A group of 20 archaeologists from all over the world conducted the excavations together with director of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, Dr. Rami Arav, who began carrying out excavations of et-Tell on behalf of the University of Nebraska nearly 30 years ago.
In these excavations, he identified the ancient Bethsaida, and following his excavations and discoveries, masses of Christian pilgrims visited the site because of its great importance to Christianity.
Archaeologists said the size, wealth and impressive fortifications uncovered
“There are not many gates in this country from this period. Bethsaida was the name of the city during the Second Temple period, but during the First Temple period it was the city of Zer,” Arav said, pointing to Joshua 19:35, which says: “The fortified towns were Ziddim, Zer, Hammath, Rakkath, Kinneret.”
Bronze coin from 4th year of Great Revolt found at national park
Also in July, the City of David announced the discovery of a bronze coin from the fourth year of the Great Revolt, found at the archaeological sifting project at Tzurim Valley National Park.
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The discovery was made during excavations led by the Antiquities Authority at the City of David National Park, supervised by archaeologist Eli Shukrun.
The coin, minted by Jews in 69 CE, a year before the destruction of the Second Temple, features the words “For the Redemption of Zion” in ancient Hebrew script, with an image of a goblet under the inscription. On the back of the coin is an image of the Four Species used on Sukkot and the words “Year Four” – representing the fourth year of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans. In 70 CE, the revolt was subdued and the Second Temple destroyed.
“The Jews minted coins throughout the entire period of the revolt, but in the fourth year of the five-year rebellion, we see that instead of the words ‘Freedom for Zion,’ the coins were minted with the words ‘For the Redemption of Zion,’” Shukrun said.
The coin was found in soil extracted from the drainage canal at the City of David National Park, which passed underneath Jerusalem’s main street at the end of the Second Temple period. According to the writings of Josephus Flavius, and based on archaeological evidence, the last remaining Jewish rebels hid from the Romans in this drainage canal.
World’s oldest brewery found in a cave in northern Israel
University of Haifa and Stanford University researchers discovered the ago, in the Rakefet Cave in the Carmel, they announced earlier this month.
Archaeologists analyzed three stone mortars from the 13,000-year-old Natufian burial cave site in Israel, concluding that these mortars were used for brewing wheat/barley, as well as for food storage.
The researchers explained that the earliest archaeological evidence for cereal-based brewing, even before the advent of agriculture, comes from the Natufians – a semi-sedentary, foraging people, living in the eastern Mediterranean between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods, following the last ice age.
The Natufians at Rakefet Cave collected locally available plants, stored malted seeds and made beer as a part of their rituals, according to the study. The researchers found evidence of several different grains stored in mortars, including wheat, barley, oats, legumes and flax.
An examination of two mortars found microscopic remains of starch grains that underwent morphological changes that correspond to changes in starch that occur in the process of fermentation. The evidence indicates that the craters were used to store grains before and after fermentation.
Previously, the earliest evidence of alcohol has been found in pottery from the Neolithic village Jiahu, near the Yellow River in China, which dates to about 7,000 BCE.
Several of these stories were originally reported by late Jerusalem Post reporter Daniel K. Eisenbud, a talented journalist who had a passion for archaeology. Eisenbud died in March 2018.
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