You can’t kick a stone in the Middle East without uncovering an artifact. It’s an archaeologist’s paradise and a diplomat’s nightmare. When it comes to biblical-related stories, there’s always a furor. Does this artifact “prove” Jesus lived or does this inscription substantiate the story of David and Goliath? The past couple of months provided several stories touching on biblical narratives. The trend in returning looted artifacts to their rightful home is continuing with a couple of good news stories. Finally, it’s been thirty years since Indiana Jones made archaeology sexy in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But Dr. Jones preferred a bull whip and pistol to scientific methods. We’ll see what scientific innovations have evolved since Indy’s time. First story in our lineup: the city of Shekhem; supposedly the final burial site of Joseph of the many-colored coat.
On the West Bank, in the city of Nablus, Palestinian and Dutch archaeologists are excavating the site of the ancient city of Shekhem and preparing to open it as an archaeological park next year. Shekhem was an important regional trade center, mentioned in Pharaonic archives and the earliest biblical narratives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. The site had massive defensive walls (they defeated invading Egyptians), monumental gates and a large temple. The Romans abandoned the city 2000 years ago and built a new city to the west. (Link to original story. )
Israeli archaeologists are excavating the ancient Philistine city of Gath. The Philistines are the perpetual bad guys in the Hebrew Bible: David slays the Philistine giant Goliath and Samson was betrayed and blinded by them. Today we call someone a philistine who is ignorant of, or doesn’t appreciate, the better things in life such as art, music and culture. The ongoing dig at Gath paints a more nuanced picture. The Philistines came by sea from the Aegean around 1200 B.C. and occupied the coastal plain, of present day Israel and the Gaza Strip. They warred constantly with the ancient Israelites who occupied the inland hills. Evidence from their material goods—pots, food waste, inscriptions—show Greek influences. And who among the ancients do we prize more for their culture than the Greeks? (Link to original story.)
Moving on to the New Testament, Israeli scholars have declared the inscription on an ossuary, seized from tomb robbers three years ago, to be authentic. The stone chest, used to store bones, is decorated with the stylized shapes of flowers and inscribed with “Miriam daughter of Yeshua son of Caiaphas, priest of Maaziah from Beth Imri.” Scholars say the word “maaziah” on the inscription refers to a subset of the priestly cast and believe “Beth Imri” refers either to a priestly family or to the family’s village of origin. A Caiaphas appears in the story of Jesus as a high priest and adversary. Another ossuary bearing the inscription of “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” is considered a hoax and is the center of a fraud trial in Israel. (Link to original story.)
The effort continues to find the more than 15,000 artifacts looted during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and return them. Most recently these include an ancient bead necklace, possibly from the royal tombs of Ur; terra cotta tablets from ancient Babylonia depicting Ishtar, the goddess of love and war; and modern Ba’ath government relics such as a tea set and posters of deposed leader Saddam Hussein. The necklace was located at a Christies’ auction. The FBI, investigating defense contractors accused of fraud, found they were also collecting and smuggling Iraqi artifacts in to the US; among them the terracotta pieces. Other pieces were being sold on Craigslist. So far, the US has returned about 1,200 artifacts. (Link to original story.)
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts returned a beautiful marble bust (shown above) known as “The Weary Herakles” to Turkey. It will be reunited with its lower half at the Antalya Museum later this year. The Turkish government, like Egypt and Italy, is aggressively pursuing pieces it feels were looted from its country through the years. The lower half was discovered in southern Turkey in 1980. The MFA bought the bust in 1981 from a German dealer. The Turkish government presented the MFA with photos and other evidence of looting from the site which convinced them of the Turkish claim. The completed statue might return to Boston on a short-term loan. (Link to original story.)
Last January, Italian police prevented looters from smuggling pieces of a monumental statue of the emperor Caligula out of the country. Archaeologists excavated at the looters illegal dig near Lake Nemi, south of Rome, where Caligula based a pair of pleasure boats. They revealed a large semicircular nymphaeum, or fountain court, enclosed by a series of 23-foot-tall columns; and discovered 150 other objects, such as vases and pieces of jewelry. A niche at the center of the nymphaem once held the Caligula statue and contained more than one hundred fragments, including the head. Reassembled, the statue shows a young robed man in the attitude of the god Zeus, sitting under a pillow on a beautifully decorated throne. On the left foot, the statue wears the “caligae” military boot after which the notorious Roman emperor, whose real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was nicknamed. (Link to original story.)
From real looted artifacts, it’s only a short step to fictional ones. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” celebrated its 30th anniversary on June 12. I admit, I saw it during its original run. Don’t do the math. Indiana Jones made archaeology sexy and exciting for a whole generation of young people, but he didn’t have many scientific tools to work with. Since the nineteen-thirties, when the first movie is set, a whole array of advanced technology such as satellite imaging, DNA analysis, airborne laser mapping, robots and full-body medical scanners supplement, and sometimes replace, the pick and shovel of archeology’s early days. Now archeologists don’t have to destroy a site or an artifact to study it. (Link to original story.)
The following are a sample of stories in the news using these advanced techniques:
- Scientists have determined that tsunamis, not an earthquake and flood, destroyed the city of Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games. They used sedimentological, geophysical, geochemical and microfaunal analyses of the 26 feet of sand and debris covering the site to bolster their conclusions.
- The Field Museum of Chicago embarked on a project to use CT scans on their collection of mummies (the largest in the Americas) from Egypt and Peru. The coffins can’t be opened without damaging them. A CT scan, in three dimensions, allows researchers an unparalleled look at what lies within the ornate coffins. Among the results so far: a 40-year old woman with lower back pain, a teenager who may have jumped to his death, and a mummy with no torso.
- Archaeologists are studying nearly 800 sacks of compacted human waste from a septic tank, which lies beneath the remains of a Roman apartment block in Herculaneum, buried by ash from the Vesuvius eruption in AD79. The estimated 150 middle- and lower-class inhabitants of the three-story block of flats regularly feasted on fish, spiky sea urchins, figs, walnuts, eggs, dormice and olives.
- Using microscopy and other lab analyses, an Egyptologist is studying Bronze age weapons for evidence of how the weapons were used. It looks like the Pharoahs and elite of that period led their armies and engaged in combat. Previously, scientists thought the weapons were ceremonial.
Other interesting history in the news stories:
- An ancient theater at Hieropolis is being restored. The project is financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
- A team unearthed the first Roman-era basilica in Alexandria Egypt. The basilica was built on the ruins of a temple from the Ptolemaic era.
- Archaeologists unscramble ancient graffiti at Beit She’arim in Israel. The national park and necropolis dates back to the first century.
- A gladiator’s gravestone describes a ref’s wrong call that cost him his life. “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately,” reads the epitaph. “Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis (referee) killed me.”
- Anomalous round huts were excavated in the Roman fort of Vindolanda in the UK. They are possibly refuge huts for locals who helped the Romans and were at risk for reprisals.
- A fifth century shipwreck was discovered in Istanbul with its full load and timber frame completely intact. The wreck is among some 35 sunken ships at the old Byzantine harbor which had silted over, probably in the 10th century.
- Archaeologists continue to explore the ancient Roman city of Berenika in Egypt. The port was a major transfer point for the eastern spice trade and was recently featured in the Discovery Channel documentary “When Rome Ruled Egypt.”
One follow-up story:
- Moammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government may be storing munitions in cultural sites such as museums and ruins like the U.N. World Heritage Site at Leptis Magna. I posted in April about the concerns for Libya’s rich historical sites during the on-going conflict. In June NATO officials said they could not rule out bombing in the area of Leptis Magna if Gaddafi’s troops are found to be using it as a military staging ground. UNESCO issued a statement calling for all parties in the conflict to protect heritage sites.