Hyksos Palace Excavated at Tell el-Dab'a

Discoveries from excavations at Tell el-Dab’a, the Hyksos capital in Egypt, were announced recently in a press release from the University of Vienna, but the article was only available in German.  Joe Lauer has received and passed along a statement from the press office in English, which is given below.  Photos of the cuneiform tablet, horse burial, and archaeologist are linked at the bottom of this page.

   A team of the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and of the University of Vienna under Prof. Manfred Bietak and Irene Forstner-Mueller excavated recently a palace of the Hyksos king Khayan (c. 1600-1585 BC). The site is called Tell el-Dab‘a and it was the capital of the Hyksos kings, who ruled the northern part of Egypt between 1640 and 1530 BC. The antiquities were revealed just under the agricultural crust in a rescue operation. It became clear that this palace in the size of over 10,000 sqm is of northern Syrian type and ranges very well among the biggest palaces found thus far in northern Syria. 
    Two finds this season were particularly remarkable. First a fragment of a cuneiform letter written in southern Mesopotamian style and originating most probably in Babylon. As Karen Radner and Frans van Koppen from the University College London – two eminent scholars in this field – found out, this fragment was a letter and can be dated according to its orthography to the last 50 years of the Old Babylonian Kingdom of Hammurabi. The find shows the far reaching international ties of the Hyksos and at the same time connects Egyptian chronology with the Mesopotamian chronology – thus far the synchronisation with Egypt was a controversy of scholars. Now this matter seems to be settled in favour of a low Mesopotamian chronology with the conquest of Babylon around 1550 BC.
    The second important discovery was the burial of a horse, which is situated and stratigraphically well connected within the palace. It was a mare between 5 and 10 years. It was obviously not a chariot horse but more likely used for breeding. It was the Hyksos who introduced the horse to Egypt and it is the oldest undisputed horse burial found in this country. Its position in the palace suggests that this mare was a pet of the Hyksos, most likely king Khayan.
    The third important discovery was a courtyard used for ritual feasts. Numerous pits with over 5000 vessels, buried ritually with remains of meals such as animal bones, were found. Such institutions as this courtyard, secured behind enormous walls, are known from texts in Mesopotamia and the Levant since the third millennium BC. The feasts were in honour of deceased kings or at the occasion of birthdays of gods. It is the first time that such rituals are attested in Egypt by a population originating from the northern Levant.
    The Hyksos period is still very obscure from historical point of view, but the long going excavation of the Austrian team has contributed to a series of corrections in its historiography. The population originated most probably from Lebanon and northern Syria, as the newly discovered palace and the pottery shows. They were people with an urban background and came originally in the late 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as shipbuilders, sailors, soldiers and craftsmen to the country where the pharaohs settled them in a harbour town in the north-eastern Delta, the later city of Avaris. In a time of political weakness they were able to establish a small kingdom there and soon afterwards were able to control the Delta and Middle Egypt until their former vassals in Upper Egypt, particularly king Ahmose defeated them and founded the New Kingdom.


Scientific Discovery: Dating Pottery By Measuring Rehydroxylization

Scientists at the University of Manchester announced last week a breakthrough in the dating of ceramic (pottery) objects.  Called rehydroxylation dating, “the method relies on the fact that fired clay ceramic material will start to chemically react with atmospheric moisture as soon as it is removed from the kiln after firing. This continues over its lifetime causing it to increase in weight – the older the material, the greater the weight gain.” Initial tests on materials up to 2,000 years old have been accurate within a decade.  If this method proves reliable in dating earlier objects, it could be quite useful in solving, for instance, the current debate over 10th-9th century BC pottery in Israel.  One problem with this method for archaeological sites is that the “internal clock” of the pottery is “reset” if the temperature reaches 500 degrees Celsius.  Thus the pottery from areas destroyed by fire would only date to the year of the destruction and not to the date of creation.

The results of the report are covered in a popular article by Science Daily, or you can read the original article (pdf) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A (alternate link here).  The paper’s abstract:

The majority of ceramics are found in archaeological deposits and are extremely difficult to date. The typical method of using radiocarbon dating used for bone or wood cannot be used for ceramic material because it does not contain carbon, and luminescence dating is far too complex. Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Manchester have discovered a new method of ceramic dating which is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A..
Their new ‘rehydroxylation dating’ method stems utilises the fact that fired clay ceramics start to react chemically with atmospheric moisture as soon as it is removed from the kiln. The ultra-slow recombination of moisture appears to be generic in fired-clay ceramics and obeys a precise power law, which acts as an ‘internal clock’. Rehydroxylation dating enables scientists to date brick samples from Roman, medieval and modern periods.


Weekend Roundup (5/26/09)

Logos is set to release a new product entitled “1,000 Bible Images.”  The projected ship date is June 2, which means that the pre-publication price of $20 will soon expire.  From the screenshots, it appears that the illustrations are all black-and-white line drawings.  The collection’s description begins:

Now you can literally see the people, places, and events of the Bible text—right in front of your eyes! Bring your study of the Bible to life with this collection of 1,000 images, drawings, and illustrations—all produced by professional artists under the supervision of biblical scholars, in association with the German Bible Society. This vivid artwork shows the biblical sites, religious objects, plants and animals, archaeological findings, scenes from daily life in the Bible, and much more! As reliable documentation of biblical life, these images often give a better illustration and explanation than the text itself can give.

If you’ve ever considered a trip to Israel with young children, this NY Times article provides some ideas for what to do.  Depending on the length of your visit and where you call home, I would make a few more suggestions: Hai Bar Animal Reserve, Timna Park with the Tabernacle Model, snorkeling in Eilat, the Armored Corps Museum at Latrun, Mini-Israel, a canoe ride on the Jordan River, a beach on the Mediterranean such as Ashkelon, and yes, Yad VaShem.

Hiking in the Judean wilderness can be great fun, but if you do it, take all precautions.  Every year someone loses their life, and this weekend it was a 22-year-old hiking all alone.


The Battles Within the Holy Sepulcher Church

If you’ve ever wondered what the background is for the fistfights, the unmoving ladder, or the eternal state of disrepair of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, this essay by Raymond Cohen at The Bible and Interpretation is well worth reading.  Cohen goes back to the Crusader period to explain where the “Status Quo” came from and how it has evolved over the centuries.  The following paragraphs may stir your interest, and if the article itself does not satisfy, you can pick up Cohen’s recent book, Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue their Holiest Shrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Out of communion for centuries, six ancient churches are represented today at the Holy Sepulchre by communities of monks. The three major communities administering the Holy Sepulchre, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics—represented by the Franciscan Order—and Armenian Orthodox have their own chapels and share common areas, which include the stone of unction, the edicule containing Christ’s tomb, and surrounding paving. Two minor communities, the Coptic Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox, have rights of usage, but no say in the running of the church. The tiny Ethiopian Orthodox community, living on the roof, has no rights in the Anastasis….
In some respects, the Status Quo functions like a railway timetable, specifying for every day of the ecclesiastical year the time and place of services and processions conducted by the communities in public areas of the church. It also acts as a sort of property register, detailing possession of every stone and nail. Not a carpet can be laid, a candle lit, or a step swept unless it is the custom….
In the end, an inoffensive compromise design was agreed upon by church leaders and inaugurated in January 1997, enabling the scaffolding disfiguring the rotunda to come down. However, the restoration was unfinished: The edicule was left untouched, visibly disintegrating and only held together by steel bands; paving throughout the church was cracked and shabby; the electrical and sewage systems badly needed renovation, as did the malodorous public latrines….

You can read the whole thing here.

Holy Sepulcher ladder closeup, tb090402202 Facade of the Church the Holy Sepulcher, with ladder allegedly placed for repairs that were never agreed upon by church authorities.

Hebrew Inscription Discovered on Mount of Olives

Earlier this week a discovery was announced of an inscription of “Menahem” from an excavation on the southern end of the Mount of Olives (JPost or, with photo, Arutz-7).  The name “Menahem” gets attention because it is the name of one of the last rulers of the northern kingdom (c. 752-742 BC). 

There is some difficulty with this reading, and other proposals have been made, including that it says “M / Nahum” or “[B] N (son) / Nahum.”  It sure seems like there have been a lot of Old Testament-era Hebrew inscriptions found in Jerusalem (and Judah) this decade.


Ancient Submerged Village at Atlit

This story about a Neolithic village submerged at Atlit has something of everything except a biblical character: environmental activism, the earliest known fishing town, undisturbed burials, a healthy diet but poor health, the earliest case of tuberculosis, ancient and modern global warming, and a Stonehenge-like circle of stones.  The title of the Jerusalem Post article is “Israel’s Atlantis”:

But in 1984, during an underwater archeological survey, Galili and his colleagues discovered the Atlit-Yam village – some 400 meters offshore. The submerged village, he says, is the largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement ever uncovered off the Mediterranean coast. In an area of 40,000 square meters eight to 12 meters below sea level, the archeologists found remains of human habitation dating back 9,000 years to the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic period.
Putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their findings, the architecture of the dwellings and the radiocarbon dating sets the scene for what is thought to have been the earliest-known agro-pastoral fishing community, a claim that has gone undisputed by archeological authorities. Marine discoveries from the site are published in professional journals worldwide….
Recently, researchers identified signs of tuberculosis in the skeletons of a mother and child at the site. Mycobacterum tuberculosis, the principal agent of human TB, is believed to have evolved over the millennia. A multi-disciplinary team from Tel Aviv and the Hebrew Universities in Israel and Centers for Infectious Diseases in the UK together with the Israel Antiquities Authority put together the tests, including DNA. TB was generally held to have been transferred to humans from cattle, but there were no cows at Atlit-Yam. This led to the suggestion that the high density of the fishing village’s population had facilitated the transmission of the disease. According to Dr. Helen Donoghue, the infected organism is “definitely the human strain of TB, in contrast to the original theory that human TB only evolved from bovine TB later on in history, after the domestication of animals.”

The full article is here.

HT: Joe Lauer


For Biblical Maps, Start Here

By “here,” I mean Mark Vitalis Hoffman’s excellent summary of “Digital Resources for Biblical Mapping.”  Mark has done a fantastic job in the last couple of years of helping Bible teachers with electronic resources.  You can stay up-to-date with the latest fruits of his labor at his blog, Biblical Studies and Technological Tools

Mark has a variety of resources from his website Scroll and Screen (including a roundup of resource for biblical photos), and your favorite section will probably depend upon your particular interest, but truly outstanding and unique (as far as I know) is the listing of maps related to the biblical world.  As you’ll see, there is no “one-size-fits all” for biblical maps (as there is, ahem, for biblical photos), and that’s what makes such an annotated survey so very helpful.  Enjoy, and if you have feedback from your experience with these resources, I’m sure that Mark would be happy to hear it.


Seal of “Saul” Found in Jerusalem

A seal of a person named Saul dating from the time of Hezekiah (c. 700 BC) has been discovered in the City of David in Jerusalem.  The Israel Antiquities Authority has released a high-resolution photograph and a press release:

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.

The press release continues here (temporary link).

HT: Joe Lauer


The Israel Museum Renovation

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is in the midst of a $100 million renovation and the Jerusalem Post has an update on the transformation.  Here are some snips:

There are two main aspects to the renewal project. The first is to create a completely new approach from the entrance of the museum to the center of the museum campus. To do this, the museum has hired New York architect James Carpenter, who has worked on a variety of high-profile projects, such as the new Hearst headquarters (which involved saving the original facade of an existing building), the podium light wall of the Seven World Trade Center building in New York, a proposed multi-use sports enclosure for the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the Madison Square Garden renovation…. This second main aspect of the campus renewal – the reconstruction of the original museum complex from within – has been taken up by Tel Aviv-based Zvi Efrat of Efrat-Kowalsky Architects. Efrat, who is also the head of the architecture department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, has created a central circulation point from which all the museum’s main exhibit wings – Archeology, Judaica and Jewish Ethnography, Fine Arts, and Temporary Exhibitions – are accessible on the same level. To achieve this internal redesign without, in Snyder’s words, "increasing the breadth of the existing envelope," the museum is being gutted from the inside, its exhibit halls are reconfigured, and a number of connecting passages are being added. The key to the project, though, is turning an area previously dedicated to internal museum service activity into exhibition spaces, resulting in an additional 9,290 sq.m. of gallery space that does not involve expanding the museum campus…. One of the final touches to the renewal project was a revamping of the museum’s central outdoor plaza, raising two-thirds of it by a meter to improve its position as a vista point, and to split its length to make it more human-sized. The east side will lead to the underground passage that connects with the museum entrance, and the west side will open up on a wide staircase that feeds into the Isamu Noguchi-designed sculpture garden, making it more central to the campus.

The TimeOnline has a story about the new Egyptian gallery at the British Museum in London.  (HT: Explorator)


Archaeological Surveys and Their Limitations

My friend A.D. Riddle sends along this interesting quotation from J. B. Pritchard, Recovering Sarepta, A Phoenician City: Excavations at Sarafand, Lebanon, 1969-1974 (1978):

The western face of the promontory had been eroded by heavy seas. In the scarp, stubs of walls and masses of Roman sherds could be seen, but nothing earlier. Scouring the surface of the fields on top of the mound for diagnostic sherds that might date its occupation, we found two handles from amphorae that had been imported from the Island of Rhodes. They could be dated to the Hellenistic period by the labels in Greek which had been stamped on them. Obviously the site had been occupied at least two centuries before the Roman port was built. Below the Hellenistic debris there might be the remains of an Iron Age settlement, but on the surface there was no evidence—not a single potsherd—to witness a Phoenician presence (p. 71).

In the excavations, Pritchard revealed seven layers preceding the Hellenistic period, including five from the Iron Age.

Zarephath Phoenician harbor & tell from E,ar090508617Zarephath (Sarepta) harbor and tell from east
Photo by A.D. Riddle, May 2009