Category Archives: Archaeology

An Aspect of the Archaeology of Judah

Another Great Essay from the World’s Leading Archaeology Magazine

ANE Today hits another one out of the ballpark with a smart, accurate, and well written essay.  This time on the Alphabet.

We take the alphabet for granted: a modern, crisp, efficient way of writing. Each sound has a sign, and each sign has a sound, and those stubborn exceptions to that are unfortunate accidents of history that really, of course, we ought to reform. Sure, China, Japan, Korea, etc., but that, my friends, is the power of culture: even in the face of an obviously superior and more efficient system, societies stick with traditional practices. Fortunate are we who have the alphabet!  But where did the alphabet come from, and is it in fact “better” than other writing systems? There are certainly older writing systems: while cuneiform and hieroglyphs continue to vie for the title of the oldest (a title that rightfully belongs to cuneiform, by the way), they both pre-date the alphabet by far more than a thousand years.



Thomas and Israel

What Did Jesus Look Like?

Joan Taylor has some thoughts on the matter in the only archaeology related magazine you need to bother with- ANE Today.  Because, seriously, it’s the only one worth reading.

Everyone knows what Jesus looks like: he is the most painted figure in all of western art, recognized everywhere as having long hair and a beard, a long robe with sleeves (often white) and a mantle (often blue).

But what did he really look like, as a man living in Judaea in the 1st century? This subject has long been of interest. I have already written on John the Baptist and his clothing, but not about Jesus. Nevertheless, over the years, numerous television documentaries have asked me for guidance on dramatizing aspects of ancient life. In order to give them clear directions, I gathered information about what Jesus looked like, or rather, what he is said to have worn. I would like to share this here.

It is worth emphasizing that images of Jesus over time give us clues on how Jesus was imagined in different environments, but say absolutely nothing about what he really looked like. Our images of Jesus were largely created in the Byzantine era (4th-6th centuries). Byzantine images of Jesus were based on the image of a Graeco-Roman deity, for example the famous statue of Olympian Zeus by Phidias in the 4th century BCE.

Give it a read.

Crucifixion Mystery

960x0In 2006, a construction team in Italy stumbled upon an isolated skeleton from a Roman-era burial. Experts believed it was the remains of a man who was crucified. If so, the skeleton would only be the second example found of crucifixion in Roman times. Could this be the key that unlocks one of the Bible’s secrets regarding the death of Jesus? Join us as we use modern technology to examine this rare archaeological find, learn more about this barbaric form of execution, and gain new insights into the most famous crucifixion of them all.

Information and air times here.

Forbes Magazine has a bit more here.

Skeletal evidence of crucifixion, a practice the Romans used for centuries as punishment, is exceedingly rare. Five years ago, there was only one bone that experts agreed was likely from a crucified person, who was buried in Israel. Now, a second bone from northern Italy is at the center of a new Smithsonian Channel documentary on ancient crucifixion airing tonight.  …

But a second example has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Accidentally uncovered during preventative archaeological work ahead of a planned pipeline about 75km outside of Venice, Italy, the isolated skeleton – a man in his 30s – was laid to rest without any grave goods. …

Just as at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, the Gavello skeleton reveals a puncture wound caused almost certainly by a nail through the heel bone. Unlike the Jerusalem example, though, the man from Gavello was not buried in a proper family tomb. “Isolation of the burial site,” the researchers explain, “may have been a consequence of the community’s refusal of the individual in death as in life.”

new documentary airing tonight on the Smithsonian Channel titled “Crucifixion Mystery” investigates these two skeletal examples of crucifixion within the historical background of the Roman Empire, and also interviews experts – including me – on how the mechanisms of this punishment caused a person’s death. Dr. Per Lav Madsen, a Danish cardiologist, has been running experiments to show that, after just an hour of being forced into a standing position, unable to move the legs, a person can faint or otherwise lose consciousness. And I describe how a lack of water leads to dehydration and eventually to failure of various bodily systems, causing death. There were ways to hasten death – such as through crurifragium, or breaking the legs – but crucifixion was actually designed to be a slow, painful demise.

The fact that archaeologists have only found two bones that show clear evidence of crucifixion, two millennia after the Romans used it on thousands of victims, means that we will likely never fully understand the extent to which the punishment was used, whom it was used on, or how they met their ends. But given the advances in archaeological research even since the Giv’at ha-Mivtar skeleton was found, both bones demonstrate just how much we stand to learn when this incredibly rare evidence is found.

Dig at Hazor with Eric Cline

Details here.

New in ANE Today

Israelite and Judahite Ambassadors to Assyria

Contacts between the mighty Assyrian empire and ancient Israel and Judah were a critical part of the history of these kingdoms. Israelite reactions to Assyrian influence are explicit in hundreds of Biblical passages, and implicit reactions shape many others. But who were the actual historical actors shaping these contacts? How did Assyrian ideology and modes of thinking reach Biblical Israel and Judah?

Written contacts in Aramaic may be responsible for some of this cultural transmission. Many have noted that there is no evidence of scribal schools that taught cuneiform writing in Iron II Israel or Judah. Written contact therefore took place primarily in Aramaic, the primary spoken international language of the period.

Human contact was the most important vector for transmitting Assyrian political culture to Israel, Judah, and the other kingdoms of Syria and the Levant. Each spring, the ambassadors of these kingdoms traveled to Assyria and then brought home Assyrian ideas.

And much more in an article you’ll enjoy from the only Biblical Archaeology magazine worth reading.

David and the Philistines

Gershon Galil has a new essay with that title in the December issue of Segula.

Though scholars argue bitterly over the historicity of the Davidic kingdom, new archaeological discoveries are shedding surprising light on King David’s allies. The remains of a northern Philistine kingdom ruled by Toi of Hamath hint at some unexpected regional ties dating back three millennia.


Jérusalem des Mystères, le 17 déc sur RMC Découverte

More from my best friend Michael Langlois

Le documentaire présente 10 lieux, à ou autour de Jérusalem, associés aux évangiles, tant dans leur contexte historique que dans les diverses traditions chrétiennes qui se sont développées au cours des siècles.

Je ne l’ai pas vu et ai donc hâte de le découvrir ! Rendez-vous ici pour la première partie,  pour la seconde.

Je remercie Fanny Belvisi, qui a dirigé ces films et m’a interviewé au printemps dernier avec Franck Rabel. Voici quelques photos mises en ligne sur Facebook à l’époque :

Give it a look!

Eric Cline’s ASOR Plenary Address

La création de l’École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem

A New Essay in ‘ANE Today’

A Great King and a Wanax? The Politics of Mycenaean Greece, By Jorrit Kelder

ANE Today is the only ‘Biblical Archaeology’ magazine you will EVER need to ‘Review’.  The rest are colorless and paltry by comparison, as well as lacking the intellectual vigor ANE Today embodies.

Archaeology, Heritage and Ethics in the Western Wall Plaza, Jerusalem: Darkness at the End of the Tunnel

Raz Kletter’s new work in the Copenhagen International Seminar series is out.

This volume is a critical study of recent archaeology in the Western Wall Plaza area, Jerusalem. Considered one of the holiest places on Earth for Jews and Muslims, it is also a place of controversy, where the State marks ‘our’ remains for preservation and adoration and ‘theirs’ for silencing.

Based on thousands of documents from the Israel Antiquities Authority and other sources, such as protocols of planning committees, readers can explore for the first time this archaeological ‘heart of darkness’ in East Jerusalem. The book follows a series of unique discoveries, reviewing the approval and execution of development plans and excavations, and the use of the areas once excavation has finished. Who decides what and how to excavate, what to preserve – or ‘remove’? Who pays for the archaeology, for what aims? The professional, scientific archaeology of the past happens now: it modifies the present and is modified by it. This book ‘excavates’ the archaeology of East Jerusalem to reveal its social and political contexts, power structures and ethics.

Readers interested in the history, archaeology and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will find this book useful, as well as scholars and students of the history and ethics of Archaeology, Jerusalem, conservation, nationalism, and heritage.

Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth

Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children—the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple—reportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This dramatic event, which took place on top of Masada, a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, spawned a powerful story of Jewish resistance that came to symbolize the embattled modern State of Israel. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. And yet, because the mass suicide was recorded by only one ancient author—the Jewish historian Josephus—some scholars question if the event ever took place.

Jodi Magness, an archaeologist who has excavated at Masada, explains what happened there, how we know it, and how recent developments might change understandings of the story. Incorporating the latest findings, she integrates literary and historical sources to show what life was like for Jews under Roman rule during an era that witnessed the reign of Herod and Jesus’s ministry and death.

Featuring numerous illustrations, this is an engaging exploration of an ancient story that continues to grip the imagination today.

Of it Eric Cline writes

“Internationally renowned archaeologist Jodi Magness plunges the reader directly into the story of the fall of Masada, unpacking the dramatic tale as told by Josephus. She also recounts the fascinating adventures and misadventures of the region’s explorers, from the nineteenth century through the 1960s, and compellingly describes the excavations there, including her own, providing a welcome tour of the site.”—Eric H. Cline, author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Few are as well qualified to write a book on this topic as Jodi Magness.  Chapters include

Prologue: The Fall of Masada

  1. The Siege of Masada
  2. The Search for Masada
  3. Masada in Context
  4. Masada and Herod’s other Building Projects
  5. Judea Before Herod
  6. From Herod to the First Jewish Revolt against Rome
  7. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome
  8. The Rebel Occupation of Masada
  9. Masada Shall Not Fall Again: Yigael Yadin, the Mass Suicide, and the Masada Myth

Epilogue: A Tour of Masada

Following the body of the book there are

  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Image Credits

The outline of the volume illustrates Magness’s careful historical investigation.  Carefully and meticulously she works through and presents the evidence and offers readers a very clear picture of what we can actually know about Masada and the myth that came to surround it.  Allow me to illustrate her very thoughtful methodology by providing the subsection titles of Chapter One: The Siege of Masada.

Here she discusses The siege of Masada, The Roman Army, The Roman Siege Camps, The 1995 Excavations in Camp F, Roman Military Equipment, The Assault Ramp, The Last Stand, Flavius Josephus, Josephus’s Biography, The Jewish War, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus’s Biases and Apologetic Tendencies, The Afterlife of Josephus’s Works, and finally, Postscript: Josephus at Masada.

Meticulous is the word that always comes to mind when I read Magness, and this volume is that, in spades.

Along with the meticulously argued text there are ample maps and charts and photographs, both in black and white and in color.

Yet the highlight of the volume, for me, is the final chapter, the ninth.  Herein Magness shows the extraordinarily influential Yadin at work and the continuing influence of his Masada myth.  She begins with a brief bio of Yadin and then launches immediately into an investigation of the so-called ‘mass suicide’ which Yadin insisted took place at that location.  She sagely observes

I am often asked in I believe there was a mass suicide at Masada, to which I respond that this is not a question archaeology is equipped to answer.  The archaeological remains can be interpreted differently as supporting or disproving Josephus’s account.  Whether or not the mass suicide story is true depends on how one evaluates Josephus’s reliability as an historian- a matter that I prefer to leave to Josephus specialists to resolve.

For her, the important question is

How did the site of a reported mass suicide of a band of Jewish rebels who terrorized other Jews become a symbol of the modern State of Israel?

The remainder of this final chapter addresses that question.

For myself, I have always been very skeptical of the entire account of Josephus.  I was early on heavily influenced by Jamie McLaren’s Turbulent Times?: Josephus and Scholarship on Judaea in the First Century CE , one of the most fantastic studies of Josephus yet composed.  McLaren’s skepticism is infectious because so well established by McLaren’s important research.   

I didn’t find McLaren’s work mentioned in Jodi’s bibliography.  Yet I would heartily encourage readers of Jodi’s book to take a look at Jamie’s as well.

As to the book at hand, I cannot but recommend it fully and heartily.  It is a work of scholarship and insight and should be on the shelves of every New Testament scholar, archaeologist, and interested laypersons.

I’ve not yet read a book by Professor Magness that didn’t teach me a great deal.  This book does too.  And I look forward to whatever will come from her pen in the near future.

Digging Up the Bible

A new book by Margreet Steiner that is available in several formats, including free to read online.

This is the account of a remarkable excavation. It started with a modest dig on an unremarkable tell in Jordan. The name of the tell does not occur in the Bible, and no ancient town of any importance was to be expected under the rubble. The excavator Henk Franken had not yet made a name for himself within the archaeological community.

And yet, from 1960 onwards history was being (re)written at Tell Deir Alla. To discover the secrets of the tell, the expedition team defied cold, rain and stormy winds for months on end, sleeping in rattling tents and working long days on the tell and in the camp. And with success! A meticulous yet efficient excavation method was introduced, the already tenuous relationship between Bible and archaeology was further exacerbated, and the study of excavated pottery was given a scientific basis. The name Deir Alla became an international benchmark for modern scientific research, for prompt publication of the remarkable finds and for independent interpretation of the excavation results.

The story of the excavations at Tell Deir Alla in the 1960s have never been told in any detail, and the excavation results have mostly been published in scholarly books and journals which are difficult to access. This book hopes to remedy that. It recounts the story of the first ten years of the project, from 1959 when funding for the project was sought, until 1969 when the first report was published. The first section describes the organization of the project before the expedition team went out into the field. The second part takes the reader to the actual field work and describes the occupation history of the tell. The story is illustrated by numerous photographs and plans, many of which are being published for the first time.

With thanks to Jona Lendering for the tip.

The Dead Sea Scrolls Detectives: A Review

NOVA’s special on the Scrolls aired again this morning and I finally had the chance to watch it.  It’s pretty good.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

It maintains some old notions, like the site of Qumran being a monastery.  But it also has a lot to say about the appearance of so many fragments of late and the questions concerning their authenticity.  The Museum of the Bible features large.

Many of the usual experts appear including Schiffman and Henze along with Gutfeld and Pinor as well as, of course, Jodi Magness and John Collins.

The narrative moves back and forth between the early discovery of the scrolls and the modern questions of provenance and authenticity.  This is a bit disconcerting, but tolerable.  It would have been better if the story had followed the actual timeline of events rather than its back and forth between past and present.

The purchasers of these scroll fragments are normally wealthy American Evangelicals and this creates a market and markets create opportunities for fraud.  As a result of these facts, Hobby Lobby, the Greens, and the Museum of the Bible also come in for extensive mention.

The hunt for forgeries is also finely presented.

In sum, then, its a worthwhile use of an hour of your time.  You can watch it livestream here.

Roberta Mazza on the Green Fiasco

She writes of her new essay

I would like to address the structural problems that the Green saga has brought to light and explain why it is imperative to take action now in order to avoid having the same thing happen again.

Go read the rest.

The Hanging of the Greens (And their Museum)

Andrew Tobolowsky writes, among other things

In short, in trying to create a Museum of the Bible, the Greens have been unscrupulous and careless in collecting artifacts thereof. They have muddied the water that we desperately need to be clear because there are so few fish in it to begin with, and we are very hungry. Even a scrupulous Museum of the Bible constructed through the religious commitments that brought you Burwell v. Hobby Lobby would not be very good, and certainly not very informative. They could, however, at least try a little bit to collect real artifacts that are also actually for sale and not stolen. Honest mistakes, not so surprisingly, happen somewhat less often to people who make a little effort to avoid them, as the Museum never has, and may not in the future.

Give the whole a read.  The Greens don’t have a fan in him.

King David

There’s a new essay up at the best of the Archaeology sites that you’ll want to read- From Sinner to Model Ancestor: King David in Post-Biblical Jewish and Christian Literature and Art.

In the popular imagination the biblical King David is seen as a murderer who committed adultery with Bathsheva, the wife of his army general Uriah, and brought about her husband’s death at the front line. This episode is already marked out in the Bible as the one sin that David committed before God (see 1 Kings 15:5: “David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, and turned not aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite”). The story of the transgression, as told in 2 Samuel 11, is followed by the prophet Nathan’s rebuke, David’s repentance, and God’s mercy upon him, along with God’s punishment (2 Sam. 12:13-14).

Read it all.

Pilate Stepped Here…

Whatevs.   The media love to exploit ignorance and make all kinds of speculative leaps when some archaeological trinket is uncovered.

Two observations:

  1. There’s no way to know if Pilate built the road or not.
  2. If Pilate did build the road, and they find an in situ inscription that says so, so what?

It.  Doesn’t.  Matter.   They are, once again, trying to make a whole suit out of one button.