Discovering Gamla

Archaeology is a young science. Three hundred years ago no one cared about digging up, studying and preserving the past. The material remains of the past were only interesting as raw materials for the present. Learning about ancient structures and artifacts was culled from books as the centers of scientific learning were far away from the cradle of civilization.

With globalization and the ability to travel relatively easily, Europeans – the champions of science in modern times – spread out over the globe. One major goal was colonization, the control of trade routes, resources and people. As Europeans became exposed to the wonders of the Old World, their interest in discovering and controlling the past grew.

During those early days of archaeology in the 19th century, identification of sites from the past, especially Biblical sites, became a target for quests. Here, finally, was a way to connect to the biblical narrative in a visceral way. The Holy Land was scoured to identify as many ancient sites as possible and match them with writings about them which had been passed down through the ages. Digs in Jerusalem, Azekah, Gezer, Beit Shemesh, Beit Shean, Ashkelon, Emmaus, Masada and many other sites in ancient Israel matched places to names found in ancient sources.

Because everything was accessible, it could be assumed that Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, would have given up all her places relatively quickly. How difficult could it be?

So it is a bit surprising that the site of a dramatic story, important at the end of the Second Temple Era, was only conclusively identified 50 years ago. Gamla, a Jewish town in the Golan Heights 2000 years ago, was described in two ancient sources, Josephus, the Jewish/Roman historian; and Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist. In Gamla, the Jewish population, revolted against the Romans; and when their defeat was certain, threw themselves from the cliffs instead of surrender. Josephus and Pliny differ in their description of the location of the town. They also refer to landmarks which existed 2000 years ago but do not exist today, and whose exact location is unclear. So, this important town with its moving story, alluded archaeologists.


Most early archaeologists gave more credence to the accounts of Pliny and went by his description in the hunt for Gamla. Only after the Six Day War in 1968, did the search for  Gamla, come to an end. The Golan Heights underwent a proper archaeological survey after the war. Shmaryahu Gutman was surveying the land with kibbutznik and history buff Yitzchaki Gal.  As Gutman recalls,

“One day, Yitzchaki climbed up a certain height in the Golan, he examined his surroundings and decided, ‘Here was Gamla.’ He brought me to the village Deir Kruch and turned my gaze westward, into the Daliyot stream which splits into a southern branch and a northern branch; and in the distance – the Ginnosar Valley. We saw a spine with a northern slope, a southern slope, a cliff to the west and the possibility of a footpath going down to the east – exactly as Josephus wrote.”

Archaeologists spend most of their time today examining finds and rethinking ancient structures. They dig new areas of old sites or apply new technologies to get a more in-depth picture of the past.

It is refreshing to think that there still might be new frontiers in archaeology;  still places waiting to be discovered for those who open their eyes and read the texts carefully. Abraham, to whom God told to walk the land to really understand it, and archaeologist Adam Zartal, may his memory a blessing,  who said, “There is no high-tech solution for walking the land, meter by meter, with your own two feet,” give a model for discovery using the best tools we have – our feet, our eyes and our open mind.

Take Out the Trash, Please

As much as anything else, the production of trash marks human lives.  What we dump in the trash tells quite a lot about who we are and what our lives are like.  Digging through trash from the past gives us a snapshot into ancient life. trash

This last year, excavations have been targeted not at the random items left behind in the ancient sites of Halutza and Shivta, but rather at organized dumps from the past.  These Negev strongholds had central areas for dumping trash which were located at the edge of town. Within these dumps, exist archaeological layers.  If we look at the heydays of these cities, late Roman through Byzantine eras, we see an abundance of trash, as one would expect in a large, sophisticated society.  Especially interesting is the appearance of different pottery types and sources.

The trash during the late Roman through the early Byzantine era (until 450 C.E.) included pottery from the area of Aqaba (Eilat) on the the Red Sea.  There was a special kind of pottery produced there for storing rations for the 10th Roman Legion which was stationed on the Red Sea.

As the Byzantine period continues, we see this Aqaba pottery disappearing when the 10th Legion disperses.  In its place, Gaza ware comes onto the scene.  This type of pottery which was imported from the Mediterranean coast  was very common for storing wine.   Gaza ware was found in the trash heap during the Middle and Late Byzantine periods but not afterwards during the Moslem period, when wine was forbidden according to Islamic law.

Over half of the pottery from the Byzantine period in Halutza was Gaza ware.  Looking around today at the parched landscape, one may incorrectly think that they needed to import pottery because there was no local production.  Byzantine Halutza, however, had its own pottery factory.  Gaza ware was of superior quality and the wealthy Negev cities could afford to have the best storage for their wine.

This wealth is evident by the remains of foodstuffs found in the trash.  The Halutza populace was eating fish from the Red Sea and mollusks from the Mediterranean, attesting to the high socioeconomic level of Middle and Late Byzantine Halutza and Shivta.

At the end of the Byzantine era, for reasons which are as yet unconfirmed, the Negev cities become slowly depopulated.  During their slow demise, the people living in Halutza and Shivta stop taking their trash to the dump.  In my mind I think about the decline in Detroit.  When a population moves out and becomes impoverished, their trash accumulates nearer to their homes.  We find that in Shivta, the residents of this slowly failing city start dumping their trash in their neighbors’ abandoned homes and cease to use the municipal dump.  Turns out  what is thrown out and where it is deposited can say something about history.  We are creating an archaeological record when we tell our kids, “Please, take out the trash.”

Chalcolithic Climate Changes

Climate change is a hot topic today.  How is man impacting his environment and what can we expect in the future if the current trends continue?   Deep in the heart of the Negev comes evidence of another climatic change from pre-historic times.

The Chalcolithic era lasts from about 5500-3300 B.C.E. in the area of Israel today.  Chalcolithic means copper/stone and marks the transition between the technology of the stone age and that of the bronze age.  During Chalcolithic times there were many settlements in places which today are considered the fringe of civilization.  The Negev region is one of them.  In June 2016 as part of road works extending Rt. 6 to Shoket Junction, there was a discovery of a Chalcolithic settlement in a region which today has less than 200 mm of rain per year.  That little amount of rain is not even enough to support wheat, and so could not provide a community’s food needs.  The dig in this location uncovered a Chalcolithic agricultural settlement as indicated by its grain storage pits which existed through all 4 layers of settlement.   If it was an agricultural settlement, this is a sign that at that time there was more rainfall than there is today.

Not only grain pits were found but also water cisterns for catching flood waters from Nahal Hebron were found at the site.  During one period the entire site was covered by a layer of loess from Nahal Hebron indicating a much wetter climate where alluvial material to a depth of 1-1.5 m was deposited over the site.  After this period, the cisterns got even larger necessitating steps.  Buildings during this time were made of mud bricks, just like those found from the same time period at Tel Sheva; mud bricks can only be made if there is abundant water.  However, during the latest settlement period, the cisterns were filled in and the settlement drastically shrunk in size.

What led to the collapse of this settlement and others like it in the Negev during the Chalcolithic time?  Does the filling in of the cisterns show a lack of water?  And if the climate changed and caused the abandonment of the settlement, what caused the change? Besides learning about the past, studying these climate changes can help us to understand what may happen if we experience a drastic climate change as perhaps the people of ancient Shoket junction did. negev-water

Nearby sites:
  • Tel Beer Sheva National Park
  • Yatir forest
  • Lakia Bedouin crafts

2% Cave Men

Israel has always been a bridge between cultures.  Its unique location between Europe, Africa and Asia positioned it at the center of transportation and exchange of goods and ideas.  This function goes way back to prehistory.  In the last few years, paleo-archaeological sites in the Negev are reaching back into time to uncover a colossal meeting between Neanderthals and homo sapiens (modern man).

Scientists believe that Neanderthals were being forced out of Europe because of environmental changes.  At the same time, sub-Saharan African homo sapiens were spreading out and heading north.  The exact route of these journeys is hard to determine exactly.  The only remains that were found in the Negev to date are their technologies so its hard to create a narrative of their meeting.  Genetics today shows that 2% of non-sub-Saharan human DNA comes from Neanderthals, so there must have been some sort of contact.

flintThe Negev would have been a rich source of flint for spear heads for early man.  Today, even the casual visitor comes across areas of concentrations of flint shards on the ground.  Careful examination of the technology involved in forming spear heads and their shape provides a clue into what this meeting between Neanderthals and Modern Man looked like in the Negev and whether it occurred here at all.  A recent archaeological dig in Boker Tachtit, within the National Park of Ein Avdat, aims to look into this past.  At the site are 4 layers of human settlement between 55,600 and 42,850 years ago.  The results are still being examined at Weizmann Institute in Rechovot.  Next time you are hiking in the Negev and you come across a seam of flint, look for shaped stones and wonder whether this was shaped by a Neanderthal, a homo sapiens, or like most of us, someone who has some of both.

Related Sites:

  • Ein Avdat
  • Ein Ekev
  • Weizmann House and Institute

Running Away, But Not Too Far Away

The Dead Sea as a center of refuge was the topic of my oral licensing exam to become a tour guide and continues to fascinate me.  What pressures drive people to seek refuge in this inhabitable landscape?  Men as long ago as the Chalcolithic Period (6000 years ago) fled here and left signs in the desert cliffs above the Dead Sea.  Long before the Dead Sea scrolls were sequestered in caves, Chalcolithic man built temples in the Dead Sea area and suddenly left their habitations and fled into the caves.  Hoardes of copper ritual objects were found in the caves above the Mishmar Stream.  Whatever pushed these early settlers to “head for the hills” was so catastrophic that they did not return to claim their treasures or resume their temple worship.

Uncovering lost treasures has been a driving force for modern exploration in the Dead Sea area.  Unfortunately, not all treasure-hunters are licensed archaeologists but are often Palestinian antiquity thieves.  In a recent sting operation, Israeli police arrested 6 Palestinians on their way out of the Cave of Skulls in the cliffs above Tze’elim Stream.  Habitation in this cliff shows just how far people are willing to go in the name of self-preservation.  Access to this cave is only possible by rappelling down over the cliff edge to the cave entrance.  One wonders how the ancients accessed this cave which is located 80 m (250 ft.) below the cliff top. cave-of-skulls

In order to stay one step ahead of the thieves who will inevitably return to search for scrolls and other items to sell on the black market, last summer a 3-week excavation was undertaken to scientifically study the cave again (a first dig was conducted in the 1960’s).  Among the many bones found in the Cave of Skulls, so named because of the 7 human skeletons buried there during the Bar Cochva revolt, are a few pieces of papyrus.  They have not been fully studied yet to see if perhaps they have writing on them, but this finding leaves the door open for the possibility of finding more scrolls in the Dead Sea area.

There are finds here dating from 139 C.E., several years after the Bar Cochva revolt, and show the presence of Jews in this area even as they had been banned by Hadrian from the area of Jerusalem.  The Jewish connection to Jerusalem is strong and the Jews hiding in the Cave of Skulls over 1850 years ago were not ready to give up on that.  They were willing to live under extreme conditions to keep the dream of return to Jerusalem alive.

Nearby sites

  • Dragot Stream
  • Ein Gedi Chalcolithic Temple
  • Qumran

Holey Walls

One of the most beautiful attributes of Jerusalem is the use of stones in building.  Because stones are natural, the variance in the facings leads to unique interplay between the environment and buildings.  In ancient times, stones were used for everything – buildings, towers, and walls.  And many of those well-made, well-engineered buildings remain today in Jerusalem.

Sometimes, however, a beautiful ancient wall is defaced by intentional cavities dug out of them by later builders.  And then one has to answer the question: for what purpose would someone deface a structurally sound, beautiful wall?  One such instance is on the Tower of David (“Phasael” tower).  tower-of-david-holes

Peter the Iberian (Iberia was a kingdom in eastern Georgia) was the son of the Iberian king.  In order for his father to prove that he was not aligned with the Persians, he gave his son, Peter, as a slave to the emperor in Constantinople at age 5.  Peter the Iberian was no ordinary slave, however.  He was a slave in the house of the emperor and was raised and educated by the empress, Eudocia.  At age 20, Peter the Iberian decided that he wanted to tour the Holy Land and asked for permission to leave.  The Emperor did not allow it so Peter the Iberian had no choice but to run away.  He was met on the way by his friend, John.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, he founded his own monastery near the Tower of David.  He was given the land for free as part of a policy to encourage building in Jerusalem after the destruction of the wall and general decline in the late Roman Period.  However, the neighbors of the new monastery felt that their property rights had been infringed upon.  They punched John in the face.  When John returned to Peter after the brawl, the two of them understood how lucky they were to be sharing in Jesus suffering.  The next day unexpectedly, the neighbor died proving to Peter and John their righteousness.  Later when Peter the Iberian started running out of money, he expanded the monastery and added a hotel for pilgrims.

The holes in the walls of the tower are thought to be the insertion points for wooden beams associated with these building erected by Peter the Iberian.  In Jerusalem, even ugly holes in beautiful walls have a story.

Winner Takes All History

Today, I went to Sebastia National Park for my continuing education credits to renew my Tour Guide License.  Unlike other national parks in Israel, Sebastia is only accessible to Israelis with coordination with the army.  We drove to Shavei Shomron (the end of the line) in our regular bus and switched to a bullet-proof bus with army escort for the 10 minute ride to Sebastia, through parts of Area B where the Palestinian Authority and Israel have joint control.

Sebastia started in the 9th century B.C.E. as Shomron, the capital city of the northern kingdom, Israel.  Shomron is mentioned many times in the bible and was built by Omri, founder of the first somewhat stable dynasty in Israel, and his son Ahab.shomron-omri-wall

The first point our guide (yes, even guides use guides) made had to do with the geography of the Northern Kingdom.  In short, the North had EVERYTHING – water, access to wide valleys for farming, people and access to major roads.  When Israel broke away from Judah, they even built alternative sites for worshiping God so people wouldn’t have to go to Jerusalem.

Why, then, does the Bible go out of its way to vilify the Northern Kingdom?  The people do not seem that different:  there are good kings and bad ones in both countries, there are prophets in both.  The people are not steadfast in their putting aside Idolatry in either Israel or Judah.  So, why does the Bible use every opportunity to put down Israel, and specifically Israel’s most successful kings, Omri and Ahab?  By the way, these two kings are mentioned extensively for their military prowess and their impressive buildings in extra-biblical sources.

History is written by the winners.   The author  of the history builds up the winners in comparison to the losers.  Reasons must be given for the survival of one over the other.  Israel and Judah were the first two monotheistic countries and that religious component is a large part of their national identities.  It stands to reason, then, that the biblical text would attribute Judah’s survival after Israel was decimated by Sargon II of Assyria, to a more strict adherence to religious practice or purer religious motivations.

On our trip today, we were able to see some structures remaining from 9th century B.C.E. Shomron.  Just goes to show, that history may be written by the winners, but archaeology is written by the builders.

Sites in the area:

  • Joshua’s altar on Mt. Eval
  • Samaritan town on Mt. Grizim
  • Overlook in Nofim
  • Har Bracha winery

Synagogue on the Heights

In this week’s Torah reading, we have one of the examples in the Pentateuch of stories which happen in the land of Israel. Jacob and his family cross into the land after many years living near today’s Turkey/Syrain border in the home of Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law.  They cross over the Jabbok stream on their way towards Shchem/Nablus.

The Jabbok stream today separates the Golan Heights from the country of Jordan.  Archaeology shows that this area of the Golan Heights  was an important area of Jewish settlement.  With the inclusion of larger territory under the rule of the Romans and freedom of movement, Jews were free to spread out and follow opportunity.  After Hadrian exiled Jews from Judea, these peripheral areas became more important for preserving Jewish community.  One such village in the Goaln Heights in the region of Sussita, one of the cities of the decopolis, was Um el-Kanatir.

Perhaps it was the spring which first drew Jews to live there as early as 23 C.E.  The name of the site today comes from the arched building  which once protected the spring.  The town continued to thrive and used the spring as a resource for the flax industry which developed there.  Being close to the major Roman town of Sussita was also a benefit for this community.

But it isn’t  the spring that makes this place a site for visitors today, but rather the memory of the Jewish community who once lived there.  Jews not only lived and worked here, but also celebrated their religious beliefs and the eternal connection to Jerusalem.  They built an impressive synagogue in the 6th century which has been unearthed.

In 1884, Lawrence Olefant and Gottleib Schumacher were taken to this pile of stones by a local Arab sheik.  There they saw what remained of the 6th century synagogue after it had been destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E.  Olefant and Schumacher were impressed and identified it as a synagogue but they did not excavate there.  (The land of Israel has a plethora of sites and there simply are not enough resources to properly excavate them all.)  The “neglect” of the site for over 100 years after its discovery allowed for modern archaeological techniques to be implemented to rebuild this synagogue. um-el-kanatir-wall

In the past 14 years, under the archaologists Yehoshua Drey, Ilana Gonen and Chaim BenDavid, the ancient synagogue of this small Jewish town on the outskirts of Sussita is being rebuilt stone by stone.  The stones are tagged and measured and computers figure out from their physical attributes and location, where they sat in the synagogue.  This synagogue is not yet open for bar mitzvahs and weddings, but has been developed so that we can visit this site of Jewish life from the past.

el-Muqaddasi’s Jerusalem

In Israel, although peoples come and go, place names often remain.  In the push to connect the present to the past, written and oral names often give our biggest clue to making the connection between archaeological finds and ancient texts.  This is one of the most appealing aspects of archaeology, being able to connect physical objects to ephemeral language to create a meaningful story.

But unlike the physical finds which are locked into their existence, language is fluid and transforms over time.  Even a simple child’s game of telephone exhibits this characteristic which sometimes stymies correct interpretation.  el-muqaddisi

One of the most thorough descriptions of Jerusalem in the middle ages was written by an Arabic-speaking geographer, el-Muqaddasi in 985 C.E.  El-Muqaddasi was born in Jerusalem, which he labels on his maps as Bayt al-Maqdis, and gives us a glimpse into his hometown through his writings.  He describes the eight gates of Jerusalem from his time – some readily identifiable with modern gates and some not.

One of the mystery gates in the southern wall (there were 5 in the southern wall at that time) is called Bab et-Tia, which translates loosely into Wanderers of the Desert Gate.  When conjuring an image of this gate, one imagines it opening up to a Lawrence of Arabia scene (or a Mad Max one depending on your frame of reference).  And although the Judean desert is not so far from Jerusalem, when one leaves the area of the Old City today, one doesn’t exactly feel the desert, as Jerusalem and its environs are green.

A recent suggestion involves moving one dot from a letter in el-Muqaddisi’s Arabic.  When one does that, he reads not Bab et-Tia but Bab et-Nea.  Near the southern wall, in today’s Jewish quarter, archaeologists have found remains of the massive Byzantine Nea Church.  (We have precedence of naming gates after prominent buildings nearby.  Jaffa Gate is called by el-Muqaddasi Place of David’s Prayer Gate after the fortress known as the Tower of David.)

Although Wanderers of the Desert Gate sounds interesting and exotic, it is more likely that the “wanderer” is the dot in Arabic.  We need to play the telephone game in reverse to find the original name – Nea Gate.

Nearby sites:

  • Gates of the Old City of Jerusalem
  • Islamic Museum, Jerusalem
  • St. Peter in Gallicantu-model of Byzantine Jerusalem including the Nea Church

Rockefeller Museum – a Quiet Corner

Turning east from the hustle and bustle of Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, after a five minute walk, one comes to the entry gate of the Rockefeller Museum.  There isn’t a lot of foot traffic here, but passing through security, one sees many cars of the Israel Antiquities Authority which has its offices here.rockefeller-museum

On the grounds, you are already in a quiet space.  You feel like you could almost reach the northeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem except for the chasm created by Sultan Suleiman St. below us.  The museum which was established with a 2 million dollar contribution from JD Rockefeller under the British Mandate, opened in 1938 and echoes an eastern style in its facade with its large central hexagonal tower.

Walking inside, one feels as if transported back in time.  The subtle weight and formality which characterizes buildings funded by tycoons like Rockefeller exudes a certain peace.  The exhibits themselves echo a long ago time.  One is charmed by the museum with its simple glass cases which hold the treasures of the past.  Its best to take a guide for this museum as the collections are not well labelled and the casual tourist may have difficulty finding context here.

Hidden in one section of the museum are three areas with amazing collections.  The first area contains the 8th century C.E. wood panels from al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount.  The second includes the stucco elements from Hisham’s palace outside of Jericho.  The third collection is the Crusader lintels which decorated the entry to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  All three of these were moved to the Rockefeller Museum for safe keeping – and safe they are as the museum only attracts a scant number of visitors.

The beautiful open air portico boasts several Roman era sarcophagi and other stone artifacts, which are well worth a visit.

Before leaving the museum and heading back to East Jerusalem, be sure to breathe in the serenity of this nostalgic museum.

Nearby sites:

  • Zedekiah’s Cave
  • Garden Tomb
  • Damascus Gate