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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Explore Caves Near the Dead Sea

call has gone out to help explore two mysterious caves near the Dead Sea in Israel.

Hidden within desert desolation near the Dead Sea region of Ein Gedi, Israel, are two caves that at least one archaeologist suggests may possibly contain what remains of the lost archive of the Jewish Second Temple. The famous temple became one of King Herod's greatest architectural achievements and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. at the time of the First Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire.

Led by Dr. Haim Cohen, a team plans to continue excavating a cave known as "Cave 27", a cave where Cohen had previously conducted excavations in 2003 under the auspices of Haifa University and again in 2006, as well as exploratory investigations of a sealed cave discovered by Cohen during a 2007 survey.  
Cave 27, also called the "Mikveh Cave" or Cave of the Pool at Nahal David, is best known for the Second Temple period (530 BCE to 70 CE) mikveh, or ritual cleansing pool, dated to the time of the first centuries B.C. and A.D.  It was discovered and excavated just outside the cave entrance. The cave is located in a cliff approximately 400 meters above the Dead Sea and is accessible from a plateau above the cave. Among the many other finds were Early Roman period potsherds, flint tools, remains of straw matting, textiles, date pits, ropes, olive pits, animal bones, two coins of Agrippa I, a glass bottle, an iron trilobate arrowhead from the Early Roman period, a pottery seal with a geometric decoration considered to be from the Chalcolithic period, and an ashen hearth. The most intriguing questions, however, surround the presence of the mikveh at the entrance to the cave, a relatively unusual location for such a feature.

The location of Cave 27: The rough, challenging desert terrain of the "Judean wilderness" near the Dead Sea. Photo courtesy Origins Discovery Project. 

Explorers at work in cave 27. Photo courtesy The Origins Discovery Project

View of a portion of the mikveh outside the entrance to the cave. Photo courtesy The Origins Discovery Project

Coin found in the cave showing grape vine leaf and chalice with the words: year 2 for the liberation of Zion on one side, and Holy Jerusalem, on the other - circa 67CE. Photo courtesy Origins Discovey Project

"During the Second Temple period (and at other times)", reports Cohen, "a man could not touch anything sacred without first undergoing the ritual cleansing process prescribed by the priests. It was a very strict rule, and the presence of sacred items and the need to handle them, can be the only reason for this mikveh being built up in a cave, in the cliffs 400 meters above the Dead Sea. A man (or woman) must climb up one side of the steps, be completely immersed in water, and then exit from another set of steps without ever touching the dirty steps." [1]

"Not only was the cleansing process strictly proscribed", Cohen adds, "but also the building process had very specific rules too: No metal could be used in its construction because metal may have been used to kill someone. No pottery could be used to make the plaster because that pottery may have been used in a sacrifice to another God.The water must be part rainwater and part spring water. And there were many more rules, all of which make the presence of the mikveh in this very inaccessible place even more remarkable. It must have taken a lot of resources and time to build; the temperatures in the desert seldom drop below 40c, the climb is extremely dangerous, water is scarce, carrying building materials was difficult and so on." [1]
According to Cohen, the location of the mikveh therefore begs the question about why a facility like this was built here. 

"This is the question we are hoping to answer when we excavate the cave in the 2012 season (beginning October 28)," says Cohen. "Academia have now accepted that what was previously thought to be a cistern or a pool is, in fact, a mikveh, and we must build from there. We want to know what was in this cave that meant a mikveh was necessary. Scrolls? Temple artefacts?" [1]

Cohen suggests that the cave may possibly have been, like the caves that harbored the Dead Sea Scrolls, a repository for sacred documents or artifacts, such as the lost archives of the Jewish Second Temple, possibly hidden away for protection and safekeeping from the Roman forces during the unrest of the ist century A.D. Revolt. Among the finds was additional evidence of possible priestly activity -- a leather scroll cover. 
Equally interesting is a sealed cave that was discovered in a steep ravine not far from Cave 27 by Cohen during a 2007 survey. Cohen and his team hope to further explore this cave concurrent with their excavations of the Mikveh Cave. He and his colleagues ae requesting additional funding and participation to make it possible.
Says Cohen: "After so many real and metaphorical mountains to climb - we are now committed to a dig starting on the 28th of October and ending on the 16th of November this year. Licences have been granted by both the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Park Authority, allowing an expedition to excavate one cave, and survey another." 

For more information about the expedition and how one can support and participate in the effort, see the website, Origins Discovery Project

Photo Top: Looking out from within Cave 27, the Mikveh Cave.  Photo courtesy The Origins Discovery Project

[1] Source: The Origins Discovery Project

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Excavations at Tel Timai, Egypt

A team of archaeologists and students are excavating a site in the Nile Delta region of Egypt where, set within desert desolation, ruins still bespeak an important port city that flourished by the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. Near the present-day city of El-Mansoura, a clearly human-made rise with visible ruins mark the spot of Tel Timai, what remains of the city of Thmuis, an ancient port city and capital of the Ptolemies. 
Here, a team of archaeologists and students directed by Professor Robert J. Littman of the University of Hawaii, with co-directors Dr. Jay Silverstein, also of the University of Hawaii, and Dr. Mohamed Kenawi of the Alexandria Center for Hellenistic Studies, are unearthing architectural features and artifacts in several different focus areas: a northern "salvage" sector; an area identified as the East Forum of the city acropolis; and, beginning in December, 2012, a possible Ptolemaic temple.

"Little excavation has been done in Tell El-Timai," reports Littman, "but material of significance has been discovered that indicates the potential of the site.  It is one of the few places in the Delta region where papyri have been found.  At the end of the 19th century Edouard Naville discovered what he labeled as a library in a Roman house.  Unfortunately, he did not indicate where on the Tell this was located.  The papyri were burned, worse than those from Pompeii, according to Naville.  He attempted unsuccessfully to preserve and transport the papyri.  Unfortunately, only a few have survived, which are administrative records. A number of marble statues and small bronzes, and magnificent Hellenistic and Roman mosaic floors, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, attest to the wealth and importance of the city."
The name Thmuis (Egyptian tamAwy or “new land”) was first referenced in the Histories of Herodotus. Having visited Egypt in the middle of the 5th century BC, he enumerated the nomes (districts) from which the military class, called Calasirians, came.   Both Mendes (the great nearby ancient city that preceded it as capital) and Thmuis are mentioned, which indicates that both cities flourished independently at this time.  Archaeological excavations at Mendes suggest that by the fourth and third centuries BC, the population had diminished considerably. This was paralleled by a rise in the importance of Thmuis, which flourished during Ptolemaic times (4th to 1st century BC) and became the capital of the Mendesian nome.

"Thmuis is about a half kilometer south of Tell el Rub’a, the site of the ancient city of Mendes," reports Littman. "Mendes was a dominant city in the Delta during most of Egypt’s history, from the end of the fourth millennium until the fourth century BC, in part because it was an important port.  Apparently, the course of the Nile shifted in the fifth and fourth centuries, and Mendes, having lost its economic base as a port, was gradually abandoned for Thmuis, where the course of the river had moved, and where a port had developed."

The city itself is mentioned during the period of the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD).  Josephus' Jewish Wars relates that the future emperor Titus sailed with his army from near Alexandria via the Nile along the Mendesian nome, and disembarked his army at Thmuis for an overland march to Jerusalem. This indicates a major port at Thmuis. In the 2nd century AD we find Thmuis as the capital of the Mendesian nomes, at a time when Mendesian perfume was the rage in the ancient world, according to Pliny (Natural History).  By the fourth century it had become one of the most important cities of Egypt. During Roman times (3rd to 4th century AD) it became an episcopal see and was the home of Saint Serapion (4th century AD).  In the sixth century it was a city in the Eparchy of Prima Augusta, and in the 7th century it is included among the dioceses of the Eparchy of Augustamnica Prima.  Because of its importance as a center of Christianity, many of its bishops are known, including Phileas, martyred in Alexandria in 305 AD, and Anba Mennas in 744 AD. The city was still prominent when the Arabs invaded Egypt in 641 AD.  It probably was abandoned by the 10th century AD, after a local tax revolt.

Current Excavations and Discoveries
Recent exploration and excavation of the city by the University of Hawaii expedition actually began in 2007.  In the northern part of the ancient city, the team is working in conjunction with the Supreme Council of Antiquities to conduct salvage operations in a zone that had been stripped to a strata corresponding to the 1st Century BCE in the 1920s and is currently slated to be leveled for modern construction. Archaeologists have determined that a destruction event dating to the early 2ndcentury BCE was followed by the systematic leveling and rebuilding of the area.  Ceramics and coins, including a small cache buried under a floor with in situ ceramics suggest that the destruction event occurred during the reign of Ptolemy V and could be associated with the great rebellion discussed in the Rosetta Stone and many other documents.  Evidence includes human remains with signs of trauma, ballistae stones, burning, in situ ceramics indicating little warning for abandonment and a radical and planned reuse of the area immediately following the destruction.  In one refuse pile a head of a small domestic figure of Ptolemy V was recovered, consistent with the call for domestic shrines to the pharaoh as recorded in the Rosetta Stone.  A broken statue of Arsinoë II, deified as Isis, was pulled during salvage and may have come from related strata based on oral reports of the find.  Other discoveries in the north include a possible shrine with an Isis lamp and an extensive kiln complex that predates the arrival of Alexander the Great.  The complex was evidently shut down after the destruction event and one body was found in the fill of a truncated and leveled kiln.

The figurine head of Ptolemy V. Photo courtesy Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein

Re-assembled krater, found during excavations at Tel Timai. Photo courtesy Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein

The Hellenistic kiln workshop. Photo courtesy Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein

In the central portion at the East Forum, recent excavations have begun to explore extensive well-preserved mudbrick architecture of what appears to be public buildings.  An offering pit in one building has yielded an impressive cache of artifacts, including a set of Sub-Saharan acrobat figurines, miniature ceramics, lead votive charms, and a ceramic statue of the god Bes.  This assemblage was found near a large red granite statue pedestal and the earliest artifacts date to the early Roman period.
With the support of the National Geographic Society, an additional project area will begin in December 2012 with the objective of exploring the area in the southern portion of Tell Timai, where monumental architectural elements were dredged from a canal.  The elements included columns and portions of a wall frieze.  A stone found in the adjacent field has a faint inscription that appears to be a cartouche with the name of Ptolemy II or III.  This structure may be a temple erected by Ptolemy II for his queen Arsinoe.  Work planned in December 2012 includes a geophysical survey and archaeological testing of GPR data.

Recovered features of the sunken Ptolemaic temple. Photo courtesy Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein

Recovered column fragments of the Ptolemaic temple. Photo courtesy Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein

Excavations will also continue during the summer of 2013. The team plans to return to the site june 5 - July 12. For more information about Tel Timai and how to participate in the excavation project, see the website at http://manoa.hawaii.edu/llea/studyabroad/telltimai/ .

Top Photo: View of the remains at Tel Timai. Photo courtesy Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Archaeologists Excavate Ancient Maya Center at Chan Chich, Belize

Tucked away within a dense jungle shroud near the Guatemalan border in Belize are the remains of a largely unexplored ancient Maya center known as Chan Chich. The site is best known to the public and to tourists as the location of a top-ranked eco-lodge by the same name. Less known, however, is evidence of a likely array of ancient temples, tombs and artifacts that still rest mostly unseen beneath thick vegetation and rubble that have cloaked their features through centuries of time. Their only inhabitants now are small bats and spider monkeys.

Before the lodge, access to the site was best approached with machetes and canoes. This was only the domain of loggers, pot hunters, and grave robbers. Then, an old logging road, originally created by logging operators through the Belize Estate and Produce Company, was reopened, and Chan Chich was rediscovered.

Like so many other Maya sites, it was a target for looters. When rediscovered, three structures thought to be temples showed strong evidence of looting -- vertical slit trenches were dug into their sides. A large temple in the site's Upper Plaza area, perhaps the main temple, showed clear signs of intrusion into one or more burial chambers. This temple features a painted frieze that skirts around a low interior ceiling. 

Benjamin Thompson, the photographer, views remains of the "King's Tomb" at Chan Chich. Like so many other Maya sites, Chan Chich has been subjected to years of looting. Photo credit: Benjamin Thompson, Flickr. 

Above: Stela at entrance to Chan Chich Lodge. Benjamin Thompson, Flickr.

From 1996 to 2001, Dr. Brett A. Houk of Texas Tech University conducted research at the site. In 2012, a team of archaeologists and students under Houk's direction returned to the site to excavate at two locations related to the settlement. The first, located in the Upper Plaza, was a deeply buried midden, or trash deposit. It had been previously radiocarbon dated to 770 BC, firmly within the Maya Preclassic Period, a time when great early Maya centers such as Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala were reaching their apogee. The other location, about 1.6 miles west of Chan Chich, was a smaller structure called Kaxil Uinic, where research is being focused on much later periods of time, including a time when it is thought that the area was abandoned around AD 850, with "subsequent visits to the site by pilgrims who placed incense burners at the base of a carved stela centuries after the site had fallen into ruin". [1]  Also found was a historic Maya village, utilized as recently as 1931 as achicle harvesting camp.  

Work will proceed in the area of Chan Chich for seasons to come. Reports Houk, et, al., "Although the 2012 season has just ended and analysis of the findings is underway, plans for 2013 are already being made. If agreements can be reached with the landowner and adequate funding can be secured, the project will complete the Upper Plaza work and conduct an intensive investigation of a large building in the Main Plaza at Chan Chich, using a variety of remote sensing techniques combined with extensive excavations. Another aspect of the work will be walking existing cut lines through the jungle (part of an unrelated seismic survey) to look for previously undiscovered Maya ruins."

"These excavations will shed additional light on the development of Maya civilization in this part of Belize," says one observer of the investigations. "A myriad of questions will need to be addressed. Who were these people in relation to the surrounding Maya centers? How did this center relate to other great Maya centers? What new findings will distinguish this place from all other Maya settllements in the region? There is so much more to come. What is still unknown is more exciting to contemplate than what has already been discovered."

Houk, under the auspices of Texas Tech Univeristy, is directing an annual field school at the site. More information about the research and the field school can be obtained at the Chan Chich Archaeological Project Field School Website.
[1] Professor Houk Takes Students to Belize. Connections, College of Arts and Sciences Newsletter, Texas Tech Univeristy.