Category Archives: Archaeology

A Brain Surgeon Is Not An Archaeologist

BuzzFeed NEWS reports,

At the 1998 commencement for Andrews University, a school associated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, [Ben} Carson also dismissed the notion that aliens were somehow involved in the construction of the pyramids.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson said. “Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”

They even have a video of him saying this.

Ben Carson isn’t an expert on much of anything beyond brain surgery, oh, and making money. He also doesn’t make much sense on anything beyond brain surgery.

I don’t know if Dr. Carson still believes this nonsense but I wouldn’t be surprised. He sure believes a lot of other nonsense.

Tablets as Archaeological Objects

Like Jim Davila, I missed the publication of a new, large, fragment of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš when it came out last year. Al-Rawi and George’s publication (“Back to the Cedar Forest: The beginning and end of Tablet V of the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 66 [2014], 69-90) of the fragment is abnormally interesting for a number of reasons. Among these is their discussion of the role of the physical examination of tablets in the scholarly history of how to order the material in tablet V. In the course of this discussion they take a shot at much recent work.

Understanding cuneiform tablets as archaeological objects is a practice that had few exponents for much of the twentieth century, when Assyriologists too often gave all their attention to the inscribed text as a self-contained intellectual resource disembodied from the medium on which it was written. (71)

Al-Rawi and George are talking about the shape and other physical properties of the surface of tablets but the same can be said of the details of the provenance of tablets. In the case of their fragment the provenance is unknown. Even where we know the excavation site we often don’t know the exact find spot. This is particularly true of older excavations. I once asked an Assyriologist about the find spot of a tablet from Kuyunjik. He told me to just be happy that we are relatively sure it is from Nineveh!


Still, I think it is important to treat tablets as archaeological objects, as artifacts, whenever we can. Back in March I gave a paper at the SBL Pacific Coast Regional Meeting outlining some evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit. Much of that paper was based on features of tablet utilization, the curvature of the tablet surfaces, sign morphology and find spot. As I said in that paper,

My evidence for professional literacy at Ugarit depends on the study of tablets with alphabetic cuneiform writing as artifacts in their totality and not just as media for texts in the Ugaritic language.

Some of you know that I have toyed with the possibility that the later kings of Ugarit were literate in the local vernacular. Much of my thought process on is driven by the archaeological context of certain Ugaritic tablets as much as by what is on those tablets. More on this later – – maybe.

Is This The Father Of the Prophet?

Inscribed pot rim from Jerusalem

Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Uziel and Zanton read this . . . r(?)yhw bn bnh and suggest that it might be understood as “[Zecha]riah the son of Benaiah (ריהו בן בניה),” a name mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20:14. The Israel Antiquities Authority announcement is at least a little equivocal on this, “The first letter of the ceramic bowl’s partially preserved inscription in ancient Hebrew script is broken and is therefore difficult to read, but appears to be the letter ר;” “The most similar name to our inscription is Zechariah the son of Benaiah, the father of the Prophet Jahaziel [Emphases added].” And Uziel and Zanton say, “If we consider the possibility that we are dealing with an unvowelized or ‘defective’ spelling of the name בניה (Benaiah), then what we have before us is the name ‘…ריהו בן בניה’ [[Emphases added].”
The article itself points to the two largest problems with the identification. The spelling of בניה is defective and the first readable letter may not be an r. In fact, what can be read of it looks very similar to the two unquestionable bs in the inscription. Notice that the tail extends across the lower part of the y like the other two bs extent across the lower part of the following ns. If I am correct and I may not be, the tail of an r generally extends straight down. So I read the inscription as . . . b(?)yhw bn bnh and understand it as meaning . . . well, I’m not sure what it means.

Does This Say Elisha?

’Elisha’ Ostracon from Tel Rehov

I’m not so sure.
Now does it say Elisha?

’Elisha Ostracon’ from Tel Rehov - higlighted

These images are slightly enhanced screen captures from a CBN News video about Amihai Mazar uncovering of a rather strange building from 9th century BCE Tel Rehov. Tel Rehov is in the Jordon valley near Beit She’an. The first image was on the screen for little more than a single frame at which point the red tracing was superimposed. Archeologists discovered the ostracon in the strange building.
Both the written and the video reports claim that this strange building may well have been the house of the Biblical prophet Elisha. The evidence for such an extraordinary claim is transparently thin. Of course, that didn’t keep Cary Summers of Nazareth Village for making this wild remark, “Well, it’s like any other archeological site, in essence…every scoop of dirt it proves the Bible, one scoop at a time. And this site is absolutely magnificent dealing with the prophet Elisha.” Nonsense – but it may help the local economy.
But Summers’ mockable remark is not the only weird thing about this report. To my mind the ostracon is the best evidence that this building had anything to do with some Elisha or other. Yet it is buried rather deep in the article (and the video), after a discussion of an outside area with incense burners and the supersized serving vessels. I’d think the inscribed this pot shard would be the lead of the story.
By the way, the name Elisha (אלישע) is found at least once and possibly twice on one Ostracon from Samaria (S 1:4, 7[?] and perhaps once on another (S 41:1). For the sake of convenience (mine) I am using Gogel’s designations. The name is also found twice on an ostracon from Arad (A 24:15, 19-20). From context it is rather clear that these Elishas are not the Biblical Elisha. They are also likely from later centuries. I think the name is also known elsewhere but I’m too lazy to track down the references if there are any. There doesn’t seem to be any remaining textual context for the name, if it is a name, on the ostracon from Tel Rehov. The archeological context, no matter how strange, isn’t really helpful.
As usual, we await a properly published report on the ostracon and on the strange building.

Color Late Bronze Age Hala Sultan Tekke Purple

In recently concluded excavators at Hala Sultan Tekke uncovered a manufacturing district from the Late Bronze Age.
Perhaps the rather extensive copper production area with its copper ore, slag (hundreds of kilograms of it), and clay pipes is the most impressive discovery but I found this abnormally interesting.

Close to the copper production site a room was excavated in which large vessels were found filled with murex shells from which purple dye was extracted. The shells, in connection with finds associated with the production of textiles, such as spindle whorls and loom weights, point to the manufacturing of one of the most expensive products in the Bronze Age: purple dyed textiles. (News Network – Archeology)

The work on Cyprus is important for at least two reasons. First, the history of Cyprus is important for its own sake. Second, Cyprus was an important locus where east met west. As the News Network piece concludes,

The high standard of living of the Cypriots during the Bronze Age was not only a result of the production of copper but also of the export of high quality Cypriot pottery and purple textiles. In exchange, the Cypriots imported gold, silver, lead, and art objects mainly from Greece, Egypt and the Levant. There is also evidence for the import of dried fish from the Nile in Egypt.

The article notes the unearthing of Levantine imports. I wish it told us more about them. Alas, I fear we must await the formal excavation publication.

Gezer VII – I’ve Been Waiting Four Decades For This

Gezer VIIMy very own copy of Gezer VII: The Middle Bronze and Later Fortifications in Fields II, IV, and VIII just arrived. You can get your copy at Eisenbrauns. The drawings are great, the photographic reproductions are much better than in the previous 6 (or is it 5?) Gezer volumes. The volume comes with a CD full of plans and photographs.
I was the area supervisor in Field II (area 4) in 1973. This much belated volume documents my work and that of many others who labored under the sun. Much of my own work that year focused on the excavation of wall 4026. A few years ago I wrote a couple of speculative posts about this wall. Joe Seger, Sy Gitin and Karen E. Seger address wall 4026 on pages 109 and 110. Here is, in part, what they say about my favorite wall,

The most likely interpretation is that Wall 4026 served as a defensive parapet or outer screening wall set on the edge of the glacis plateau. It would have thus formed a protective room or corridor along the foot of the MB fortification wall (that is, along Mcalister’s Inner Wall system). Wall segments positioned just outside the main wall line on the plateau of the glacis with the same putative functions were found in Field IV.

Joe was kind enough to send me a pre-publication draft on which I built my more speculative posts. So, none of this is a surprise.
I’m sure that Joe and the rest of the publication team will agree that the length of time that it has taken to publish this report is unconscionable! Many, more recent excavations have done better. As is often said, “To excavate is to destroy.” Without documentation, that destruction is permanent. Without timely documentation, the destruction might as well be permanent for those who do not out live the delay. No excavation should enter the field unless it has a clear, doable publication plan. Such a plan should, at worst, be able maintain a schedule measure in years rather than decades.
Still, it is good to see this volume and to remember those wonderful times and people.

Markov Chain Monte Carlo Procedure Dating Of Homer

Eric Lewin Altschuler, Andreea S. Calude, Andrew Meade, and Mark Pagel have just published “Linguistic evidence supports date for Homeric epics.” Their paper offers a “likelihood-based Markov chain Monte Carlo procedure” estimate for the date of composition of Homer’s epics. Here’s the abstract,

The Homeric epics are among the greatest masterpieces of literature, but when they were produced is not known with certainty. Here we apply evolutionary-linguistic phylogenetic statistical methods to differences in Homeric, Modern Greek and ancient Hittite vocabulary items to estimate a date of approximately 710–760 BCE for these great works. Our analysis compared a common set of vocabulary items among the three pairs of languages, recording for each item whether the words in the two languages were cognate – derived from a shared ancestral word – or not. We then used a likelihood-based Markov chain Monte Carlo procedure to estimate the most probable times in years separating these languages given the percentage of words they shared, combined with knowledge of the rates at which different words change. Our date for the epics is in close agreement with historians’ and classicists’ beliefs derived from historical and archaeological sources.

This sentence stands out from the University of Reading’s news release announcing the paper, “The research dated the Homerian epics with a 95% certainty within a date range of 376 BCE and 1157 BCE, with a mean estimate of 762 BCE.” Yep, that is helpful. The late date in the 95% range is historically impossible and the early is, well, extremely unlikely. The news release doesn’t vouchsafe to us the certainty percent for the 710–760 BCE range.
The paper itself is behind a pay wall so it will be a little while before I can even attempt to evaluate it but here is a teaser chart presumably from the paper.

The dating of Homer

I’m not kneejerk opposed to such studies. In fact, I often find them abnormally interesting. I once proposed something like this to help sort out the relationships between the various Northwest Semitic languages. But I hope that the authors or someone has used the same methodology to determine the dates of Plato’s Republic and Origen’s Contra Celsum, not because I don’t know the dates of these works but because I do. Maybe someone has done such a study; maybe the authors of “Linguistic evidence supports date for Homeric epics” have. If such studies exist, I’d just like to see them.
Via Rogue Classicism

Gezer Regional Survey

Abnormal readers will know that I have a soft place in my heart for all things Gezer. On the last day of last year Hadashot Arkheologiyot published Eric Mitchell, Jason M. Zan, Cameron S. Coyle and Adam R. Dodd’s preliminary report on the 2007-11 seasons of the Tel Gezer regional survey project. Todd Bolen posts excerpts at Bible Places. The whole report is worthy of attention. I’ll just post the conclusion.

The results of the 2007–2011 Tel Gezer Survey seasons have been encouraging in terms of both artifacts and features documented, as well as total area covered. At the current rate, it is estimated that two to three additional seasons will be necessary to complete surveying a 1 km radius around Tel Gezer. Our goal for the future is to publish a catalog of features within our survey area, as well as articles on the tombs and presses of Tel Gezer. At the end of the project, we will analyze all our GPS location data for features and artifacts from every season via mapping software. Using this data, we can construct a clearer understanding of distribution patterns for various features, as well as draw wider conclusions about the use of the land around the ancient city of Gezer.

Read the whole report in Hadashot Arkheologiyot.

Hittite Epigraphs Mapped

The “Hittite Epigraphic Findings in the Ancient Near East” website is a geographic index of texts, seals, and engraved objects from the Hittite Kingdom, 1600-1150 BCE, in both Hittite and Akkadian. The creator and curator of the site, Dr. Dario Fossati, purposely omitted unprovenanced texts and rock inscriptions and reliefs. The former because they are, well, unprovenanced and the latter because they are already listed at Monuments of the Hittites.
This site looks abnormally interesting.
Via Jack Sasson’s Agade list