Israel's Good Name

University Trip: Caesarea & Nachal Taninim

In Coastal Plain, Israel on July 10, 2016 at 6:57 AM

Two months or so ago I joined fellow archaeology students on a tour of Caesarea and the further ends of its iconic aqueduct. Boarding the bus at Bar Ilan University we drove up north to the national park and began our tour overlooking the surf in relatively comfortable morning weather. After a fantastic video (reminiscent of my favourite childhood computer game, Civilization III) summarised the historical successions of the ancient Roman city, we popped on over to the aqueduct remains on the coast.

Caesarea's iconic aqueduct by the sea

Caesarea’s iconic aqueduct by the sea

In one of my courses we spent a class or two learning about this particular aqueduct, of which there are actually three subsequent water systems – Roman construction by both Herod and Hadrian built side-by-side and then Crusader on top. Bringing water in from springs near Zichron Ya’akov, the aqueduct supplied the Roman city Herod built in the name of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, his sovereign leader.

Aqueduct feeds

Aqueduct feeds

Examining the varied constructions from an academic standpoint, we then walked along the beach to see the engraved plaque stones marking the building and dedication of the aqueduct. We then walked to the lesser known smaller aqueduct, built during the Byzantine times, which brought water from the marshes several kilometres north – a project that was abandoned before it finished.

Within the smaller, Byzantine aqueduct

Within the smaller, Byzantine aqueduct

We climbed up into the aqueduct and crouch-walked our way a bit through the water tunnel before continuing on southward towards the ancient city ruins of Caesarea. The walk was a bit of a doozy but along the way I found the base of an amphora washed up ashore, one of many pottery finds.

Amphora base and a footprint in the sand

Amphora base and a footprint in the sand

We stopped just before the northern city wall from the Roman era and listened to a brief lecture looking over the surf.

Lecture over the surf

Lecture over the surf

As we stood in the hot sun listening I noticed a few pied kingfishers hovering above the surf, a bird I love watching.

Pied kingfisher

Pied kingfisher

Once through the northern gate we passed ruins and a small sampling of a mosaic floor, one of many in Caesarea. Crossing the Crusader-era moat and sloped city wall, we shortly entered the heavily-commercialised city centre – transformed into a tourist trap with restaurants and shops. We took a break from walking and had lunch just outside of the Roman nymphaeum – a public fountain with its statue of a Roman goddess.

Crusader harbour from the higher Herodian port

Crusader harbour from the higher Herodian port

Walking over to the Crusader port, we passed temples and various administrative buildings and climbed the Roman citadel to look down on the ancient harbour, watching another fabulous animated film about the harbour area. In one of the local buildings we came across the exhibit for the gold coin trove that was discovered in the spring of 2015 by scuba divers underwater – the largest hoard of gold coins found yet in Israel.

Fatimid coins of pure gold found underwater

Fatimid coins of pure gold found underwater

Heading inland we watched some ongoing archaeological dig and restoration work of the Herodian harbour vaults while looking down at the Crusader citadel and neighbouring Bosnian mosque minaret. Continuing ever southwards we entered the Roman bathhouse complex and marveled at the marble pillars and extensive tiled floors.

Within the Roman bathhouse complex

Within the Roman bathhouse complex

Looping back a bit, we entered the long dirt-floored hippodrome, a Grecian stadium for horse races. Passing the Mithraeum and other public buildings we reached the far end of the hippodrome and ventured over to see the meagre remains of Herod’s palace, built jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea.

Meagre remains of Herod's seaside palace in Caesarea

Meagre remains of Herod’s seaside palace in Caesarea

From there we headed straight for the Roman theatre which, as wonderfully preserved and lovingly reconstructed as it is, continues to provide entertainment for the populus as a premier location for concerts. I took the liberty of snapping a photograph of myself sitting on the stage.

Caesarea's Roman theatre and I

Caesarea’s Roman theatre and I

Despite the length of our tour thus far, we were nowhere near finished. Boarding the bus we were then driven to Nachal Taninim, the marsh area which supplied the water for the smaller of the two aqueducts entering Caesarea from the north.

Manmade water channel carved out of the bedrock

Manmade water channel carved out of the bedrock

The name Nachal Taninim, which literally means Stream of Crocodiles, originates from the now-extinct population of crocodiles that lived in the stream and marsh’s brackish water. Thought to have been originally imported for entertainment by the Romans from nearby Egypt, the last crocodile was killed by the British approximately 100 years ago. In the 300s CE, a city was established on the banks of the stream under the name Crocodopolis – my favourite ancient city name.

Byzantine waterworks at Nachal Taninim

Byzantine waterworks at Nachal Taninim

The Byzantines took the large marshy area and built dams and a regulatory system to control water flow, in efforts to power mills. A park ranger took us to the dam and showed us how the reconstructed waterworks was used in ancient times – the simple power of water always amazes. We spotted crabs and frogs in the water, and several waterbirds as well, as we made our rounds through the national park. From Nachal Taninim we boarded the bus to see one last sight, the Roman aqueduct bend at Beit Hanina which includes a dedication plaque etched into stone.

Dedication words and mark of the Tenth Legion

Dedication words and mark of the Tenth Legion

We finished up the long day-trip with a wall along the top of the aqueduct, admiring the clay piping laid into the rock. From there the aqueduct continues into the modern Arab village of Jisr al-Zarka and then along the coast where we started the day.

The bend in the Herodian aqueduct

The bend in the Herodian aqueduct

We headed back to BIU sunburnt but having had a wonderful time exploring the much-discussed ruins with the professors, looking forward to the next trip.

Khirbet Arai Archaeological Dig

In Israel, Judea on May 29, 2016 at 11:45 AM

During Chol HaMoed Pesach, several weeks ago, I was told by my friend Itamar about the Khirbet Arai archaeological dig in the Judean lowlands, not far from Beit Guvrin and Kiryat Gat. I traveled down to Beit Shemesh the day prior and we went out to see The Jungle Book in theatres the evening before the dig – a great film. The day of the dig arrived and we were driven to the site, passing historical sites such as Tel Beit Shemesh and Emek HaElah where the iconic battle between David and Goliath took place.

Aerial view of the dig site (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Aerial view of the dig site (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Now, the mound seen in the aerial photo above in the entire dig site but I only ended up working in the squares to the back left of the hillock, just along the tree line (click on the photo to enlarge). While the excavation site was being set up for the day and the camping volunteers were getting up, I wandered off a bit to explore my surroundings, photographing some jackdaws as well as the view of the Judean foothills.  To fully paint the scene, the weather was dry and very hot with gusts of hot wind blowing in from the southeast, perfect for a day outdoors. Looping back round to the dig site I found this crooked warning sign:

Beware of the archaeologists up ahead!

Beware of the archaeologists up ahead!

The Khirbet Arai Expedition is run by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, under the watchful eye of Professor Yosef Garfinkel, one of Israel’s premier experts in Biblical Age archaeology. Fortunately, Professor Avraham Faust from Bar Ilan University – my boss in the lab where I work – came to visit and I was able to tag along with him and Saar Ganor from the Israel Antiquities Authority to hear a pretty extensive review of the excavations and findings.

Professor Yosef Garfinkel

Professor Yosef Garfinkel

I began the day’s work by helping with labeling cleaned potsherds for future vessel reconstruction, something I have plenty of practice in working in the Tel ‘Eton Archaeological Lab back in BIU.

Philistine pottery found on-site (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Philistine pottery found on-site (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Once we finished with the pottery bits we had lunch and then got back to work, this time I joined the diggers working in a particular square uncovering walls from either the 9th Century BCE or the 12th Century BCE, I cannot recall which was which. The periods are Late Bronze, Early Iron and Iron II – if I am using the terms correctly (I’m still a student) – which are the Judges and Kings periods of Israelite rule.

A square similar to the one I worked in (photo Khirbet Arai Expedition)

A square similar to the one I worked in (photo: Khirbet Arai Expedition)

Prof Garfinkel has already done extensive excavations in nearby Lachish and Qeiyafa, larger sites from the same period which guarded over the Nachal Lachish, an important road in the region. As Khirbet Arai has only been subjected to test and minor digs thus far, we were glad to make headway into the areas we were uncovering. Due to the sensitive nature of new reveals in both the academic and tourism world, I was forbidden to take photos of key findings and of the dig site itself but was graciously given permission to use released photos courtesy of the Khirbet Arai Expediton.

Bone that I dug out of the ground

Bone that I dug out of the ground

As I scraped around in the dirt between two emerging stone walls, I kept count of the potsherds I was finding – but lost track after thirty or so. All in all I estimate that I personally unearthed some 40-50 pottery pieces as well as what looks like a broken rib bone and some burnt brick material with small amount of concentrated carbon. It’s assumed that there must have been a raging fire which left burnt traces in the pottery and the brick, possibly fires of destruction and ruin – oh how I wish I had a time machine!

Bits of carbon from an ancient fire

Bits of carbon from an ancient fire

Noam, our square supervisor, was fun to work with and he showed us a broken flint tool and other oddities that he found on his side of the square, as well as answering the many questions that I had. Unfortunately, I blundered in my mission and was told by the Professor that I had committed an “archaeological disaster” by digging too deep alongside the wall stones, perhaps breaking the floor strata. We learn from our mistakes and at least now I know what not to do on my next dig.

Itamar and I after a long day at the dig

Itamar and I after a long day at the dig

Towards the end of the day we closed the dig site and worked on washing some pottery, another thing I have experience in, while the washed potsherds from the day before went to the pottery reading to determine their value and usage, the rest of which was dumped alongside the dirt and stones removed from the site. I sat beside Prof Garfinkel and discussed the site with him, learning of Luke Chandler’s blog where more photos and more information can be found (see post ONE and post TWO). Another interesting fact that I gleaned was that ancient sites from this particular time period are often identified by the animal remains found. Philistine sites have been documented as containing up to 20% swine of the bones found while Jewish sites have 0% swine bones, as the pig is not a kosher animal and thus ignored by the Israelites. Finished with the pottery washing, I got a ride partway home, washing and freshening up in Netanya’s train station, before making it the rest of the way home for a good night’s sleep.

University Trip: Beit Guvrin – Maresha

In Israel, Judea on May 22, 2016 at 5:41 AM

A month or so ago I received an invitation to attend a special farewell ceremony for Professor Emeritus Amos Kloner of Bar Ilan University. Already in his mid-seventies, Prof Kloner finished his lecturing last semester and was being honoured for his work at one of the most famous places he helped bring to life: Beit Guvrin – Maresha.

Beit Guvrin's iconic Bell Caves

Beit Guvrin’s iconic Bell Caves

I had visited Beit Guvrin – Maresha on my 12th grade graduation trip to Israel and haven’t been back to explore since, aside from a short visit to the Roman amphitheatre located nearby (HERE). And so it was on a pleasant Thursday afternoon that I boarded a bus with other university members and we made our way to the national park. Because of Prof Kloner’s renown, the event was co-hosted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in conjunction with BIU. Within the park we followed the evening’s mapped itinerary, starting with the fascinating ancient underground columbarium, or dovecote, with its capacity for thousands of  pigeons or doves.

Inside the columbarium

Inside the columbarium

Due to the region’s soft, chalky bedrock, there are hundreds and hundreds of caves – some natural and the others man-made. To give a brief synopsis of the local history, a fortified city by the name of Maresha is Biblically mentioned as a Jewish city until the times of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II who exiled its inhabitants. Abandoned Maresha was then occupied by the Edomites until the time of Alexander the Great when the city became the home of retired Greek soldiers. Enter the Maccabean Revolt, Pompey, Julius Caesar and then Herod and the city was destroyed in the power struggle.

Uncovered ruins at the edge of Tel Maresha

Uncovered ruins at the edge of Tel Maresha

Still in the Roman period, the small Jewish settlement of Beit Guvrin nearby became a regional replacement of Maresha and was named Eleutheropolis by the Romans after being conquered by Vespasian. Uncharacteristic of Holy Land cities, the ancient history ends with the Romans, save a few scattered instances of settlement throughout the following two millennia. As we climbed out of the columbarium I bumped into future tour guide Haike Winter and her friend – always fun to see familiar faces in unlikely places.

Lecture within the olive press cave

Lecture within the olive press cave

The next site on the map was the water cistern and olive press, both carved into the soft rock underground, where we heard a brief lecture on theories regarding Greek influence and involvement during the time of Alexander the Great. Climbing out, we continued on to mount Tel Maresha, where a guest lecturer hailing from Caesarea came to speak. There we stood gazing at the lay of the land, listening to the pastoral sounds of a flock of sheep passing down below.

Lecture on Tel Maresha

Lecture on Tel Maresha

The next place we visited was the famous Sidonian burial cave with its imaginative paintings, known as the Apollophanes Cave, a place I remember from my trip in 2008.

Sidonian burial cave

Sidonian burial cave

I was overjoyed to see the painting of a wild boar alongside other wild animals such as antelopes, giraffes, elephants and more. Ever since my run-ins with the ferocious and savage swine in both Nachal Kziv and Nachal Ga’aton I have been excited to see inanimate representations in ancient art.

Wild boar on the wall

Wild boar on the wall

From the Sidonian burial cave we boarded the buses to visit the famous Bell Caves where the ceremonially academic evening of lectures was to take place. Food and beverages were served yet I preferred to photograph jackdaws and to then visit the Bell Caves before the crowds arrived. During my 2008 visit we neglected to visit the Bell Caves so I was duly impressed to see the huge chambres, hewn from soft chalk, to be used mainly as quarries during the Byzantine era.

Inside one of the caves

Inside one of the caves

There were a few other people wandering around the caves as well and I used them in my pictures for perspective, to gauge the height of the large bell-shaped caves. When I had completed my subterranean tour I joined the rest of our group at a nearby cave where chairs and a screen were set up for lectures. Settling down next to my friend Itamar, I listened to the speeches and took notes on what everyone spoke about. Dr Tsvika Tsuk of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority spoke about being a soldier and finding a sarcophagus, and then the story of the recent victory getting UNESCO to recognise Beit Guvrin – Maresha as a World Heritage Site.

Speeches within the cave

Speeches within the cave

Dr Ian Stern of Archaeological Seminars told us about interesting findings such as items used for magic and ancient cultist practices. Dr Adi Erlich from Haifa University showed us slideshows of clay idols or figurines found locally, putting emphasis on one particular idol of Cybele – unusual to see in the Holy Land as Cybele was an Asia Minor deity. Prof Esther Eshel from BIU provided us with knowledge on ancient documents found inscribed on clay tablets while our department head Prof Boaz Zissu gave us a general historical and archaeological overview about Maresha, showing us fascinating pictures from the early 1900’s.

Inside the Sidonian burial cave from the early 1900's (cropped photo Library of Congress)

Inside the Sidonian burial cave from the early 1900’s (cropped photo: Library of Congress)

Prof Gideon Avni of the Israel Antiquities Authority told us stories of grave robbers, destruction and discoveries of graves in the necropolis and then the star of the evening, Prof Amos Kloner, got up to give his address. With that the evening concluded and we took our bus back to Bar Ilan University for a good night’s sleep.

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