Israeli Archaeologists Try to Reproduce Ancient Communication by Fire - With Less Than Blazing Success

Archaeologists at Tel es-Safi dig reenact a pagan ritual, to find out whether the ancient method of communicating using giant flame beacons actually works.

Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson

If outsiders had stumbled early Monday morning upon the archaeological dig at Tel es-Safi where the ancient Philistine city of Gat, east of Ashkelon, is being unearthed, they would have thought they were witnessing some kind of pagan ritual, or a scene from a bad movie.

They would have seen dozens of grown adults in tunics and funny hats wielding plastic swords and spears lighting a large campfire. Actually, however, the group was rather serious of purpose. They were archaeologists and volunteers who were dispatched to the dig in the Lachish area under the supervision of Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University. Apart from its entertainment value, the ritual had a semi-scientific purpose, and that was figuring out whether the ancient method of communications using giant flame beacons actually works.

As part of the experiment, another fire was lit at Tel Azekah, about 10 kilometers to the east. There a group under the direction of Prof. Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University danced around another fire. Such a distance was not considered long in the ancient word of communication by fire. Nonetheless, the trial resulted in real disappointment - the two groups could not see each other's fire.

The failure generated several possible explanations: the fire was too small, or the morning light was too strong, or the winds and morning haze obscured the field of vision. "When we got a close-up view from the zoom lens of our camera, we saw the fire," Lipschits said, "but you don't have to do that during the morning, because on the one hand, you don't see the fire [at that time] due to the light, and on the other hand, you don't see the smoke because of the haze." It was possible later, in full daylight, to see the smoke even from much further away, the professor noted.

The subject of communication using fires has prompted (or sparked? ) academic controversy in the past around an inscription from 2,600 years ago found at Lachish which stated: "because Azekah was not seen." The former Israel Defense Force chief of staff Yigael Yadin, who was also an archaeologist, believed the inscription was a reference to the destruction wrought by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C.E. by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar.

The inscription, Yadin thought, was a report by the Lachish city guards that Azekah had fallen to the Babylonians and its fires extinguished. For his part, former government minister Benny Begin, who is also a geologist, argued in a book he published in 2000 that the inscription simply referred to a routine report that the fires at Azekah were not visible, since the topography in the area did not permit them to be seen.

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Israeli archaeologists and volunteers attempting to reproduce communication by fire, July 22, 2013.Credit: Ilan Assayag
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Israeli archaeologists and volunteers attempting to reproduce communication by fire, July 22, 2013.Credit: Ilan Assayag
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Israeli archaeologists and volunteers attempting to reproduce communication by fire, July 22, 2013.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Both Lipschits and Maeir acknowledged that their experiment was carried out yesterday primarily for its entertainment value rather than as research. "There is nothing scientific about this, but to me, it is important to make archaeology accessible to the wider public," Maeir said. "As a result, I write a blog and because of that, we host children at the dig. We are fighting for that nanosecond of attention that still exists in the modern world, so we do it in a way that will spark people's imagination."

Beneath the summit of the archaeological mound of ancient Gat, or Gath as it is sometime referred to in English, the 17th digging season is wrapping up. The site continues to yield fascinating findings, including ritual objects from the Philistine period such as a shell that served as a ritual bowl and is well known from ancient Aegean culture around Greece, where the seafaring Philistines were originally from. It is testimony to the fact that their Aegean culture was preserved even 200 years after the Philistines came here.

At another location at the dig, a stone wall that surrounded the city dating back 4,500 year ago to the Bronze Age was being revealed. And at the base of the archaeological mound, or tel, Maeir's assistant, Amit Dagan, was unearthing the remains of homes. Dagan found a layer of homes from a period after Philistine Gat was destroyed by the Aramean king Hazael in 836 B.C.E. Dagan suspects that the homes were built by former residents of the city who had fled the war there and then returned in an effort to rebuild what they could.

"You clearly see the period of prosperity in the 9th century [B.C.E.], the layer of destruction that shows the devastation of Hazael and now we are identifying people trying to return," Dagan explained. "They were building again, but it is slipshod construction - walls that were not walls. You really see that they were trying to come back and pick up the pieces, but they weren't managing to and abandoned it after a short time. It's sad."

Israeli archaeologists and volunteers attempting to reproduce communication by fire, July 22, 2013.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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