The Best Archaeological Finds in Israel of 2016

Humans have been living and fighting and loving and dying in Israel for hundreds of thousands of years. Here is what we found this year.

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People visit the Hisham's Palace archaeological site, located five kilometres north of the West Bank city of Jericho, on October 20, 2016, after the mosaic in the palace was uncovered and readied for display.
People visit the Hisham's Palace archaeological site, located five kilometres north of the West Bank city of Jericho, on October 20, 2016.Credit: Abbas Momani . AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Israel is soaked in blood and relics of human history. Primitive humans passed through Israel on their way out of Africa: now we know what they ate. Israel is part of the area where human society formed: 12,000 years later, we have found their homes. Modern civilization arose in these parts, as did the three big monotheistic religions: all left behind gods, death and destruction at which we now gaze in awe. Here are just some of the stories in Israeli archaeology in 2016.

Israeli archaeology: Often controversial, always fascinating. Shown above: Excavating the City of David, Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

December: Unknown Scroll fragments, Roman governor found

One would think that the hordes of archaeologists and antiquities thieves running around the Judean Desert for decades would have found all the scrolls, and bits thereof, until now. Yet archaeologists scurrying to beat looters, who still optimistically abound after all these years, did find – not whole scrolls, but at least fragments. The pieces are tiny and they're too faded to read, yet, but they give grounds for hope that there are more ancient Essene-era documents to be found in the desert by the Dead Sea.

This Friday, May 10, 2013 photo shows damaged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem. Credit: AP

The abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta on Jerusalem's northern border has been occupied for at least 2,000 years, the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed. That is the rough dating of the oldest building, a Roman villa, found at the site. A crusader farmhouse had been built over it in the Middle Ages. Now the battle is raging over plans to rebuild Lifta: some argue that the ancient ruins will be destroyed. Again.

An underwater survey off Tel Dor, on the Mediterranean Sea, yielded a rare Roman inscription mentioning the province of Judea – and the name of a previously unknown Roman governor, who ruled the province shortly before the Bar-Kochba Revolt. Historians had thought they knew all the Roman governors. Well, they didn't. With the sea creatures cleaned off the rock, we met "Silvanus Quintus Coredius Gallus Gargilius Antiquus, governor of the province of Judea." Shalom.

Roman-era 1900-year-old inscription outs an unknown official: "The city of Dor honors Marcus Paccius...governor of the province of Judea"Credit: Jenny Carmel

Normally organic remains don’t survive 780,000 years but the waterlogged conditions off Lake Hula enabled archaeologists to identify that very thing, and conclude that prehistoric man (we don't know which species) ate every animal he could catch – and plants: a rich assortment of fruit, nuts, tubers, roots, seeds from trees and shrubs.

November: Appeasing the gods

A rare cache of gold and silver items dated to 3,600 years ago were found in Gezer – and figurines of the Canaanite counterparts for Ishtar, goddess of love, and Sin, god of the moon. The gods and money were found inside a clay vessel within the foundations of a building, leading to the theory that the pot was placed there as an offering to the gods to bless the building.

The treasure in its pot in the foundations of a building in ancient Gezer.Credit: Chet Roden

October: Biggest mosaic, worst son

In Jericho the Palestinian authorities revealed one of the largest ancient mosaics in the world, adorning a bathhouse in Hisham’s Palace. The 827-square-meter carpet mosaic is composed of 38 different scenes, including a "tree of life" next to which a deer is being killed by a lion. Maybe the circle of life.

A portion of a seventh-century, 827-square-meter mosaic on display ahead of the opening ceremony at the Islamic archaeological site of Hisham Palace, in the West Bank city of Jericho.Credit: Nssser Nasser / AP

Excavations carried out on Mt. Zion have found an ashy destruction layer dating to the 12th century C.E., when a headstrong young crusader knight, Baldwin III, stormed the crusader citadel in order to wrest power over Jerusalem - from his mother, Queen Melisende.

Newly discovered layers of fiery destruction in ancient Jaffa bear witness to long-forgotten violent Canaanite resistance to Egyptian rule over the seaside city thousands of years ago, a defiance entirely missing from historical sources. Archaeologists wonder whether embarrassed Egyptians simply expunged the ancient records.

September: Second Temple flooring and Jews in caves

Sections of floor tiling from the Second Temple courtyard have been restored by archaeologists, using fragments found in debris removed from the Temple Mount. The team believes the regally decorated tiles adorned porticos (roofed colonnades) atop the Temple Mount during the reign of Roman vassal King Herod in Jerusalem, from 37 to 4 BCE. The shards were found by the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Frankie Snyder showing example of two restored floor tiles from the courtyard of the Second Temple .Credit: Temple Mount Sifting Project

Meanwhile, surveying in the Galilee, scientists discovered hundreds of limestone caves in which Jews hid when Roman troops came marching through 2,000 years ago, during the Great Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE(.Extensive embellishment such as baths and candle niches carved into the rock show that the caves had been prepared for extensive habitation.

The sanctuaries in which Jewish rebels hid from the Roman forces 2000 years ago in the Galilee were natural caves in the chalky cliffsCredit: Yinon Shavtiel

August: Synagogues when there shouldn't be any

Yet another synagogue was discovered in the Galilee that somewhat rewrites the history of Judaism.This one too predates the destruction of the Second Temple – which was supposed to concentrate all Jewish worship at the time. But maybe it wasn't a house of worship exactly. Inscriptions and historical sources suggest that the "other" synagogues of the time were confined to use for meetings, Torah readings and study.

A palatial building dating to the era of King Solomon, 3000 years ago, has been discovered in Gezer, though there is no evidence which of the Israelite kings lived there, if any. The diggers found a layer of Philistine pottery, lending credence to the biblical account of them living in the city until being vanquished by King David.

A building dated to 10th century Gezer, the era of King Solomon.Credit: Tel Gezer Excavation Project, Steven M. Ortiz

July: Live priests, dead Philistines

Archaeologists digging in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City found a neighborhood that they think had housed the priestly ruling class around 2,000 years ago. For instance, one of the houses had its own cistern and mikveh, and one had an actual bathtub, quite the extravagance at the time. So far that just spells "filthy rich," but archaeologist Shimon Gibson points out that they also found a ritual stone cup with a priestly inscription. He also points out that Caiaphas lived right up the hill.

A huge Philistine cemetery has been found in Ashkelon. The manner of the burials strongly suggests that the Philistines really did come from Aegean Sea, and that they had very close ties with the Phoenician world.

A skull unearthed from the Philistine burial ground in Ashkelon National Park, June 28, 2016.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Apropos Philistines, archaeologists report on startling similarities between their cities and Cypriot ones – lending yet more credence to that Aegean theory.

Thing is, while today "Philistine" is an insult, back then everybody was busy hating the Phoenicians. Which begs the question: Who were the Phoenicians exactly – did they even exist as a people?

A human foot and 86 tortoise shells were just some of the extraordinary finds discovered in the prehistoric grave of a female shaman in the Galilee, in northern Israel, dating back 12,000 years.

Massive fortifications found in Bethsaida indicate that the biblical-era kingdom of Geshur had been a lot more powerful than assumed. One open question is who exactly these mighty Geshurites were - Aramean, Israelite or both. Archaeologists note that information on what Aramean cities looked like is scanty because too little work on the topic had been done before civil war erupted in Syria, and excavation there now isn't an option.

The city gate of Bethsaida, capital of the Kingdom of Geshur. Middle-upper-left: A standing stele shows a bull figure that archaeologists believe represents the moon god.Credit: Hanan Shafir

A team of scientists has successfully sequenced 6,000-year-old barley grains, the oldest plants sequenced to date, and deduced that domestication of the grain began in northern Israel.

June: Well, they couldn't sacrifice just anybody

Forget spoiled millennials who insist they can't do without their iPhone and green-tea latte. Ancient Canaanites living in Gath 5,000 years ago insisted on importing the animals they sacrificed to the gods from Egypt. We don't know why. One of the sacrificed Nilotic behemoths was a donkey, and those had originally been domesticated in North Africa, so perhaps the practice started with donkeys and spread to other furry victims.

A donkey sacrificed in Canaanite ritual, found in situ at Tell es-Safi (Gath). Analysis of its teeth showed that it was born and bred in ancient Egypt.Credit: Richard Wiskin

Apropos luxuries, archaeologists have found what may be the first landfill in history and of course, it was the seemingly hygienic Romans who created it, in Jerusalem. Layer upon layer of waste that was efficiently collected, piled up and buried some 2,000 years ago, over a period of 70 years, has been dug up on the slopes of the Kidron valley, just outside the Roman-era walls of Jerusalem. People usually lived with their garbage, or threw it into the street: this collection behavior had been completely aberrant.

Archaeologists standing in the dig of Jerusalem's Roman era landfill.Credit: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquity Authority

May: Why cooking pots and spoons were in the sewer

Archaeologists find the last hideout of Jewish rebels in Jerusalem – and it had been in sight the whole time. They had moved into drainage channels beneath the main street, and for quite some time. Upon realizing this, Emperor Titus' soldiers, quashing the last of the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E., ripped up the paving stones covering the sewer system, flushed out the Jews and that was that.

A closeup of the places in the stone stepped road in the Old City of Jerusalem where Roman soldiers may have broken through, to "dig out" Jewish rebels.Credit: Ariel David

Digging in Gaza, archaeologists found the remains of a vast Bronze Age trading hub dating to 3600 years ago. From this town, Cypriot products, especially pottery, copper and bronze, were distributed throughout the southern Levant, including Transjordan. How do we know the wealth was from trading, nothing else? The town had no natural sources. So what else could it have been?

April: Kiddie archaeology

A 12-year-old girl finds an Egyptian amulet dating back more than 3,200 years to the days of the Pharaohs, bearing the name of the Egyptian ruler Thutmose III. The amulet was found by the Sifting Project at Temple Mount.

Neshama Spielman with the ancient Egyptian amulet in Jerusalem on April 19, 2016.Credit: Adina Graham/City of David via AP

March: A fortress is found underneath a fortress underneath

Only in Israel would a major power station be built around an ancient stone fortress dating back thousands of years.

Tell Qudadi, the stony bit featuring brush surrounded by the wooden planks of the Tel Aviv boardwalk, by the Reading power station.Credit: Oren Tal

A vast prehistoric necropolis some 4,200 years old was found near Bethlehem, proving for the first time that the city had existed and thrived in Canaanite times.

February: 7,000-year old homes found in Jerusalem

Stone houses and artifacts dating back 7,000 years have been discovered in Jerusalem, demonstrating that the settlement existed some 2,000-3,000 years more than had been supposed. The houses showed various stages of building, indicating that they had been in use for centuries. The stone homes plus other artifacts were found by Shuafat, in north Jerusalem, in the course of a "salvage excavation" ahead of building a new road.



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