Ramat Rahel: Archeobotanics and Paradise

From Roman Legionnaires and Judean kings, to Assyrian conquerors and the modern Kibbutz – Ramat Rahel has seen it all. Excavated over two core expeditions, research from Ramat Rahel has gone on to shape the continued development of archaeology, thanks to the progressive research of scholars from Tel Aviv University

3D Reconstruction of the Ramat Rahel Complex, by Roy Albag
Ramat Rahel Expedition

The first to realize the historical value of Ramat Rahel was Prof. Yohannan Aharoni (the first head of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University). Aharoni’s extensive study of the site in the 1950's and early 60's uncovered a palatial structure, the finds of which raised a number of scholarly questions. Several of these questions sparked the interest of a young scholar, Oded Lipschits, future professor and head of the 2005-2010 Ramat Rahel Excavation (current head of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University). When asked about Ramat Rahel, Lipschits notes, "the architecture is absolutely unique in its grandeur and finesse; we have not yet encountered anything quite like it in Judah".

2005 – 2010 Ramat Rahel Excavation
2005 – 2010 Ramat Rahel ExcavationProf. Oded Lipschits
2005 – 2010 Ramat Rahel Excavation
2005 – 2010 Ramat Rahel ExcavationOded Lipschits

Yet it was not until years later that a serendipitous encounter brought Prof. Lipschits, Prof. Yuval Gadot (Tel Aviv University), and Prof. Manfred Oeming (Heidelberg University) together, and through their combined efforts, renewed excavations in 2004. The project attracted numerous students, volunteers, and archaeology enthusiasts from across the world, all dedicated to unearthing the secrets of Ramat Rahel. Working with a committed team, it wasn't long before the excavation spilled outside of the initial planned area of excavation, and exposed the monumental Judean palace. With its impressive palatial complex and lush royal garden, the once Judean stronghold was understood to date back to 7th century BCE.

3D Reconstruction of the Ramat Rahel Complex, by Roy Albag
3D Reconstruction of the Ramat Rahel Complex, by Roy AlbagRamat Rahel Expedition

It was during the renewed excavations that Dr. Dafna Langutt experimented with a new methodology: the recovery and analysis of preserved pollen from plastered surfaces around the garden plot. The method proved highly effective, as she was able to reconstruct the lush and diverse flora of the Ramat Rahel Royal Garden, bringing its past splendor back to life. Dr. Langgut’s study examined preserved pollen spores, which were trapped in the once wet plaster of ancient periods. Pollen under the microscope appears the same now as it did in ancient times. As such, Langgut is able to identify pollen in an ancient context, and effectively reconstruct the environment. Archeobotanic studies such as this triangulate artifacts, architecture, and pollen recovery, to construct multi-dimensional ancient worlds.

Reconstruction of the Gardens of Ramat Rahel, Image by Nirit Kedem
Reconstruction of the Gardens of Ramat Rahel, Image by Nirit KedemRamat Rahel Expedition
3D Reconstruction of the Ramat Rahel Complex, by Roy Albag
3D Reconstruction of the Ramat Rahel Complex, by Roy AlbagRamat Rahel Expedition

It is critical to view the Royal Garden at Ramat Rachel within the context of what a garden represented in the ancient Near East. Further to its decorative and leisurely purposes, the garden functioned as an essential backdrop for the display of royal power. The relationship between gardens and power is clearly demonstrated in a Nineveh relief; in which king Ashurbanipal is depicted in his garden, enjoying the fresh air with his wife, as the severed head of an enemy king hangs from one of the trees. Choosing to import vegetation from differing parts of the realm was a demonstration of the king's rule over various regions. The successful cultivation of such exotic flora further emphasized the King’s divine-like ability to manipulate nature. Yet to date, the only Royal Garden unearthed in Judah is the one at Ramat Rahel. Since ‘garden’ in the Persian language is PARDES, and the ancient Greeks translated ‘The Garden of Eden’ in the book of Genesis as Pardes (Paradise), the excavators of Ramat Rahel can fairly state that they are the only archaeologists who have ever truly excavated in Paradise.

From the beginning, the Ramat Rahel expedition served to train the next generation of archaeologists. During this time, Lipschits initiated the International program in Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. The degree provides a unique academic format that combines the merits of learning from the renowned scholars of one Israel’s elite academic institutions, with the ultimate geographical location in which to explore the history of the Levant.

3D reconstruction of the Ramat Rahel Complex, by Roy Albag
3D reconstruction of the Ramat Rahel Complex, by Roy AlbagRamat Rahel Expedition

Though the excavation is now complete, and the final publication in press, Ramat Rahel continues to act as an example of the impact archaeological excavations can have on scholars, students, and the sciences. Students who originally began their careers at Ramat Rahel have now gone on to develop complex research, while once new methodologies such as pollen analysis, have now become part of the archaeological norm. Moving forward, studies such as those pioneered by Langgut have been expanded to a study of the ancient Herodian world of Judea (at Herodium, Caesaria, and Masada). 

Archeobotanic studies have developed into a standard research component for most excavations. The ability of such a study to offer a high-resolution perspective on the ancient world, provides  students and scholars with unprecedented access to the ancient world. Archeobotany continues to impact the projects research, such as those of Tel Azekah, Tel Megiddo, Masada, and Timna, to name a few. Recently, numerous students from Tel Aviv University took part in the 2018 excavation of Masada, learning and applying methods directly from Langgut.

The Ramat Rahel Expedition
The Ramat Rahel ExpeditionProf. Oded Lipschits

As archaeology evolves into the 21st century, the field continues to emphasize how the pursuit of various sciences enriches archaeology, and provides access to previously inaccessible dimensions of the ancient past.

For additional information about the International MA in Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, click here >>>