Tag Archives: israel

Stone toilet in Israel shows that the rich and powerful in antiquity were suffering from parasites

Despite their advanced sanitation systems, the ancient elites of Jerusalem were plagued by intestinal parasites, new research reports.

The 2,700 year-old toilet. Image credits Yoli Schwartz / The Israel Antiquities Authority.

The findings are drawn from an archaeological site at the ancient Armon Hanatziv royal estate in Jerusalem. The site lies close to the Dead Sea, to the north of today’s Bethlehem. Analysis of soil samples taken from an ancient toilet found that residents of the estate harbored several intestinal parasites, as evidenced by the discovery of parasitic eggs in the samples.

The findings of this study are among some of the earliest discoveries ever made in Israel up to now.

Egg surprise

“These are durable eggs, and under the special conditions provided by the cesspit, they survived for nearly 2,700 years,”  said Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, a leading researcher in the emerging field of archeoparasitology, and sole author of the study. “Intestinal worms are parasites that cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and itching. Some of them are especially dangerous for children and can lead to malnutrition, developmental delays, nervous system damage, and, in extreme cases, even death.”

The findings can go a long way towards helping us understand the daily habits of people who once lived in this area, and of how ancient people dealt (or suffered with) infectious disease. This site is particularly valuable in this regard as it showcases the lives of the very rich and wealthy, who were most likely to enjoy the best lifestyle — in regards to resources, practices, and habits — of the time. Sites like this are also relatively hard to get this type of evidence from.

For example, Langgut explains that prior research had compared fecal parasites in hunter-gatherer and farming communities here and elsewhere, helping us better understand what this transition looked like for the people at the time.

One particularly important event for archeoparasitology (the study of parasites throughout human history) is the domestication of animals. At this time, the number of parasitic infections throughout farming communities rose sharply. Hunter-gatherers were generally exposed to fewer parasites and infectious diseases on account of living nomadic lifestyles — this, Langgut adds, is still the case today.

According to the paper, the area Israel occupies today — known as the Fertile Crescent in history — was probably one of the first where human populations suffered from wide-scale intestinal parasitic infection. Various ancient texts have been found throughout Israel referencing such diseases.

Excavation works at the ruins of Armon Hanatziv, or the Commissioner’s Palace, which dates back to the mid-7th century BCE, sometime between the reigns of King Hezekiah and King Josiah, started in 2019-2020.

Pollen found in samples taken from the site suggest that a garden of fruit trees and decorative plants existed around or next to the estate. Together with the lavish architecture and evidence of quality furnishings found at the site, this showcases the sheer level of wealth that was concentrated at the Armon Hanatziv.

During excavations in the garden, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquity Authority also discovered the remains of a primitive toilet: this consisted of a large water reservoir and a cubical limestone slab with a hole drilled in the center. Pollen was found in this structure as well, so the team believes that it was built either in a small room with windows, or in one without a roof, to ensure better ventilation. It was likely constructed in the garden, away from the main building, in an effort to have the plants mask some of the smell.

Toilets were quite a luxury during this time. The earliest examples of toilets in Israel all date to the Late Bronze Age and have been located in palace areas, indicative of their rarity and cost. Due to this, there is a relative lack of opportunities to study the contents of toilets for parasites. Only two such studies had been carried out before according to Langgut, one of which reported the presence of intestinal parasites.

Archaeologists collected 15 samples from the Armon Hanatziv, alongside a few controls from the area. The parasitic eggs were chemically extracted and studied under a microscope to determine their species and measure them. Langgut found eggs of four different species in six of the samples — whipworm, beef/pork tapeworm, roundworm, and pinworm. She adds that it’s the single earliest record of roundworm and pinworm in Israel.

Whipworm and roundworm eggs were the most common in the samples. None of the four control samples yielded any eggs, which ruled out the possibility of outside contamination into the toilet.

“It is possible that as early as the 7th century BCE, human feces were collected systematically from the city of Jerusalem in order to fertilize crops grown in the nearby fields,” Langgut wrote. “The inhabitants were forced to farm inhospitable rock terrain and were told which type of crop to grow. Additionally, the type of fertilizer used might have also been dictated by the Assyrian economy [at this time, Israel was under Assyrian rule].”

Human feces can act as useful and efficient fertilizer. Today, however, they are composted for a few months before use to limit the risk of any viable parasite eggs surviving. It’s very likely that people living in the area at that time were not using this practice, which allowed for the spread of parasites throughout the community. Langgut adds that the presence of tapeworm eggs is indicative that the inhabitants of the palace were eating poorly cooked or raw beef or pork, as these are “the only meats that carry the parasite”.

“While the mere existence of something as rare as a toilet installation seems to indicate that at least some ancient Jerusalemites enjoyed a relatively high level of sanitation, the evidence of intestinal parasite eggs suggests just the opposite,” she concludes. “The presence of indoor toilets may have been more a matter of convenience than an attempt to improve personal hygiene. A toilet was a symbol of wealth, a private installation that only the rich could have afforded.”

The paper “Mid-7th century BC human parasite remains from Jerusalem” has been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

Ancient shred of Israeli fabric reveals the secrets of “royal purple”

Some fashion choices can be uninspired, but the great have a potential to echo through the ages. Archeologists working in Israel’s Timna Valley have uncovered an ancient example of the latter — scraps of purple cloth from biblical times.

A wool textile fragment decorated with pink-purple threads discovered at the site. Image credits Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Being rich and powerful isn’t as fun if you don’t flaunt it to everyone. Judging by the fancy hats and other items that ancient nobles and royalty wore, our ancestors likely agreed. Still, while the modern world gave us brave new ways to show off our status, our forefathers had to resort to simpler means, such as wearing clothes dyed with expensive pigments.

Excavation works at an Iron-Age copper production site in the Timna Valley yielded a scrap of such refined clothing. The patch of ancient woolen fabric still bears tassels and fibers dyed with purple, a ‘royal’ color at the time due to its price. Purple dye is often mentioned in the Bible, the team notes, and analysis of the cloth revealed it hails from approximately 3000 years ago, around the time of kings David and Solomon, two important kings in Jewish and Christian history.

This is the first time we’ve found remnants of purple cloth from this time, the team adds.

This shirt? King material.

“This is a very exciting and important discovery,” explains Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “In antiquity, purple attire was associated with the nobility, with priests, and of course with royalty. The gorgeous shade of the purple, the fact that it does not fade, and the difficulty in producing the dye, [made it] often cost more than gold.”

Finding the material here of all places is a two-fold surprise: first, this was an industrial area. The Timna Valley site is still littered with slag produced by bellowing furnaces in which copper was smelted. It’s not exactly a place for fine clothes, even if you own some. Furthermore, the closest source for the dye (made in minute quantities from individual mollusks) is the Mediterranean sea which is over 300 km away.

Still — important people need to get around, and they have the money to afford luxurious, far-away dyes. What’s more exciting about the discovery is that it represents the first actual piece of dyed purple cloth we’ve found from the Iron age in the whole Southern Levant.

“Until the current discovery, we had only encountered mollusk-shell waste and potsherds with patches of dye, which provided evidence of the purple industry in the Iron Age,” adds Dr. Naama Sukenik. “Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3000 years.”

Excavations at the Timna site have been ongoing for a few years now. The very dry climate of the area means organic material such as textiles could remain well preserved even after thousands of years, giving us a unique opportunity to peer into the lives of our ancestors. This is why the team is confident that the discovery of this strip of cloth was only possible here. Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology Department, the paper’s corresponding author, explains that “the state of preservation at Timna is exceptional and it is paralleled only by that at much later sites”.

“In recent years, we have been excavating a new site inside Timna known as Slaves’ Hill. The name may be misleading since far from being slaves, the laborers were highly skilled metalworkers. Timna was a production center for copper, the Iron Age equivalent of modern-day oil. Copper smelting required advanced metallurgical understanding that was a guarded secret, and those who held this knowledge were the “Hi-Tech’ experts of the time,” he adds.

“Slaves’ Hill is the largest copper-smelting site in the valley and it is filled with piles of industrial waste such as slag from the smelting furnaces. One of these heaps yielded three scraps of colored cloth. The color immediately attracted our attention, but we found it hard to believe that we had found true purple from such an ancient period.”

The Banded Dye-Murex and Spiny Dye-Murex (Bolinus brandaris) are two species of mollusks endemic to the Mediterranean. They’re also the source of ancient purple dye. Pigments were produced starting from a gland within their bodies which was then processed in a complex series of chemical steps that could take several days to produce dye. If the materials were left exposed to light, an azure color (‘tekhelet’) would be produced; if not, purple (‘argaman’) was the end result.

Both colors, the authors note, are mentioned in ancient sources and often mentioned together. They often held religious or symbolic value (such as showcasing wealth and power). In the Bible, the Temple priests, kings David and Solomon, and Jesus of Nazareth are described as having worn clothing colored with purple.

The presence of the dye in the cloth was established using a high-performance liquid chromatography device, which found unique molecules known only in certain species of mollusks. In archaeology in general, explains lead author Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority, cloth is typically dyed with plant-based pigments, as these were much cheaper, simpler to produce, and readily available while animal-based pigments were more “prestigious”.

As part of the research, the team also recreated the dye using mollusks from Italy (where they are enjoyed as food). Although it took ‘thousands of mollusks’, they managed to successfully recreate the color — having the ancient equivalent to check against helped a lot. Among some of the findings is a ‘double-dyeing’ method “in which two species of mollusk were used in a sophisticated way, to enrich the dye,” says Dr. Sukenik.

“The practical work took us back thousands of years,” adds co-author Prof. Zohar Amar, “and it has allowed us to better understand obscure historical sources associated with the precious colors of azure and purple.”

During its day, Timna was part of the Kingdom of Edom, which bordered the Kingdom of Israel to the south.

The paper “Early evidence of royal purple dyed textile from Timna Valley (Israel)” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Cannabis was used for religious rites in Israel, archeologists find

It seems that priests in ancient Israel sometimes used marijuana in rituals. It’s the first evidence of the practice being done in the early history of Judaism.

Credit Israel Museum

Holy herb

A group of archeologists working on a 2,700-year-old altar in a desert shrine in Israel analyzed charred residues and found an interesting thing: cannabis.

The traces of weed were found on one of the altars of the temple at Tel Arad in the Negev desert in Israel. The substance was probably burned on purpose to get worshippers high on the psychoactive compounds, the researchers found.

Presumably, the goal was to induce or empower a religious ritual.

In fact, the archeologists strongly suspect that cannabis played a role in the rituals done at the Temple in Jerusalem. This is because the shrine at Arad was part of a fortress that kept safe one of the frontiers of the Kingdom of Judah at the same time the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.

“We know from all around the Ancient Near East and around the world that many cultures used hallucinogenic materials and ingredients in order to get into some kind of religious ecstasy,” said lead author Eran Arie told CNN. “We never thought about Judah taking part in these cultic practices.”

Inside Arad, the researchers found in the past a massebah – a worked standing stone associated with ancient Levantine cultic activities and likely represented the presence of the deity in the shrine. On the steps leading to it, there were two altars that had been buried, which helped preserve the remains of burnt offerings.

The organic remains in the altars had already been analyzed in 1960 and the results were inconclusive, but the experts had assumed the altars were used to burn some type of incense.

Now, Arie and a group of archeologists applied more modern techniques and found that most of the substance in case was frankincense.

This was the first-time frankincense was identified in the Levant (the geographical area in the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia that also hosts Israel). But that wasn’t the only surprise. On the smaller altar, 40 centimeters high, the team found rests of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) — two substances that are found in cannabis.

The analysis of the chemicals in the residue showed that the frankincense and cannabis were mixed in with animal fat and dung. The researchers believe that the fat could have helped to achieve the needed temperature for the frankincense to release its aroma. Meanwhile, the dung probably helped to burn the cannabis at a lower temperature to so activate its psychoactive compounds.

There’s no evidence that the marijuana was grown in the Levant during the Iron Age, according to the researchers, which suggests it had to be imported and implied larger costs. That’s also the case of the frankincense, collected from Boswellia trees and brought in from Southern Arabia.

“If they just wanted to make the temple smell nice, they could have burned some sage, which grows in the area of Jerusalem,” Arie said. “Importing cannabis and frankincense was a big investment that could not be made by some isolated group of nomads, it required backing from a powerful state entity.”

The use of cannabis in Israel is now illegal but it has been decriminalized partially. Home use and possession of up to 15 grams and below are not enforced by the authorities. Its use is also allowed for some specified medical purposes. Israel is now seen as a global leader in medical cannabis research and innovation.

The study was published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University

With empty beaches, sharks are returning to Israel’s coast

Israel’s beaches are pretty empty these days, but some are enjoying them more this way. Dozens of spotted sandbar sharks have been spotted on Israel shores by researchers at the University of Haifa.

The sharks were spotted off the coast of Ashdod, Israel’s sixth-largest city and the largest port in the country. Researchers at the University’s Morris Kahn Marine Research Station witnessed a large group of sharks swimming off Ashdod’s coast, presumably emboldened by the decrease in human activity.

It was impressive to see the sharks in such large numbers, particularly as the overall population numbers seem to be decreasing, which recently led their designation as a “vulnerable”.

Furthermore, this comes just days after another spotting off the Israelian city of Hadera. In Hadera, the sharks were moving towards the warmer water near Hadera’s power plant.

“This current sighting of sandbar sharks has occurred in several places around the world, but it is rare to see them in the Mediterranean,” said marine biologist Aviad Sheinin, also the top predator project manager at University of Haifa. “It seems that while most of the Mediterranean sharks are in danger of extinction, our beaches are exceptionally friendly to them.”

It’s not the first time sharks off the coast of Israel have drawn scientific interest. University researchers and students have been monitoring the sharks off the coast of Hadera for five years, tagging them with GPS trackers and monitoring their patterns.

A researcher in a kayak studies sharks in the shallow waters near Hadera, Israel. Photo by Hagai Nativ/Morris Kahn Marine Research Station/University of Haifa.

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the university’s research has also been put on hold for the past two months. This prevented researchers to truly take advantage of this opportunity and tag the sharks properly, which would have allowed them to trace the movement of the sharks. For now, they are only following the sharks remotely, keeping an eye on any sightings.

Understanding the dynamics of this population is particularly important as their numbers seem to be steadily decreasing. Throughout the Mediterranean, these sightings are very rare and are almost exclusively restricted to the Israelian coast. It’s not clear why the sharks prefer Israel.

“The number of sharks in the Mediterranean Sea is decreasing due to over-fishing of their food, or the fishing of the sharks themselves unintentionally,” Dr. Sheinin concluded. “Part of the research is focused on trying to reduce their unintentional grouping, in a bid to help preserve them.”

Credit: Pixabay.

Holocaust survivors are sicker but live much longer than Israelis who weren’t persecuted

Israeli Holocaust survivors tend to live, on average, seven years longer than their fellow countrymen who were not persecuted during the WWII genocide. However, the survivors were also far more likely to suffer from chronic illness such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, or cancer. It’s not clear why the death rate is much lower in Holocaust survivors. The tesearchers believe that the longevity may be owed to genetic factors that kept them alive but also resilience gained by braving the trauma.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The research team at the Kahn-Maccabi Institute of Research and Innovation, a medical research firm based in Tel Aviv, looked at health data for 39,000 Holocaust survivors who were born in Europe between 1911 and 1945, which they compared to 35,000 people born in Israel during the same period (at the time Israel was a territory of the British Empire).

Among the Holocaust survivors group, the researchers found higher rates of various chronic conditions — from bone fractures to obesity to cancer — than in the general population. For instance, 83% of Holocaust survivors had hypertension, compared to only 66.7% among the control group. Likewise, 30.9% of Holocaust survivors suffered from chronic kidney disease, while only 19.8% of the control group had the illness.

Yet, despite the higher incidence of chronic conditions, the Holocaust survivors had a much lower death rate than the control group — 25.3% compared to 41.1%. In absolute numbers, that’s 84.4 years of life, on average, for the Holocaust group and 77.7 years for the control group.

What can explain this huge discrepancy? It may be a dark and grueling one: the Holocaust group were forcefully selected through the hardship they had to endure. The old, frail, and weak were the first to be exterminated in Nazi concentration camps while the strongest were kept for work. The prisoners were further culled by the years and years of detention in the camps. At the end of the Holocaust, a select group of people emerged with qualities that enabled them to survive — and presumably helped them live longer than the general population (which didn’t live through a genocide).

Israel has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and Holocaust survivors and their offspring (many of whom moved to Israel) make up an important chunk of the country’s population. It’s possible that the country’s longevity may be owed to the selected genetics of the Holocaust group.

Another factor that may explain the remarkable longevity of Holocaust survivors is their behavioral adaptations to their persecution during the Nazi hegemony. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that may well be the case here. Holocaust survivors are more likely to have coping skills, supportive social networks, and a focus on healthy behaviors than the general population. Holocaust survivors are also more likely to seek medical attention, due to their various sickness, which may also explain their longer longevity.

“Our study found higher rates of comorbidities and lower mortality among Holocaust survivors, which may be associated with improved health literacy and unique resilience characteristics among Holocaust survivors. More research is needed to explore the biologic and psychosocial basis for this resilience,” the authors wrote in their study.

These are also very interesting findings, which warrant more research. The Holocaust is a shameful stain on humanity’s long and rich history but if out of its many lessons — which we ought never to forget — perhaps we can learn to live longer without having to go through such terrible experiences.

The findings were reported in the journal JAMA

Professor Li Liu examining ancient starch grains. Credit: L.A. Cicero.

Humans were brewing beer before they started growing cereals

Professor Li Liu examining ancient starch grains. Credit: L.A. Cicero.

Professor Li Liu examining ancient starch grains. Credit: L.A. Cicero.

Archaeologists at Stanford University have analyzed residues from 13,000-year-old stone mortars found in the Raqefet Cave, a Natufian graveyard site located near Haifa, Israel. Remarkably, the results suggest that the residues are the byproduct of ancient beer-brewing operations. Judging from the timeline, the discovery means that humans had been brewing beer long before they were baking bread, or cultivating cereals for that matter.

“This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world,” said Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford.

Agriculture ushered in a new age in the timeline of human evolution. With a stable supply of food and a permanent roof over their heads, humans were free to engage in other pursuits, such as brewing beer. However, the ancient residues retrieved from the cave in Israel — which include starch and microscopic plant particles known as phytolith, typically encountered in the transformation of wheat and barley to booze — paint a totally different history.

“This discovery indicates that making alcohol was not necessarily a result of agricultural surplus production, but it was developed for ritual purposes and spiritual needs, at least to some extent, prior to agriculture,” Liu said.

Liu and colleague were not looking for traces of alcohol. Instead, they were trying to piece together what the diets of the local people who inhabited the ancient cave looked like. The oldest evidence of bread making comes from another Natufian site in east Jordan, estimated to be 11,600 to 14,600 years old. But the beer-brewing evidence reported in the new study could be from 11,700 to 13,700 years old.

Previously, the team investigated 5,000-year-old beer-brewing tools in China, the earliest such tools found in that part of the world. Both the ancient Chinese and Natufian beers looked and tasted radically different from the modern variety. Natufian beer, for instance, probably resembled porridge or thin gruel, said Jiajing Wang, co-author of the new study and a doctoral student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford.

The team believes that the Natufians employed a three-stage brewing process. In the first step, starch of wheat or barley would have been turned into malt by germinating the grains in water, before draining, drying, and storing them. In the second step, the malt would be mashed and heated. Finally, the whole concoction would be left to ferment with airborne, wild yeast.

Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left) are compared to starches replicated in the lab. Credit: Courtesy Li Liu.

Microscopic traces of ancient starches extracted from the Raqefet Cave (left) are compared to starches replicated in the lab. Credit: Courtesy Li Liu.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recreated each of the steps that the Natufians might have taken to brew their beer. The team then compared their starch, which changed during the brewing process, to the ancient variety that the scientists had discovered in the cave in Israel. The results show very clear similarities. What’s more, the ancient stone mortar had similar wear and markings as the equipment used in the lab to pound and crush grain seeds.

The findings suggest ancient brewing was an important part of Natufian rituals, whose culture incorporated fairly sophisticated technological innovations and social hierarchies. In time, beer brewing achieved ‘mainstream’ status as grain became more available following the advent of agriculture. It’s funny to contemplate, nevertheless, that beer precedes bread and, in some cultures, may have been the primary motivator to cultivate cereals.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Upper jaw bone with intact teeth, dated as being between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. Credit: Rolf Quam.

Oldest human fossil outside Africa suggests our species left the continent 100,000 years earlier than thought

Our species first evolved in Africa and then dispersed to Europe and Asia not in one massive exodus, but likely in multiple waves of migration over the last 200,000 years. Multiple lines of evidence collected in the past decade support this idea, the most recent of which being reported by researchers at Tel Aviv University who described a 200,000-year-old jawbone discovered in an Israeli cave. The jawbone is twice as old as any Homo sapiens fossil discovered outside of Africa.

Upper jaw bone with intact teeth, dated as being between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. Credit: Rolf Quam.

Upper jaw bone with intact teeth, dated as being between 177,000 and 194,000 years old. Credit: Rolf Quam.

The well-preserved upper jawbone containing eight intact teeth was found in the Misliya cave. Although the teeth are rather large compared to those of a modern human, researchers say the fossil undoubtedly belongs to a Homo sapiens, as reported in the journal Science. 

Along with the jawbone, excavations revealed stone tools and blades, which were fashioned by the cave’s crafty inhabitants to hunt and butcher gazelles, wild boars, turtles, and ostrich. Even pieces of an ancient matting made from plants that Misliya dwellers used to sleep on was found amongst the artifacts and fossils.

Radiocarbon analysis of both the fossil and tools suggests these are between 177,000 and 194,000 years old.

Up until recently, scientists used to think humans left Africa for Euroasia barely 60,000 years ago, where they quickly outclassed contemporary relatives like Neanderthals and Denisovans. But the evidence from recent years puts this singular ‘Out of Africa’ theory into question. For instance, there’s a trove of 100,000-year-old human teeth found in a cave in China, thousands of miles away from humanity’s cradle in Africa. Other similar findings were made in southeast Asia and even as far as Australia dated to 60,000 years ago. If humans had barely begun to exit Africa 60,000 years ago, how can we explain these other findings?

Now, Misliya breaks the mold of the classical theory when Homo sapiens first left Africa, suggesting that humans left the continent whenever the climate allowed it — or, conversely, when the climate forced them out. Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, who led the work at Tel Aviv University, thinks that humans came in and out of Africa frequently over the last couple hundred thousand years. The Misliya cave and others like it in present-day Israel were like “train stations” that exploring humans used on their way through Europe and Asia.

After settling Europe, modern humans out-competed Neanderthals into extinction, but not before interbreeding with them 50,000 years ago. To this day, all non-sub-Saharan humans carry 1-4 percent Neanderthal DNA. However, a recent DNA analysis of a Neanderthal leg bone discovered in a German cave suggests that interbreeding between the two species could have occurred as early as 200,000 years ago. Such a finding, peculiar as it seemed at first, now makes sense in light of the ancient Misliya jawbone.

It’s exciting to hear about such early excursions of our ancestors. Those must have been truly exciting times, but also very frightening and dangerous.

Our genes don’t lie, and according to population genetics studies, most modern-day populations outside Africa can trace their roots to a group that dispersed around 60,000 ago. It follows that earlier groups contributed very little, if anything, to our current lineage — most likely because they could not survive — to be fair, the odds weren’t really in their favor. It’s amazing, though, that after all this time, we can still piece together some of the long-lost history of our species’ most epic journey.

Pagan ritual hall from 3,200 years ago found in Israel

Archaeologists have found rare masks and cultic tableware among other artifacts.

Zoomorphic Canaanite figurines, Tel Burna, dating to around 3,200 years ago. Credits: The Tel Burna Archaeological Project.

Israel may be the home of Judaism, but back in the day, people worshipped completely different things. Some 3,200 years ago at Libnah, a Canaanite city that would become Judahite in the biblical era, people were conducting pagan rituals. Archaeologists working in Tel Burna aren’t sure if they’ve found a temple or just a house rich in ritualic objects, but one thing’s for sure: pagan Canaanite rituals took place there.

Not long after the excavation began in 2009, Dr. Itzhaq Shai of Ariel University reported finding a courtyard inside a sturdy, large building, 15.8 meters long (52 feet). This was pretty interesting in and of itself, but as the work continued, researchers found more and more indicators of pagan activity, including cultic goblets and chalices, zoomorphic vessels, two ceramic masks, and a massebah (a pillar made of stone, associated with worship or memorial activity).

The belief that rituals took place there was strengthened by two discoveries: first, three rare, small vessels of Cypriot origin. Residue analysis revealed that the vessels contained a different kind of oil. Secondly, two gigantic pithoi (large storage container, somewhat similar to amphorae) imported from Cyprus, each with a capacity of 200 liters were found alongside charred bones of young sheep, goats, and pigs.

“Since the pithoi were discovered in the same context as the cultic vessels, we assume these were also part of this activity,” Shai concludes.

Flourishing and pagan

Tel Burna: Archaeological structures. Credits: The Tel Burna Archaeological Project.

All these seem to show quite clearly that rituals — complex rituals, for that matter — seemed to take place there. But it’s more than just that. The weight of the pithoi, even empty, was considerable. Add in 200 liters of oil, consider that Libnah was an inland city, not a port, and you realize that someone went through a lot of trouble to get them from Cyprus to Canaan.

Libnah was a significant city, with several thousand inhabitants, many of which made their living selling oil and wine (archaeologists believe this based on a number of presses and agricultural installations they’ve found). During the late Iron Age, the city fell under Judahite control, and expanded even more. Archaeological evidence (as well as Biblical verses) of this Judahite period abound, and for once, the two seem to fit each other. From Joshua 10:29-32:

“Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it. The Lord also gave that city and its king into Israel’s hand. The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there.”

This was confirmed (partly) by the discovery of a destruction layer outside the fortification walls.

Credits: The Tel Burna Archaeological Project.

But previous to that, there is still a lot of debate to what the city’s inhabitants believed in and how they transitioned to the Judahite period and the associated beliefs. This is where these findings could play a massive role. But Professor Philipp Stockhammer of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich says that this is still early stages and much more work needs to be done before we can really understand what was going on.

“Most of the vessels were found directly on the bedrock, and it is difficult to interpret their relation to the nearby walls. All that I can say at the moment is that Burna seems to have a unique concentration of foreign-related objects used together in the framework of hardly understood offering/ritual practices, and we definitely need to continue the fieldwork there in order to better understand the evidence in Burna and Canaanite ritual practices more general,” Stockhammer says.

But for now, at least, there seems to be convincing that Libnah hosted a flourishingly pagan culture. Until Joshua came in, that is.

Ancient sawed deer bone. Credit: Zupancich, A. et al. / Scientific Reports

Flints and bone from at least 300,000 years ago could be the first non-dietary tool use

Inside Qesem Cave (Photo: Ron Barkai, Tel Aviv University)

We owe all our species’ success to the aptness with which we use tools. Our opposable-thumbed hands, upright gait, and big brains were all fostered by evolution to accommodate the invention and use of tools. Some of the first evidence of tool use among hominids, our ancestors, can be traced back to some 2.5 million years ago. These primitive tools include flints — cutting instruments shaped from rocks — that were mainly used for hunting and butchering.

It’s not hard to imagine our ancestors using these flints for other purposes, other than cutting meat, but without direct evidence, it’s all speculation. The earliest such evidence might turn out to be flints and processed bones found in a cave in Israel. The animal bones seem to be sawed even though they were defleshed, suggesting a non-dietary purpose. The remains are between 300,000 and 420,0000 years old, and the tools themselves were fashioned by a yet to be identified Homo species.

Entering the cave of pioneers

The story of how the remains were found is just as remarkable. In the year 2,000, construction workers detonated explosives to clear a huge limestone boulder that was blocking a planned roadway outside of Tel Aviv in Israel. After the plume of dust faded, it was clear they had to abandon the road altogether for they opened the roof to a cave that was sealed off for more than 200,000 years.

Some of the tools found in the Qesem Cave. You can notice these had opening meant for a handle. Credit: Ron Barkai, Tel Aviv University.

Some of the tools found in the Qesem Cave. You can notice these had opening meant for a handle. Credit: Ron Barkai, Tel Aviv University.


Inside the Qesem Cave, as it is now known, archaeologists later found a treasure trove of artifacts, as well as hominid and animal remains. For instance, there’s a 300,000-year-old fireplace next to which tortoise shells were found. These roasted turtles are considered the oldest evidence of the consumption of cooked meat. The oldest knives and hand axes were also found here.

“By comparison,” said Professor Ron Barkai from Tel Aviv University who is the head of digging at Qesem Cave. “Europe only started seeing humans using knives 30,000 years ago. These knives were created 400,000 years ago. What happened here in Israel 400,000 years ago predates the rest of the world by hundreds of thousands of years

Ancient sawed deer bone. Credit: Zupancich, A. et al. / Scientific Reports

Ancient sawed deer bone. Credit: Zupancich, A. et al. / Scientific Reports

Concerning the people who used to live in the cave, things are a bit blurry. Only hominid teeth were found and absent other fossils, the cave’s occupants could have been  Homo erectus, Neanderthals or some yet to be identified species.

“This cave has been unusually well preserved,” said Avi Gofer, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, for Ynetnews. “The people who lived here were a huge revolution (in the history of humanity). What these people did here is completely different than what other humans were doing; in terms of chiseling technology, behavior, hunting techniques, organization, use of fire, and much more. In other words, there was an explosion of change (at Qesem Cave), and a lot of innovations.”

Gofer and colleagues recently published a paper in which they describe two sharpened flint tools and a deer bone with distinct saw marks. What’s out of the ordinary is that the marks didn’t result from butchering. The flint tools show bone residues while the marks on the bone were made after it was broken and defleshed, according to Real Clear Science.

“The results of this study allow us to argue that at Qesem Cave, hominins were bringing selected body parts of hunted game to the cave and, after the meat, fat, and marrow were consumed, they occasionally used the discarded animal bones for non-dietary purposes,” the researchers write.

“The data presented here represents an innovative behaviour, practised between 420 and 300 kya, possibly the oldest evidence related to intentional non-dietary modification of bone through the use of specific stone tools,” they added.

This is only one piece of the puzzle. We still need to know who were the members of this early homo intelligentsia. Whoever they were, it’s clear they were way ahead of their time.

An Israeli power plant worker might have found a hand grenade that the Crusaders used

A host of ancient treasures was retrieved from off the coast of Israel, containing what could possibly be one of the world’s oldest hand grenades, a weapon dating back to the time of the crusaders.

The artifacts were found at sea, off the coast of Israel.
Image credits Diego Barkan / Israel Antiquities Authority.

Several metal artifacts, some of which are more than 3,500 years old, were retrieved over a period of a few years by Marcel Mazliah, a late worker at the Hadera power plant in northern Israel. Mazliah’s family recently presented the objects to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA,) whose experts believe that the objects fell overboard from a medieval metal merchant’s ship.

Hand grenades, surprisingly enough, were a common weapon in Israel during the Crusades, which spanned from the 11th century until the 13th, according to the IAA. They also saw important use in the 12th and 13h century Ayyubid period and during the Mamluk era, from the 13th to the 16th century. Haaretz reports that these early grenades were used to disperse burning liquid on enemy formations, to break them apart and soften them up before a charge.

The presumed hand grenade was found in sea sediments and is hundreds of years old.
Image credits Amir Gorzalczany / Israel Antiquities Authority.

However, some experts believe that the so-called grenades had a different purpose altogether — they may have been ancient perfume containers.

Among the artifacts found by Mazliah are a toggle pin head and a knife-head from the Middle Bronze Age, both more than 3,500 years old. Ayala Lester, a curator at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that the other items found, including two pestles and candlestick fragments, date back to the 11th century Fatimid period.

“The items were apparently manufactured in Syria and were brought to Israel,” she said, in a statement. “The finds are evidence of the metal trade that was conducted during this period.”

Israel is a hot-bed for ancient artifacts. Fabrics from king Solomon’s time have been discovered at one of antiquity’s most important mining areas, and glass foundries which sold their goods all over the Roman Empire have been found here. So what do you think about this latest find? Was this a tool for destruction — or seduction?


Israeli archaeologists uncover roman-period glass factory underpinning trade throughout the empire

Israel Antiques Authority (IAA) archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a 1,600 year-old complex of glass kilns in the Jezreel Valley. Their size indicates that Israel was one of the most important glass manufacturing center in the ancient world, says Dr. Yael Gorin-Rosen, IAA’s Glass Department head curator.

Small fragments of raw glass found at the site. Now that’s pretty.
Image credits Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

The structures are built in two compartments — a firebox where fuel was burned to create the huge temperatures required for the process and a melting chamber. Here, clean beach sand and salt were mixed and melted at temperatures in excess of 1,200 degrees Celsius (2190 Fahrenheit.) The raw glass would take a week or two to form into huge chunks, some of which weighed in excess of 10 tons. When the kilns cooled, the blocks were broken into smaller pieces that were sold to workshops where it was melted again to produce glassware.

“This is evidence that Israel constituted a production center on an international scale; hence its glassware was widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe,” said Dr. Gorin-Rosen.

The kilns, undisturbed for 1,600 years.
Image credits Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

“We know from historical sources dating to the Roman period that the Valley of Akko was renowned for the excellent quality sand located there, which was highly suitable for the manufacture of glass,” Dr. Gorin-Rosen said. “Chemical analyses conducted on glass vessels from this period which were discovered until now at sites in Europe and in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean basin have shown that the source of the glass is from our region.”

“Now, for the first time, the kilns have been found where the raw material was manufactured that was used to produce this glassware,” he added. “This is a very important discovery with implications regarding the history of the glass industry both in Israel and in the entire ancient world.”

Demand for glassware soared during the Early Roman period. It was highly appreciated for its transparency, beauty, the feeling of delicacy these items exuded. As glass blowing was adapted throughout the empire (an inexpensive production technique that dramatically sped up production and lowered costs,) the demand grew even higher.

Glass thus became a common sight from the Roman period onward, being used in almost every household and adorning public buildings as windows, mosaics and lighting fixtures. Large quantities of raw glass were required to fill this demand, production being taken over by specialized centers who could manufacture it on an industrial scale.

A price edict issue by Emperor Diocletian early in the 4th century CE differentiated between two kinds of glass. The first one, known as Judean glass (from the Land of Israel) was a light green color and less expensive than the second – Alexandrian glass (from Alexandria, Egypt).

“This is a sensational discovery and it is of great significance for understanding the entire system of the glass trade in antiquity,” added Prof. Ian Freestone, a researcher with the University College London, UK.

The original haute couture: archaeologists unearth fabrics from King Solomon’s time

Recent archaeological findings in the Timna region in Israel’s southern Arava Valley showcase the surprising variety and quality of the clothes worn some 3,000 years ago.

If there’s anything my girlfriend has thought me is that I don’t know anything about modern fashion. And she’s right, I’m the Jon Snow of haute couture. But since fashion is something that she can get really caught up in, I thought I’d start from the beginning and learn my way from there — and you can’t really get any earlier that ancient Israel.

Tel Aviv University’s Timna excavation team on-site, setting the earliest trends in fashion.
Image credits Central Timna Valley Project/TAU.

So, what would have been on the catwalk in the days of King Solomon? Recent archaeological findings by a team from Tel Aviv University might answer that question. They uncovered an extensive collections of fabrics in the country’s southern desert copper mines. This is the first discovery of the materials people wore some 3,000 years ago, Israel’s Foreign Ministry reports.

“No textiles have ever been found at excavation sites like Jerusalem, Megiddo and Hazor, so this provides a unique window into an entire aspect of life from which we’ve never had physical evidence before,” said lead archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef in a statement Wednesday.

“We found fragments of textiles that originated from bags, clothing, tents, ropes and cords.”

Try to imagine an ancient Israeli getup, I’ll wait. Done? The first images to pop in your head are the ones from movies like Passion of the Christ, right? Where everyone is wearing a gray sack with a hole cut out for their head, looking miserable. And even the fancier clothes look like they’re weaved from something so rough it makes your eyes itchy.

And well, probably. But the rich, powerful and influential people of the time had a pretty impressive range of clothing to choose from. Varied materials, colors and models were available to them, the findings show.

A thick goat hair cord made using many threads twisted together for durability and strength.
Image credits Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority.

The fabrics were found in Timna in the Arava Valley of southern Israel, an active mining area around the 10th century BC, during King Solomon’s reign. The colorful artifacts offer unique insight into the attires, but also the trade practices and economy of that period.

Many of the fabrics, including water-intensive linen cloths, were grown and woven far from the mine in which they were found. This hints at intense trade between the Timna region and Northern Israel of the Jordan Valley, with copper exports being used to pay for the daily goods that were required by the community to survive in Israel’s harsh deserts.

“We found linen, which was not produced locally,” said TAU masters student Vanessa Workman.

“It was most likely from the Jordan Valley or northern Israel. The majority of the fabrics were made of sheep’s wool, a cloth that is seldom found in this ancient period.”

Far from the undyed fabrics we’re used to associate with those times, archaeologists found fragments of a surprising variation in color, weaving patterns and ornamentation. One woolen fragment, for example, is dyed red and blue with strands of animal hair woven in to form decorative bands within the fabric.

“We found simply woven, elaborately decorated fabrics worn by the upper echelon of their stratified society,” Ben-Yosef adds.

“Luxury- grade fabric adorned the highly skilled, highly respected craftsmen managing the copper furnaces. They were responsible for smelting the copper, which was a very complicated process.”

Fine wool textile dyed red and blue. The black and orange colored bands are made with naturally-colored wool.
Image credits Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority.

Turns out Hollywood isn’t the best source for accurate historical info (who would have guessed, right?). These fabrics adorned the higher-ups in the society, men with the skill to turn ore into precious copper. The mines themselves were worked by slaves, in harsh conditions and presumably, humbler attires.

“Miners in ancient Timna may have been slaves or prisoners; theirs was a simple task performed under difficult conditions,” Ben-Yosef concludes.

“But the act of smelting, of turning stone into metal, required an enormous amount of skill and organization. The smelter had to manage some 30 to 40 variables in order to produce the coveted copper ingots.”

The findings show the geopolitical and economical importance of the Edomites (the tribe living in this region and working the copper mines) during the time of King Solomon. Supplying a population with water, food and other goods in the middle of the desert raises difficulties even today, and must have been a Sisyphean task with the age’s technological levels.

“Copper was a source of great power, much as oil is today,” Ben-Yosef concludes.

“If a person had the exceptional knowledge to create copper, he was considered well-versed in an extremely sophisticated technology.”

The fabrics are just one part of the larger Central Timna Valley Project, an ongoing effort started in 2012 to explore the archaeological record of the southern Arava’s copper mining and smelting sites. Arid conditions in the area have helped organic materials such as fabric and leather survive.

8,000-Year-Old Olive Oil Found in Ancient Clay Pots

We know that ancient populations really liked olive oil, and it’s not that uncommon to find oil-filled pots from Ancient Greece. However, archaeologists were really excited to find that pressed olive oil goes as back as 8,000 years ago. Researchers found residues of the Mediterranean-diet staple on ancient clay pots dating back to the 6th millennium B.C.

8,000 year old olive oil was found in Israel. This is the earliest evidence of olive oil production. Credit: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

“This is the earliest evidence of the use of olive oil in the country, and perhaps the entire Mediterranean basin,” Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov, excavation directors at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

Today, Spain acounts 43.8% of world production of olive oil, while Italy accounts for 21.5% of the world’s production and Greece comes in at 12.1%. But in ancient times, things were very different. It is not clear when and where the olive tree was domesticated, but the word comes from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey and Syria), so it’s likely that the origin of olive oil lies there. Before this study, the earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3500 BC (Early Minoan times), though the production of olive was assumed to have started before 4000 BC.

Now, we have evidence to place olive oil production 2 millennia before that – in 6000 BC. The team actually discovered the clay vessels by accident. The government required an excavation at En Zippori in the Lower Galilee region of northern Israel before the Netivei Israel Co. could widen Highway 79. The researchers unexpectedly found the pottery during the excavation, which lasted from 2011 to 2013. It’s not uncommon for this to happen – sometimes, construction works take place in area with rich history, and archaeologists are called to ensure that nothing will be destroyed. When Milevski and Getzov found the vessels, they were understandably excited and wanted to find out what was the content of the vessel.

Olive Oil is one of the healthiest sources of fats. Image via Olive Oil Excellence.

I’m gonna be honest with you… I’d be tempted to just taste it. But alas, science doesn’t work like that – you can’t just go tasting stuff from 8,000 years ago, no matter how cool it sounds. The real analysis showed that the pottery contains olive oil, and the oil is actually very similar to the one produced today. In all, the researchers studied 20 pottery vessels, including two that date back to about 5,800 B.C., indicating that the oil was well preserved inside the vessels for almost 8,000 years. This confirms the theory that the olive tree was domesticated in 6000 BC.

“Although it is impossible to say for sure, this might be an olive speciesthat was domesticated and joined grain and legumes — the other kinds of field crops that we know were grown then,” Milevski and Getzov said.

Olive oil is  the main cooking oil in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, also used as a dressing for salads and even as a skin treatment. It’s also one of the healthiest sources of fats in nature, with study indicating that it can may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fats if it replaces other types of saturated fats (not in addition).

The Evrona Nature Reserve crisscrossed by a black river of hydrocarbon oil, as seen in this aerial taken by the Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry.

Massive oil spill floods nature reserve in Israel – possibly the country’s worst environment disaster

More than 80 people were hospitalized after inhaling noxious fumes after a pipeline failure caused some 600,000 gallons of oil to spill into a nature reserve in the desert near Eilat, a southern Israel city. The city with a population of about 50,000 people was not directly affected, however local fauna and flora was severely damaged, according to Guy Samet, the director of the southern region for the Environmental Protection Ministry. It might take years for the spill to be cleaned, and much longer for the local vegetation and wildlife to recover.

One of Israel’s direst ecological situation

The Evrona Nature Reserve crisscrossed by a black river of hydrocarbon oil, as seen in this aerial taken by the Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry.

The Evrona Nature Reserve crisscrossed by a black river of hydrocarbon oil, as seen in this aerial taken by the Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry.

“This is one of the State of Israel’s most serious pollution events,” Samet told Israel Radio. “We are still having trouble gauging the full extent of the contamination.”

The spill was caused by a breach in the 153-mile long Trans-Israel pipeline, a major oil conduit between the Mediterranean and Red seas that runs from Eilat to Ashkelon. It’s not clear year what caused the spill. The only information we have yet comes from officials at the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company who claim the breach was likely due to a “maintenance failure” at a new section of the pipeline.

[ALSO READ] BP fined $17.6 billion following 2010’s “reckless” oil spill


The spill was caused by a breach in the Trans-Israel pipeline on December 4, 2014. (photo credit: Courtesy Eilat Fire Department).

Israel’s Environment Ministry will task its “Green Police” with forming a special team to investigate the matter and determine the cause of the spill. It’s still far too early to count the damage, but considering a huge 4.3 mile river of oil was released out into the open things must not look pretty. The hydrocarbon river is currently making its way toward the Jordanian river, like a menacing lava flow following a volcanic eruption. In Jordan, already some 80 people have been hospitalized after reporting breathing difficulties due to hydrogen sulfide in the air. Three Israelis were also hospitalized after inhaling the toxic fumes, according to Think Progress.

Firefighters and environmental groups scrambled to the scene in an attempt to seal the puncture in the pipeline and prevent further contamination. Image: Getty

Firefighters and environmental groups scrambled to the scene in an attempt to seal the puncture in the pipeline and prevent further contamination. Credit: Getty Images

“We’re talking about thousands of gallons of crude oil, which will endanger local wildlife and the surrounding nature reserve,” he said, adding that rehabilitation could take “years.”

The Evrona Nature Reserve was hit the hardest by the spill. It’s one of the most important reserves in the Arava desert home to indigenous flora and fauna, including rare acacia trees and over 280 deer, said Doron Nissim, director of the Nature and Parks Authority’s Eilat chapter.

“From what we currently know, there is extensive pollution. Tomorrow we will perform an analysis of the damage and then we’ll have a clearer picture,” he said.

Even if the spill was gone tomorrow, Israel is far from short of environmental problems. The biggest challenge the country faces is its growing water shortage. Since the mid-1970s, demand for water has at times outstripped supply, a situation that seems to mirror that of California today. Israel is a semi-arid country where no rain falls for at least six months a year. According to a report submitted to the Israeli Water Commission in December 2000, Israel’s main water sources are expected to continue to decline, endangering drinking water quality, and raising the specter that it will soon not be possible to supply sufficient drinking water.