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Archaeology in Israel: Archaeology - 21st Century Style

by Daniella Ashkenazy

Advanced infra-red aerial photography - otherwise used to check water sources, in intelligence surveys and more - is today being employed in archeological excavations in a variety of ways.

Leviah, a nine-hectare site from the early bronze period in the southern Golan Heights, was photographed from a helicopter by members of the TAU Geography Department at 3 AM in mid-winter. The camera picked up heat stored by rocks close to the surface that cooled slower than the surrounding soil, and revealed the outlines of walls close to the surface. The following summer, an untouched 100 square meter section of Leviah was excavated and compared with the aerial photograph.

The excavation showed that remote sensory infra-red photography had revealed the presence of 80% of the basalt walls close to the surface. The sections of the walls that were "missed" by the sensitive camera were sections that had collapsed or been buried under debris. When the walls were exposed, it became apparent that the whole excavated area had been entirely built up, and had contained multi-roomed buildings and courtyards. The archeological team, headed by Professors Pirhyia Beck and Moshe Kochavi of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archeology, thus concluded that the site was a densely-settled Canaanite town, not a sparsely-populated agrarian settlement with shelters for animals, as many had previously postulated. This discovery, along with the fact that there are some twenty similar sites on the Golan Heights, indicates that the Golan may have been one of the more prosperous and populous areas in the Land of Israel in ancient times.

DNA testing - another modern procedure - was employed during an excavation in Ashkelon on the coast, when a Hebrew University archeological team headed by Professors Ariella Oppenheim and Patricia Smith came upon 100 skeletons of infants in an ancient sewer leading from a bathhouse from the late Roman or Byzantine periods. The team found a Greek inscription in the bathhouse, reading "Enter, enjoy and..." indicating that the establishment might also have served as a brothel, a common feature of the times. At the same excavation site, vessels containing infant remains who had received far more respectful treatment were also unearthed. The bones of the infants at the bathhouse, though, were found mixed with animal bones, pottery shards and coins without any sign of orderly burial. Examination of the size and dental development of the skeletons by Professor Charles Greenblatt of the University's medical and dentistry school confirmed that all were newborn infants. Both findings strengthened assumptions they had been victims of infanticide. Killing of female offspring was widespread practice of the Romans. Male infanticide was, however, a rarity. Thus, when researchers sent 19 left femoral bones for DNA testing, they were surprised to find that 14 of the infants were male and only five female. This anomaly led researchers to postulate that what they had found were the remains of offspring born to courtesans working at the bathhouse, rather than the "unwanted" female offspring of residents of the busy port city.

It has been suggested that DNA testing could also be applied to double-check whether the Dead Sea Scrolls on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem were pieced together correctly. Since the scrolls are written on parchment, it would be possible to see if fragments matched together indeed came from the same piece of parchment.

In another case of modern archeology, researchers using a portable infra-red spectrometer discovered what may possibly be one of the oldest "garbage dumps" in the history of mankind. The archeologists believed that the piles of deer, gazelle and wild cattle bones found in areas of the Keraba cave on Mount Carmel were the leftovers of Stone Age dinners.

This seemed to indicate that prehistoric man divided his living space into different areas for particular activities - building fires at the entrance, with living quarters at the back. But, no one knew for certain whether these bone concentrations were intentional or whether animal bones were absent from other areas because they had been dissolved by groundwater over the ages.

To solve this question, Professors Paul Goldberg of the University of Texas and Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard mobilized an expert in biomineralization - Professor Stephen Weiner of the Weizmann Institute's Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research. Weiner used his knowledge of biomineralization - the process by which bones, teeth and other inorganic structures form in living organisms - as a basis for determining what had happened tens of thousands of years ago. Armed with a computer equipped with special software for mineral identification and a portable infrared spectrometer, Weiner was able to look for traces of minerals associated with the presence of bones in other areas of the cave. The examination found that the other areas never contained bones.

The logical conclusion: Prehistoric man had yet to be harnessed into "taking out the garbage" after dinner. Cavewomen maintained a clean hearth by prevailing standards content to throw the remains of dinner into designated piles in the corners of their caves....

Sources: Israel Magazine-On-Web, May 1998,: Israeli Foreign Ministry