Saturday, December 06, 2008

SORRY for the blogging silence. I had an Internet outage this morning and have been busy ever since until a little while ago. But I've now had a chance to poke around in the news and things seem pretty quiet. I have been meaning to note the upcoming conference on the Codex Sinaiticus, pointed out by Mark Goodacre.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A JERUSALEM CAVE provides new data on ancient climate change:
Cave's climate clues show ancient empires declined during dry spell

by Jill Sakai, Space & Earth science / Earth Sciences

( -- The decline of the Roman and Byzantine empires in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 1,400 years ago may have been driven by unfavorable climate changes.

Based on chemical signatures in a piece of calcite from a cave near Jerusalem, a team of American and Israeli geologists pieced together a detailed record of the area's climate from roughly 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. Their analysis, to be reported in an upcoming issue of the journal Quaternary Research, reveals increasingly dry weather from 100 A.D. to 700 A.D. that coincided with the fall of both Roman and Byzantine rule in the region.

The researchers, led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geology graduate student Ian Orland and professor John Valley, reconstructed the high-resolution climate record based on geochemical analysis of a stalagmite from Soreq Cave, located in the Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve near Jerusalem.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

BRUCE ZUCKERMAN has some new equipment for photographing ancient texts:
Closer Look at Ancient Documents

Written by Lauren Walser - USC (Imperial Valley News)
Wednesday, 03 December 2008
Los Angeles, California - It feels impolite to call them “small dinky things” or “smashed mushrooms.” But researchers in the USC archaeology labs said as much. And pressed onto a piece of glass while undergoing intense photography, those descriptions do not seem far off.

Technically, they’re called Dead Sea Scrolls. And for a single day in November, researchers in the USC Archaeological Research Center had five “dinky” fragments of the scrolls in their hands. But the researchers saw this day as more than just a chance to unlock new clues to these ancient texts. It was an opportunity to test out some of the most high-tech equipment in the field using techniques only available in their labs at USC.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have long been artifacts of intense scholarly and public interest – as well as heated debate. In 1947, young Bedouin shepherds stumbled upon a cave full of jars containing ancient scrolls. This discovery led to an ongoing search that has produced thousands of tiny fragments of biblical and early Jewish documents, dated from the third century BCE (before the common era) to the second century C.E. – including documents nearly a thousand years older than any other surviving manuscript of the Hebrew Scriptures.

It’s a rare opportunity for scholars to have these documents available to them, but the researchers in the Archaeological Center have been working with these scrolls for more than 20 years – longer than any other group of scholars.

“If someone wants the best images of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they know to come to us,” said Bruce Zuckerman, USC College professor of religion and director of the USC West Semitic Research Project and the Archaeological Research Center.

And this time around, new photographic equipment made their acquisition of Dead Sea Scroll fragments all the more exciting.

“What we especially wanted to do this time was see if this equipment would work the way we expected it to,” Zuckerman said. “It wasn’t certain that this would be the case. No one had ever tried these techniques before.”

But their results were astounding. “The images we captured are far better than anything we’ve ever seen before,” Zuckerman said. “We were able to pick up details we didn’t expect to see.”

Technical details of the work follow. Bruce's team does not seem to have identified new fragments of specific, known texts yet, but the work is still at an early stage.

UPDATE: More on Professor Zuckerman here.
PETER BROWN has won a major award:
Historian Peter Brown selected to share $1 million Kluge Prize
Posted December 3, 2008; 11:33 a.m.

by Ruth Stevens

Peter Brown, Princeton's Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History, has been named a co-winner of the 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity.

He and Romila Thapar, a professor emeritus in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, will receive the award in a ceremony Wednesday, Dec. 10, at the Library of Congress. They are the sixth and seventh recipients since the prize's 2003 inception, and each will receive half of the $1 million award.


As both scholar and teacher, Peter Brown has worked at the highest level of intensity and creativity for more than 40 years. His books have captivated thousands of readers, and his celebrated lectures and seminars have inspired students and younger scholars around the world.

Brown is the author of a number of important works, including the St. Augustine biography, "Augustine of Hippo" (1967); "The World of Late Antiquity" (1971), in which he wrote about 200 to 1000 C.E. as a whole new period that had not previously been seen as such and set the agenda for a new field of study; and "The Rise of Western Christendom" (1996), in which he showed the rise of Christianity as the emergence of a new social and intellectual world long before the Renaissance.

He currently is on sabbatical writing a book examining attitudes toward wealth and poverty in the later Roman Empire. In addition to the major European languages, Brown has developed a capacity in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Syriac and Turkish.

Congratulations to Professor Brown.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

STILL MORE on Khirbet Qeiyafa and its inscription from
Unearthed City Near Jerusalem Revives Debate on Biblical David

By Gwen Ackerman

Dec. 3 (Bloomberg) -- The remains of a walled city over a plain where the Bible claims David killed Goliath; a pottery shard bearing script that experts claim is the oldest Hebrew text ever found; an ancient water tunnel.

Do these support Scripture’s story of King David and his empire? It depends on who you ask. Recent archeological finds have reopened the debate on David and Solomon, whose reigns almost 3,000 years ago as chronicled in the Bible left so little physical proof that scholars like Neil Asher Silberman, a University of Massachusetts historian, question biblical accuracy.

Hebrew University professor Yosef Garfinkel, in an interview, said his findings amid the ruins of a fortified city in Khirbet Qeiyafa, a five-acre site 20 miles west of Jerusalem, support the biblical portrayal of David as a ruler of a kingdom strong enough to field an army. The findings, the most important of which were a second city gate and the shard, dispute claims by some scholars that David was a chieftain of a largely illiterate tribe.

More along this lines, with nothing much new, then this contrary view:
Hani Nur el-Din, a professor of archaeology at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, said further digging might uncover more gates and dispel biblical links to the site.

“The Israeli archaeologists are always trying to link what they found to the Bible and not to other contemporary historical texts,” said el-Din.
And this on the inscription:
Then there’s the other important finding: a piece of broken pottery inscribed with 50 characters and considered the oldest known example of Hebrew writing. It contains one critical pair of words, “al-ta’as,” or “don’t do,” used exclusively by the Judean tribes, Garfinkel said.
If that phrase is a correct transcription, it, along with the word "land" reported earlier, weaken the possibility that the inscription is a list of names or at least that it is only a list of names. That said, if the words given above are just a bit misreported, perhaps they could be the name ʿAsaʾel, which means "God has done."

One really can't draw conclusions without a full transcription and a good photograph. I hope both are forthcoming soon.

Background here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

THE KHIRBET QEIYAFA INSCRIPTION has been subjected to high-tech photography:
A closer look at the ancient fine print

Megavision, a small firm near Santa Barbara, has a growing reputation for the kind of specialized digital imaging sought by museums, archives, research institutes and elite collectors.

By Catherine Saillant (LA Times)
December 2, 2008

Researchers gathered recently in a small darkened lab near Santa Barbara, nervously pacing as a digital camera snapped hundreds of images of a shard of pottery resting a few feet below the lens.

There was good reason for their anxiety. The terra-cotta fragment is about 3,000 years old and was inscribed with five lines of text that could alter knowledge about the existence of an ancient Judean kingdom.

"To find any text is really off the charts," said David Willner, an expert in Jewish antiquities who accompanied the shard from its excavation site in Israel to California. "And to have five lines of text is extraordinary."

That this world treasure ended up at Megavision -- a small, employee-owned company tucked away in a nondescript industrial park -- speaks volumes about the firm's growing reputation for the kind of specialized digital imaging sought by museums, archives, research institutes and elite collectors.


The result is hundreds of high-resolution images shot with different light filters. Using a process called spectral imaging, Boydston and Bill Christens-Barry, another imaging expert, aimed to maximize the contrast of the ink, made of charcoal and animal fat, against the terra-cotta piece.

Although they didn't find any hidden text, the images will be sent back to Israel. Other high-tech images were produced -- using slightly different imaging techniques -- at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and two other technical shops on the East Cost.

Once the shard's message is fully scrutinized and decoded, findings will be published in scholarly journals by Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University, who led the dig. A few words already deciphered -- "slave," "king," "land" and "judge" -- indicate that it may be a legal text, lending weight to some scholars' belief that King David wielded considerable power over the Israelites.

I also heard speculation at SBL that it may be a list of names. Many of these words do appear regularly as elements in ancient Israelite names. Abimelech, Ebed-Melech, Jehoshaphat, etc., etc. We'll see.

Background here and here and follow the links back.

UPDATE (3 December): I have a few more ruminations on the inscription here.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"OH, I AM so blogging this."
THE GRIM FATE of Victorian Church libraries is lamented by Christopher Howse in the Telegraph:
The sale of a 63-volume Bible for £55,000 in December 2006 was a thumping great clue in a detective trail to a scandal over which church people are still fuming.

The Bible in question was hardly even a book, for it had been "Grangerised" in the 19th century - hundreds of old drawings and prints had been added as illustrations, bulking it out to 20ft of shelf space.

Shockingly, to some, the man who bought it removed 300 of the illustrations, leaving the carcase on the auctioneer's floor (from which it was sold on to a rich collector).

That Bible came from the same source as other old books sold by Sotheby's in June last year, which fetched £400,000. One was the great Complutensian Polyglot, printed for Cardinal Ximenes in 1520.

That is a proper Bible to be sure, with parallel texts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Syriac. Cranmer bought a copy. But this one, which fetched £69,000, bore the stamp of the Bishop Phillpotts Library in Truro.

It turned out that hundreds of old books from the library had been sold, for £36,000. What annoyed churchy people was that the dealer who bought them sold them on for more than half a million.

... In the Eighties, the building was sold and the books housed in diocesan offices. A committee entrusted with their care discussed selling them two decades later, but failed to notice valuable volumes in the decaying mass of books. Many that I saw later on sale were in very poor condition.

No one much, it is true, wanted to read the books. Few students, in Cornwall or elsewhere, can read even Latin. Only a specialist would use the Complutensian Polyglot.

A similar case was that of Dr Williams's Library in London, a Nonconformist collection that owned a Shakespeare first folio. What good was it to them? It was sold in 2006 for £2.8 million.

The Bishop Phillpotts Library was not so lucky. The dispersal of its books parallels that of libraries of many religious communities that are shrinking and closing. Mr Thornton also sold hundreds of books from the Cowley Fathers' library and that of the Church Union.

Ours times are like those of John Aubrey's grandfather, after the dissolution of the monasteries, when "manuscripts flew about like butterflies", only to be used to wrap gloves and line pies.

LIVE MUSIC to accompany 'Golem'
Sunday, November 30, 2008 3:52 AM
By Gary Budzak
The Columbus Dispatch

The Carpe Diem String Quartet, which will play a score for the silent German film
The golem is the original Frankenstein -- a plodding, powerful creature created by man, yet lacking in humanity.

The Golem, a 1920 German silent movie, will be shown Saturday night at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The influential horror film was shown with a pre-recorded soundtrack at the Wexner in 2003, but Saturday's screening will be accompanied by live music.

"Seeing a silent film in your living room with canned music is really not the proper way to see this work," said Chris Stults, assistant film and video curator at the Wexner Center. "Seeing it in a cinema with live music, . . . becomes as much a performance as it does a screening."

An original suite for the film was written in 1997 by Israeli composer Betty Olivero.

For more golem posts, see here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

"BENTZION was slumped over a Talmud."

May his memory be for a blessing.

And so for all the victims. And may the planners and perpetrators be swiftly caught and punished.
THE ISRAEL FORGERY TRIAL is the subject of an LA Times opinion piece by Nina Burleigh:
Hoaxes from the Holy Land
The faltering prosecution of an antiquities dealer in the James ossuary case underscores problems in authenticating biblical artifacts.

By Nina Burleigh
November 29, 2008

Israeli authorities called it "the fraud of the century": fakes passed off as archaeological finds with biblical ties. The most notorious object was the James ossuary, a limestone box inscribed in Aramaic with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Five men were charged, and the trial has been dragging on for three years.

But it may all be crashing to a halt. A few weeks ago, the judge -- who is hearing the case without a jury -- told the government lawyers he's not convinced the objects are forgeries and suggested they consider dropping the matter. If the authorities can't make their case, experts warn that the antiquities market -- and a proof-hungry religious public -- inevitably will be fed groundbreaking biblical "discoveries" as far-fetched as Solomon's crown and Abraham's sandals.
Let's hope not.

She summarizes the story behind the trial and concludes:
The trial will resume in six months, so prosecutors have a chance to pull together better evidence. But the potential collapse of the James ossuary case confirms two things. First, the underfunded and understaffed Israeli Antiquities Authority -- charged with policing the antiquities trade and protecting dig sites -- is not up to the task of rooting out and exposing world-famous fakes. Second, the Israeli legal system can't be the last word on the authenticity of objects that have the potential to excite millions of faithful.

So while policing the private trade in objects is a matter for the Israeli authorities, sober and serious biblical scholars need to take steps to shield the public from their more ruthless colleagues. All future finds with remarkable biblical connections emerging from the private market ought to be inspected by a team of disinterested experts from around the world before anyone calls a news conference.

The only trouble is, in this field, disinterested individuals are the rarest finds of all.
This is a field in which it is hard to establish complete "disinterest." For example, anyone's religious commitment or lack thereof can be used to argue that they are biased in some way. And many, perhaps most scholars who work in these areas just want to get on with their research and don't want to get caught up in these controversies.

More on Nina Burleigh here.