Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Translation algorithms are coming for Sumerian!

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: The Key to Cracking Long-Dead Languages? Tablets from some of the world’s oldest civilisations hold rich details about life thousands of years ago, but few people today can read them. New technology is helping to unlock them. (Sophie Hardach, BBC).
[Assyriologist Émilie] Pagé-Perron is coordinating a project to machine translate 69,000 Mesopotamian administrative records from the 21st Century BC. One of the aims is to open up the past to new research.
(Bold emphasis in the original.) There's more to this article, so read it all. But I'm going to focus on this one story.

In the past I have been skeptical about such efforts, which tend to be overblown by the media. (See here, here, and here.) But this one sounds more credible.

Dr. Pagé-Perron's team is training algorithms to translate several thousand cuneiform economic texts and then they intend to let the algorithms loose on the rest. Since economic texts tend to be formulaic and to deal with a limited range of subjects, this could just about work. And once the algorithms have basic competence in economic Sumerian, there's no reason why they can't keep incrementally improving, with humans guiding them initially through progressively more challenging texts.

The algorithms are still quite limited. For example, they need humans to transliterate the cuneiform signs, a very difficult process in itself, and one not entirely disconnected from translation. But there is a big effort ongoing to digitize images of all cuneiform tablets. Once that is done, transliteration of them is a problem that could be attacked with algorithms too.

Not too far in the future, philology may go the way of factory automation.

Cross-file under The Singularity is Near.

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Kurtz, Kaiser, Christ, and Canaan

NEW BOOK FROM MOHR SIEBECK: Paul Michael Kurtz. Kaiser, Christ, and Canaan.
The Religion of Israel in Protestant Germany, 1871–1918.
2018. XIV, 370 pages. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 122. 129,00 € including VAT. cloth ISBN 978-3-16-155496-4.
Published in English.
In this work, Paul Michael Kurtz examines the historiography of ancient Israel in the German Empire through the prism of religion, as a structuring framework not only for writings on the past but also for the writers of that past themselves. The author investigates what biblical scholars, theologians, orientalists, philologists, and ancient historians considered »religion« and »history« to be, how they understood these conceptual categories, and why they studied them in the manner they did. Focusing on Julius Wellhausen and Hermann Gunkel, his inquiry scrutinizes to what extent, in an age of allegedly neutral historical science, the very enterprise of reconstructing the ancient past was shaped by liberal Protestant structures shared by dominant historians from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Review of Cataldo, A Social-Political History of Monotheism

BRYN MAYR CLASSICAL REVIEW: Jeremiah W. Cataldo, A Social-Political History of Monotheism: From Judah to the Byzantines. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 242. ISBN 9781138222809. $140.00. Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (geert.lernout@uantwerpen.be).

Is monotheism based on fear?

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Orsini's new paleography book

THE ETC BLOG: Pasquale Orsini’s New Book on Palaeography (Peter Malik). Notice of a new book: Orsini, Pasquale. Studies on Greek and Coptic Majuscule Scripts and Books. Series: Studies in Manuscript Cultures 15. De Gruyter, November 2018. An open-access book online!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Talmud on proper animal slaughter and heretics

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Natural Causes. In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ intentionality and human agency remain at the heart of Jewish law. Plus: the difference between a pagan and a heretic.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

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Alter on translating the Bible

INTERVIEW: Robert Alter: “Modern Bible translators have done a wretched job” (Sameer Rahim, Prospect Magazine). Excerpt:
SR: Your translation is very much a literary one. The characters have motivations, for example. Do you feel that’s true to the intentions of the original authors?

RA: The ancient Hebrew writers were certainly motivated by what we would call religious purposes—they had this new monotheistic vision of the world and they wanted to convey what God wanted of humankind and the people of Israel. But for reasons that I don’t think we can understand these writers happened to be brilliant literary artists and they chose to convey their religious vision in extremely artful narrative and sometimes very brilliant poetry.

It’s a great mystery why they were this good. Ancient Israel was this little sliver of land sandwiched in between these large, powerful and sophisticated cultures—the Syrians, and then the Babylonians to the east and the Egyptians to the south. But the Biblical writers developed literary skills that totally eclipsed their neighbours. ...
That's true. The consistently high literary quality of the Hebrew Bible is remarkable.

Background on Professor Alter's now complete translation of the Hebrew Bible is here.

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Jewish Book Month

WITH PODCASTS AND REVIEWS: Yeshiva University and Jewish Book Council Collaborate (YU News).
This year, Jewish Book Month was November 2-December 2, 2018. For this year’s event, the Jewish Book Council (JBC) teamed up with Yeshiva University to highlight new books in the broad field of Jewish scholarship.
Many of the books deal with ancient Judaism. I think you will find more on all of those in the archives of PaleoJudaica.

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Review of Berman, Inconsistency in the Torah

ANCIENT JEW REVIEW: Book Note | Inconsistency in the Torah (Ethan Schwartz).
Joshua A. Berman. Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism. Oxford University Press. New York, 2017.
Excerpt:
In this context, Berman’s Inconsistency in the Torah is far less countercultural and iconoclastic than he seems to imagine. To be sure, it is a significant achievement. However, I doubt that it will be remembered as the study that finally overthrew the hegemony of source criticism. Instead, I suspect that it will be regarded as one of the last studies to ascribe to source criticism any hegemony to be overthrown in the first place. It will mark the close of a monumental chapter in biblical studies, not the opening of a new one.
My own view on source criticism is that the concept is sound and it has produced some useful results for, notably, our understanding of the Pentateuch. At the same time, the application of source criticism often carries it beyond what we can realistically hope to know. Sometimes you can't unscramble the egg. For more from PaleoJudaica on source criticism, here and links, here, here, and here.

I noted the book and a related essay here and had some comments of my own, on matters not discussed in this review. And I noted a three-part interview with Dr. Berman here.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

The Babylonian Exile before the Exile?

A NEW BOOK: The Forgotten Biblical Exile That Laid the Foundation for Jewish Life in the Diaspora. Unlike the Babylonian Exile, the Jehoiachin Exile of 11 years earlier was largely ignored by Jewish history ■ The exiles established a social, economic, religious and literary infrastructure for Jewish life outside Israel (Yair Hoffman, Haaretz premium).

This is an interesting reframing of one phase of the Babylonian Exile as an exile in its own right. The article is based on a book by the author, The Good Figs: The Jehoiachin Exile and its Heritage, which has been published in Hebrew by Tel Aviv University Press.

One correction to the article. Nebuchadnezzar did not kill King Zedekiah. He killed his sons and blinded him, then sent him back to Babylon as a prisoner for the rest of his life (2 Kings 25:1-7 and Jeremiah 52:1-11).

For the unprovenaced, but apparently authentic, Judean Babylonian cuneiform archive, see here and links and here. At least I haven't yet seen anyone argue that its contents are forged, and it seems as though it would have been very difficult to forge so many Akkadian tablets convincingly.

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Kiryat Yearim and the Ark of the Covenant

WHILE WE'RE ON PLACES WHERE THE ARK OF THE COVENANT ISN'T: Israeli Excavation Reveals New Findings About the Ark of the Covenant. Excavations at Kiryat Yearim may show the handiwork of King Jeroboam and suggest that the Ark was a symbol of unity between rival kingdoms (Nir Hasson, Haaretz premium). The actual point of this article is that Professor Israel Finkelstein has concluded, on the basis of the excavation of Kiryat Yearim, that any United Kingdom of Israel and Judah was controlled by Israel (the Northern Kingdom) rather than the Judean Kingdom of the line of David:
About two weeks ago, Prof. Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, presented his findings from the excavations at Kiryat Yearim to a meeting of the national academies of science of Israel and France. Finkelstein is known as the leader of the camp that opposes the biblical approach in archaeology. He vehemently opposes the view that the unified kingdom of David and Solomon existed and controlled extensive parts of the land of Israel.
I don't have any view on this matter, apart from noting that Professor Finkelstein is exceptionally well placed to have an informed opinion. What he thinks should be taken very seriously.

Despite leading the article, the Ark of the Covenant is just a speculative sideline to the story. Unsurprisingly, there aren't any actual "new findings" about it.
The purpose of the Ark of the Covenant story, according to this idea, was intended to give religious legitimacy to Kiryat Yearim. It was told and written in the northern kingdom of Israel, was passed on to Jerusalem through the refugees who arrived there after the destruction of the northern kingdom, and from there it found its way into the Bible. Many other “northern” traditions can be found in the Bible, such as the stories of Jacob, the Exodus and the stories of King Saul.
I was going to ignore this one, but since the Ark has been in the news again lately, here it is.

Many past PaleoJudaica posts on the Ark of the the Covenant are collected here and links (immediately preceding post).

UPDATE: Also, past posts on the excavation at Kiriat Yearim (Kiryat Ye'arim, Kiriath Jearim), inevitably also mentioning the Ark, are here and here.

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The Ark of the Covenant isn't in Ethiopia?

THAT ZANY ARK AGAIN: Sorry Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant Is Not Inside This Ethiopian Church (Owen Jarus, Live Science).

I'm not sure that what Edward Ullendorf recalled seeing in 1941 necessarily disproves that the Ark of the Covenant is in that church. But at the same time there isn't anything that proves it and I remain cordially skeptical. Incidentally, the late Professor Ullendorf was one of my predecessors at the University of St Andrews.

I have mentioned Professor Tudor Parfitt in connection with another, comparably questionable Ark tradition, this one placing it in Zimbabwe. See here and here and follow all the links.

And while we're on the subject of legends about the Ark of the Covenant, I may as well give myself some publicity: The Treatise of the Vessels in the news.

And for still more posts on the Ark, see here and here and follow those links.

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Bormann (ed.), Abraham's Family

NEW BOOK FROM MOHR SIEBECK: Abraham's Family. A Network of Meaning in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ed. by Lukas Bormann. 2018. IX, 497 pages. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 415 154,00 € including VAT. cloth ISBN 978-3-16-156302-7.
Published in English.
Abraham, whom the apostle Paul calls the »father of us all« (Rom 4:16), was a central figure in Judaism from the outset and came to be important in Christianity and Islam. The Abraham tradition is an issue of narrative and counter-narrative, memory and counter-memory. Moreover, Abraham's family is brought in as a network of meaning to express opposition, antithesis or common ground within and between different religious movements. The contributions to this volume discuss the presentation and reception of Abraham's family in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The topics cover Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Second Temple writings, New Testament, Rabbinic literature, Greek, Latin and Syriac church fathers, as well as Jewish medieval interpretation and a twelfth-century Arabic travel report of a pilgrimage to Mecca.

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Maimonides at the NLI

EXHIBITION: Judaism's original (pre-)Renaissance man comes to Israel. Israel Museum is showcasing manuscripts and artifacts on the life of medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher and physician Maimonides, including his original signature (Inbar Tvizer and Kobi Nachshoni, Jerusalem Post).
Maimonides: A Legacy in Script opened at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on December 11, and will run until April 27, 2019. https://www.imj.org.il/en/exhibitions/maimonides

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Olyan and Wright (eds.), Supplementation and the Study of the Hebrew Bible

NEW BOOK FROM THE SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE:
Supplementation and the Study of the Hebrew Bible
Saul M. Olyan (Editor), Jacob L. Wright (Editor)

ISBN 9781946527059
Status Available
Price: $30.95
Binding Paperback
Publication Date April 2018

Explore the role supplementation plays in the development of the Hebrew Bible

This new volume includes ten original essays that demonstrate clearly how common, varied, and significant the phenomenon of supplementation is in the Hebrew Bible. Essays examine instances of supplementation that function to aid pronunciation, fill in abbreviations, or clarify ambiguous syntax. They also consider more complex additions to and reworkings of particular lyrical, legal, prophetic, or narrative texts. Scholars also examine supplementation by the addition of an introduction, a conclusion, or an introductory and concluding framework to a particular lyrical, legal, prophetic, or narrative text.

Features:

• A contribution to the further development of a panbiblical compositional perspective
• Examples from Psalms, the pentateuchal narratives, the Deuteronomistic History, the Prophets, and legal texts

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Novick, Piyyuṭ and Midrash

NEW BOOK FROM VANDEHOECK AND RUPRECHT: Tzvi Novick, Piyyuṭ and Midrash. Form, Genre, and History. Journal of Ancient Judaism. Supplements - Volume 030ab 74,99 € * (D).
Piyyuṭ and Midrash
Novick studies the relationship between rabbinic midrash and classical (and to a lesser extent pre-classical) piyyut. The first focuses on features of piyyut that distinguish it, at least prima facie, from rabbinic midrash: its performative character, its formal constraints, and its character as prayer. The second part considers midrash and piyyut together via an analysis of a narrative form that looms large in both corpora. The “serial narrative” is a narrative that binds biblical history together by stringing together instance of the “same” event across multiple time periods. Thereby, Novick surveys basic features of serial narratives in midrash and piyyut. Subsequent chapters take up instance of specific serial narrative forms from Second Temple literature to piyyut: the kingdom series, the salvation history, and the serial confession. Together, the two parts yield a nuanced account of the continuities and discontinuities between the two great corpora produced by rabbinic and para-rabbinic circles in Roman Palestine.
HT The Talmud Blog on Facebook.

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Pregill (ed.), New perspectives on late antique Iran and Iraq

BIBLIOGRAPHIA IRANICA: New Perspectives on Late Antique Iran and Iraq. Notice of a new conference volume in an open-access journal: Pregill, Michael (ed.). 2018. New perspectives on late antique Iran and Iraq. Mizan. Journal for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations 3(1). It includes this article:
Shai Secunda: “East LA: Margin and Center in Late Antiquity Studies and the New Irano-Talmudica”

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

More on the Green Collection papyri from Nongbri

AT THE VARIANT READINGS BLOG, Brent Nongbri continues to cull new information from the DVD of lectures for the "Passages" exhibition of the Green Collection.

A “Second Century” Papyrus of Matthew in the Green Collection. A second-century fragment of the Gospel of Matthew? That would be nice. I'll believe it when I see good evidence for it.

The Green Collection Sappho Papyrus: Some New Details. I wouldn't make too much of the contradictions in the various accounts about who did what with this papyrus and when. Human memory about such things is notoriously unreliable. So unreliable that people often misremember whether they did something or someone they know did it.

I noted the story of the Sappho papyrus here. For later posts on it, see here and follow the links back.

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Review of Dulk, Between Jews and Heretics

BRYN MAYR CLASSICAL REVIEW: Matthijs Den Dulk, Between Jews and Heretics: Refiguring Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 174. ISBN 9780815373452. $140.00. Reviewed by Judith M. Lieu, University of Cambridge (jml68@cam.ac.uk).
In this, apparently substantially reworked, version of a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Chicago in 2015,1 Matthijs den Dulk argues that Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew should be read as in large part shaped by its author’s desire to demonstrate the superiority of his form of Christianity over other competing forms that characterised the diversity of the second century. Den Dulk identifies these alternatives as ‘Christian demiurgists’ or ‘demiurgical Christians’, that is those who distinguished between the creator (identified with the Jewish God) and the highest God, who sent Jesus Christ; chief but not alone among these was Marcion ...
I noted the publication of the book here.

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The archaeology of scourging?

THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST TODAY: What Do We Know about the Scourging of Jesus? (Andrea Nicolotti). I'm surprised to see this one published now, instead of in the Easter season.

The short answer to the headline's question is that we know very little about scourging in the first century. But that hasn't stopped people from trying to answer the question. This essay surveys their efforts. Not surprisingly, the Shroud of Turin comes up.

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When was Jesus born?

'TIS THE SEASON: When Was Jesus Born—B.C. or A.D.? How the divide between B.C. and A.D. was calculated (Megan Sauter, Bible History Daily). This essay was first published in 2017, but I missed it then.

The current chief editor of BAR, Robert Cargill, published a related essay some years ago. See here. And remember, as per my comments there, that we really have very little idea when Jesus was born.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Recontextualizing Qumran archaeology?

THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST TODAY: Qumran in a Mediterranean Context (Dennis Mizzi).
For a small site, Qumran has generated big debates. For one thing, despite the general scholarly consensus that ties the settlement with the group(s) behind the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes, there remain a number of dissenting voices. But here I want to underscore the benefits of studying Qumran in the wider context of the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean, leaving behind the idyllic, romantic notion of a site thriving in splendid isolation.

[...]
This essay reframes the archaeological context of the site of Qumran in what looks like a productive way. It is based on a recent scholarly article in Dead Sea Discoveries. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page.)

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On translating the Joseph story into English

PROF. EVERETT FOX: Torah in Translation: Rendering the Story of Joseph in English.
Translating the Torah from Hebrew into a different language is a huge challenge: What is the right balance between composing a text that reads smoothly while capturing the flavor of its original language? When I translated the Torah and the Early Prophets, I navigated this tension in favor of keeping the Hebrew flavor.
For more on Professor Fox and his translation work, see here.

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Review of Whitmarsh, Dirty Love

BRYN MAYR CLASSICAL REVIEW: Tim Whitmarsh, Dirty Love: The Genealogy of the Ancient Greek Novel. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xviii, 201. ISBN 9780199742653. $45.00. Reviewed by David Konstan, New York University (dk87@nyu.edu).
Whitmarsh’s analyses of the hybridizing precursors to the novel, or more strictly to the exogamous subset of the novels, are wide-ranging, subtle and imaginative.
Also, on Joseph and Aseneth:
There is an interesting twist, however: Joseph is gorgeous and “all the women and daughters of the Egyptians used to suffer terribly on seeing Joseph, on account of his beauty” (7.3, quoted on p. 111). I would have wanted more on this unusual reversal of the object of the erotic gaze: in this text Joseph has been thoroughly “Helenized.”
For more on Joseph and Aseneth, see here and links. And for more on the Alexander Romance, see here, here, and here.

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More on the 1 Samuel papyrus from the Green Collection

VARIANT READINGS: More on the Curious Green Collection 1 Samuel Papyrus (Brent Nongbri). Dr. Nongbri relates some more information on this manuscript. I have noted his earlier posts on it here.

In the first of those he said (provisionally) that the handwriting of the manuscript looks to date to the second to fourth century C.E. Things now become complicated. There is now a photo of the mummy mask that supposedly produced the manuscript, and a photo of some exposed text on it. Brent dates them "at first glance" to the Ptolemaic period (first to third century B.C.E.). But it may be that the Samuel material comes from more than one manuscript, so both dates could be correct.

I am summarizing here, so go and read his new post for all the details. If you are like me, you won't feel much the wiser. But it is good that more information about the manuscript seems to be trickling out and that Brent is keeping us appraised of it.

UPDATE: After I posted this, I saw a new post at Variant Readings: The Green Collection 1 Samuel: A Place of Purchase. Read the post to find out where and, in a general way, from whom.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Deadline extended for St Andrews NT Chair applications

THE CLOSING DATE for applications for the New Testament Professorship at the University of St Andrews has been extended by a month, to 14 January 2019.

Background here.

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That "star in the east"

'TIS THE SEASON: Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem? Experts weigh in on whether the Gospel account of Jesus’s birth, including the wise men who were guided by a ‘star in the east,’ has any scientific merit (The Conversation via the AP via David Weintraub, Times of Israel). This story usually comes up in the Christmas season, usually with the same range of explanations. The one given here is as plausible as any.

If you want to see a planetary "star in the east right" now, look to the east at sunrise. That bright star in the sky is the planet Venus on a very close approach to the earth. For a while it was so close I was pretty sure I could see a disk (which looked more like a crescent with binoculars). I don't know what it's current astrological significance is, but I'm sure there's something.

For my own view about Matthew's star, see here. For the earliest surviving reference, after the Gospel of Matthew, to the Star of Bethlehem (in a letter by Ignatius of Antioch), see here. Another early mention is in the Revelation of the Magi, on which more here and links. And for many other past posts on the Star of Bethlehem, start here and follow the links.

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A hint of Iraqi Jewish archive news?

UPDATE? JIMENA and others ask Pompeo to safeguard Jewish artifacts in Middle East (JTA). This article deals with matters that go beyond the Iraqi Jewish archive, but the latter is mentioned in the final paragraph:
Last year, JIMENA protested an agreement that the U.S. reached with Libya, saying it did not exclude Jewish artifacts. The State Department later told JTA that certain Jewish artifacts were exempt from the deal. Earlier this year, the organization fought to keep an archive of tens of thousands of Iraqi Jewish documents and artifacts discovered in 2003 by U.S. soldiers from being returned to Iraq (the fate of the archive is still undecided).
(The bold font and italics are mine.)

At the beginning of October, I noted that the September deadline for the return of the archive to Iraq had passed and I asked for any news about it. There was none.

Sometimes the story is the absence of the story. Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark in the night. This looks like one of those cases. Until today, "Iraqi Jewish archive(s)" has produced nothing new in Google News searches. The State Department and White House websites are silent. Now, finally, we have an unsourced hint that "the fate of the archive is still undecided."

I don't know whether JTA has information or they are drawing an inference. But I have been drawing the same inference. The silence in the news sounds as though the archive is still in the United States and the negotiations with Iraq still continue. I say that because if the archive had been returned to Iraq, that would have been news and it would have been covered.

I emphasize that all this is inference. I don't have any actual information, unless the JTA comment counts as information. I think the inferring is sound, but your mileage may differ.

If anyone has actual information on the current location and status of the archive, I would be grateful if you would share it with me.

For past PaleoJudaica posts on the Iraqi Jewish archives, going back to their discovery in 2003, start here and follow the links. I have given some of my own thoughts on the situation at the links here.

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No vanilla at Megiddo?

ARCHAEO-BIOCHEMISTRY: Did These Ancient Juglets—Found in a Bronze Age Burial in Israel—Contain Vanilla? The finding suggests vanilla was being used 2,500 years earlier and half a world from where we thought, but vanilla experts are skeptical on the findings (Jason Daley, The Smithsonian). There are "vanilla experts?" Of course there are.

Some of these experts have raised objections to the idea that the vanillin compound found in the jars in Megiddo Cave 50 shows the use of vanilla as flavoring. This in response to recent media reports on the ASOR paper presented by Vanessa Linares in November. But Ms. Linares defends her position. The actual research is not even published yet, so it's best to keep an open mind.

Background here.

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A film on the Apollo of Gaza

STATUARY CINEMA: The Mysterious Fate of an Ancient Apollo Statue Pulled From Gaza's Sea. Discovered by a fisherman, the statue garnered world renown before being confiscated by Hamas. The film 'The Apollo of Gaza' raises fascinating questions on the origins and fate of the sculpture (Nir Hasson, Haaretz premium). There isn't a great deal of news about the fate of the statue in this film. Hamas still has it and it has not been seen since they seized it in 2013. But apparently the film does claim to show that forging it would not have been difficult, if enough bronze could be had.

Background on the Apollo of Gaza is here and links.

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