Sunday, August 22, 2004

Arts: Digital Digging (Jerusalem Report via Archaeologica News)
Matti Friedman

A skeptical archaeologist uses state-of-the-art technology to reconstruct a long-forgotten synagogue in the Golan


You won�t find too many Israelis named Jesus -- Yeshu, in Hebrew -- but one of them is the long-haired, chain-smoking, self-educated archaeologist digging Um el-Kanatir. Yeshu Dray�s real name is Yehoshua, but he has been called Yeshu ever since (he explains rather vaguely) an incident in which his army buddies crucified him for a few hours in a Sinai wadi in the early 1970s. Dray, 51, never formally studied archaeology, but his one-man company, Restoration of Ancient Technology, has carried out some of the most important reconstructions of Israel�s ancient infrastructure. He rebuilt a section of the famous aqueduct that led from the base of the Carmel hills to the Roman city of Caesarea, for example, and part of another one that carried water from what�s today called the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount. Dray�s companion, Ilana Gonen, is also an archaeologist, and the two are working together on the Um el-Kanatir dig. The name of the site had circulated among archaeologists not only for the anticipated richness of its artifacts, but also because of the physical challenge it posed to the potential excavator. That is what drew Dray and Gonen there.


Putting a jumble of ancient rocks together this way is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and this is where the cutting-edge technology comes in. At Um el-Kanatir, Dray brought in a local company called Mabat 3-D Technology. Using laser scanners on tripods, the Mabat crew carried out scans of the ruin before the dig began, taking shots of the site from a perspective of a full 360 degrees, and then putting them together to create an overall 3-D image of the synagogue. The scan recorded the exact location and angle of each stone, each pillar and each ornament, before anything was moved. Once the location of all the artifacts had been noted digitally, diggers could begin to clear the rubble away. Knowing precisely where and at what angle the stones were found allows Dray to induce where they were before they fell. Much of this work is also done on computer, on a program that Gonen designed, which helps them to put the pieces together like a digital puzzle, seeing how they may have fit before actually moving them on the ground.

In order to keep track of the thousands of building stones on the site, Dray and Gonen implant microchips -- 3mm by 11mm -- into tiny holes drilled into them. A sensor detects the chip and gives the piece�s catalog number, which in turn tells the diggers the precise original location in the ruin provided by the laser scan. "This is the first time Israel has seen these methods," says Gideon Foerster, a veteran Hebrew University professor of archaeology who took part in the landmark digs at Masada and at Beit She�an. "They make it much easier for the archaeologist to place each of the findings. When you write numbers on the stones, which is the way it has been done until now, they get erased, and information is lost." Of Dray, Foerster says, "He�s an imaginative guy, and there is no question that he does very good work."


The synagogue was a basilica, the standard Roman-influenced design for public buildings at that time. There were balconies, supported by pillars, around three sides of the inner space, and a central nave some 40 feet high. The diggers found Byzantine coins under the floor, left there when the building was constructed, perhaps for good luck. They found household implements, agricultural tools, and a bizarre, beautiful Aladdin-style bronze lamp shaped like the head of a satyr; the flame would have flickered from the tip of his beard.

According to the Hebrew University�s Foerster, the synagogue is one of the best-preserved examples ever found in Israel. "This is undoubtedly a unique site," he says. "The number of findings, the fact that they were found in situ, and their exceptional level of preservation -- all of these things make it special."

The dig's findings sketch a portrait of a prosperous Jewish settlement, with perhaps 250 inhabitants, during the 5th and 6th centuries CE, when the Golan was in a corner of the newly Christian empire run out of Byzantium. . . .

The village was abandoned in the middle of the 8th century. Dray guesses that the end came in 749, on January 18, when a massive earthquake rocked the Jordan Rift valley, devastating Jerusalem and other urban centers. . . .

Now that the stones have been scanned, tagged and cleared, and now that the shape of the building has emerged, the next stage, say Gonen and Dray, is to raise it. "We can reconstruct the whole building -- it�s all there," Dray says with great enthusiasm, estimating that they will need about four and a half months to plan and carry out the reconstruction. The problem, predictably, is money. The dig has cost $150,000 so far, and Dray and Gonen figure they need another $250,000 to rebuild the synagogue. For now, they are continuing small-scale work on the site, hoping that the money materializes. If it does, Um el-Kanatir could become one of the Golan Height�s most popular archaeological sites.


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