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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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Exciting archeological discoveries

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There have been some exciting archeological discoveries in Israel in the last little while. Among them is the famous inscription found at Tel Dan in the northern Galilee featuring the earliest extra-biblical mention of the “House of David.” This was a major nail in the coffin of the biblical minimalists, who believe that much of the early history of ancient Israel before the latter part of the first millennium was prefabricated.

Other exciting discoveries include the remains of what may be David’s palace. This massive structure was discovered near the crest of the ancient City of David, where the earliest settlement of Jerusalem was found, which has been dated to the dawn of civilization, circa 3000 BCE. Although the identification of this monumental structure as David’s palace has yet to be confirmed, it shows that Jerusalem was an important centre and not just a provincial backwater that was the inconsequential home of some insignificant chieftain in the Judean Hills.

A few years ago, an inscribed potsherd dating to the late 11th or early 10th century BCE was found at Tel Qeiyafa, just outside Jerusalem. What made this small piece of broken pottery so important was that the inscription on it supposedly dealt with such humanitarian issues as protecting widows and orphans. Such matters would become a hallmark of Judaism’s ethical and moral base. It has been postulated that this inscription may have been part of a coronation decree dating to the accession of Saul. To see these issues emerge so early is amazing and promises to have a major impact on the study of the development of the ethics and morality of ancient Israel.

The last discovery is especially dear to me, since I had an indirect role in helping to bring it about. This happened when Prof. Michael Chazan, head of the University of Toronto’s Archaeology Centre, told me that the centre, with the backing of U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies, headed by Prof. Jeffrey Kopstein, was about to participate in a major new excavation in the Galilee. He asked whether I was interested in helping him out. I jumped at the opportunity.

Thanks to the Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies  and some generous former students from the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, we adopted the dig as an ongoing project of the Jewish/Italian Friendship Project, which I helped to initiate with both the Italian and Israeli consulates in Toronto. What was even more exciting was the fact that the excavations at Tel Huqoq produced the most exciting find of the past season: an inscribed and illustrated synagogue mosaic floor dating to the late Roman/early Byzantine period, in the fourth to sixth centuries CE.

On March 14, we will be bringing the charismatic head of the excavations, Prof. Jodi Magness, to Toronto for a free, illustrated lecture, 7:15 p.m., room 400, Alumni Hall, at U of T’s St. Michael’s College, 121 St. Joseph St.

I look forward to seeing you there.

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