Top Three Reports in Biblical Archaeology – May 2019

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Sometimes news reports from the world of biblical archaeology focus on new discoveries.  Sometimes they analyze old discoveries.  Sometimes they focus on advances in new technologies in the field.  This month, all three types of stories made the news.  Here are the top three reports from May 2019.

3. “Ancient Beer” brewed from 5000-Year Old Yeast

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An ancient Philistine beer jug from Tell es-Safi/Gath. Photo credit: Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority

A multi-disciplinary team of archaeologists, scientists, and brewers in Israel have worked together to successfully brew beer from ancient yeast.  Archaeologists provided beer vessels that had been excavated from four sites: Tell es-Safi/Gath (ca. 850 BC), Bronze Age En-Bessor in the Negev, Ramat Rachel in Jerusalem (ca. 8th-4th century BC) and an ancient Egyptian brewery found near Tel Aviv (ca. 3100 BC).  By analyzing 21 vessels or shards from these sites, microbiologists were able to extract six viable yeast strains from the nano-pores of the pottery.  The yeast was then successfully revitalized and used to brew both beer and mead that is similar to what the ancient Philistines, Canaanites, Egyptians and Judahites would have drunk.  The brews were not the same as the ancient ones, however, as modern recipes were used; ancient people sweetened their drink with pomegranates and dates and spiced them using cinnamon, cardamom and herbs. Ronen Hazan, a microbiologist from Hebrew University of Jerusalem explained the significance of the study, which was published in the American Society for Microbiology journal: “This study is important in several aspects. First, it opens new avenues to the field of experimental archaeology which try to reconstruct things from the past. Second, it has implication on the study of human dietary and microorganisms domestication. Our methods are not limited to yeast but also can shed light on cheese, wine, pickles and any other fermented food.”

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2. Hidden Vault Unearthed at Nero’s Palace

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This vaulted chamber was recently discovered at Nero’s palace. While filled mostly with earth, paintings are still visible on the walls and roof. Photo Credit: Ufficio Stampa Parco Archeologico del Colosseo
Paintings on the walls of the chamber included this centaur CREDIT PARCO ARCHEOLOGICO DEL COLOSSEO
A painting of a centaur from the wall of the recently discovered chamber at Nero’s palace. Photo Credit: Ufficio Stampa Parco Archeologico del Colosseo

A large, vaulted chamber was recently found in the famed palace of the Emperor Nero in Rome.  The room, which has lain undisturbed for almost 2000 years, was once part of Nero’s massive Domus Aurea (the Golden Palace).  Nero began to build his Golden Palace in A.D. 64 after the great fire that burned 2/3 of the city; once completed it was said to have covered four of Rome’s seven hills and held 300 rooms.  The recently-discovered chamber is 15-feet (4.5 m) high and most of the room is still filled with dirt.  The visible part of the walls are decorated with paintings of centaurs, the god Pan, a scene of a man with a sword being attacked by a panther, and a Sphinx.  A preliminary investigation has led scholars to believe that the frescoes were likely painted by Imperial Roman craftsmen between A.D 65-68.   Given their age the paintings are in fantastic condition and the director of the excavations has declared them to be of “immense artistic and archeological value.”  The archaeological team from the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo hopes to excavate the rest of the chamber over the next few months.  Church history records that both Peter and Paul were executed during the reign of the emperor Nero.

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1. New Study of Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) Ignites Debate

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The Moabite Stone, also known as the Mesha Inscription. Photo Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

A new paper published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University analyzes Line 31 on the Mesha Stele (aka the Moabite Stone) which previous scholars have suggested refers to Beit David¸ the “House of David.” In it, Israel Finkelstein, Nadav Na’aman, and Thomas Römer dismiss that reading and propose that it instead refers to Balak, the Moabite king from Numbers 22 and that “the Balaam story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele.”  The authors of the study believe there is a vertical stroke indicates a transition between two sentences and that the letter bet should be read as the start of a name (Balak), rather than Beit (House).  Not all scholars are in agreement, however.  Epigrapher Andre Lemaire, who first suggested the “House of David” reading in 1992 stands by his initial interpretation.   Ronald Hendel, professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “We can read one letter, b, which they’re guessing may be filled out as Balak, even though the following letters are missing… It’s just a guess. It could be Bilbo or Barack, for all we know.”  Scholar Michael Langlois, of the French Researcher Center in Jerusalem is about to publish his own article which supports Lemaire’s initial reading of “House of David.”  He claims there is no such vertical stroke in the image, but that the line break comes later.  Langlois has spent years using high resolution images, computer algorithms to perform Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) of the stele to create a 3-D image.  Recently he used Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) – photos of the stele itself and the original squeeze from various angles and in different lighting to create a high-resolution backlit image of the inscription.   In his upcoming article, Langlois argues that the new technology shows a previously overlooked dot, the customary way scribes at that time indicated a break between words, which comes exactly after the area interpreted “House of David,” supporting the Lemaire’s initial reading.

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