Micah, the Messiah, the ox and critique of power

‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.’

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labour bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be our peace.

Micah 5:2-5a

While most people would just think that Micah’s words are uplifting or powerful and some may see in them a prophecy, an anthropologist would look at the social impact of those words and some of the underlying socio-political assumptions of the prophet. In particular, I want to focus on one word that is often disregarded. In some translations it is even absent. That is the word “clan”. It is noticeable that Micah does not use the normal word for clan – mishpahah, but rather the somewhat archaic term ‘elef. This term has a lot of significance.

The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the letter ‘alef. Written in full it is the same as the term used here for clan: ‘elef. Both those terms come from the same root: ox.

The letter ‘alef initially developed from an Egyptian hieroglyph showing an ox. In the Sinai, where the first form of an alphabet was developed, the ox head became a bit more schematic. From there it became more abstract and turned in every which direction over time. By the sixth century it was difficult to see an ox head in the letter. It seems that the term for ox was also pronounced slightly differently from the letter by that time.

The Latin alphabet developed from the Hebrew alphabet via a few intermediaries. But still today we can see the ox shape in the present letter A. Just turn the capital letter A on its head and you’ve got the ox head; turn the lower case letter a on its side, and again you’ve got the ox head.

The modern Hebrew letter ‘alef doesn’t look anything like an ox head. That’s because during the Exile, a new Hebrew script was adopted that derived from Assyrian symbols. That also means that the Bible was re-written at one stage from the old Hebrew script to the new Hebrew-Assyrian script. Just in case you wonder, that’s the explanation why there is not that association between ox and the first letter of the alphabet in later Hebrew.

The term ‘elef also developed in other directions. Over time it took on the meaning of clan, that is the families that shared an ox together to plough. This clan was also the unit that fought together. In Ancient Israel the army did not consist of specialized units or people grouped by ability, but rather people from the same clan fought together. Those men knew each other and were familiar with each other. It had the unfortunate effect that if one fighting unit was wiped out, most of the men of a village were gone as well. During the time of the monarchy the army became more professionalised and the clan overall lost importance in the lives of the people.

However, the fighting unit in the army was still called ‘elef. Later such a unit consisted of a thousand men and the term ‘elef simply became the numeral “thousand”. The meaning of the word transitioned from ‘ox’ to ‘thousand’ in the timespan of a few hundred years. As an aside, several Biblical scholars suggest that the numbers of in the book of Numbers have been incorrectly understood, already by the editors of the Old Testament. These scholars suggest that the lists in Numbers are very old records that list the number of fighting units for each tribe. Such a unit would have consisted of approximately a dozen men. If you calculate it in that way there would have been just a few thousand people leaving Egypt during the Exodus, rather than around a million. That would certainly be in better accord with the archaeological record and take into account the development of the Hebrew language. However, I recognise that such a suggestion also has its problems.

That is a long detour to discuss the term ‘elef. But once we understand that, it becomes clear that Micah used an old term for clan, when he spoke these words. These was the kinship group that was bound together in agriculture and as representative and fighting unit, a group that held in peace and in war. It is the clan Ephratah, one of the clans of Bethlehem, out of which David and the house of David came. Why would Micah not have used the term “son of David” or similar that is used quite frequently in other books of the Bible? Probably because he was deliberately intentional in choosing the terminology. It seems that in Micah’s opinion things had gone wrong when David became a king like others, and even more so when the descendants of David took the throne, when Israel and Judah became institutionalised kingdoms. It’s clear that throughout the book Micah is the voice of the rural community that has become disillusioned with the urban elite, particularly the court. He is frequently referring to elders of the land as the seat of more legitimate authority and criticizing the acquisitive bureaucracy of Israel and Judah. But Micah is still setting hope in God and a ruler that would lead Israel out of its predicament. That ruler would not come from the compromised royal system. No, that ruler would come from the old clan of Bethlehem, would be a new David, a David that would restore the true Israel, not the corrupted by the current leadership structures.

Micah says that the rulers origins will be from of old. He wants to bypass the whole overblown and entitled administration and the corrupt royal house and have a ruler from the old established roots, the people who have not been compromised. That ruler would be a true shepherd, who cares for the people like a good shepherd cares for the flock. And he will bring them peace and flourishing.

We could contrast Micah’s attitude to the king’s administration with more positive views, such as is seen in some of the Psalms and to a certain extent in the historical books. The prophet Isaiah is more complex, essentially pleading for a return to faithfulness, rather than an overthrow of the current system.

The words of Micah are quoted directly in the Gospel of Matthew as a fulfilment of prophecy. However, Luke retells the meaning of Micah’s words more fully and subtly. In the nativity narrative, Luke repeatedly tells us that Joseph was of the line of David, and even though Joseph was not Jesus’ real father, Jesus was the one who was born in Bethlehem and the son of David. Luke also connects Jesus to Micah in a way that is probably not that obvious to us modern readers, but quite clear to those Jews who thought in terms of kinship. The key verses are in Luke 3:23-38:

23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph,

the son of Heli, 24 the son of Matthat,

the son of Levi, the son of Melki,

the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,


the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel,

the son of Neri, 28 the son of Melki,

the son of Addi, the son of Cosam,

the son of Elmadam, the son of Er,

29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer,

the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat,

the son of Levi, 30 the son of Simeon,

the son of Judah, the son of Joseph,

the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim,

31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna,

the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan,

the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse,

the son of Obed, the son of Boaz,

the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon,


the son of Noah, the son of Lamech,

37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch,

the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel,

the son of Kenan, 38 the son of Enosh,

the son of Seth, the son of Adam,

the son of God.

There’s a whole lot of theology behind that genealogy. And a whole lot of history and social commentary. For my purposes it is instructive to compare this list of names to the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew. They are different and commentators have wondered for thousands of years why that is. In the Gospel of Matthew the genealogy runs through the line of the kings of Judah. Here in Luke it does not. Yes, there is King David in that list, but after that the lineage goes through people that were all not kings. Nathan, the son of David, was a brother of Solomon, but never king. In other words, the genealogy by-passes all the corrupt institution and goes back directly to David and therefore to Ephratah, the clan from Bethlehem. Jesus is the ruler over Israel, whose roots are from of old, from ancient times. Jesus is the new Adam, the one who is what humans should have been, if they would not have risen in rebellion against God.

Sinful humanity is contrasted with the holiness of God; corrupt kingdoms with the kingdom of God. The importance of kinship is also emphasized in the Gospel of Luke by the mention of Elizabeth, the kinswoman of Mary. The clan continues to be important in God’s salvation history, certainly more so than empires. That last point becomes very clear in Mary’s response, the Magnificat, which includes the lines:

“The LORD has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich empty away.” Much could be said about the Magnificat, but if we look at it from an anthropological perspective, it is evidence that these were people who saw God at work in the fall and rise of states. Taking these things together, it is clear that the Bible contains strands that are clearly anti-establishment. The Bible forments a group that cannot conform fully to the order of this world. Yes, the Bible also exhorts to obedience, but overall it is quite critical of worldly power and certainly the control of empires. It is little wonder then that in Christianity, too, there has been a long tradition of resisting empire and what is perceived to be corrupt government and a hankering for a holier state of affairs.

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State power and the death of a man

The recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands (or rather knees) of police officers has caused a wave of protests around the world. The protesters expressed their outrage at police violence and racism. Even though many other people have experienced police violence and many people have experienced racism, even though this incident is not the normal way of policing and of interaction between white and black Americans, this incident has struck a nerve. Something about the particular disregard for human life by the police officers dealing with an unarmed man has galvanised people around the world. For this is not how it is meant to be. Many people feel that there needs to be change, that this is even a defining moment in history.

By Lorie Shaull – https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/49959004213/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90963059

I have recently read another article on a story about a man who was killed through the overreach of state power, a story about the disregard of human life, so that people could only conclude that this was not how it was supposed to be: the story of Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21). While this one was more about the archaeological investigation of an ancient wine press and vineyard near Jezreel, where the story is supposed to have happened, it also addresses the story of Naboth. The story is looked at in the light of international events and theories of biblical composition. Among other macro-historic movements, it is related to the increased use and therefore requirement for wine in the Assyrian Empire. The story is seen as the folk-tale version of slow historical developments, rather than an event, which when told far and wide, galvanised people, was later looked back to as a defining moment in history.

Many scholars regard history as a slow, social process, that has to be explained through social models. In their opinion there is no place for the events that happened to real people. While looking at these social processes is indeed an important aspect of history and it is close to impossible to get information on ancient events and people that would comply with a modern understanding of verifiable reporting, the denial of the importance of particular people and events as transforming moments comes from a sever misunderstanding of history.

A winepress at Horvat Rimmon – probably later than the one measured near Jezreel.

What amazes me is that some archaeologists and historians who write so abstractly about ancient history, are passionately involved in modern-day struggles. They see what happened to George Floyd as a pivotal point in history, and yet they cannot see similar dynamics in ancient history.

Yes, there were no social media or global news in the ancient world, but stories of what happened circulated, especially if they struck a chord. So the story of Naboth could indeed have resonated with people throughout Israel. It could indeed have happened (even though, of course, it was later put in a certain literary form). And the concerns expressed in that story may indeed have been the concerns of people back then, more so than any social changes we today think may have happened then.

Posted in Archaeology, Assyria, Bible, Biblical Studies, History, Israel, Scholarly articles | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visualizing Food Storage in Ancient Houses

Recently an article I wrote was published on the ASOR blog Ancient Near East Today. It discusses some of the issues with visualizations in archaeology.

Posted in Archaeology, Food storage, Household Archaeology, Israel, Lachish, Tell Halif, Visualization | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ashamed of the Old Testament?

As I noted in a few blog posts, there is a tendency in Christian theology and practice to disregard the Old Testament, or even to actively deny that it has any significance for the Church. Apart from any of the reasons given, such a denial of the Old Testament is probably often because many Christians are ashamed of the Old Testament.

Adolf von Harnack was a well-known German church historian and theologian in the early 20th century. He had Marcionite views and argued that the Old Testament should no longer be normative in the Protestant Church. He writes in his book on Marcion:

The churches are paralzyed, have not been able to create a means through which they could free themselves from the overly old traditions, and also do not find the strength and courage to give honour to the truth; they are afraid of a break with tradition, but do not see or disregard the dire consequences, which result again and again from the continued regard for the Old Testament as holy and therefore inerrant scripture. The greatest number of criticisms, which the populace has against Christianity and the truthfulness of the church, is the consequence of this regard in which the church continues to hold the Old Testament.

In other words: if only the Church discarded the Old Testament, what it would have to say would be easier for society to accept. The Old Testament is inconsistent with the values of a modern society. And it is inconsistent with a Church which modern society would expect.

I want to contrast this with the work of another theologian. In 1947 Karl Barth published the relatively short book Dogmatics in Outline (Dogmatik im Grundriss). In it he also talks about the relationship of Jesus, the Church, Judaism and the Old Testament.

Jesus Christ, in whom we believe, who we Christians as those who are called out of the heathens call saviour, and whom we praise as the one who has brought God’s work for us to completion, he was necessarily a Jew. […] Whoever is ashamed of Israel, is ashamed of Jesus Christ and therefore also of his own existence.

I have permitted myself to contextualize this in relation to the anti-semitic core of National Socialism. It was not an inevitable and trivial matter that in Germany the motto was followed: Judah is the enemy! […] The attack on Judah signifies the attack on the base of the work and revelation of God. Apart from this work and this revelation there is no other. […] Any people that sees itself as chosen and makes itself the basis and measure of all things, such a people has to clash sooner or later with the truly elected people of God. Already in the idea of such a chosen people, even if there is no explicit anti-semitism, there is the essential negation of Israel and through that a negation of Jesus Christ and therefore of God.

In other words, if we are ashamed of Israel and the Old Testament, we deny Christ, we are in conflict with God, we work against God. Christianity stands and falls with the acceptance of the whole Bible. Karl Barth further links such a denial of Judah to an overestimation of one’s own country and culture and then also to such unspeakable acts as committed under National Socialism.

A denial of the Old Testament will not necessarily lead to concentration camps. It will lead, however, to loyalty to other gods apart from the God who is revealed in Jesus. According to the Bible such other gods are idols, which take humans away from the true God. Such idols may well be a country, a movement, an ideology, or a human being, and who knows where they will lead people?

All translations are mine.

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A new Marcionism

Marcionism is a Christian heresy that was first denounced in 144 AD (CE). Marcion of Sinope proclaimed that the Old Testament could not be reconciled with the New Testament, and that the New Testament proclaimed a different god to the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament was a malevolent God of law and materialist concerns (“Demiurg”); the God of the New Testament was a benevolent God of love and spiritual concerns. Marcion held that the first consequence of this insight needed to be the discarding of the Old Testament as authoritative (or even inspirational) in the Church. Only a carefully edited New Testament that is cleaned of any Jewish thought and is polemical towards Judaism would do.

Marcion developed those ideas early. He seems to have been excommunicated from the Church in Sinope by his own father due to his beliefs. After unsuccessfully attempting to spread his brand of Christianity in Asia Minor, Marcion joined the Church in Rome. It was probably here that he wrote down his argument and edited a new “Bible”. He was sure he could win over the Roman Church. In a full assembly Marcion argued with the presbyters of the Roman Church. The presbyters decided that what Marcion proclaimed was an aberration of the Christian message, a harmful heresy and a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. Marcion was excommunicated and the large donations he had made to the Church were returned. Marcionism was therefore one of the first theologies declared to be a heresy, and probably the first we know of in the Church in Rome.

That was not the end of it. Marcion did find some followers and Marcionism spread throughout the Christian Church, with separate congregations that openly proclaimed their affiliation. In the West this clear identification with Marcion subsided before Christianity became the preferred religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine. In Syria, Marcionism as a distinct tradition existed longer, with some bishops of the official church investing effort in converting the heretics.

Nevertheless, even though few people and theologies across the millenia have described themselves as Marcionite, there always has been a strong tendency towards Marcionism in the Christian Church. Ever since the Church gained a strong following outside its Jewish roots, there has been a temptation not only to sever the link to those roots, but also to define the faith in distinction with Judaism and the Old Testament. During the Middle Ages that temptation was not as strong, because the Church at large did not engage closely with the Biblical text and the Old Testament was interpreted allegorically. With the Reformation in the 16th century and a closer reading of the Bible such a temptation grew. After all, if we regard the Bible as authoritative, some of what it has to say gets quite uncomfortable. It is far easier to press God and Jesus into our own image, to make them conform to the ideas of our times, if we disregard the historical reality and the strong claims of the Bible. Particularly from the 19th century onwards, when Theology tended towards a Philosophy of Religion, voices have arisen that have called the Church to discard the Old Testament. Some of these voices have been taken up more recently.

Since working in the Anglican Church in New Zealand I have been surprised by the strong Marcionism there. Here the most common expression is by using the Old Testament as the negative background to Jesus. The Old Testament is seen as a document of exclusion, narrow-mindedness and legalism; Jesus is portrayed in contrast with that as inclusive, open-minded and flexible. Little attention is given to the Old Testament except for showing how radical Jesus was. Jesus is then identified with the own cause and others who think differently are labelled as legalistic and pharisaic.

Of course, much of the New Testament can be understood better if we have an idea of the Old Testament background. And yes, differences need to be highlighted. But the relationship between the Old and New Testaments does not have to be seen mainly as one of contrast, but rather of continuity. With such an understanding we’ll probably get a lot further and closer to Jesus than seeing a constant conflict.

There is no denying that there is argument in the New Testament (and there is also in the Old Testament), but rather than an argument against the Scriptures, we see Jesus again and again arguing for the right interpretation of the Scriptures. Jesus does not argue that the Old Testament is “legalistic” or “out-dated”, or “irrelevant”; he does argue that it has not been applied faithfully, or that the interpretation of Jesus’ opponents does not realise that this not a time as usual, but the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus did have a very real sense of the urgency of his mission and that this was a very particular time of God’s action with God’s people. That’s why fasting was not appropriate now, when the bridegroom was here, even though it is otherwise a good discipline.

So we should not see Jesus as reacting against the Old Testament, but rather as continuing and fulfilling it. Otherwise we fall into a new Marcionism. Just as Marcionism throughout the centuries, this new Marcionism is a distortion of the Gospel to make it conform more closely to current ideologies. Maybe the best way to guard against it is by reading and preaching both the Old and New Testaments and highlighting the continuity between them.

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A harvest stored

This fictional account illustrates how food storage might have been integrated with other household activities in Ancient Judah. I developed this from my dissertation.

The rain fell heavily now, the wind driving it against the house wall, pushing it through the town streets, turning the dirt into mud. It was the first heavy rain after gentler rains had softened the soil following the dry times of summer. “Let it come now, the rain,” Hamutal thought, as she placed the water jar on the straw ring beside the door, “we have gathered the harvest into the house.” Even the olive oil was pressed and stored in jars in the house. The wheat and barley had long been threshed, winnowed, and sieved. They had paid the tithes to Nathan, the city elder, and kept their portion in the house, together with the seed. Hamutal walked to the small storeroom, just beside the kitchen.

In the corner stood the large wooden grain chest. It was full of wheat. Two grain jars stood in front of it. She used the little one to carry small amounts of wheat to the kitchen. The larger jar was empty. It would soon be full again. After the ploughing, Shemaiah, her husband, would get more grain from Nathan, the city elder. It had always been like this: after the men had worked the fields for the city elder and the seed had been scattered on the land, the city elder would lavish on them the gift of grain. Their own seed for the new season stood in the two jars beside the grain chest. She had put the wheat into an official jar, not because it was a tithe or would be traded, but because the jar was already old and was no longer suitable for liquids. In a smaller jar beside it was the seed barley. They had enough seed for their fields, as long as the mice would not get to it and no mould attacked it.

Hamutal looked around the small storeroom. Yes, they had plenty of food. God had provided and blessed the fields and the storeroom. She prayed that no mice or insects, no war or fire, would threaten what God had given them. There was the jar of raisins and beside it the jar of lentils. A basket of dried figs stood beside it. From the ceiling hung the pomegranates and onions. She had used the old cooking pot to store the sesame seed.

Hamutal turned and went to the kitchen. The bread oven stood near the pillar. Around it she usually kept her implements for baking. The stone for pounding the bread, the wooden sticks, the pillow for the bread, the kneading bowl, the knife and the two cooking pots. Near the bread oven there was also the small jar of flour and a krater of chickpeas. She had used a few jars to partition off this area, so that little Joab couldn’t get to the oven from the back. There was the jar of oil and a jar of barley. She had put the jar of fish sauce between them. She had swapped it for dates with Obadiah’s family, Shemaiah’s cousin. They had received the gifts from Nathan, the city elder. And even though Hamutal was quite partial to dates herself, she knew that Shemaiah was fond of the fish sauce from the coast. It probably fed the family for longer, too.

Against the other wall were the quern and grinder, where she ground flour each morning. The large wheat jar was still half full. “If we don’t use it up by the time we get the wheat from Nathan, I may have to pour the rest into a bowl,” she thought.

Hamutal looked up and glanced over to the loom leaning against the back wall of the room. She had only just started to weave a new cloth. It should be finished by the end of the next month. Atarah, her oldest daughter, would help her with it. Nathan would be pleased. They had good wool this year and she had been able to get some beautiful dye. The cloth she made might even go to the king. Most of the cloth from the city was sent to Jerusalem, to the king, particularly if it was beautiful. And Nathan was usually particularly generous if he liked the cloth. To finish it, Hamutal probably would have to spin some more yarn. She usually did that together with the children in the work area on the other side of the pillars. It was quiet here. In the heat of day, but also now in winter, they sat here and worked with the wool or cleaned the beans. The women also slept here.

Hamutal stepped into the lounge at the back of the house. A large carpet covered part of the room. She had made it a few years ago. Opposite the door stood a jar of wine, from which she mixed a little with water during meal times. The bowls from the meal still stood on the carpet. The jug with thinned wine stood beside them, not yet empty. From the wall niche the mother figure looked over the room, protecting her family.

“Yes, it will be a good year,” Hamutal mumbled as she retraced her step to the front door. They had indeed been blessed. She opened the door to the stable and pushed a few of the sheep to the side. They had stayed inside today, because rain had threatened from early morning and Helah, the younger of her daughters, had begged not to have to go outside on such a day. She still didn’t like looking after the sheep, even though it had been her responsibility for a year now. Before that Obed had done it. But Obed…, Hamutal felt the lump rising in her throat, Obed was dead. Her oldest son had caught a fever after he cut himself with a sickle. She had cared for him, asked the healers for help, even made a solemn vow, but Obed did not live.

The ewe, heavily pregnant, eyed her nervously. Even though Obed no longer looked after them, the flock had prospered. All the ewes were pregnant, the goats with kid. She had talked to Shemaiah several times now about cutting a new door to the back store room and building a narrow wall to keep the sheep in. That way she wouldn’t have to walk through the stable every time she wanted to go to the back storeroom. Pushing a sheep aside, she opened the door to the storeroom.

It was dark here. Hamutal lit a lamp. She always liked the scent of this room, slightly musty with a hint of summer spice. It must be the wine. She cast her eyes on the largest jar they had in the house. They never moved it, leaving it here in this room, instead. It contained the oil. Beside it stood the drip jar with the juglet to take the oil from the large jar. They also used it to remove the oil covering the wine when they started a new jar. She looked at the juglet and had to think of little Joab. “As often as the juglet strikes the rim, Joab gets into trouble.” At least that’s what Atarah, her oldest daughter, always said. And there was some truth to it. Funny how Atarah had picked up so many phrases and proverbs from her grandmother, Hamutal’s mother-in-law.

There were three jars full of wine in the room, all of them official jars, one of them even had a stamp on it. If they had to give any of the jars away, it would be that one. But they kept it here for now. If anything came up, they would give it to Nathan, the city elder, and he would repay them, no doubt. It was always good to have a spare jar of wine in the house. Not that they had much wine this year. No, they would have to be careful and couldn’t use up too much. But it was enough. She still hoped there would be sufficient wine for the wheat harvest. It was always good to have some cool wine after the heat of a summer day. She knew that Shemaiah liked his wine, but he would also be cross if it ran out too soon or there was none available for trading if they really needed it. But she herself had to see to it that he only drank a little, so that the wine would last. Shemaiah might grumble, but he would be even angrier if there was none at all left. And sometimes he even praised her for keeping such a good watch over the wine and food supply.

Hamutal bent down to check the two milk pots. One contained butter, the other sourmilk balls, the last of the milk products from spring. They wouldn’t last much longer, she knew. She needed to use them up soon.

Hamutal opened the door to the stable, pushed the sheep out of the way and walked back to the front door. The rain had nearly stopped. The children would be home any moment, then. They had been with their relatives across the street. It wasn’t far, but they normally avoided the rain. It was certainly time for them to come home. Soon, the day would end and Shemaiah would be hungry after ploughing in the rain all day. And she hadn’t even started cooking yet.

Posted in Archaeology, Fiction, Food storage, Household Archaeology, Judah, Visualization | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The destruction of archaeological sites

Right after development and artefact robbing, one of the main threats to archaeological sites is dirt bikes, or off-road motor cycles. Particularly archaeological sites in reserves are often at risk from dirt bike riders, if there are no expensive enforcement measure to keep them away.

Dirt bike rider at Tell Halif

And now the dirt bike riders have come to Tell Halif! They are churning up the hill I worked on for so many years. It is partly our own fault: we dumped excess soil on the side of the hill and created a steep, dusty slope ideal for dirt bikes. If the dirt bikes were restricted to that dump, things would not that be bad, but now the riders are churning up parts of the hillside.

Israel has a dirt bike problem. Somehow it is a national past-time, a destructive past-time in such a small land. And the authorities are doing little to counter the destruction. At Tel Goded large boulders were strategically placed to hinder dirt bikes, but they found new tracks to ride the sides of the hill. Some small tells are so rutted that little topography remains. Byzantine village sites such as Abu Hof are scarred by dirt bike tracks.

off-road motorcyle at Tell Halif (Lahav Forest)

For the sake of an adrenalin rush and proving macho prowess important heritage is lost, the land scarred. Pleasant reserves are turned into noisy, dust bowls. The problem is not unique to Israel. I have also seen it in New Zealand, where the old gold digger town of Macetown was severely damaged by dirt bikes, for example. It’s likely that dirt bikes also destroy archaeological sites in other countries.

The irresponsible and ego-centric behaviour has to stop. But of course these people do not listen. They think they enjoy nature through their destructive behaviour. A hill is just a place to prove their skills, not a place where generations of people have lived and have left behind their traces. It does not worry them that these traces are now damaged, sometimes even obliterated. So, it may be up to us to say that it is enough, that the destruction cannot continue. We must advocate for change.

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50 years directing archaeological excavations in Israel

Yesterday I attended an event in honour of Professor Joe D Seger, celebrating 50 years of directing archaeological excavations in Israel. As a student at Harvard University, Joe Seger participated in excavations at Shechem, then Jordanian territory. He was a student of G.E. Wright. He first stepped up as the director of archaeological excavations in 1969 to direct the dig at Gezer. At that time he was the interim director of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

Professor Joe Seger at Nimrod Castle on the slopes of Mt Hermon.

After the excavations in Gezer, Joe Seger decided to excavate at Tell Halif in southern Israel and founded the Lahav Research Project. This is an American archaeological expedition that would look at the archaeological site in its environment and would include experts in many fields to bring a broader understanding to the excavation.

Excavations started at Tell Halif in 1976. Joe Seger directed excavations at Tell Halif until 1988. He continues to hold overall responsibility for the project and its publications. Excavations in 1992, 1993 and 1999 were co-directed by Paul F. Jacobs and Oded Borowski. Excavations 2007-2009 and 2014-2016 were directed by Oded Borowski, with Joe Seger providing input. I have been involved in five of these latest seasons.

From 1988 to 2014 Professor Seger was the director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University. When I studied there he was part of my thesis committee and helped to push my thesis through the process.

His knowledge of the ancient pottery found in Israel is amazing. He was usually an early adopter of new technology that could provided additional archaeological information. With Lahav volumes now being published, our knowledge of the archaeology of southern Israel has increased. As Joe said in response at the event, the most important thing is that we can bring alive something of the fascinating lives of the people who lived here thousands of years ago and who have given an amazing heritage to the world.

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Funnels and food storage

Earlier this year Avraham Faust published the article Funnels as indicators of storage activities in the Iron II Southern Levant (Oxford Journal of Archaeology 38(1):80-104). Based on observations at Tel ‘Eton, he suggested that larger funnels with a diameter of 23 cm and more and a volume between 2.75 and 4.0 litres were used with dry products. Funnels with a diameter between 18 to 20 cm and a volume between 1.2 to 2.6 litres were probably used with liquids.

He looks at other funnels from recent excavations and suggests that they support his conclusions. One of these funnels has been excavated from Tell Halif. This is a smaller funnel, and though not quite as narrow as some others, not very wide. This was found together with a strainer and a collection of storage jars. Residue from some of these jars was tested and found to contain tartaric acid associated with wine. The conclusion that this narrow funnel was used with liquids is therefore quite strong.

Funnel found in the F7 house at Tell Halif. F7.47D#2. Image: Paul F. Jacobs

However, overall only very few funnels have been found in excavations in Israel. It seems that at Tel ‘Eton only two have been found, both from Building 101. Avi Faust has been able to find 31 funnels that have been reported in publications. Many of them are not well-preserved or well-described and have not come from good contexts. They are quite exceptional. Therefore, they can only tell us so much about storage. Nevertheless, they are an important indicator that can add to our knowledge of household food storage and a better understanding of the use of space in houses.

Avi Faust also suggests that areas in which dry goods were stored only contained a few storage vessels and some additional non-storage vessels; areas in which liquids were stored contained many storage vessels and very few non-storage vessels except for juglets. He suggests that liquids were stored almost solely in ceramic containers, while dry goods were often stored in sacks.

In my investigation of household food storage I did not come across evidence for storage in sacks, though they were undoubtedly used. I did come across some evidence for storage of grain in bulk. I therefore only considered ceramic storage vessels and bulk storage facilities. However, the data I used may be re-examined with Avi Faust’s suggestion.

I noted in my investigation that houses from Iron Age II (1000 – 586 BCE) had a lower household storage capacity than houses from Iron Age I (1200 – 1000 BCE). I suggested that this may be due to centrally administered storage: during the Iron Age II many storehouses were found that were centrally administered. Much of the food could have been kept in these storehouses.

Another interpretation may be that during the Iron Age I dry goods were kept in ceramic containers and grain pits, while in the Iron Age II dry goods were often kept in sacks and only sometimes in ceramic containers.

I reckon that my investigation of household food storage is only a start and there is a lot more to learn about this topic, which might allow us to learn more about the lives of people in Ancient Israel and Judah.

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Tel Batash (Timnah) House 950

I’ll add pictures of one more visualization completed as part of my study into household food storage. These pictures are from a reconstruction of House 950 at Tel Batash, often identified with Timnah on the border between Judah and Philistine territory.
It seems that in the seventh century BCE it was a somewhat mixed town, with artefacts aligned with the Judahite hill country and the Philistine coastal plain both present.

This is the overview of the House 950. While some parts in the front part (north) part were not excavated, it is mainly the back that is not clearly defined, and where significant parts may not have been excavated.

Near the entrance there was an area that was not fully excavated. The excavated parts contained several artefacts. This is the view from the entrance.

C:\Users\Leonilda\Dropbox\Doktorat\FinalModels\Tel Batash\

Off to the side near the front of the building was a small room with a bread oven, possibly something like a baking hut.

The central room, 950/946, was full with artefacts. It seemed to have been a busy area for food preparation, food storage and probably also goods storage. This shows locus 950W, looking northwards with the entrance area in the background.

Further west was more of a storage area, including goods storage. Primarily it seems to have been used for food storage, with an oven and food preparation directly adjacent to it.

The food preparation area 946W was adjacent to the same oven and included some food storage.

Locus 946E, in contrast, seems to have been mainly used for food storage. However, all these areas were part of the same large room at the centre of the house.

Off to the side was separate room 982, which probably was used as a living room.

Towards the back from the house was an olive press, of which only some parts remained.

Separated from the central room by a row of columns was the western longroom. In the northern part, Locus 957, there were relatively few artefacts. Adjacent to the oven, it may nevertheless have also been used for food preparation.

The southern part of that longroom, in contrast, had clear evidence of food preparation, such as grinding. There was also evidence for textile working, including weaving.

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