Fr Stephen Smuts

Archive for the ‘Bible Archaeology’ Category

Ancient Near Eastern Monographs

leave a comment »

The Society of Biblical Literature’s Ancient Near Eastern Monographs are available as free pdfs.

To view them, click here.



Written by Fr Stephen Smuts

June 8, 2014 at 17:29

‘Extraordinarily Rare’ Crusade-Era Seal Discovered in Jerusalem

leave a comment »

Discovery News reports on the find:

A rare Crusade-era lead seal used to secure a letter was uncovered in an ancient farmstead in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced today (May 27).

The 800-year-old seal was likely once fixed to a document delivered to the farm from a sprawling cliffside monastery in the Judean Desert that was founded by Saint Sabas (“Mar Saba” in Aramaic) and once housed hundreds of monks.

“This is an extraordinarily rare find, because no such seal has ever been discovered to date,” Benyamin Storchan and Benyamin Dolinka, excavation directors from the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

This type of ancient seal was also known as a bulla in Latin. It consisted of two blank lead disks that would have been hammered together with a string between them. Opening the letter would cause obvious damage to the bulla, which was intended to discourage unauthorized people from breaking the seal.

One side of the seal bears the image of the bearded Byzantine-era Saint Sabas, who is wearing a himation (essentially a Greek version of a toga), brandishing a cross in his right hand and perhaps holding a copy of the gospel in his left hand. The other side of the seal is etched with a Greek inscription, translated as: “This is the seal of the Laura of the Holy Sabas.” (The monastery was also called the “Great Laura” of Mar Saba. A laura, or lavra, is a type of Orthodox Christian monastery that has a cluster of caves for hermit monks.)

“The Mar Saba monastery apparently played an important role in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusader period, maintaining a close relationship with the ruling royal family,” Robert Kool, a researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority who examined the seal, said in a statement. “The monastery had numerous properties, and this farm may have been part of the monastery’s assets during the Crusader period.”

The seal was uncovered during excavations in 2012 in southwestern Jerusalem’s Bayit VeGan quarter. The farm site was established during the Byzantine period (5th–6th centuries A.D.) and resettled during the Crusader period (11th–12th centuries A.D.).

A document in the archives of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem refers to a farming settlement known as Thora that was sold to the Mar Saba monastery in 1163–1164. The location of that farm was lost to history, but the Mar Saba seal could link the recently excavated farm to Thora, explained Storchan and Dolinka in a statement.


Written by Fr Stephen Smuts

May 28, 2014 at 21:43

Nine Unopened Dead Sea Scrolls Found In Israel Antiquities Authority Storeroom

leave a comment »

Great find!

Nine tiny but mighty Dead Sea Scrolls have been discovered — or more accurately, re-discovered — within the vaults of at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), The Times of Israel reported.


The rolled scrolls (in the second row) and their empty cases from Cave 4.While searching through the Israel Antiquities Authority storerooms one day in May 2013, Dr. Yonatan Adler, a lecturer at Ariel University and post-doctoral researcher at Hebrew University, came across an unmarked phylactery case.

He had the case scanned on the suspicion that it might contain an undocumented scroll and in December continued investigating for unopened scrolls while on a visit to the IAA Dead Sea Scrolls labs. There he found two scrolls inside a tefillin case that had been documented after the original 1952 discovery but never examined.

Adler eventually found seven more previously unopened scrolls, all of which are believed to have been included in the discoveries in Qumran Cave 4. Phylacteries, also called tefillin in Hebrew, are pairs of leather cases containing biblical passages and traditionally worn by Jews during prayer.


A phylactery case from Cave 5.These newly re-discovered scrolls are among more than two dozen tefillin scroll fragments discovered in the Qumran caves, and among thousands of scrolls and scroll fragments found containing biblical and secular texts.

Due to the scope of the scrolls’ initial discovery, curator and director of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects Pnina Shor told The Huffington Post, it is reasonable to assume these nine “new” finds will not be the last.

“With the progress of research on the one hand and our digitization project on the other we hope ‘new’ finds will keep ‘popping up’,” Shor said. “Since we intend to image and eventually treat and preserve every single fragment/item, we hope to find many more such treasures, that have gone unnoticed and have not been deciphered yet.”

Although no major revelations are anticipated form the new scrolls, some of the tefillin cases from the Qumran caves that have been opened have revealed fascinating insights into Jewish life in that era (roughly the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century AD), Shor told HuffPost.

“These parchment slips, folded and placed in capsules, are understood to be the “frontlets between your eyes.” mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy (6:8). The texts are in principle the same as those required by later Rabbinic Halakha and those in use today. Since these tefillin – phylacteries from the Judean Desert caves are the only examples we have from the Second Temple period, we do not know whether their distinctive features reflect the traditions of a specific community or whether they represent a more widespread tradition. Perhaps these “new” ones will shed more light on this matter.”


A phylactery scroll after it was opened and preserved.Professor Hindy Najman of Yale University also commented to The Times of Israel:

“We have to be prepared for surprises. On the one hand there’s tremendous continuity between what we have found among the Dead Sea Scrolls — liturgically, ritually and textually — and contemporaneous and later forms of Judaism. But there’s also tremendous possibility for variegated practices and a complex constellation of different practices, different influences, different ways of thinking about tefillin.”

Shor will oversee the task of opening and reading these new scrolls, but it will take time and patience, she said. “We need to do a lot of research before we start doing this,” Shor told The Times.

Shor is simultaneously spearheading a project to digitize the entire Dead Sea Scrolls archive for access to a mass audience. She expects IAA to complete the imaging within the next two years, and these nine new scrolls may very well be included in the database


Written by Fr Stephen Smuts

March 19, 2014 at 18:02

How to Make a Mudbrick

with one comment

Via the Biblical Archaeology Society:

The recipe is simple—and the ingredients common: As long as you have access to mud, water and straw (or another type of organic material), you, too, can mimic the manufacturing process used by ancient Egyptians—and Israelite slaves—to make mudbricks.

There is a slide show here too.

So basically, it goes like this:

1. Mix topsoil and water to create a thick mud.
2. Add straw. While the composition of the mud will affect the exact proportions, as a general rule, add a half pound of straw for every cubic foot of mud mixture. If you have access to grain chaff (a byproduct of threshing), you can use that as temper. If not, chop straw into very small pieces—called straw chaff—and use that.
3. Knead the mud mixture with your bare feet for four days.
4. Once it has fermented (after four days of kneading), leave the mixture alone for a few days.
5. Knead the mixture again on the day you plan to form your mudbricks.
6. Pour the mud mixture into molds (the shape of your choosing) and let them solidify in the molds for at least 20 minutes.
7. Remove from molds and deposit on a drying floor layered with sand and straw to prevent the bricks from sticking to the floor itself.
8. Let the bricks dry for a week.

After the bricks have dried, they are ready to be used—whether to build something new or to reconstruct ancient walls!


Written by Fr Stephen Smuts

February 24, 2014 at 22:00

Palestine 1896

with 2 comments


Written by Fr Stephen Smuts

February 24, 2014 at 15:31

Biblical Waters: Can the Jordan River Be Saved?

with 2 comments

Nat Geo has a look.

With the swelling ranks of Syrian refugees in Jordan, an overstressed river is at risk of going dry.

Aerial photo of the Jordan River.

The Jordan River, seen here, is now mostly saline water and liquid wastes.

Rest here.


Written by Fr Stephen Smuts

February 23, 2014 at 13:54

Ancient Papyri Discovered at Luther College

with one comment

And some rare early Christian document are among the finds:

In January, nine papyri documents almost 2,000 years old were discovered by a student in the Luther College library archives, where they had remained hidden in a cardboard box for decades.

Luther sophomore Brittany Anderson was conducting a routine inventory of the papers of the late Orlando W. Qualley, longtime professor of classics and dean of the college, when she came across the nine ancient documents among Qualley’s letters and journals donated to the college in the 1980s. The papyri—one of which, a libellus, is especially rare—date from the first to the fifth centuries A.D. and were apparently purchased by Qualley from an antiquities dealer when he was part of a University of Michigan archaeological excavation at Karanis, south of Cairo, in 1924-25.

“Luther College is incredibly fortunate to have in its possession the Qualley papyri, especially the libellus, a rare and invaluable find from the early centuries of Christian history,” said Philip Freeman, Qualley Chair of Ancient Languages at Luther. “As soon as they are properly preserved, we hope to display all the papyri in our library for everyone to see. They provide a great opportunity for our students to examine a genuine piece of the ancient world.”

The nine papyri, written in ancient Greek, measure from 5 to 20 centimeters in length and are in remarkably good shape, though all are fragmentary and quite fragile. Papyrus was the primary writing medium of the ancient world and was made from the interwoven fibers of the papyrus plant, which grows along the banks of the Nile River.

Upon finding the documents, Anderson contacted the Luther Classics Department faculty, who examined the papyri and in turn contacted the Papyrus Collection staff at the University of Michigan, one of the leading centers of papyrus study in the world, for help in identifying and analyzing the discoveries. Several are accounting documents, but papyrologist Graham Claytor immediately identified one as a libellus dating from the first great Roman persecution of Christians beginning under Emperor Decius in the year 250.

Decius issued a decree that year ordering all inhabitants of the empire to offer a sacrifice to the gods as a show of loyalty. A libellus was a document given to a Roman citizen to confirm the performance of such a sacrifice. Christians were forbidden by their beliefs from performing these sacrifices and were thus subject to arrest, torture and execution for refusing to obey the emperor’s decree. Pope Fabian was among those who refused to sacrifice and was subsequently killed by the Roman authorities.

The Luther College libellus bears the name of Aurelius Ammon, a servant of the well-attested Aurelius Appianus, a leading citizen of Alexandria, Egypt. It declares that Aurelius Ammon has sacrificed “in accordance with the orders” of the emperor. The papyrus was probably part of a collection made in ancient times from the village of Theadelphia in Egypt’s Fayum region. Only a few of these rare documents have been uncovered, and they are currently housed in research libraries in Hamburg, Berlin, Manchester, Florence, and the University of Michigan. Now Decorah, Iowa, joins the list.

Luther College plans to work with the University of Michigan to preserve all the Qualley papyri and make them available online in digital format to scholars and people around the world.


Written by Fr Stephen Smuts

February 23, 2014 at 13:46


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 937 other followers