The eight-day Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) holiday, which begins on Wednesday evening, commemorates the Israelites’ 40-year trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. As God commands (Lev. 23:42-43):
Ye shall dwell in booths seven days….
That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt….
Today, many generations later, sukkot—makeshift, decorated huts—sprout all over Israel for the holiday, recalling the ancient Israelites’ rude, temporary dwellings in the desert.
But Sukkot is also an autumn harvest festival, and very much tied to the Land of Israel itself. It occurs in early fall, a wonderfully warm-cool time of year with clear nights, perfect for gazing up at the stars through the thatched roof of a sukkah.
Sukkot is, then, a good occasion to look back at some of the archaeological finds from the Land of Israel over the past year (on the Jewish calendar, running from September to September). I’ve only chosen some of the most striking, since in any given year there is intensive archaeological activity throughout the land and numerous finds. These discoveries link the ancient past to the present and reinforce Israelis’ rootedness in an archetypal landscape.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mR2W43t6tI
Last May Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukrun made waves in the archaeological world when he said he had found the Citadel of David in the Old City of Jerusalem. That is, the citadel that the Bible says King David wrested from the Jebusites three thousand years ago (2 Samuel 5:7):
…David took the strong hold of Zion: the same is the city of David.
It was this conquest that enabled David to start turning Jerusalem into what it became: the focal point of the Jewish nation for all time.
What Shukrun actually found is a giant fortification dating back 3800 years. He says it’s the only structure that could possibly have served the Jebusites as their citadel. He also points to some specific evidence: the Bible (2 Samuel 5:8) speaks of a “gutter” or “shaft” through which the Israelite warriors had to enter the Jebusite city, and Shukrun’s excavation uncovered a water shaft that fits the account.
The AP report from last May notes that Shukrun’s colleague, the archaeologist Ronny Reich, thinks Shukrun doesn’t have enough evidence to identify the structure definitively with David’s Citadel.
Shukrun, for his part, says:
The whole site we can compare to the Bible perfectly…. I know every little thing in the City of David. I didn’t see in any other place such a huge fortification as this.
The Canaanites, an ancient pagan people, get a lot of mention in the Bible. The Bible sometimes uses “Land of Canaan” as an alternate term for “Land of Israel.” A classic Israeli song dating back to the 1920s is called “How Beautiful Are the Nights in Canaan.”
Last November it was reported that a team of two American archaeologists and an Israeli archaeologist had found a 3700-year-old Canaanite wine cellar in western Galilee. The wine cellar was part of a palace, and it held 40 ceramic jars with a capacity of about 13 gallons each.
The Israeli archaeologist on the case, Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, called it a
most unusual find…. You do not usually find palaces, not to mention palaces that are as early as that, [with] rooms that are filled with very, very large ceramic storage jars.
The region of western Galilee where the palace is located was known in ancient times for its vineyards. The same holds true today; nearby Kibbutz Gesher Haziv is known for its vineyard and boutique winery.
To make the past come even more vividly to life, Yasur-Landau says the archaeologists are now looking for a winery to help them reconstruct the almost four-millennia-old Canaanite wine—based on scientific analysis of traces found in the jars.
The Second Temple of the Jews, which stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Since then what has remained of the Temple compound is the Western Wall, part of the wall that surrounded it. It’s an imposing structure with immense stones, clumps of vegetation growing from their fissures, and fervent worshippers thronging it.
Last April, not long before announcing the discovery of the Citadel of David, archaeologist Eli Shukrun announced having found something much smaller but also of great historical resonance: a chisel used to build the Western Wall.
The chisel is about six inches long, and Shukrun—who with his colleagues has also found a Roman sword, cooking vessels, and other remnants from the era—believes that a construction worker, high on a scaffold at the upper level of the Wall, dropped it into the dust far below. Either because the worker couldn’t find it or didn’t bother to try, the chisel then lay there in the dust for two thousand years.
As Shukrun told Haaretz:
People pray and kiss these holy stones every day, but somebody carved them, somebody chiseled them, somebody positioned them. They were workers, human beings, who had tools. Today for the first time we can touch a chisel that belonged to one of them.
Perhaps the most dramatic Israeli archaeological site of all is Masada, the ruins of a two-thousand-year-old fortress that towers above the Dead Sea. During the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) a group of hard-line Jewish guerrillas called the Sicarii took refuge at Masada with their families, numbering 960 people altogether. In 73, as a Roman legion surrounded Masada and built a siege ramp, the Jews up on the plateau committed mass suicide.
Understandably, then, the dramatic death of the Sicarii and their families has commanded the greatest interest. In 1969 the state of Israel gave a full military funeral to twenty-eight skeletons excavated at Masada.
Last November, though, the Jewish Daily Forward reported on Israeli archaeologist Dr. Guy Stiebel of Tel Aviv University, who has been excavating and researching Masada for almost 20 years. Stiebel’s focus is not on how the rebels died, but on how they lived during their years up on the plateau.
His latest find: a two-thousand-year-old lice comb that looks like an ordinary one but is made of wood rather than metal.
Another recent find is a shard of a clay pitcher with its owner’s name, Shimon Bar-Yoezer, inscribed on it in Hebrew.
As Stiebel told the Forward:
Seeing these Hebrew words pop out of the earth, words that my own children can read, that’s the most exciting thing in all of this for me….
For me it’s the little things, like the child’s toy we found, the Roman soldier’s wage slip, the seal used by the baker to mark his loaves—these are the things that make this place so alive for me.
There is nothing else like it: a people reconstituting a state after so much time and reconnecting not only with legends about their ancestors but also with the fine specificities of how they lived.
At Sukkot, meant to be a joyous holiday, it’s something to inspire a good mood.
image illustration via shutterstock / kavram