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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


A colorful, interesting, but much too little-known magazine in the newsstand is Archaeological Diggings, a bimonthly from Australia that reports on recent archaeological finds in the Middle East.

We've been looking through the new January/February issue, which carries well-illustrated accounts of digs from across that region, as well as descriptions of relevant museum exhibitions from around the world.

In the latter category is a report from an exhibition of Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre now open in Canberra, Australia. Assistant editor Marie Carter fills the reader in on a lot of the history of the artifacts on display.

For instance, we learn that some of the rituals of the Egyptians―they were into ritual as much as we are―turned a bit empty over time. When an Egyptian of note was buried, his embalmed corpse was initially accompanied by canopic jars, filled with the deceased's also embalmed lungs, liver, stomach and intestines. For some reason, later on in Egyptian history the viscera were returned to the body before burial. But the canopic jars remained part of the ritual, and continued to be interred with the deceased, even though they were now made of solid wood! The magazine shows some of these gorgeously painted "dummy" canopic jars from the Louvre.

There's a report from the magazine's Jerusalem correspondent, Daniel Herman, about an ongoing excavation at Ramat Rachel, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and in the vicinity of the Biblical tomb of Rachel. It's an Iron Age palatial complex first discovered by Dr. Y. Aharoni in 1954. Recent work at the site has uncovered a Persian-style garden, and the archaeologist now running the site has issued an international call for volunteers during the summer of 2007.

Herman adds a bit of color to the story, or, in the current archaeological vernacular, "dishes some dirt." Dr. Aharoni engaged in a long and vociferous dispute with another leading Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, about the dating of the site. They were a couple of hundred years apart in their estimates. Ramat Rachel was just one of many arguments between the two, who "were known for being in perpetual academic rivalry." Herman puts a nice coda on the story: "After Aharoni passed away Yadin turned to politics and became a member of parliament and head of a political party. The rumor was that he did so because with the death of Aharoni, Yadin had no one to fight with in academia."

A story from Cairo describes a recent project in Alexandria that involved drilling a core out of the mud in the sea bottom. The core contained a lot of sea shells, which were analyzed for carbon-dating purposes as well as for lead content. The lead content of the shells was high for Egypt's Old Kingdom period, for the years from 1000 to 800 BC, and again about 300 BC, when Alexander the Great founded his city there. The theory is that the lead originated in the weights used by fishermen as well as in onshore building projects, and that lead content of sea shells is a good index to the economic life of the area over time.

The issue contains the bittersweet story of early 19th century German-born explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt, who loved to roam a very dangerous Middle East. In 1812, dressed as a local, he traveled overland from Damascus to Egypt. The high point of his life was the one day in August, 1812 that he spent in the fabulous lost city of Petra, carved out of rocky cliffs near the Dead Sea in present-day Jordan. He was the first modern European to see the city. His guide, fearing that Burkhardt would be identified as an infidel and killed, urged him to leave. He did, but continued his eccentric explorations and journal-keeping, treasured today by historians. He died in Cairo in 1817 at age 33 of dysentery. The article is illustrated with several breathtaking photos from Petra.

Archaeological Diggings editor David Down contributes an entertaining review of the book Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons by Konstantin Nossov. Battering rams, catapults and siege towers were part of a fascinating arms race in the ancient world. For instance, when one side used elephants to attack a walled city, the ingenious defenders tied a piglet to a rope and lowered it down over the wall. The squeals from the piglet spooked the elephants, who turned on their masters and stampeded.

My favorite story is how King Cyrus of Persia solved the problem of javelins and arrows frightening his bullocks while they were pulling a siege tower on a rope toward a city's wall. He had pulleys staked into the ground along the wall, so the bullocks could happily pull away from the wall while the siege tower went in the opposite direction!

Archaeological Diggings is distributed in the United States by the Review and Herald Publishing Co. in Hagerstown, Maryland. An annual subscription (six issues) from them is $19.90. We'll send you a sample copy for $2.59.

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