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Notes from Limmud 2006

The Rediscovery of the City of Yavne

Rabbi Dr Richard Freund

The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE necessitated the need for a second Jerusalem: Yavne, where R. Yoḥanan ben Zakkai went to restore Judaism. Yavne is the most used name for a Jewish day school around the world. But it had never been excavated before 2003. One would have thought it an obvious candidate for excavation! If it is so important, why was it not amongst the high priority places excavated: Hatzor (twice), Caesarea, Bet Shean, Qumran (now excavated fifty times), Jerusalem (two thousand in the past hundred and fifty years?

Generally in archaeology there is a site that you try to identify. When there has been continuous occupation, e.g. Jerusalem, this is easier. But what when there has not been continuous occupation, or continuous Jewish occupation? There is a huge controversy whether Nazareth as a city existed in the first century. But there has been a continuous population living in the area, so we assume the city we today call Nazareth is that known in Biblical times as Nazareth.

It's very difficult to find a city that's fallen off the map and put it back on. Archaeological sites do not come with signposts reading "Welcome to Bethsaida"! [I might write something about Dr Freund's talk on Bethsaida sometime, but as it was on Shabbos I could not take notes.] You have to rely upon general sitings of places. In Israel there was a city called Yavnəel that is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. We're not clear why it's called Yavnəel, but we assume it's connected with Yavne. Its placement is going to be a big deal. (In Roman times it was called Jamnia; this is how it normally appears on maps (including the mosaic map in Madeba—it was an important city in Roman times). [See my simplified map of the area in Roman times.] It might have been a linguistic thing, or a merging of Yavne and "yam". There is a site by the sea called יבנה ים (Yavne Yam); which was the port of Yavne.

The modern city of Yavne is twenty miles south of Tel Aviv. There is a hill where the Antiquities Authority discovered 120 broken clay incense stands, from the Bronze or Iron Age. This led people to assume it was the site of Yavnəel, which was in this area and was a cult centre. So why did Israel's archaeologists not immediately try and establish the site of Yavne? That is the question this talk will address.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the largest religious structure in the Roman world at that time. The eighth wonder of the world was the Temple; why was it not included in the list of the wonders of the ancient world?

When R. Yoḥanan ben Zakkai went to Yavne—a day's walking distance away—why did he choose to go there? The city was given to the daughter of Augustus as a birthday gift from one of the Herodian leaders. Because of this it was a Roman imperial city owned by the crown. So when Vespasian was trying to figure out whether to destroy Jerusalem or not, he camped in Iamnia, partly because it was easy to get out if things went wrong, but partly because it belonged to him. When R. Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, after being smuggled out of the besieged Jerusalem in a coffin, went to him and asked for Yavne, he was asking for it back, as a centre for a controlled Judaism.

The modern city of Yavne was placed, very specifically, around the tell, which is very big: eighty acres, a major park in the centre of the city. So why was it never excavated? It's totally untouched, completely unlike somewhere like Jerusalem, where everything's been reused again and again. There's likely to be pristine layers of the Islamic, Byzantine, Roman, Hellenistic, Persian periods, Iron Age, etc.

One problem with trying to excavate the city of R. Yoḥanan ben Zakkai's time is as follows: He was old when he left Jerusalem; maybe sixty. He was there maybe fifteen or twenty years. Rabban Gamliel took over after him, but within twenty years the entire Sanhedrin moved to Lydda. Trying to find a person or group of buildings that existed for twenty years in a site the size of Yavne is extremely difficult. This is why the excavation was not done: excavating the site would not throw a lot of light on the Yavne of Yoḥanan ben Zakkai's time. It was not cost effective to excavate Yavne.

Dr Freund does non-invasive archaeology: a very effective way of figuring out what's underneath the surface without sticking shovels in and destroying everything else. A major excavation costs $200-$400 000 over five or ten years. By the time you stick a shovel in you'd better know what you're doing. It's better to know what you're doing first.

Gas and oil mining researches invented ways of mapping the subsurface. Dr Freund went to a geology conference on the use of ground-penetrating radar to suss out whether this could be used for archaeological excavation. They there recommended him also Electrical Resistivity Tomography. This is like a large-scale MRI revealing structure down to twenty metres. You shoot electrons into the ground, map what comes back and use GPS to locate where everything is, so you can find everything again.

Why bother going to all this effort? Answer: how do you know where to start on a site? You could waste years excavating a rubble pile! (This is not an idle point: Whenever you start an excavation, you have to decide where to put your rubble pile, effectively writing off a patch of ground—which has a habit of turning out, in the longer run, to be the most important location on the dig!)

Dr Freund had the idea of using this for archaeology in Israel in 1990; the idea was not new, but the technique was not previously used in Israel because the archaeological community do not have the resources for the equipment and constantly updating it. Dr Freund came in from outside, from the University of Hartford. Also, archaeologists do not like this new technique, because they cannot control it: they cannot look at the results themselves and interpret them; they need to get experts to read them for them.

Until 1948, Yavne had five thousand Arabs living on top of the tell, in the old city of Yibna (next to the small thousand-person modern city of Yavne). In 1948 [following invasion of newly-independent Israel by all the surrounding Arab countries, Israeli PM] Ben Gurion said there was no way they were going to have five thousand Arabs sitting there where they could assist an invading Egyptian army. In June 1948 he gave orders to flatten Yibna.

So nowadays there are five thousand flattened houses on the top of the tell (mixed along with Crusader-era debris—and at the highest part of the site there's a thirteenth century Mameluke mosque). Excavating could lead to liability issues; the inhabitants are still alive. So it sits there, because nobody wants to touch it. The advantage of ERT is finding areas of the tell with no modern debris on top. This allows us to find out something about the tell; if there are ancient Jewish relics, it will be designated a national treasure and excavated.

Dr Freund's team decided to scan along the Crusader walls: The Arabs did not build there, because they couldn't move them out of the way. What was scanned appeared on a computer immediately, and was printed out that evening. This only required one week's fieldwork each year! The excavations were started in 2005, and are still ongoing. (The 2006 season was disrupted by the war in Gaza—the parents of the volunteers on the site wanted them out of Israel.)

The mosque present today (mostly, though not wholly, destroyed in 1948) was a big one; it must have been very important for the Mamelukes. It was important in the time of the Crusaders, who tried to defend it, because it was located on the road from Egypt through Ascalon to Jaffa. For them it was an important bishopric. So probably they built a church where the mosque is now, in the same way that synagogues in Spain got turned into mosques and then into churches.

Might this be where the Sanhedrin was located, if it existed there? Note that in the first century it's very rare to find synagogues as buildings in Israel. There's ones at Gamla, Masada, Magdala and Jericho, but that's about it. We have an edifice complex. An idea like the synagogue building was a great idea for the Diaspora in antiquity; but the idea of having a synagogue in Israel in the first century was not a great idea. If people didn't go to the Temple to pray, they davened in private houses—shtieblach.

The Talmud records there were 480 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time of the Destruction of the Temple. Archaeology has uncovered exactly none of them. They're looking for a distinctive building, which does not exist.

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