Has The Acra Been Found?

The answer is definitely maybe. Or maybe not.

The Acra (the word means fortress or citadel) was built in 168BC by Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes following his sack of the city. It’s mentioned in 1 Maccabees and Josephus for its role in the Maccabean Revolt, when it was destroyed by Simon Maccabeus during this struggle. Or maybe not.

There are two stories about its fate. 1 Maccabees 13:52 says that Simon besieged and capture the Acra, then strengthened it and made it his seat. In 1 Maccabees 1:33, we read: “Then they fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel (Greek: “acra”).  And they stationed there a sinful people, lawless men.”

In Book 13 of Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus has another story: “so they all set themselves to the work, and leveled the mountain, and in that work spent both day and night without any intermission, which cost them three whole years before it was removed, and brought to an entire level with the plain of the rest of the city. After which the temple was the highest of all the buildings, now the citadel, as well as the mountain whereon it stood, were demolished.”

So maybe it was dismantled, or maybe it wasn’t, but in any case, various people have thought they found the location over the years. Most recently, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that the decade-long excavations of the Givati parking lot on the City of David hill has uncovered the Acra at last.

The discovery, according to the IAA, includes “a section of a massive wall, a base of a tower of impressive dimensions (width c. 4 m, length c. 20 m) and a glacis.” (A glacis is a defensive embankment piled at the base of a wall.) Also discovered were “lead sling shots, bronze arrowheads and ballista stones … stamped with a trident, which symbolized the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes.

Excavation directors Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, Yana Tchekhanovets and Salome Cohen issued a statement saying "This sensational discovery allows us for the first time to reconstruct the layout of the settlement in the city, on the eve of the Maccabean uprising in 167 BCE. The new archaeological finds indicate the establishment of a well-fortified stronghold that was constructed on the high bedrock cliff overlooking the steep slopes of the City of David hill. This stronghold controlled all means of approach to the Temple atop the Temple Mount, and cut the Temple off from the southern parts of the city. The numerous coins ranging in date from the reign of Antiochus IV to that of Antiochus VII and the large number of wine jars (amphorae) that were imported from the Aegean region to Jerusalem, which were discovered at the site, provide evidence of the citadel's chronology, as well as the non-Jewish identity of its inhabitants."

The evidence is actually pretty persuasive, but we’ve been down this road before. Time will tell if this is the real location.

First Tropical Church Discovered

Diggers from the University of Cambridge are unearthing the earliest Christian Church ever built in the tropics. On the barren Cabo Verde islands, off the West African coast, the Portuguese established a foothold which would, in time, become a hub for the slave trade.

Part of that development involved building the church Nossa Senhora da Conceição around the year 1470, and then expanding and improving it over the years. As many as 1,000 bodies are believed to be buried beneath what was the floor of the church, with about half of them African and the other half European.

The colony was known in some documents for its mixed-race composition and leadership, and the graves will give researchers a chance to test these accounts. One stone identified a slaver known only from documentary evidence: Fernão Fiel de Lugo. The dig is gradually filling in a lost chapter of history.

Hey Dawg, I Hear You Like Mosaics…

…so I put some mosaics under your mosaic visitor center.

The Lod Mosaic is considered one of the most spectacular examples of the form in Israel. Discovered by construction workers in 1996, it dates to the 3rd century AD and covers almost 2,000 square feet. In addition to its exceptional detail and beauty, it’s also known for its strangely perfect state of preservation.

The mosaic was on tour prior to returning home to a new museum being constructed to house it. During construction for the visitor center of the mosaic’s home, another beautiful and well-preserved mosaic was found. Measuring 11x13 meters, it may have been the courtyard mosaic for the magnificent villa that featured the Lod Mosaic in its living room.

According to the IAA, the new mosaic depicts “hunting and hunted animals, fish, flowers in baskets, vases and birds.”

In similar news, another mosaic was uncovered in Turkey. Dating to the 5th or 6th century AD, it’s unusual in its integration of a quote from the Bible. The words of Isaiah 65:25 (“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, the lion will eat straw like the ox and dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord.”) are included along with images of various animals. Turkey is in the midst of excavations at 15 different locations, and they intend to build a new museum that will integrate the mosaic along with the other discoveries.

A Lost Tomb?

The suggestion that Tutankhamun’s tomb conceals the entrance to a hidden tomb—possibly that of his step-mother Nefertiti—has everyone very excited. This week, the story moved to the next level, with analysis of heat scans of the tomb indicating that a void is almost certainly behind a wall. Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damaty places the likelihood of a hidden chamber at 90%.

It will take approximately three months to reach the area. There’s no hurry, and they need to take it slowly. Tut’s tomb started decay the moment it was opened, and scientists want to approach it with utmost care. Even if the space is empty, this is the biggest story in archaeology for years.

If it’s not empty, and if it is Nefertiti in there, it will be the most spectacular discovery in the history of archaeology.

I try to keep this space confined to history and archaeology related to Christianity and the Holy Land, but I think this counts. Aside from the obvious connections between Egypt and Israel there’s the matter of the Amarna Letters. These pre-Biblical texts illustrate communication between Egypt and their representatives in Canaan and Amurru, and are a vital witness to understanding Semitic languages and pre-Israelite culture. Some of the later letters includes communication during the reign of Tutankhamun, indicating that the boy king probably knew of the Holy Land land and its people.

Also, it’s important to me personally: I was 10 years old when I first gazed through glass at the golden face of Tutankhamun, and nothing after that was ever really the same for me. 

New Books

Two new archaeology titles arrived this month:

First up, and in keeping with the last item, we have the new three-volume reissue of Howard Carter’s The Tomb of Tutankhamun published in handsome softcover editions Bloomsbury Revelations. The three books are: Volume 1: Search, Discovery and Clearance of the Antechamber; Volume 2: The Burial Chamber; and Volume 3: The Annexe and Treasury. Volume 1 roughly corresponds to the famous Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun that’s appeared in various editions over the years, albeit with different prefatory material. It stops abruptly at the opening of the sealed doors. The other two volumes have been published in various expensive and hard-to-find editions, but they are completely new to me, and include Carter’s observations on the rest of the tomb.

Recently, I review Medieval People from Thames & Hudson, which uses the oversize coffee table book format to offer succinct biographies of medieval figures. The same publisher also released The Great Archaeologists, edited by one of the best writers on the subject, Brian Fagan. The format follows that used by Medieval People: short biographies enhanced by photos and art. It’s really an excellent job, and shows the kind of personalities who moved this young discipline forward over the years, often by make bold leaps into uncharted territory to find amazing things. These are the real Indiana Jones, and although a few are almost as colorful as the character, most are simply dogged men dedicated to pushing back the darkness to reveal the past. Several of them filled in gaps in our knowledge about the Holy Land and the surrounding civilizations. It’s a fascinating read that brings the thrill of discovery to life.