Breaking News from the IAA Press Release August 5, 2015

A Mystery in Jerusalem: a Rare Ancient Message, Encoded in Symbols and Inscriptions, was Discovered in a Ritual Bath Dating to the Second Temple Period

IAA: Wednesday, July 29, 2015
(note: Richard Freund and Harry Jol have been doing ground penetrating radar work with FS for many years)

Remains of the Great Synagogue
and Shulhof of Vilna Rediscovered

Seventy Years after their Destruction by the Nazis
The remains, identified in a Ground Penetrating Radar survey, will be uncovered in an archaeological excavation and displayed as part of a memorial for the magnificent Jewish community of Vilna
A Ground Penetrating Radar survey conducted in June 2015 in Vilnius, Lithuania has uncovered the underground remains of the Great Synagogue and Shulhof of Vilna, now lying partially below a modern school. These important remnants of what was before the Holocaust, Lithuania's greatest synagogue, will be exposed in an excavation to commence next year.
The magnificent Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania, was the oldest and most significant monument of Litvak Jewry. Sadly, like most of the edifices of Jewish culture in Lithuania, the Great Synagogue was lost during the Holocaust. A joint team, led by Dr. Jon Seligman from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Zenonas Baubonis of the the Culture Heritage Conservation Authority of Lithuania, together with Prof. Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, have just completed a successful season to identify the remains of the synagogue using ground penetrating radar.
Built in the 17th century in Renaissance-Baroque style, the Great Synagogue of Vilna was surrounded over time with other community buildings, including twelve synagogues, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the famous Strashun library, a complex of miqva'ot (ritual baths) and other communal institutions that formed a great centre of Torah study, the beating heart of the Lithuanian Jewish movement of Mitnagdim and the home for Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon.
After centuries of existence, with the destruction of the entire Jewish community of Vilna, this most important shrine of the Jews of Lithuania was ransacked and burnt by the Germans during World War II, the remains later demolished by the Soviet authorities and a modern school was constructed on the site.
In a season of work, conducted in June 2015, the results of the ground penetrating radar survey showed significant remains of the synagogue below the surface, including sections of the Great Syanagogue and possible remnants of the miqva'ot. Excavation is planned at the site in 2016 with the hope of exposing these remains for research and to display to them to the- general public as a fitting memorial to the important Jewish community of Vilna.
It is proposed that the future excavation will be conducted by a mixed team of archaeologists and student volunteers from Lithuania, Israel and the worldwide Jewish community, with the aim of ensuring that Jewish built cultural heritage is seen as an important and inseparable part of Lithuanian heritage that needs to be celebrated by all and preserved for perpetuity. The Israel Antiquities Authority encourages the public to take part in future excavations at the site and welcomes sponsorship of this exciting project to uncover the remians of the Great Synagogue of Vilna. Anybody wishing to take part can contact the Israel Antiquities Authority through its website.
A joint team also includes Professor Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Professor Philip Reeder of Duquesne University and Dr. Vladimir Levin of the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem have just completed a successful season to identify the remains of the synagogue using ground penetrating radar.

Click here to download pictures and movies:
1. Prof. Harry Jol & Nicole Awad conducting a Ground Penetrating Radar survey at the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania. Photographic Credit: Jon Seligman, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
2. The Ground Penetrating Radar scan shows an anomaly there is most probably the Miqve (ritual bath) of the Great Synagogue of Vilna (4-3 - Hebrew explanations) 5. The explanatory video of the project, with the participation of Dr. Jon Seligman and Prof. Richard Freund. Photography: Joan Silber 6.Video of the Ground Penetrating Radar suevery at the Great Synagogue of Vilna. Photography: Joan Silber 7. An interview with Dr. Jon Seligman. Photography: Joan Silber
For more information please contact : Yoli Shwartz – spokesperson of the Israel Antiquities Authority, 052-5991888
From Ashes to Light
text, photos and video by David Willner for Foundation Stone
July/A 2015/5775

Penina Shor, curator and director of IAA’s Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center Project,
Sefi (Yoseph) Porath, archaeologist of Ein Gedi (1970),
and David Merkel of Merkel Technologies Company, Ltd. Israel at the press conference July 20, 2015

Every so often I get an email from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) inviting me to a press conference. For the last year or so, I’ve started becoming somewhat suspicious. The timing of late has always been too good to be true. In fact, the releases are timed to coincide with the holidays - ensuring that the “timely” nature of the scoop will reach interested ears.

The latest invite came with absolutely no details as to the nature of the find. There was a tease at the end that the find in some way related to the upcoming day of Tisha b’Av - the 9th day of the month of Av.
Intrigued, I decided to take a chance that this would turn into a worthwhile story and that the IAA wasn’t merely trying to spice up a slow news day (as if there is such a thing in our neck of the woods and in this day and age).

I need not have worried. I made the 20 minute drive from Efrat to the Israel Museum - enjoying the ease of the recently extended highway 60, and made my way to the small room that had been setup for the press conference. As we sat waiting for the proceedings to begin, I noted that they had setup a Skype connection with Prof. Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky. Prof. Seales is in charge of the Centre for Visualisation and Virtual Environments and has pioneered digital imaging software that allows for the virtual unrolling of burned scrolls and imaging of the burnt text. Back in 2010
LandMinds interviewed Matt Field from their department - you can listen to that interview here. Part I | Part II

So here’s the skinny. Back in 1970 Sefi (Joseph) Porath was excavating the ancient synagogue (7th century CE) in Ein Gedi. Inside the Ark that housed the Torah scrolls, he found a fair amount of ashes - apparently from scrolls that had been housed in the Ark. Dutifully, he carefully collected the carbonised material and safely stored it away. Some attempts were made to try and read the burnt material - but it was too badly damaged and nothing could be gleaned. And that’s how it remained for the next 45 years.

In the intervening decades, technology has grown by leaps and bounds. What was unimaginable back in 1970 is not just possible today - it just required the right minds and enough imagination.

About a year ago, David Merkel - head of Merkel Technologies Company Ltd. Israel - offered their professional assistance in performing high resolution 3D scanning of some Dead Sea Scrolls fragments and
Tefillin boxes - with scrolls packed neatly inside. Merkel suggested using a Micro-CT scanner.

That same process was then used on the burnt scrolls rescued from the excavation in Ein Gedi nearly half a century ago.

The results were dazzling. Eight lines from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) could now be read. For Prof. Seales and his team at the University of Kentucky this was the most important test and project that the team has worked on. His excitement was palpable across the Skype feed.

And for Sefi - it is an astonishing epilogue to a rich and prolific career in archaeology. Here’s what Yigael Yadin said about Sefi back in 1956,

“Then, a few minutes later, Sefi (Yoseph Porath), a young volunteer from Kfar Vitkin who, as far as I knew, belonged to the group examining the crevice of the letters, rushed up to me panting and pale. ‘I have found something important!’ he cried. ‘A basket filled with objects and nearby, all sorts of things.’ Sefi was a restive fellow who was always on the go, inquisitive, curious about what was happening at other places. To him the grass elsewhere always looked greener. As soon as he saw the newly transferred group - just then moved by me to examine the crevice in the third hall - he went to ‘visit’ them and see what they were doing. ‘And’, he continued to tell me, ‘just a few moments before I reached them I trod on a stone which wobbled suspiciously. So I removed it and under it I I saw this crevice full of finds.’ (Bar Kokhba, by Yigael Yadin, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971 p.143).

“Soon after the beginning of this new work method, not far away from the crevice of the letters, under a few medium-sized stones and within a rather thick layer of bats’ dung - two iron knives were found lying on top of each other and nearby two spindle whorls. Close by these, Sefi found a coin lying on one of the stones and it was easy to read its inscription: on one side ‘Shimeon’ near the depiction of a palm tree, and on the other side ‘of the freedom of Jerusalem’ near a vine leaf. This fellow Sefi, who also found the big cache, had sharp eyes indeed!” (Bar Kokhba, by Yigael Yadin, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971 p.194).

Sefi started out as a volunteer in the ’50’s working under Yigael Yadin - Israel’s preeminent archaeologist. By 1970 he was working (together with Prof. D. Barag) overseeing the excavation at Ein Gedi. Today, he is a living link to the past, a treasured senior archaeologist in the present, and thanks to his work - a key link to the future. Today, many of the finds from the Bar Kochba dig can be seen in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

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The Vayikra (Leviticus) Scroll

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At the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Lab

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Rescued Ashes

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What Secrets Lie Waiting?

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David Merkel, Penina Shor, and Sefi Proath

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David Merkel, Penina Shor, and Sefi Proath

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From Ashes to Light
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Some of the finds made by Sefi (Yoseph) Porath in 1956 - part of the Babata trove
now on display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
A tunic and two sandals are pictured above.

Drone Adventures in Herodion
by David Willner for Foundation Stone
photos and video footage by Jim Long
March/Nisan 2015/5775

So... I had the pleasure of escorting Jim Long to Herodion for the first time. We were welcomed by archaeologist Roi Porat, who gave us the historical background of the site, and showed us some of the most recent finds. We also took advantage of a gorgeous spring day in Judaea - and with the permission and encouragement of the archaeologist got the drone in the air for some photographs of the monumental staircase/arched colonnade that led from the lower site up to the palace at the apex of the mountain...

I decided to run a test flight inside the palace at the top of the hill. My goal had been to get some good aerial footage - more or less shielded from the wind, inside the compound. The test flight was pretty much uneventful - a light breeze was giving the drone a small push, but overall the control was within acceptable parameters. The clouds, and morning shadows were just right to see the on-screen controls. After a very short flight, Roi asked if I could get some stills and video over the current excavation area. I was a little concerned about taking the drone up to the top. The winds at Herodion can be quite gusty at times, but the test flight had been fine, so I decided to chance it...

Under the partly cloudy sky at Herodion we got the drone into the air. The video on the camera was fairly good - minor turbulence made for a slightly bumpy ride. You can check out the video below.

Roi asked me if I could get some footage from the bridge at the top of the site. We stood on the bridge and I was concerned that because the winds were a bit stronger on top, landing would be too tricky on the narrow bridge. I moved off to the cleared area next to the model of the site. It was only a few feet from the bridge, and it meant that I could land it without hitting the rails of the bridge. I got the critter up in the air, but the winds were whipping around the sides of the tower, and the eastern side, and try as I might, I couldn't position the drone over the excavation area. Close - but no cigar. I suspect that there was an updraft shooting thru the excavation area that the drone did not have enough mass to push through. I pulled it back a few feet and elevated to try and position from a slightly different angle. And that's when G-d, nature, and the AR Drone decided on a different course entirely...

In the pix below you can see the bridge area, the open area nearby - and the last picture where we're trying to pinpoint the drone's flight path. It all started out so promising. Gorgeous day, fantastic setting, rich in history - my kind of site - in a big way. As the drone hovered in the sky nearby, I manoeuvred myself into what I hoped was a better position to overfly the excavation area. As I did, the wind picked up took the drone - like a bat out of hell - north over PA territory. I hit the "home" button repeatedly but the air currents that it was caught in were too strong - and soon, it was 2 or 3 kilometres (as the crow flies) distant and out of wifi range. It all happened so fast. By the time it had shrunk beyond visibility, it was too late to even determine where it eventually went down. Roi brought over one of the Arab workers - Sa'id - and they determined that Sa'id would go into the village and offer a reward for finding it. Yaacov - one of the other archaeologists working the site was concerned about offering a reward for "doing the right thing." I guess there's still a chance that we'll be able to recover it. It's likely stuck in a tree, or on a roof - or maybe even crashed before it could land itself. Anyway you look at it - it was a great learning experience and a valuable tool. Our donor who made it possible literally elevated Foundation Stone's capabilities for the year and a half we had it. We had already begun exploring more serious drone models and camera configurations that have more rigorous specs. There's no question that for field work this is the wave of the present. Now we'll see if there's another kind hearted supporter with the vision to take this to the next level. For about $1500 we'll be flying again before you know it! It's spring time in the Land of Israel - and the possibilities are endless... Chag Sameach!
Torah & Archaeology week coming to Atlanta, GA - November 2015! Stay Tuned!