Bed and Blessing: Date of Ancient Religious "Stopover" Confirmed


The date of an ancient site that may have provided travelers with religious services "for the road" has now been confirmed by radiocarbon dating at the Weizmann Institute. The site, just west of the Israeli-Egyptian border, has intrigued researchers both because of its location and because it contains a unique assortment of ancient drawings and inscriptions.

The dating was performed by Israel Carmi, head of the radiocarbon dating lab at the Institute, and Dror Segal of the Israel Antiquities Authority. It supports the work of Dr. Zeev Meshel of Tel Aviv University, who carried out excavations at the site. A report on their findings appears in the current issue of Radiocarbon.

The radiocarbon dating lab at the Weizmann Institute, which is run jointly with the Israel Antiquities Authority and is the only such facility in Israel, has helped to clarify numerous historical puzzles. It showed, for example, that the so-called "Jesus boat," found in the Sea of Galilee, indeed dated back to the time of Jesus, and provided evidence that 25 skeletons discovered at Masada belonged to the Jewish defenders of this fortress.

The present study focused on a site named Horvat Teman in Hebrew or Kuntillet Ajrud in Arabic, located in northern Sinai, 15 km west of the Israeli-Egyptian border. It is situated in the broad bed of Wadi Quraya, near a widely-traveled, strategically important ancient route leading to Eilat.

The lab at the Weizmann Institute established that tamarisk wood taken from support beams used in one of two buildings found at the site dated back to between 830 and 760 BCE. These dates coincide precisely with archaeological estimates of Dr. Meshel, according to which Horvat Teman was established by the kingdom of Israel during or shortly after its conflict with the rival kingdom of Judea over shipping rights in the Red Sea.

Despite its strategic location, the main function of the site, according to Meshel, was religious rather than geopolitical. Archaeological findings indicate that it served as a wayside stopover and shrine run by a small group of priests, who subsisted on travelers' donations given in exchange for blessings and benedictions.

For example, several bowls bear the names of their donors, and ancient Hebrew inscriptions on pottery and wall plaster refer to an interesting combination of deities: "YHWH" (the Biblical name for God) "and his Asherah" (the name of the Phoenician goddess).

Radiocarbon dating determines the age of organic or carbon- containing material -- such as wood, charcoal and fabric -- by measuring the amount of radiation emanating from the carbon-14 isotope. Since this isotope decays at a uniform rate and its radiation decreases accordingly, these measurements make it possible to calculate the age of archaeological finds or geological formations: the less carbon-14, the older the sample. The method can pinpoint a date with an accuracy of 40 years in either direction, depending on the age of the artifact.

Carmi is a member of the Weizmann Institute's Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research, Meshel is on the staff of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology, and Segal is a member of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Interdisciplinary Research Division.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.

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