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Capturing the Voices of the Past


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Prof. Steve Weiner and a new crop of archaeologists

Making the past come alive is a difficult task, requiring both a keen understanding of human culture and history as well as sophisticated analytical tools. A new program at the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute of Science aims to tackle this challenge by educating a new type of archaeologist with a strong background in both archaeology and the sciences. It is among the first programs of its kind, and its prospects, in a region where such crucial developments as the emergence of villages and the development of agriculture first took place, are exciting.
“Archaeology has traditionally been confined to the humanities,” says program head Prof. Steve Weiner. “We integrate archaeological training with scientific know-how.” The program’s participants come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are described here. 

DNA: A connecting thread to our past

Rivka Elbaum, doctoral student.

For tens of thousands of years humans were nomads, subsisting on wild plants and animals wher-ever they could be found. That epoch ended around 10,000 years ago in one of the greatest revolutions effected by humankind: the agricultural revolution. At that time humans made a significant stride toward controlling their own destiny by learning how to grow plants and domesticate animals. By offering a relatively reliable source of food, the agricultural revolution thus made possible towns, cities and civilization as we know it.
While earning an M.Sc. in materials science at the Weizmann Institute, Rivka became interested in this period when she happened to take a course given by Weiner. Her research today seeks to determine the imprints left on the DNA of plants as a result of their domestication in the agricultural revolution. She has analyzed olives discovered by archaeologist Ehud Galili of the Israel Antiquities Authority off the coast of Haifa, where a village of 6,500 years lies buried under the sea. Archaeologists suspect that this is the oldest explored site in which there was massive use of olives for oil. Rivka hopes to provide insight into whether the olives are wild or domesticated. She was able to detect the DNA of those ancient olives, strengthening hopes that DNA might one day prove a viable tool for studying the agricultural revolution.

Ancient tools

Dvory Namdar, doctoral student.

Science came to Dvory as a welcome surprise. She was a lawyer who had just completed a B.A. in archaeology at Tel-Aviv University, and knew what the subject of her master’s thesis would be: a spectacular find in a place called Givat HaOranim, near Ben Gurion Airport. A trove of beautifully decorated copper tools had been found there, dating back to the end of the prehistoric age (around 4000 B.C.). To examine how the tools were made, she consulted Dr. Sariel Shalev, a metallurgist working at Haifa University and Weizmann, and in time became captivated by science and decided to join the new program. Today she is using highly sophisticated methods to determine the contents of vessels found at archaeological sites. “If someone says ‘this vessel was used for wine’ I say ‘let’s prove it’,”  says Dvory. Her supervisors, in addition to Weiner, are Prof. Ronny Neumann of  the Weizmann Institute and Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University. Dvory has only just begun her Ph.D. studies – a little over a year ago she was working as a lawyer while trying simultaneously to write her master’s thesis.


Ruth Shahack-Gross, postdoctoral fellow.

Ruth’s research has lent her a unique expertise: Going back thousands of years, she can tell you, using soil samples, whether cattle, sheep or goats were once kept in a specific area. The first student in the program, she joined in 1998, after finishing an M.Sc. in geology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a second master’s in archaeology, at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. It was there she became interested in ethno-archaeology.
“Ethno-archaeology is an effort to understand the past by looking at the present,” says Ruth. She traveled to Kenya and sampled soils from functioning Maasai settlements as well as abandoned ones, observing how materials produced by people and animals accumulate in the existing settlements and degrade in the abandoned ones. Thus she was able to better understand how herding sites are formed and change over time. Now she wants to apply the ethno-archaeological approach to sites in Israel, to understand how the many mound settlements (tel in Hebrew), containing a wealth of archaeological information, developed. The idea is to find clues to the origin of these mounds by examining how traditional cultures live today in other Mediterranean countries.


Ilit Cohen-Ofri, doctoral student.

Ilit earned an M.Sc. in chemistry at the Technion and then went to work for a large pharmaceutical company. When she heard of the archaeological sciences program, she immediately applied. “I have always loved archaeology – even as a child,” she says. Today she is studying the early use of fire by analyzing both present-day charcoal and charcoal found at archaeological sites.
Surprisingly little is known about the structure of charcoal formed in campfires. By comparing modern and ancient bits of charcoal found in the Kebara Cave on Mt. Carmel, Ilit hopes to understand how charcoal degrades over time. This may help in distinguishing between charcoal resulting from man-made fires (such as campfires) and natural fires (such as forest fires). Since charcoal is the most commonly used material for radiocarbon dating, her research has already contributed to a better understanding of this important aspect of archaeological research.
Prof. Steve Weiner is the incumbent of the Dr. Walter and Dr. Trude Borchardt Professorial Chair in Structural Biology. His research is supported by the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science; the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation; George Schwartzman, Sarasota, FL; the Women’s Health Research Center and Yad Hanadiv.

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