Archive for April 13th, 2014

In the Valley of Elah

April 13th, 2014

Valley of Elah from Tel Azeka 041314MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–Simon Schama begins his magnificent series The Story of the Jews at an archaeological site near the Valley of Elah called Khirbet Qeiyafa. He said that the first physical evidence for the existence of the Jewish people was not the Exodus from Egypt (for which there is not a trace) but the structures on a hill visible across the valley above. I mentioned to Yoav Avni that I’d love to see the place on our return from a set of Jerusalem meetings we had this morning. He not only said it would work, he arranged for his brother Gideon Avni, a well-known archaeologist and Head of the Archaeological Division of the Israel Antiquities Authority, to meet us there for a guided tour. How very cool is that?

You may have heard of the Valley of Elah before. It’s the Biblical location where David met and slew Goliath. (It’s always “slew”, isn’t it?) Historically the valley is a route from the coastal plains into the Judean Mountains, and thus a place of conflict between plains dwellers and mountain tribes.

Khirbet Qeiyafa city wall 041314This is a view of the exterior city wall near the first gate of Khirbet Qeiyafa. Most of this wall was underground until excavation began in 2007 by the archaeologists Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. This is remarkably late for such an important site to be discovered. The location is N 31.69658°, E 34.95667°.

Khirbet Qeiyafa first gate 041314The first gate into the city. It has a three-part structure characteristic of Iron Age structures.

Khirbet Qeiyafa double wall 041314The walls of the city are double, with narrow rooms inside for the non-claustrophobic. To the left are remaining walls of dwelling and cooking spaces.

Khirbet Qeiyafa view of Tel  Azeka 041314At the top of this view you see Tel Azeka across the valley, a wall in the middle view, and the Iron Age structures below. The main wall here was built later on top of the ancient city walls, probably as a sheep pen of some kind. Note the plastered walls in the room below.

Khirbet Qeiyafa second gate 041314The second gate on the opposite side of the city from the first.

Khirbet Qeiyafa cave 041314There is a cave near the middle of the city, so of course we had to go in.

Khirbet Qeiyafa cave interior 041314Yoav in the cave interior, lit by the camera flash. This cave is not completely excavated, so it is unclear how much was natural and how much dug by people and for what purpose.

Khirbet Qeiyafa Gideon Yoav 041314Gideon Avni on the left and his brother Yoav. World-class discussions between them on archaeological interpretations and the geological context of this settlement. Thank you very much to both of them for this experience. If you want to learn much more about Khirbet Qeiyafa, please visit the official archaeological website.

Yoav and I also visited Tel Azeka across the valley at N 31.69982°, E 34.93578° (see below). It has a much longer history than Khirbet Qeiyafa, with several Biblical references.

Tel Azeka 041314The tell is about 20 meters or so above the natural top of the hill.

Tel Azeka excavation 041314It has excavations in several places exposing its complex stratigraphy. This appears to be an Iron Age dwelling place.

Tel Azeka cave 041314Tel Azeka, or more properly the rocks below it, have a famous series of caves and tunnels dug through the soft chalk. Here Yoav is in a cavern he likely played in as a boy. Most of the tunnels are very narrow, the kind you can imagine a young Yoav wriggling through.

Tel Azeka caveern 041314The caves themselves have a long history of occupation, most famously by fugitives from the Romans during the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

What a great day we had in the valley of David and Goliath!

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: An unusual scleractinian coral from the Upper Cretaceous of Israel

April 13th, 2014

Aspidiscus 041114aOriginally this was going to be a mystery fossil for a crowd-sourced identification while I’m here in Israel doing fieldwork, but through the wonders of the internet I finally found a match for the strange fossil above: it is the scleractinian coral Aspidiscus König, 1825 (Family Latomeandridae) Yoav Avni and I found several specimens in the lower third of the En Yorqe’am Formation (Upper Cretaceous, Cenomanian) in the Negev of southern Israel. I had never seen anything like it before.

The view above is of the upper surface of this discoidal fossil. There are several short and seemingly random ridges, which I learned later are called monticules in this genus. Each monticule has a series of septa, or thin vertical partitions. This was a compound coral, meaning it had multiple polyps on its surface, presumably each sitting on a monticule.
Aspidiscus 041114bThis is a reverse view of the En Yorqe’am variety of Aspidiscus. The pits appear to be molds of a gastropod on which the young coral must have recruited. It then grew centripetally, making a fine series of growth lines across a soft sediment.
Aspidiscus cristatus diagramThis diagram from Pandey et al. (2011) is a diagram of Aspidiscus cristatus found in the Cenomanian of Sinai, not too far from here. (This species is also found in Algeria, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, and Afghanistan — all in the Cenomanian.) Note that the center of A. cristatus has two large crossing monticules and the Israeli specimen does not. This is why I’m keeping it in open nomenclature — it doesn’t appear to be the same species. A. cristatus is found in the middle to early late Cenomanian; the En Yorqe’am specimen seems so far to be only in the early Cenomanian. This may mean the Israeli version is an older species. Both clearly liked living in marly shallow marine sediments.
Aspidiscus symbiontsHere’s the bonus: look at the round holes in the upper surfaces of these two specimens. These are caused by symbionts of some kind that lived within the growing coral. You can see best in the specimen on the right how the coral grew around the symbionts, producing a kind of tube. Nice.

Sorry for the lower quality of images this week. I’m photographing the fossils as best I can with a bedside lamp, a tiny tripod, and a shirt for background.


Avnimelech, M. 1947. A new species of Aspidiscus from the Middle Cretaceous of Sinai and remarks on this genus in general. Eclogae geologicae Helvetiae 40: 294-298.

Gill, G.A. and Lafuste, J.G. 1987. Structure, repartition et signification paleogeographique d’Aspidiscus, hexacoralliaire cenomanien de la Tethys. Bulletin de la Societe Geologique de France 3: 921-934.

Pandey, D.K., Fürsich, F.T., Gameil, M. and Ayoub-Hannaa, W.S. 2011. Aspidiscus cristatus (Lamarck) from the Cenomanian sediments of Wadi Quseib, east Sinai, Egypt. Journal of the Paleontological Society of India 56: 29-37.