The dream machine that helps uncover Israel's buried past

One of Israel's leading science centres, the Weizmann Institute, has become expert in archaeological dating


Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev is a popular place of pilgrimage. It is here that Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion is buried, having chosen to spend his twilight years in the puritan wilderness rather than the fleshpots of the metropolis.

We have come on a history trail, but stretching back far beyond modern Israel, far beyond Jews, Israelites or the land of Canaan. Before we reach the kibbutz, we turn off, past the unperturbed ibex nibbling on the rocks, and descend into the wadi below.

Our destination, along the bank of an ancient riverbed, is Boker Tachtit, an prehistoric site where you can see flints exposed in the sediments  – tools left by its inhabitants from tens of thousands of years ago. My guide, Elisabetta Boaretto, Dangoor Professor of Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute, takes me to another site a few hundred metres away, where she points to a layer of charcoal in the yellow rock – like chocolate filling in a wafer biscuit – the remnant of a prehistoric fireplace.

What has brought the scientists here is the search for evidence of the first modern humans, homo sapiens, who emerged out of Africa some 50,000 years ago.

“We are in the corridor between Africa, Asia and Europe,” Professor Boaretto says. “Most probably the ancient humans passed through this region and left their sign in different sites.”

While scientific research can open a path to the future, it can help to shape our understanding of the past.  Weizmann has become a leader in the field, thanks in particular to D-REAMS, that is the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometer, named after one of its sponsors, the late Anglo-Jewish philanthropist, Sir Naim Dangoor. His son and daughter-in-law, David and Judy, continue to support the research.

The machine, the only one of its kind in Israel and in the Middle East, is the “instrument that has allowed us to date archaeological material that we recover during excavations” she explains.

A mesh of boxes and cylinders that fills a large room, it measures the remained carbon-14 in organic material, enabling accurate dating, give or take 30 years, up to 50,000 years.

The archaeological remains are taken from the site, carefully treated at the institute to remove contaminants  and placed as tiny pinhead-sized (1 mg) samples of graphite into an aluminum cathode to be fed to the machine.

Israel’s dry climate has proven to be a godsend to archaeologists. One of the seven species of produce associated with the Land of Israel can be especially valuable to research. The humble olive pit, which, when charred, can be preserved in the hard ground for thousands of years, may be witness to human habitation, though a single olive on its own might not tell you much – “It could have been moved by rodents from one level to another, a cluster of olive pits is much more important for chronological application.” In general charred seeds and collagen in the bone are the preferred material for dating.

One project the Weizmann team worked on showed that fava beans were cultivated in the Galilee around 10,000 years ago – the earliest known cultivation of the crop. Another demonstrated the Sea People, called also Philistines, reached Israel about  hundred years earlier than previously thought, in the 13th rather than the 12th century BCE, which reopened the question of what brought them there.

Exploring the prehistoric past may not be controversial, unless you happen to believe that the world was literally created 5,780 years ago. But it is when archaeology digs into the biblical period that its findings become more sensitive.

In 2004, a discovery of the remains of a large tower at Gihon Spring, the main water-supply for Jerusalem in in the past, prompted great excitement. It was originally dated to the middle Bronze age in the 17th century BCE and the City of David website identified it with the fortress conquered from the Jebusites to establish his capital in Jerusalem (II Samuel 5:7) .

But subsequent analysis and radiocarbon dating of the layers  under the large construction stones of the tower, by the Weizmann team cast doubt on that theory. The seeds found in the layers on which the tower was built dated them  to many hundreds of years later, to 900 BCE – after the time of King David or his son Solomon (according to traditional dates for their reigns).

Israel Finkelstein, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and one of Israel’s best-known archaeologists, said the dating did not rule out an earlier origin for the tower – it could have been an older structure which was later repaired.

Not that Finkelstein is a King David loyalist. He disputes the biblical account of David’s sovereignty, arguing instead that Jerusalem was just a small village at that time and the idea of a united kingdom was a projection back into history from a later period.

The battle over David – and whether there is any scientific evidence to back up the biblical story – remains one of the keenest archaeological contests. But you can be sure that as the soil of Israel yields its clues, and the scholars debate their significance, the particles will be whzzing round the Weizmann accelerator for many years to come.

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