Date Palms: Not In My Back Yard!?!? Or, Maybe...

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Excerpt For the past 8 years I have been excavating a Bronze Age domestic quarter in Area A of the Lower Tall (LA) at Tall el-Hammam (TeH) on the east side of the Jordan River Valley—in the country of Jordan. Continue reading

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In these excavations, we’ve opened 24 6x6 m (38x38 ft) squares, uncovering remains of domestic structures ranging from the Late Chalcolithic (LC) period through the Middle Bronze Age (MB).

Typical of the LC and Early Bronze 1 (EB1) communities in the Holy Land, our LC and EB1 dwellings were apparently located in unwalled villages. We actually found them directly beneath and outside the later EB2 city wall also excavated in LA. All later dwellings have been found in a domestic quarter directly inside these city walls.

Again, similar to other EB2 sites in the Holy Land, TeH's first city wall was built during that period. But it was destroyed (probably by earthquake) and rebuilt with a stronger stone foundation in EB3. This new and improved version continued in use for the next 700 years—right through the Intermediate Bronze 2 (IB2) period. Then, sometime around the end of IB2, TeH was destroyed again. A whole new and much larger city wall and defensive system was constructed above and all around the earlier one.

Lower Tall Area A General Plan

Plan of Area A of the Lower Tall at Tall el-Hammam. Over the past 8 years, 24 squares have been excavated revealing remains from the Middle Bronze (on the surface), Intermediate Bronze and Early Bronze periodsall the way back to Late Chalcolithic (directly above bedrock). Drawing by Leen Ritmeyer.

Our excavations also identified a “ring road” circling inside both the EB/IB and Middle Bronze (MB) city walls, at least in this area. While it would have been helpful to inhabitants for daily domestic activities, this open space along the inner face of the wall was no doubt an important part of the city’s strategic military defensesdesigned for efficient troop movement. It was directly inside and abutting this ring road that the LA domestic quarter was discovered.

LA in the BA

TeHEP dig director Steve Collins has given me the opportunity to publish the results of our 8 seasons of BA domestic excavations in LA. While there is still much yet to do in the future, the 24 squares dug to date have produced: cobbled and beaten earth streets; mudbrick walls on stone foundations for roofed rooms and open-to-the-sky courtyards; doorways and in situ door socket stones; fragments of roofing material; beaten earth floors; storage jars buried beneath these floors; clay ovens; various stone and mudbrick domestic installations, upper and lower grinding stones; mortars and pestles; flint blades; stone pounders; some complete ceramic vessels; lots of broken pottery; and even a few skeletons.

Dr. Carroll Kobs, my colleague focusing on LA’s BA fortifications (defensive walls, towers, gates and even a drain running through the city wall to the outside), and I have been working through the field notes from all these squares and have been able to identify a number of the ancient dwellings from each period. Based on that information, Dr. Leen Ritmeyer (architect for both the Tall el-Hammam excavation and ABR’s Khirbet el-Maqatir excavation) has produced top plans for the remains of each period and isometric drawings of how some of the BA dwellings would have looked.

Drs. Kobs, Ritmeyer and I continue going back and forth on small details to make each illustration as accurate as possible. So in one email exchange, I expressed concern over palm trees in the courtyard of a couple of the houses. We have not found any archaeological evidence of the trees and I wasn’t so sure they should be on the drawings.

Isometric reconstruction of LA

Isometric reconstruction of the Middle Bronze Age level in Area A of the Lower Tall at Tall el-Hammam. Based on only foundational remains below floor levels (even the floors were gone) and what is known about ancient Middle Bronze houses from other sites, we believe this is how they might have looked. Drawing by Leen Ritmeyer.

Dr. Ritmeyer pointed out that palm trees were famous in the southern Jordan Valley throughout antiquity. He particularly noted they were well-known in Jericho, 14 miles to the east on the other side of the Jordan. He suggested they were appropriate for our drawings because TeH probably had them, too!

Been thinking about that...so, here’s to date palms in my backyard!


Date Palms in the Holy Land

Known for their ability to thrive in sandy salty desert regions where sufficient water is available, the one palm tree historically tied to the Holy Land in general and the southern Jordan Valley in particular is the date palm tree (Moldenke and Moldenke 1952: 169). Officially the date palm is Phoenix dactylifera—of the kingdom Plantae, order Arecales, family Arecaceae, genus Phoenix and species dactylifera.

While the genus Phoenix includes 16 different species of palm trees today, species dactylifera refers specifically to dates. Daktulos (Greek: “finger”
—remember pterodactyl “wing/finger”) and fero (Latin: “to bear”). The date palm tree was the particular palm that bore finger-looking fruit—dates!

Date palm tree with dates

Date palm tree with clusters of ripening dates. Date palm leaves can grow more than 10ft in length and each date clusters can weigh up to 50 pounds. Courtesy Kerina yin CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15925149.

In antiquity, the term Phoenix (Greek and its Latin counterpart) was related to the region of Phoenicia and its inhabitants; the son of Amyntor and Cleobule in Homer's Iliad; the sacred bird of Greek mythology; and ancient date palms—although precise connections between these different uses of the term are not clear to us today.

But Phoenix was the term used for date palm trees by fourth century BC Greek philosopher Theophrastus (Enquiry into Plants, Book 2.2) and first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Wars i.6.6; 18.5; iv.8.2, 3 and Antiquities iv.6.1; xiv.4.1; xv.4.2). Theophrastus studied under both Plato and Aristotle, succeeded Aristotle at Athen’s Lyceum, was bequeathed all Aristotle’s writings and presided over Athen’s Peripatetic School for 36 years—and has been called the "father of botany."


Tamar

So, when the palm tree is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (tamar or tomer), it is understood to be the date palm. There were probably numerous varieties of wild date palms, and even many cultivated varieties in the Holy Land—all being Phoenix dactylifera. But the modern date palms are not the ancient variety, but were imported during the 20th century.

Relief stones from Sennacherib

Five stone slabs carved in relief from Room XXXVI of Sennacherib’s Southwest Palace, Nineveh (his “Palace without a Rival”) depicting his 701 BC siege and capture of the Judean city of Lachish (2 Kgs 18:14, 17; Is 36:2; 37:8; 2 Chr 32:9). The four walls of the entire room was covered with these carved alabaster wall panels depicting pre-, during and post- events around Sennacherib’s defeat of Lachish. Date palm trees in Judah are prominent at both the top and bottom of these panels. Copyright David Ussishkin.

Date palms were first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible was in the Exodus account. The Israelites crossed the sea, went 3 days into the desert of Shur, had the bitter water at Marah made sweet, and then moved to the oasis of Elim (Ex 15:27; see also Nu 33:9). At Elim there were 12 water springs and 70 date palm trees (tamarim). While the Hebrew word elim, itself, refers to trees (probably “terebinths”), the special note about Elim is the date palms.

In Judges, a single date palm tree (tamar) was noted somewhere between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Benjamin. While unknown today, this location was probably less than 3 miles from ABR’s Khirbet el-Maqatir excavation. The text notes this was where Deborah offered judgment for matters between Israelites (Ju 4:5). Similarly, any biblical site with tamar in its name indicates it was also known for its date palm tree(s)—such as Baal-tamar (Ju 20:33); Hazazon-tamar which is En-Gedi (2 Chr 20:2); and Tamar along the future southern border of the Promised Land (Ez 47:19; 48:28).

But the most famous “city of date palms” in the Hebrew Bible was Jericho (Dt 34:3; Ju 1:16; 3:13; 2 Chr 28:15). And it was in this same area, around the southern end of the Jordan River Valley, that numerous ancient writers commented on the date palm trees.

Madaba map palms

This 6th century AD pilgrim’s map of the Holy Land served as the mosaic floor of an ancient Byzantine church in Madaba, Jordan. Preserved today in the floor of Saint George Greek Orthodox Church, the Jordan River is seen flowing from left (north) to right (south) across the center of the photoflowing into the north end of the Dead Sea on the right. At the bottom of the photo, date palm trees surround the city of Jericho (written above in Greek). At the top of the photo date palms surround another city whose inscribed name has been destroyed. This is the general location of Tall el-Hammam. Courtesy David Graves and Scott Stripling.

Locations where a “forest” of date palm trees are mentioned probably indicate domestic cultivation. As a fruit tree, it presumably occurred in a later period of plant domesticated in antiquity. Since each date palm tree is either male or female, they must be cross-pollenated to produce dates. While that happens naturally, domestication means the ancients learned to more efficiently introduce pollen from male flowers to female date palms. Pliny the Elder (first century AD Roman naturalist) actually explained this process in detail in his Natural History XIII.7.

A Date in Old Jericho

In an extended discussion of palm trees (Natural History XIII.6-9) Pliny particularly extols the virtues of Judea’s date palms—especially around Jericho (western side of the southern Jordan River Valley: Natural History XIII:6, 9) and Livias (eastern side of the southern Jordan River Valleyvirtually adjacent to Tall el-Hammam: Natural History XIII.6, 9).

Josephus describes the whole Jordan River Valley as a place of very unwholesome air, burnt up by the summer heat. He notes the only real water there comes from the Jordan River on which banks date palms flourish and are fruitful (Wars iv.8.2). In particular, he notes the area around Jericho had the best in the country and commented on the vast number of palm trees there (Wars i.6.6; 18:5). He also comments on Elisha’s spring at Jericho and how its water nourished gardens with a variety of palm trees. He adds that the best palms there produced an excellent kind of honey and compares it to bee honey (Wars iv.8.3)
   
In telling of the Israelites under Moses camped east of the Jordan before crossing over, Josephus comments on Jericho’s situation as very fit for the production of palm trees (Antiquities iv.6.1), simply a restatement of the biblical account. In the time of Roman general Pompey’s attack on Judea he again comments on the palm trees of Jericho (Antiquities xiv.4.1). Josephus also notes how Herod gave revenue from the excellent kind of palm trees at Jericho to Cleopatra (Antiquities xv.4.2).

While only discovered in the 1930’s—but alive long before Josephus, Pliny and even Moses—date seeds were identified in excavation at Chalcolithic Teleilat Ghassul (Kenyon 1970: 54). Also located on the east side of the Jordan River Valley, Ghassul is only 5 miles from TeH—almost as close as Livias (above). The southern end of the Jordan Valley was a place of date palm trees.


Benefits of Knowing a Good Date Palm

Date palms can grow as tall as 70 ft with a simple unbranched trunk and all its leaves (each more than 10 ft long) appearing at the top—with each leaf having up to 150 leaflets. The numerous date clusters that grow simultaneously can weigh up to 50 pounds.

Because of its unique shape, the date palm’s appearance also came to have symbolic significance. Tall and slender, it came to be appreciated for its graceful stature (SOS 7:7-8). Because date palm trees thrive with the abundance of water (along a river or at an oasis), they also symbolized prosperity (Ps 92:12-14). A palm motif was used for capitals above pillars in royal construction. They were so appreciated that, along with cherubim, date palms were carved into the walls of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 6:29, 32: see also Ez 41:18). Israelite parents even named their daughters after the date palm tree: Judah’s son Er’s wife Tamar (Gen 38:6); Absalom’s sister Tamar (2 Sm 13:1); Absalom’s daughter (2 Sm 14:27).

Protoaeolic capital

A Proto-aeolic capital excavated by Kathleen Kenyon in Jerusalem during the 1960’s. Capitals are decorative supports sitting above pillars and this one is reconstructed sitting on a reconstructed column and base (left). Regularly used in association with gates and palaces, dozens of this style of pillar capital have been found in the ancient kingdoms of Judah, Israel, Ammon and Moab. The decoration is considered to be a palmette, a curving date palm tree motif. The palmette proto-Aeolic capital is also memorialized on the modern Israeli five-shekel coin (right).

The date palm tree’s unusual appearance also made them great landmarks and provided good shade. But the ancients appreciation for them went far beyond appearance. The trunk was used as lumber for construction (interestingly, date palms do not have tree rings), and palm wood makes great charcoal (Pliny, Natural History XII.9). The trunk’s fibrous sheath was used for cord and rope. Palm leaves were used for insulation, fencing and roofing. Individual palm leaflets were made into cord, baskets and mats. Stripped fruit clusters became dusters and brooms. The single seed inside the fruit could be soaked and used for animal feed or dried and used in necklaces. The trunk could even be tapped for juice—drank either fresh or fermented (Zohary 1962: 287-288; Moldenke and Moldenke 1952: 192; Fig 28 and Borowski 1987: 127). Then there is the actual date, itself.

Milk and Honey

The LORD offered the most famous description of the Promised Land, calling it a place “flowing with milk and honey” (first mentioned in Ex 3:17). The phrase suggests both pastoral and agricultural prosperity.

Wild bee honey was discovered and appreciated early in human history. First mentioned in Genesis 43:11, it was one of Canaan’s agricultural products ("the land of milk and honey") sent by Jacob with his sons to "that man" in Egypt. The text doesn’t indicate whether it was wild or domesticated honey—but we do know bees and honey had been domesticated in both Egypt and Mesopotamia by that time.


Archaeological Honey

While honey was mentioned as early as Egypt’s First Dynasty (3000 BC and later), bee domestication was first alluded to during Egypt's Fifth Dynasty (2500 BC and later). Yet, beyond wall-paintings and written descriptions of domestic beehives in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, there has been no actual ancient archaeological evidence of domesticated beehives...until very recently.

In 2007, an "apiary" (from the Latin term for "bee"—apis) was discovered in 10th century BC Tel Rehov, a major city in northern Israel. Looking very much like their ancient depictions, these hives were found in three rows (probably up to 100) situated in a densely built area of the lower city. Surrounded by both domestic and industrial structures, its industrial size and location both suggest the apiary’s importance to the local economy.

ancient beehives

Double row of beehives from the Tel Rehov apiary, discovered in 2007. The first beehives identified in archaeological excavation, they appear very similar to their ancient depictions. The hives situation within this major 10th century BC city suggests they were an important part Rehov’s economy. Copyright The Beth-Valley Archaeological Project, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Experts suggest these 100 hives might produce over a thousand pounds of honey annually. But, honey was not the only important commodity here. The wax created by these bees to store their honey in combs was also highly valued in antiquity for both medicinal and industrial purposes. The Tel Rehov apiary probably produced between 500–700 pounds of wax each year, as well (Mazar and Panitz-Cohen 2007).

So, while domestic production of bee honey was known in the OT world and “honey” is mentioned almost fifty times in the Hebrew Bible, “bees” are mentioned less than five. Consequently, scholars have not been certain whether bee honey or honey produced from a summer fruit—like dates—was the intended meaning in the “land flowing with milk and honey.”


A Land of Dates?

The LORD also offered an additional description of the Promised Land, noting seven specific agricultural products—“a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, oil and honey” (Dt 8:8). If “honey” represents dates (as “vines” does grapes and “oil” does for olives in the verse), then the first two products were cereal grains and the rest fruit-bearing plants (all trees, except the grape vine). Figs, grapes, pomegranates and dates were summer fruit growing throughout the Holy Land. All could be eaten fresh, but their greatest value probably came from being dried and preserved for nutritional value throughout that next year. Dried and pressed raisin, fig and date cakes were often mentioned (1 Sa 25:18; 30:12; 2 Sa 6:19; 16:1, 3). Each could also be preserved as wine or “honey.”

But, while date palm trees are well attested in the Hebrew Bible, the date, itself, is not mentioned. It is only implied once, in a list of fruit-bearing plants in the region: “The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree—all the trees of the field—are dried up” (Joel 1:12).

Josephus, in a discussion about Elisha’s spring at Jericho (2 Kgs 2:21), mentions how its wonderful water nourished gardens with a variety of palm trees, of which the best palms produced an excellent kind of honey. Then he actually compares the date honey to the bee honey also produced in that region (Wars iv.8.3)!

So, I am comfortable that “honey” in the Hebrew Bible could be either bee honey or date honey—possibly some referring to one and some to the other. I don’t suppose it really matters...and both taste good to me!


Teach an Old Seed New Tricks? Methuselah

 
Sadly, the famous ancient date palm trees of the Holy Land disappeared from the region sometime after 500 AD. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Israel began importing date palm trees from Egypt, Iraq and Morocco. Today there are thousands of date palms in the Holy Land and dates are once again a significant export
yet none are the famous ancient Judean dates.

But an interesting development occurred with the Israeli excavation of Herod’s desert fortress at Masada during 1963-1965. An ancient storage jar containing date palm pits (seeds) was found and the seeds had stayed dry over the past 1800 years. They were given by excavator Ehud Netzer to botanical archaeologist Mordechai Kislev at Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv who kept them in a drawer for 40 years
until 2004.

That year, Sarah Sallon (Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Center, Jerusalem) requested some seeds to study. Her center specializes in conserving the heritage of ancient Middle Eastern plants with an interest in complementary and alternative medicines. Sallon gave three of the seeds to Elaine Solowey (Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Kibbutz Ketura) for the specific purpose of germinating them. Soaked in water and pretreated in fertilizer and hormone-rich solution, Solwey planted them at her institute
—and one sprouted eight weeks later. By 2010, trunk and leaves together reached 6 ft high; in March 2011, it flowered and is male. By 2015, now ten years old, it stood over 10 ft high, had a few off-shoots, and successfully pollenated a wild female date palm.

Methuselah palm tree

A 2,000-year old date palm seed, germinated in 2005 and seen here in 2008 (at three years of age). Nicknamed “Methuselah,” it is now ten years old, replanted in the ground and stands over 10 ft tall. Copyright National Geographic.

This date palm tree has been nicknamed "Methuselah," after the longest-living person in the Bible. The name is appropriate—it is the oldest known tree seed to have successfully germinated. It is also the only living representative of the Judean date palm, once a major food and export crop of the Holy Land but extinct over 1800 years. Genetic tests show Methuselah is closely related to an old Egyptian variety—Hayany (Hiani, Hayani). An Iraqi date palm variety is also a close relative, and all three may have shared the same wild ancestor.

The ancients believed their dates had special medical properties, and today’s researchers are looking for any unique medicinal qualities in Methuselah that are no longer found in today's date palm varieties. It is hoped Methuselah might also demonstrate other useful characteristics—like environmental tolerance or disease resistance (John Roach 2005, 2015).


Date Palms at Tall el-Hammam?

Date Palms were known—even famous—for being in the TeH region for millennia. As suggested by Pliny (Natural History XII.6-9), the dry climate, sandy, salty soil and perennial water sources around TeH are appropriate for them to prosper. While we do not yet have archaeological evidence of date palm trees at ancient Tall el-Hammam, I think they were appropriately part of the ancient landscape. So, date palm trees can be in isometric reconstructions of the LA domestic quarter during the Bronze Age. And, in the end, if it is determined that they should not be—we will just have Dr. Ritmeyer erase them!

Judaea Capta coin

“Judaea Capta” is the inscription on the reverse side (right) of a series of coins issued by Roman Emperor Vespasian, celebrating the capture of Judea in 70 AD. In the center is a date palm tree with a seated woman apparently in a position of mourning (right) and a bearded man, apparently captive, with his hands bound behind him (left). Courtesy the Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2264120.

Bibliography

Borowski, Oded
1987 Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Josephus
Antiquities of the Jews.

Josephus
Wars of the Jews.

Kenyon, Kathleen
1970 Archaeology of the Holy Land. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mazar, Amihai and Panitz-Cohen, Nava
2007 It is the Land of Honey: Beekeeping at Tel Rehov. Near Eastern Archaeology 70.4: 202-219. http://www.rehov.org/Rehov/publications/Mazar_NEA70_4.pdf, accessed 4/12/2016.

Moldenke, Harold and Moldenke, Alma
1952 Plants of the Bible. Dover Publications: New York.

Pliny the Elder
Natural History.

Roach, John
2005 (11/22/05) 2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/051122-old-plant-seed-food/, accessed 4/12/2016.
2015 (3/24/2015) “Methuselah" Palm Grown From 2,000-Year-Old Seed Is a Father. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/150324-ancient-methuselah-date-palm-sprout-science/ accessed 4/12/2016.

Zohary, Michael
1962 “Flora.” Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary 2: 284-302.

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