Archive for November, 2008

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SESAME

November 19, 2008

A few days ago, the German Jordanian University hosted Dr. Herman Winick to talk about the various uses of synchrotron radiation. This came as part of the activities to introduce SESAME as a significant new research tool for Jordan and the region.

Synchrotron radiation is a very high intensity, highly tunable electromagnetic radiation. In the sciences, x-rays are typically produced using special cathode tubes. In most cases, these are sufficient for various analytical purposes, i.e. determination of chemical (by X-ray fluorescence) and crystal structures (by X-ray diffraction) of various materials. However, x-rays produced by cathode tubes are low intensity and can not be tuned to specific frequencies. This places limitation on studying complex crystal structures and intricacies of the distribution of elements within various biological, archaeological and environmental samples. Synchrotron radiation overcomes these limitations and more.

Until Dr. Winick’s talk, I have been somewhat skeptical about what use it would be, as it seemed to me that that generating x-rays using synchrotron radiation was expensive overkill. However, during the talk, it became clear that such radiation offers a whole different level of scientific investigation, which could never be achieved in existing facilities in Jordan. I think that Winick pointing out how many Nobel prizes have been won by scientists through the use of synchrotron radiation brought this point home.

Sesame is a regional project by UNESCO to establish a synchrotron light source in Jordan. Building is underway in ‘Allan near Salt, and the project is expected to be up and running in 2012. This will provide a significant boost to science in Jordan, and I look forward to witnessing it and hopefully being part of it.

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King Solomon’s mines?

November 1, 2008

The interface between religion and science is always fascinating. On the other hand, it is a dangerous mix that deserves much scrutiny. This statement is especially valid with this recent article in Newsweek, with the misleading title “Found? King Solomon’s Mines”. The article is based on this paper authored by Thomas Levy and his co-workers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Some local web sites eagerly picked up the story, with less critical review that the story warrants.
Both the story and the original article try to make the case that the Bible might be a credible source of historical information, largely due to the confluence of other historical texts with it (i.e. Pharonic records from the period of Sheshonq I). The scholarly article simply provides evidence that copper extraction in southern Jordan took place at the time of Sheshonq I (10th century BC), with the assertion that Sheshonq I is the same as Shishaq in the Bible.

Now, it is well established that copper mining and smelting in southern Jordan began during the Chalcolithic period (~3000 BC), and continued into the Roman and Islamic periods (up to and beyond 1000 AD). Thus, the findings reported by Levy and his co-workers falls within the time frame where known copper mining and extraction occurred, and are not particularly surprising. The implication that somehow the scale of extraction increased during the Iron Age is not demonstrated, and no quantification is offered.

More importantly, none of the artifacts found at the site point to Israelite presence at the site. Pottery and other artifacts are clearly either Edomite or Egyptian. Thus, the article title, and it’s closing line “They hope to figure out who actually controlled the copper industry at Khirbat en-Nahas: David and Solomon, or Edomite leaders?” are really catchy but misleading.

It is clear that journalism is largely concerned with excitement and marketing, and so a generous interpretation is that the marketing of Biblical Archaeology benefits both the publication and the researcher, who is interested in keeping funding flowing. On the other hand, Zionists would love to prove that the Israelites had a presence here, even with no facts to back it up. This is a less generous but equally plausible explanation to how this issue is presented.