The Research Continues

It is now Thursday June 25th and about 1:30 PM in Lithuania.  We have had an interesting two days since I last blogged.  Most of the research team’s time has been spent laying out GPR grids and then collecting the data along the grid lines.  As part of this process I collected map and spatial data.  The two grids on the south side of the site (using the contemporary school as a point of reference) are now complete.  The large grid geophysical data was sent via email to GEO-Slice in Los Angeles, the data was interpreted there and then detailed plots were sent back to us depicting the subsurface structures.  There are definitely structures in the subsurface, most likely the remains of the Great Synagogue destroyed by the Soviets in the 1950’s.  Before I talk about the results I think it is important to answer the question, what makes the Great Synagogue so interesting in a historical and scientific context.  The answer is its lineage and temporal historical context, as well as the fact that it presents a perfect natural laboratory to pursue a multidisciplinary research design that includes geophysics, history, archaeology and place studies.  As previously discussed at an earlier point in this blog, during the Nazi occupation the complex of buildings was partially destroyed.  This is not entirely correct.  We found out today during a meeting with a local historian, during the Nazi occupation the buildings were neglected, but not intentionally destroyed.  After WW II when the Soviet Union took over Lithuania, the neglected and somewhat dilapidated synagogue was intentionally destroyed and on the site, housing units, shops and a school were constructed.  The Great Synagogue was wiped so quickly from the landscape of Vilnius under Soviet occupation that very little of the process was recorded.  Hence, there is a very limited record of its destruction.  Since the Soviets left Lithuania in 1991, historians have been trying to piece together the history of the construction, life and destruction of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius via archival analysis, interviews and now scientific analysis.  Our research team is the first group of scientists that have assisted in adding new and vital information to the existing base of knowledge about the Great Synagogue.

What follows is a discussion of some of the data from the GPR analysis.  Below is the overall plot from grid 2.  Based on existing maps from the area of the synagogue we expected to find the remnants of the outer walls of the synagogue.  The series of plots are created when the GPR data is sliced using software to look down into different and distinct layers beneath the surface of the earth.  Any anomalies below the surface show up as different colored areas and if they are linear they may indicate linear features such as wall buried beneath the surface.  As you can see in the plots, there are several such prominent features.  We theorize that these features are the outer walls of the ruined synagogue.  Especially interesting are two features in slices 7 and 8.  To find these you need to know that slice 1 is the upper left slice as you look at the screen.  Slice 7 and 8 are enlarged below.  Note the two features towards the bottom that join and form what looks like a corner.  The geophysicists interpret this as a rectangular structure buried at a depth from 112 to 171 cm.  An exciting discovery!

grid 2-25


For my part of the research, I collected digital map data both using a total station as well as existing map sources.  I spend most of Wednesday compiling this data and pulling it together into one map so that we can make determinations about where buried features are located.  In this case we were interested with where the walls of the synagogue were located on the north side of the contemporary school and where the ritual bath house that was part of the synagogue was located.  The map I created is included below.


The map was created using Adobe Illustrator.  A great thing about Illustrator is that it allows you to create layers of map data.  The main layers in this map are a fairly modern map of the school and surrounding area, the archaeology map created during excavations in 2011 that depicts the location of the outer walls of the Great Synagogue with respect to the school, and a map that depicts the layout and location of the Great Synagogue buildings prior to destruction.  Using this map and the data that was used to construct the map, it was possible make determinations on the contemporary land surface as to where the underlying structures were located.  Once these determinations were made, a GPR grid was laid out and data was collected.  Pictured below is a Photo of the collection of GPR data along this grid.  Tonight we will again send this data via email to Geo Slice and as usual, within 10-hours we have the plots back that depict the data and highlight the location of underground structures.  I will report on these findings at a later time in this blog.


We also paid a visit this morning (Thursday) to another potential study area.  The site is called Paneriani and it is located about 15 km from Vilnius.  It is another one of the too numerous gruesome holocaust sites where terrible atrocities were committed by the Nazis.  As with many other locations occupied by the Nazis, they performed a campaign of terror and murder to get rid of unwanted segments of the population.  Lithuania had no death camps, like Sobibor for example where our research team worked in 2009, so another means for murder needed to be devised for Paneriani.  At Sobibor gas chambers were used to murder Jews.  In the case of Paneriani, where about 70,000 Jews were murdered, along with 30,000 Lithuanians and Russians, no gas chambers were ever constructed.  The preferred method of murder at Paneriani was firing squad.  The site was selected because prior to Nazi occupation, the Soviets had prepared the site to be a fuel depot by digging many large and deep holes for the placement of the fuel tanks.  Before the fuel tanks could be installed, the Nazis occupied the area and repurposed the holes as sites for mass murder and mass burial.  The photo of the sign below from the site explains some of the details.


We visited the site this morning with some representatives of the Lithuanian Museum of Tolerance.  It is essentially a holocaust museum, but the local preference is to not use that term.  The site has been somewhat developed as a memorial to the murdered citizens, but there is still much to learn about its history and the history of the region from the existing archaeological remains and material culture at the site.  Pictured below is one of the “holes” that served as mass murder/mass burial site that has now been memorialized.  Also depicted below is a hole that was used to bury Soviet prisoners who served as slave labor at the site until their ultimate death from malnutrition.

IMG_1086  IMG_1088

The proposed project will be a joint venture between our research team and the Museum.  Although discussions have just begun, the project is proposed to take place in summer 2016.  It will be part of a combined project that features a return to Nazareth to continue our work at the Church of the Annunciation (Greek Orthodox), followed by a return to Vilnius to complete a project at Paneriani.

Lastly, although the work we are doing at the Great Synagogue is from a site that was destroyed only 50 years ago, it is of enormous importance.  The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was one of those sites destined to slip into the oblivion of history not it be for the research we are now doing.  What we have found thus far is significant to warrant a press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority.  Press releases are also planned from the University of Hartford and Duquesne University.  These are planned for release on Monday June 29th.

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