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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Days 2 and 3 – Real Progress with the Research

It is the dawn of another day in Vilnius.  It is Tuesday June 23rd.  It rained in the early AM but stopped around 7 AM this morning.  It is 11 AM now as I write this with a slight drizzle, but it is supposed to grow into a steady rain for the rest of the afternoon.  This is a problem because both the GPR and total station are water resistant but are not waterproof.  During heavy rain we need to shut down data collection and find a dry place for the instruments.

Before I provide a recap of yesterday afternoon and evening activities, I want to provide one observation regarding time.  In Vilnius it is seven hours later than back at my home base in Pittsburgh.  So it is 11:14 AM right now in Vilnius and it is 4:14 AM in Pittsburgh.  Also, Vilnius is at similar latitude to Moscow and Edmonton, Alberta, so we are pretty far north.  Also we just had the summer solstice so the days are very long.  The days are so long in fact that there is over 16 hours of daylight with the sun rising at 4:30 AM and setting just after 10 PM with a distinct twilight remaining to well after 11 PM.  Although the sun sets, a glow remains in the sky all night and it does not get completely dark. It seems like afternoon, evening and night are all blended in one slow, drawn out temporal event.

I will now provide a rundown of our afternoon and evening activities from Monday June 22nd.  An important development was that I had a meeting with the Lithuanian assistant archaeologist on this project.  He is working on another project at a Neolithic site about two hours from here. The Neolithic period is also called the new Stone Age and the site is estimated to be from about 5,000 B.C.  They are excavating many burials at the site for which they want to complete DNA analysis to investigate the relationship of the individuals they are digging up.  I am trying to work out the details of getting bones back to Duquesne for analysis in our DNA lab.  This is similar to the project I set up with the Greek Archaeology Commission regarding bones from Rhodes, but that project has not begun yet because of all the economic problems in Greece.  I found out yesterday that the government workers (which means the commission of archaeology staff) have not be paid their salary in three-months and they have stopped coming to work and the offices have closed down.  Hopefully Greece will find a solution to their economic woes and we can get that project underway.  I will meet with the assistant project archaeologist, later in the week to begin to work out the details about how to move forward with the Neolithic bones project.

Along with Jon Segalman and Richard Freund I met with Dr. Jurgita Verbickiene from the history department at Vilnius University.  Jon and Richard were seeking to partner with her on future projects in Lithuania and I was seeking information about student and faculty exchange with the university.  Over the next few days she will put me in touch with the Vice Rector who handles such matters for the university.  Based on a partnership that my former university (the University of South Florida) had with them, I know they are actively trying to build a network of partner schools for student and faculty exchange.  There is an interesting parallel between Duquesne and Vilnius University.  Vilnius was founds in 1579 as a Jesuit university.  The plaque pictured below provides a brief description of the university.  Also below is a photo of my standing by the campus map.



Now onto the research we have completed thus far.  We created and collected data from a 5 x 5 grid to begin the data collection.  This grid helped us determine how deep the instrument can see below the surface.  We think we can see almost three meters down, which would be great.  More testing is required to make a final determination.  We then set up a 53 x 10 m grid and started collecting data.  The batteries for the GPR ran out of charge at about 7 PM after completing 19 of the 40 lines.  We started collecting data again today along the same grid but after an hour it started raining again and we had to stop data collection.  We were in a holding pattern for about three hours wating for the rain to stop, so that we could continue to collect data.  We finished the data collection from this grid about 6 PM.  Below is a photo of GPR data being collected along the grid and a photo of me next to the total station which I am using to map in the locations of the GPR grids.

IMG_1063   IMG_1065

After a hard days work you need to eat, right.  Pictured below is the research team at a restaurant where some fine Lithuanian food and drink were consumed.


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Made it to Vilnius

After about 20 hours of travel we made it to Vilnius Lithuania.  Pittsburgh ti Newark, New Jersey, Newark to Brussels, and finally Brussels to Vilnius.  We got into Vilnius just after 2 PM on Sunday June 21st.  After unpacking equipment we went and had a look at the study site.  It is right in the middle of the city.  We met with head archaeologist of the project Jon Seligman who told us the detailed story of the site.  This story corrected a few minor details I already wrote about in an earlier post. The Great Synagogue site in Vilnius was one of the most elaborate synagogues in Eastern Europe prior to WW II.  The arrival of the Nazis changed that in that they burned and destroyed parts of the complex of buildings.  What remained after WW II was eventually bulldozed by the Soviet Union which occupied Lithuania from after WW II until 1992.  In the late 1950’s the remaining structures were bulldozed, the area leveled and new structures, mostly housing, built on the site.  Below is a photo of the “brain trust” meeting to plot the strategy for the opening of the project.  Today we are going to do some exploratory geophysical lines to look at the near surface deposits and to see how deep the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) can see.  It is hoped we can see through the rubble of the synagogue from the 1950’s to parts of that structure that remained intact, and even deeper to the remains of structures and earlier incarnations of the synagogue that may date from the 15th century.IMG_1039


Pictured are, from left to right, me, Dr. Richard Freund Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, and Jon Seligman, from the Israeli Antiquities Authority.  We are now headed to the site (about two minutes away from the coffee shop where we are meeting), to lay out our initial geophysical transects.  At 11 AM today Jon and I are going to Vilnius University, to meet with university officials.  I hope to set up a meeting with the Dean of Natural Sciences to discuss cooperation, student and faculty exchange and whatever else come up.  Like many places around the world, it is impossible to set up meetings like this ahead of time.  The best results are obtained on site after arrival.  I will report the results of the meeting in my next post.

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Not Quite So Soon! Before Vilnius I Need to Provide and Update from Nazareth

I thought that we were in a holding pattern for the Nazareth and Rhodes, Greece Projects.  Discussions were going on with the Israel Antiquities Authority what to do next on the project, and the Greek Orthodox Council was deliberating what to do next as well both at Mary’s Cave and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.  About two weeks ago permission was granted for a limited excavation at a site behind the church where in January 2015 and December 2012 we found possible sites for future excavation using geophysics.  Since the granting of the permit was just a few weeks ago, I was not able to directly participate in the excavations.  The university of Hartford, the lead institution in our research group on these collaborative projects, was already scheduled to be in Israel so they completed the excavation.  All I can say, is the results are fabulous!  The Duquesne University press release is below.

Reeder’s Archaeological Team Finds Ancient Mosaic Floor in Nazareth

Posted on June 17, 2015

A mosaic floor that appears to be from one of the earliest churches in the history of Christianity was uncovered recently in Nazareth, Israel, at the Church of the Annunciation (Greek Orthodox). Dr. Philip Reeder, dean of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, is a co-investigator on the project and is the chief cartographer for the research team that made the discovery.

The church is seen by Christians worldwide as a shrine of great significance going back to the origins of what became Christianity. According to an ancient tradition, the Angel Gabriel “announced” the forthcoming birth of Jesus at a spring or well that Mary was visiting to get water. It became the place where the Greek Orthodox located their first Church of the Annunciation in the Byzantine period. Over the centuries, the church was destroyed multiple times and rebuilt in the pre-modern period. The mosaic floor is thought to have been created in the 4th century, when Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, came to the Holy Land to establish Christian pilgrim sites for the new religion of Rome.

“Based on the data we collected in December 2012 and January 2015 using the geophysical techniques ground-penetrating radar and electro-resistivity tomography, we determined that ‘something’ was buried beneath the courtyard behind the current incarnation of the church,” said Reeder, who created maps that depicted the location of the structural anomalies the team found approximately six feet below the surface.

Based on that information, an excavation was licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority, and approved by the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Nazareth and the Arab Orthodox Council.

Excavation at the site on June 10 confirmed that the feature found in the geophysical data was the mosaic floor, decorated with stylized crosses and iconography. The excavation was led by University of Hartford Professors Richard Freund and Maha Darawsha, and Haifa University Professor Shalom Yanklovitz. Dr. Harry Jol from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Paul Bauman, a geophysicist from the energy and resources company Worley Parsons, and Reeder comprise the remainder of the research team.

Darawsha, who was born near Nazareth and is credited with finding the mosaic floor during excavation, delivered news of the find at a press conference on June 15 organized at the site by the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Nazareth.

For their next project, some members of the research team will visit Vilnius, Lithuania, from June 20-July 1. Reeder again will be in charge of collecting spatial data and mapping in the search for the remains of The Great Synagogue of Vilnius, one of the oldest synagogues in Eastern Europe. He is capturing the trip in his blog.

Back to my blog now.  This is huge news and it is expected that it will be picked up by many news outlets around the world.  Keel you eyes open.

My contribution to the project is the collecting of spatial data that allows me to create maps and diagrams based mostly on the geophysical analysis.  Below is the collection of maps and diagrams I created for the Nazareth part of our project. church.excav1.june17

naz.location.well   naz.detailed.ex

naz.ex.annunc.june18mary's.well [Converted].new.june17

That is all for now about Nazareth.  Now on to the project in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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Time to Turn the Page–The Vilnius Project (June 2015)

Time to change gears from all the data analysis, map and diagram production and report writing for the Rhodes Project, and to turn our attention to the project in Vilnius, Lithuania.  The same research group that worked in Rhodes, has been invited to work on this project in Vilnius.  Once again our research design involves the use of high technology to try to write and rewrite the history of Judaism in what is now Lithuania.  We are working with a group from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who are cooperating with a group of local researchers, to find the remains of a 14th century  synagogue that is now buried under the now cosmopolitan and bustling city of Vilnius.  I depart for Vilnius on June 20th, arrive on June 21st and our first work day is June 22nd.  Once again Dr. Richard Freund from the University of Hartford, similar to Nazareth and Rhodes, directs our part of the project.  I am one again the chief cartographer in charge of all parts of the project related to the collection of spatial data and mapping.  Dr. Harry Jol, a longtime colleague and friend from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, will one again be in charge of the geophysics.  Below are two preliminary reports related to the research.  One is in Lithuanian, but it contains some good photos and diagrams.

A Ground Penetrating Radar Survey of The Great Synagogue and Schulhof of Vilna-Word Document – The initial proposal for our portion of the project.

daubaras_vilniausmsav_vilniausm_vilniausdidžiojisinagoga – A report about the project in Lithuanian.

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The Maps and Final Report for Greece are Done

The data analysis and production of maps, diagrams and a final report related to the project are completed and are attached below.  The report and all the maps and diagrams were submitted to the Archaeological Authority in Rhodes as part of the process of securing a research permit to continue the research in January 2016.

Rhodes.report1 – Final report and permit application to continue research in Rhodes, Greece in January 2016.

Below are all the maps and diagrams that I produced, as the chief cartographer for the project.  They are organized from a very general location map (first in the list), to slightly more specific location map (second), to even more specific location maps (third and fourth), to maps and diagrams specific to the four study sites in Rhodes (five through thirteen).  These maps and diagrams combine general location data, with data specific to the GPR analysis, with many of these maps and diagrams incorporated into the final report.

country.greece – Location map of the Island of Rhodes, Greece

island.base.rhodes2 – The Island of Rhodes with the town of Rhodes indicated. – The Northern section of the Island of Rhodes with the town of Rhodes and old city indicated. – Old city of Rhodes highlighted with the four study locations indicated.

kahal shalom – Map of the Kahal Shalom Synagogue complex with GPR sites highlighted.

shalom.detail – Map of Kahol Shalom Synagogue with more detailed depiction of the GPR transects. – Map of the Church of the Victory ruins with the GPR grid depicted. – General depiction of the Kahal Grande Synagogue site with GPR grid shown. – Depiction of relationship between the ruins of Kahal Grande Synagogue and the ruins of an adjacent church.

ottoman.palace1 – Spatial relationship between the Ottoman School and the Palace of the Knights Templar with the GPR grid in the courtyard of the palace indicated.

grand.gpr.detail – More specific depiction of the GPR grid and related walls at the Palace of the Knights Templar. – Photo depiction of the GPR grid adjacent to the Ottoman School.

ottoman.walls.detail – Depiction of ancient walls at the Ottoman School.

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It Has Been Awhile

Greetings from Pittsburgh.  It is amazing how time flies.  My last post from Greece was in late January, and I fully intended to provide an update upon my return to Pittsburgh.  Well, here is my update some five-months later.

All of my equipment made it back to the USA safe and sound.  I just spent the past three months analyzing data and creating maps and diagrams for the project based on the mapping and geophysical research.  They are now finished and the final report has been created for the Greek Archaeological Authority.  As part of the final report submission, we also submitted a request for a research permit to continue the research in January 2016.  I will publish all the maps and diagrams shortly to the blog, as well as the report we created.  Keep an eye out for these items.

One more item is that, based on the success of the project in Rhodes, the research group was invited to do a project in Vilnius, Lithuania in just a few short weeks.  I depart on June 20th and we have eight work days scheduled in Vilnius.  We will be working with the Israel Antiquities Authority on a project they are working on in Vilnius.  It involves locating a 14th century synagogue, the ruins of which are now buried under the city.  We have a location where the mapping and geophysical analysis is to take place in hope of locating the remains of the synagogue.  I plan to continue this blog for that project as well.

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