A Mount Tabor Oak tree. The other vanilla flavor source. Photo © Jean Stephan.

Not So Sweet Vanilla

At the 2018 ASOR conference, Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University gave the paper “Long Distance Trade: Vanillin as a Mortuary Offering in Middle Bronze Meggido.”  In this paper reported by Science News, Linares used organic residue analysis to find vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde on three small jugs.  These jugs were recovered from an elite tomb at Meggido that dated to the middle bronze age (ca. 1650-1550 BCE).

A Vanilla Hypothesis

Linares notes that seed pods of the vanilla orchid contain both vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde compounds.  She claims that the current belief that the vanilla was first domesticated in the New World is wrong.  And she concludes that vanilla flavoring must have originated from Africa, India, or southeast Asia.

From the results of her organic residue analysis on three jugs, Linares constructs a vast global-wide middle bronze age trading network in vanilla.  And there is no denying that such vast trade networks could (and probably did) exist.  But there is a problem with her theory.

Another Source of Vanillin

Vanilla is not the only source of vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.  Oak trees also contain vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.[1]   A quality we see used today in alcohol production.   For example, bourbon is aged in oak barrels to impart a vanilla flavor profile.

And the fact is that oaks are native to the Levant.  The varieties of oak trees found in the Levant include the kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), the Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos), Aleppo oak (Quercus Infectoria), and the Mount Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis).  And these trees have been in the Levant since ancient times.

The ancient Israelites used oaks as landmarks (Gen 12:6, 13:18) as such trees could reach 18 meters in height.  Because of their use as landmarks, people passed by these trees frequently, which also made these areas desirable for graves (Gen 35:8; 1 Chr 10:12).  And other ancient peoples even used oak groves for divination (Judg 9:6).  So the oak was a well-known tree in the Levant.

A Less Sweet Bias

I would not go as far as to say that the ancient Levantines used oak wood to age the substances stored in these middle bronze age jugs.  Nevertheless, they could have used oak containers and utensils in a wide variety of industrial processes.  Oak as a source of vanillin seems to me much more likely than the hypothesis proposed by Linares.

While Linares may be correct that the source could be the vanilla bean, she is a long way from proving it.  And in whipping up this elaborate hypothesis, Linares has become mired in a confection of confirmation bias.   And this produces research that is a lot less sweet.



1. Philip J. Spillman, Alan P. Pollnitz, Dimitra Liacopoulos, George K. Skouroumounis, and Mark A. Sefton, “Accumulation of Vanillin during Barrel-Aging of White, Red, and Model Wines,” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 45 (1997): 2584-2589.   Jose Miguel Oliva, Felica Sáes, Ignacio Ballesteros, Alberto González, Maria José Negro, Paloma Manzanares, and Mercedes Ballesteros, “Effect of Lignocellulosic Degradation Compounds from Steam Explosion Pretreatment on Ethanol Fermentation by Thermotolerant Yeast Kluyveromyces marxianus” in Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals: The Twenty-Fourth Symposium, eds. Brian H. Davison, James W. Lee, James D. McMillan, and Mark Finkelstein (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2003), 150.

Ramesses II defeating the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh.

Parting of the Red Sea

Movie versions of the exodus portray the parting of the Reed (Red) Sea as massive vertical walls of water that the Israelites passed between.  The Egyptians are shown blindly following after the Israelites, possibly out of fear of Pharaoh.  But I have to ask.  Who in their right mind would enter into a box canyon of water?

The story of the Reed Sea is more nuanced than it may first appear.  In a previous blog, we discussed that the Reed Sea was one of the marshy lakes located near where the Suez Canal exists today.  It was in the estuary where the Pelusiac branch of the Nile emptied into the Mediterranean.

But some details of the account are often overlooked that reveal much about the story.  The first is that the “wall” of water mentioned in Exod 14:22 and 29 is חוֹמָה, the type of wall surrounding a city (HALOT, 297).

Walls of Water

In ancient times, these walls could be anything from the great stone walls of Middle Bronze age fortifications to the sloped teminos walls that were not so much a barrier as impediment.  Teminos walls often marked the precincts of ancient temples.  They served as a warning to the uninitiated that they are trespassing upon holy ground.  If what we are dealing with is a teminos wall, then the height of the water would seem deceptively less intimidating to those passing through the midst of the walls of water.

The other thing to consider is that the bitter lakes were not that deep.  The water was probably no more than 20 feet in depth.  But this is more than enough to be deadly.  While the bottom of the lake was like dry land for those passing through by foot, Pharaoh’s army was using chariots.

Egyptian Chariots

The Egyptian chariot was a weapon of speed and intimidation.  A pair of soldier operated each chariot: a driver and an archer.  The driver would control a team of horses and focus on driving, while the archer could fire his arrows off in practically any direction.  The combination of driver and archer made the Egyptian chariot deadly and fast, a fearsome weapon.

The wheels on these chariots were thin, like the wheels on a ten-speed bicycle.  This was an adaptation of the Levantine chariot to Egyptian sandy conditions.  These chariot wheels were designed to cut through sand, and the carriages were made out of light-weight materials.  So if the chariot got stuck in sand, it could be lifted out of the sand easily.

However, this same design that worked so well in dry sand had the opposite effect in silt.  The wheels cut into the mud which caused them to get stuck and even caused the wheels to break off from their axils (Exod14:25).  And in the morning, the Israelites found the Egyptians dead on the seashore (Exod 14:29).  With the charioteers stuck and burdened with heavy armor, even 20 ft of water proved too much.

The polynomial texture map of Sinai 349.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 2)

Last week, we touched upon three new technologies that have revolutionized the field of epigraphy.  These technologies have changed the way epigraphers see their inscriptions.  Today, we will introduce another four technologies that have changed epigraphy in the 21st century.

Multi-Spectral Photography

With the proliferation of digital cameras, many people now have a second (or third) DSLR camera just lying around.  As epigraphers, we don’t need to have those old cameras go to waste.  Instead, we can send them to a conversion lab to have them converted for multi-spectral photography.

Most of the photodiodes in DSLR cameras are already sensitive to infrared and ultraviolet light.  This is normally a bad thing as these light wavelengths cause false colors with visible light photography.  So camera manufacturers add filters over the photodiode to screen out infrared and ultraviolet light.

By removing the infrared filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an infrared camera.  Infrared cameras are useful for infrared luminescence.   By removing the ultraviolet filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an ultraviolet camera.   Ultraviolet cameras are useful for detecting the pigments and minerals that fluoresce in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Multiple Light Photography

With advances in photography has also come advances in photographic setups and procedures to capture difficult to obtain information.  One of the most rudimentary of these is the multiple light setup.  With multiple light photography, the camera is kept in one position and the light sources are moved around the piece in progressive small angles.  Typically this this done in a 180 degree arc.

The advantage of this is that it can capture the fine details in the recesses of the piece, which can be exposed just by moving the light to another position.

Polynomial Texture Maps

This technique scans the surface of an artifact and recreates the surface of an object as a high resolution map of polygons.  Using this you can see the object from various angles and shine artificial lights upon the map to see the details.

Furthermore, the contrasting topography of a piece can be emphasized so that you can detect small details in the texture of the piece.  PTMs are often the next best thing to being able to see an object in person.  In the featured photo above, we see two images of Sinai 349 with the polynomial texture map to the right.

Strobe Lighting

Sometimes, none of the above techniques are all that helpful.  And the epigrapher just has to examine an artifact in person.  Perhaps, the contrast between the inscription and the matrix is too low.  Or maybe the inscription is too shallow to see or photograph clearly.  There is one more advanced technique that is helpful.  While not strictly speaking new, strobe lighting has recently found new usefulness in epigraphy.

When you look at a stela with only discrete color differences between inscription and matrix, your vision adjusts faster than your brain can figure out what you’re seeing. In a tenth of a second, your visual cortex becomes saturated and those discrete color differences between inscription and matrix wash out.

What strobe lighting does is prevents your visual cortex from saturating. This way you can continue to see the fine differences between the inscription and stone matrix. The net result is that visual features not seen previously begin to emerge. 



A split photo of the petroglyphs from Stein Park. The right half is enhanced by DStretch.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 1)

The field of epigraphy has under gone a silent revolution over the last decade.  The problem of epigraphy has always been the same.  That is, being able to read inscriptions that are hard to see.  The process was laborious with readers taking weeks to carefully examine and untease a difficult to read inscription.

Today, while reading an inscription still can take weeks to unlock, the following advanced technologies transformed epigraphy into a more scientific endeavor.  The difference is not so much how long things take, but that epigraphers are now able to engage ever more difficult inscriptions.

In fact, the way that epigraphy is done today would hardly be recognizable to the epigrapher of a decade ago.  Gone are the days of crudely magnifying blurry photographs taken on site.  A host of new technologies now exist that would put the space shuttle to shame.  Today’s bog will give the briefest introduction to three of these tools.

Digital Photography

Digital photography is the foundation of 21st century epigraphy.  Even as late as the 1990’s, black and white film photography was preferred over digital images because of the detail captured by film.  Today, that is no longer true.  Even older DSLR cameras can capture an image resolution that exceeds many film photos.  But more importantly,  DSLR color images can capture color information that is simply not preserved by film photography.

Furthermore, in the old days, if you wanted to manipulate an image, you needed to digitize a photograph with a scanner.  Even the best scanners resulted in some image degradation.  A DSLR camera can create a RAW image that preserves what the camera sees directly from the camera sensor.  More image data means a greater capacity to extract information from an image.


Photoshop is the Swiss Army knife of the epigrapher.   And the ability of Photoshop to manipulate photographic information is practically limitless.  Photoshop can enhance a single image, and it can composite many smaller images together.

With Photoshop, the epigrapher can amplify the color curve of a photo.  This can make a photograph with low contrast easier to read.  Photoshop can also convert a color image to black and white using existing color information.  This can provide not just one, but many black and white images that can show different aspects of the same photo.


One of the more interesting advances in the last decade has been the invention of DStretch.  The developer of DStretch sells the program as a plugin used with ImageJ, a free imaging software package.   The plugin pulls the colors of red ochre from an image and allows the epigrapher to see the image more clearly.  For example, I used DStretch to make the petroglyphs from Stein Park, BC (photo by Sebastian Rakowski) easily seen.

While originally designed for prehistoric anthropologists to extract hard to read petroglyphs from rock faces, others in the fields of archaeology and epigraphy have found the tool exceptionally useful.   Roland Enmarch has used DStretch to read inscriptions at the quarry site of Hatnub.  I have also found it useful to separate out damage from inscription in one of the early alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim.