Filming In Israel

Ancient Diseases The Dramatic Themes for a New Documentary

An Interesting Profession

In the previous article, ‘Ancient Diseases – An Anthropological Perspective’, we looked at the interesting work carried out by anthropologists and paleopathologists.

Whereas anthropologists study past civilizations, paleopathologists have the gory specialism of investigating excavated bodies. These corpses, which have been buried beneath the earth for thousands of years, are examined and a whole range of data about them is then analyzed in order to establish facts about their lifestyles.

Joe Zias Medical & Physical Anthropolpgy, is planning to make a documentary on paleopathologists and has provided Biblical Productions with details of the themes he intends to cover.

1. Narcotic Plants

Ethnobotany is the study of the uses of plants in different human societies.
Man has a vital relationship with, and dependency on, many of the plants that surround him. Examples from the past can demonstrate the connection man had with his natural environment.


Jo Zias gave a fascinating example about how narcotic plants are sometimes found in ancient bodies. In past eras they were often used in emergencies to ease suffering. He described how the remains of a young woman were discovered. On examination it was established that she had died during childbirth in the fourth century. In her abdominal region, the unborn fetus was discovered along with a foreign substance. After analysis, it was proven to be an inhalant containing THC, the active ingredient in hashish.

Literary evidence from the Egyptian Eber’s Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE) mentions that Egyptian women actively used the drug for a variety of ‘female problems.’
In the 19th century, British physicians wrote that the plant was medically effective in improving labor pains, reducing the frequency and power of birth contractions.

Such a case is also interesting because it brings up the different religious values that are reflected by choices made during a childbirth crisis. In many religions, these values remain unchanged to this day.

In a situation where the lives of both mother and fetus are at stake, Jews would remove the unborn child in the womb in order to save the mother. Her life is considered to take precedence. In the Christian community, the unborn child was theologically important since it had not yet been baptized. Thus the mother was sacrificed (Cesarean) to save the child.


The story of opium use in the ancient Mediterranean provides a fascinating example of how humans communicated at a time when most people were illiterate.

In the 1980s, traces of opium were found in 3,500-year-old juglets that resembled the opium poppy. The containers were manufactured and transported throughout the Mediterranean. Using ceramic containers fashioned in the shape of the plant from which the narcotic originated cleverly signaled their contents and served as an ingenious mass marketing method for the time.

Zias’ documentary will show that drugs such as hashish and opium were not only medically effective in ancient times, but are also still used, and still considered to be effective, in modern medicine. As an example, today hashish is used for cancer patients and those suffering from diseases of the eye.

Presenting Ethnobotany in a Dramatic Light

The planned documentary will include interviews with anthropologists and doctors who can tell us about the medical effectiveness of such drugs, both in ancient times and today.

To explore the use of drugs in ancient times, Zias has access to the actual fetal remains found in the mother who died during childbirth. He is also able to present actual opium poppy plants, as well as the ancient ceramic pots fashioned in the form of a poppy.

To bring the whole process to life for the viewer, a kit used by forensic specialists to test for traces of drugs will also be demonstrated.

2. Neurosurgery in Jericho, 5450 B.C.E.

Ancient Medical Expertise

The world’s oldest routine medical procedure (dating back to 10,000 BC), in which a portion of the human skull is surgically removed, remains one of the most fascinating stories in the chronicles of medical history.

Evidence of skull surgery has been discovered throughout the world, initiating modern interest in this ancient medical procedure. Research on the subject begins in ancient Jericho over 5,450 years ago. It provides what is perhaps the world’s earliest documented evidence as to why this operation was performed in ancient civilizations.

A skull from this period showed that an advanced sinus infection had led to three successive operations on the patient which had been undertaken to drain fluid from the brain. The last operation ultimately proved fatal, due in part to what today could be construed as malpractice. Given similar clinical features today, the medical community would perform a nearly identical operation (craniotomy). The most amazing thing about this procedure was rate of success in ancient cases – approximately 70-80 per cent.

During the Middle Ages, the same surgical procedure, carried out in hospitals, showed a success rate of around 0-5 per cent. During the Hellenistic period (second to third centuries BCE), physicians were able to employ a simple but ingenious method, similar to a modern-day radiograph, to determine the extent of injury in cranial fractures of traumatic origin.

Dramatic Presentation

This ancient medical procedure is still being carried out today in parts of Africa. The anthropological community has footage and still photographs of these operations being carried out in the field, using primitive surgical instruments that we still have access to.

The documentary will include an anthropologist explaining why the surgery was required in ancient times, as well as a neurosurgeon, who will compare these reasons with medical opinion today.

The skeletal remains of those who received this treatment were found in a cave site near Jericho. Entry into the caves involves rappelling down a sheer vertical slope, which would make a very dramatic shot.

The Israel Antiquities Authority have several crania, found in these caves, on which the operation was carried out. They also have radiographs which establish the very dramatic surgical intervention that took place over 5,000 years ago.

As the operation is common today, footage from medical schools can also be obtained to show the continuity of this surgical intervention.

The whole topic will be presented in a very visual manner; from the ancient evidence up until modern times. The fascinating aspect of this, is that despite the passage of time and technological and medical advances, this major operation is still taking place, in much the same manner as it was thousands of years ago. The documentary will therefore showcase one operation over the span of thousands of years.

3. Dentistry in the “Wilderness of Zin”

What ancient Egyptian texts refer to as ‘toothers’ are the earliest literary evidence of dentistry in the Old World. As early as 3,000 BCE, the first references to an established dental profession began appearing in literature. Perhaps the most common and widespread belief concerning the causes of dental disease was the ‘tooth worm theory’. There are numerous and often hilarious incantations that were used in exorcising the ‘worm’ from the tooth.

In the mid-1980s the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated a mass grave in a desolate area along the Nabatean spice route, known as the Wilderness of Zin in biblical times. There the corpse of a Nabatean soldier from 200 BCE was discovered. He had suffered from numerous dental pathologies and had a bronze wire implanted in the root canal of his upper right incisor.

The find is unique in the history of dentistry for several reasons. Firstly, it is believed to be the earliest known example of a tooth deliberately filled with a metal object. Secondly, the wire was bronze instead of gold, suggesting that the soldier may have paid for gold but was ‘given the other’. Bronze is highly toxic to humans and has never been used in dentistry. The root canal was discovered because the bronze turned the soldier’s tooth green.

Dramatic Presentation

The film will include interviews with an anthropologist and a dental expert, who, between them, can tell us about ancient dentistry and the dangers associated with it, as well as the changes and similarities in dentistry over time.

The site on which the soldier was found is visually exciting – desolate and rugged, with an oasis in the background. The skull itself shows numerous dental pathologies, making it very interesting to film.

4. Leprosy

Leprosy – one of the most compelling yet misunderstood diseases ever known to mankind. Familiar throughout the world because of its mention in the bible, few people today are aware that the disease, which now affects 12 to 15 million people, has no medical connections with the leprosy of the Old Testament.

Until recently, no physical evidence of the disease had ever been discovered in the Holy Land. It was first stumbled on in an ancient Byzantine monastery near the Jordan River. The monastery, built in the 6th century, is directly out of an ‘Indiana Jones’ film – dirt floors, walls constructed of field stones, scorpions and poisonous snakes embalmed in kerosene. Aside from it having such a visual impact, the site provided the first archaeological evidence of true leprosy in the Holy Land.

Subsequent research in these beautiful and exotic desert monasteries lent credence to the widespread belief that these communities took care of those among the proverbial ‘blind, lame and halt’.

In one of these monastic mass graves, several hundred grams of corprolites (dried feces) were found, which give anthropologists insight into diet as well as parasitic infections. Upon forensic analysis, it was discovered that the feces were from a hyena, and contained human bone, clothing and hair. This fecal evidence, along with 14th century data, allowed us to reconstruct the last days of the monastery and the massacre which destroyed the community of lepers along the Jordan River in 614 A.D

Dramatic Presentation

The documentary will include archaeologists, anthropologists and medical experts, exploring the plight of the lepers of the Old World, as well as finding out why those suffering from the disease today have no connection with the ancient illness.

This theme can be illustrated very dramatically. One monastery alone, Deir Hagla, can supply dramatic as well as scientific content for the film. The monastery of Saint John the Baptist, the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus, has a centuries-long tradition of ‘the washing of the leper’.

Zias plans to film the occasion in January, on the Christian feast of Epiphany, when hundreds of pilgrims, dressed in black, come with the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem to bathe in the Jordan River.

5. “Is There Lice After Death?”

The bible is full of references to lice. Perhaps the most famous is found in the book of Exodus, telling of one of the ten plagues which befell the ancient Egyptians: “…all the dust of the earth turned to lice throughout the land of Egypt.” While medical historians have long debated whether or not this passage actually refers to human lice, recent discoveries in the Judean and Negev deserts have shown that these human head lice have not changed in form over the past 9 000 years.

In a desert cave, containing the remnants of a cult of the dead, we found a collection of human skulls, several of which had their lice-infested hair re-glued to their heads after death (an early form of hair transplant). At Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, several wooden hair combs from the Roman period were discovered, complete with lice and hundreds of eggs, some of which still had embryos intact.

It is theoretically possible to remove the human blood from the gut of the adult louse, which can then provide a glimpse into the DNA of past populations. It would then be possible to compare the ancient Jewish population with those living in Israel today.

Dramatic Presentation

Zias’ documentary will give us the dramatic visuals of the area of Qumran and the Dead Sea. He plans to use an anthropological approach to describe the community living at Qumran at that time and look at how their lifestyle, knowledge and practices link in to modern science and medicine.

The 2,000-year-old combs on which the lice were found, as well as excellent photos of the lice themselves, should provide a humorous side to the film and perhaps make the audience squirm a little!

The sequencing of human blood cells from the gut of the lice, if successful, would inject scientific excitement into the film. It would demonstrate the true value of anthropology in helping experts use data from the past to inform the present.

Filming in Israel

Zias’ plans present us with a documentary that is bound to excite viewers on many levels. Its educational value, presented in such an interesting and stimulating format, should achieve its aims of explaining about the anthropological and paleopatholical fields.

To help him set the scene and capture the subject in the exciting manner he plans, locations will be a key aspect of this production.

At Biblical Productions we are experts at filming in Israel. We have supported crews to film a range of documentaries in Israel in the past and are able to cut through all the red tape to help crews gain access to historical sites and museum exhibits. In addition we are experienced at helping crews to access remote locations. Transporting equipment and gaining access to these sites requires specialist knowledge.

Biblical Productions is a leading film production company, based in Israel. We guide production crews throughout their shoot in Israel – from the pre-production planning to the post-production wrap. We arrange professional crews, fixers, permits, HD equipment rental, interviews, location scouting and more.

Biblical Productions also boasts a large collection of high-quality archival footage, making it a one-stop shop for all your production services in Israel. Please view our client list

‘Biblical Productions: The number once choice for production services in Israel.’

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