In excavating sites in a long-inhabited urban area like Jerusalem, archaeologists are accustomed to noting complexity in their finds — how various occupying civilizations layer over one another during the site’s continuous use over millennia. But when an area has also been abandoned for intermittent periods, paradoxically there may be even richer finds uncovered, as some layers have been buried and remain undisturbed by development.
Such appears be the case at an archaeological dig on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, conducted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where the 2013 excavations have revealed the well-preserved lower levels of what the archaeological team believes is an Early Roman period mansion (first century CE), possibly belonging to a member of the Jewish ruling priestly caste.
If the mansion does prove to be an elite priestly residence, the dig team hopes the relatively undisturbed nature of the buried ruin may yield significant domestic details concerning the rulers of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.
Buried Vaulted Chamber Bath Found
Particularly important in the season’s discoveries were a buried vaulted chamber that has proven to be an unusual finished bathroom (with bathtub) adjacent to a large below-ground ritual cleansing pool (mikveh) — only the fourth bathroom to be found in Israel from the Second Temple period, with two of the others found in palaces of Herod the Great at Jericho and Masada.
Shimon Gibson, the British-born archaeologist co-directing the UNC Charlotte excavation, notes that the addition of the bathroom to the mikveh is a clear sign of the wealth and status of the resident.
“The bathroom is very important because hitherto, except for Jerusalem, it is usually found within palace complexes, associated with the rulers of the country,” Gibson said. “We have examples of bathrooms of this kind mainly in palatial buildings.”
The other example of a contemporary mikveh with an attached bathroom is at a site excavated in Jerusalem in the nearby Jewish Quarter. “A bathroom that is almost a copy of ours was found in an excavation of a palatial mansion,” noted Gibson. “It is only a stone’s throw away and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the people who made that bathroom probably were the same ones who made this one. It’s almost identical, not only in the way it’s made, but also in the finishing touches, like the edge of the bath itself.”
“The building in the Jewish Quarter is similar in characteristics to our own with an inscription of a priestly family,” Gibson added. “The working theory is that we’re dealing also with a priestly family.”
Gibson notes that there are other details about the site that suggest that its first century residents may have been members of the ruling elite. “The building that we are excavating is in the shadow — immediately to the southeast — of the very, very large palace of Herod the Great, his compound and the later seat of the Roman governors (praetorium).”
Location Suggests Status of Occupant
The location is a strong indication of a high-status resident. “Whoever lived in this house would have been a neighbor and would have been able to pop into the palace,” he speculated.
While also cautious about reaching premature conclusions, dig co-director James Tabor, a UNC Charlotte scholar of early Christian history, believes there might be significant historical information uncovered, should the building turn out to be a priestly residence.
“If this turns out to be the priestly residence of a wealthy first century Jewish family, it immediately connects not just to the elite of Jerusalem — the aristocrats, the rich and famous of that day — but to Jesus himself,” Tabor said. “These are the families who had Jesus arrested and crucified, so for us to know more about them and their domestic life — and the level of wealth that they enjoyed — would really fill in for us some key history.”
Though the artifacts found this season are still being evaluated, one set of items in particular stand out as highly unusual: a large number of murex shells, the largest number ever found in the ruins of first-century Jerusalem. Species of murex (a genus of Mediterranean sea snail) were highly valued in Roman times because of a rich purple dye that could be extracted from the living creature.
“This color was highly desired,” Gibson said. “The dye industry seems to be something that was supervised by the priestly class for the priestly vestments and for other aspects of clothing which were vital for those who wished to officiate in the capital precincts.”
Why anyone in Jerusalem would be in possession of such “a very large quantity” of murex shells, however, remains a mystery to the excavation team, since the shells are not involved in the actual dye making process. Gibson hypothesizes that the shells may have been used to identify different grades of dye, since the quality of the product can vary from species to species. Some species are used to make a turquoise blue dye.
“It is significant that these are household activities which may have been undertaken by the priests,” Gibson said. “If so, it tells us a lot more about the priests than we knew before. We know from the writings of Josephus Flavius and later rabbinical texts about their activities in the area of the Jewish temple, but there is hardly any information about their priestly activities outside the holy precinct. This is new information, and that is quite exciting. We might find in future seasons further aspects of industries, which were supervised by these priestly families.”
The domestic details of the first-century Jewish ruling class may yield insights into New Testament history, Tabor notes. “Jesus, in fact, criticizes the wealth of this class,” Tabor said. “He talks about their clothing and their long robes and their finery, and, in a sense, pokes fun at it. So for us to get closer to understanding that — to supplement the text — it could be really fascinating.”
Researchers Consider Possibility of Priestly Residence
Gibson also notes that historical legends from several centuries later point as well to the possibility that the building is a priestly residence. “Byzantine tradition places in our general area the mansion of the high priest Caiaphas or perhaps Annas, who was his father-in-law,” Gibson said. “In those days you had extended families who would have been using the same building complex, which might have had up to 20 rooms and several different floors.”
Further discoveries this season suggest still other details of history from first century Jerusalem. At the bottom of the residence’s large, 30-foot deep cistern, the excavators found cooking pots and the remains of an oven. While Gibson stresses that it is again too early to draw conclusions about these items, he and the other researchers are considering these items as a possible indication that the emptied cistern was used as a refuge by Jewish residents hiding from Roman soldiers during the siege of 70 CE.
“When we started clearing it we found a lot of debris inside, which included substantial numbers of animal bones and then right at the bottom we came across a number of vessels, which seemed to be sitting on the floor — cooking pots and bits of an oven as well,” Gibson said. “We still need to look at this material very carefully and be absolutely certain of our conclusions, but it might be that these are the remnants of a kitchen in use by Jews hiding from the Romans — their last resort was to go into these cisterns. It was a common practice, but this conclusion is theoretical. It makes for a very good story and it does look that way, but we’ve got to be certain.”
Gibson notes that the Roman-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus talks about such a scene in his description of the siege:
One John, a leader of the rebels, along with his brother Simon, who were found, starved to death in the cisterns and water systems that ran under the city. Over 2000 bodies found in the various underground chambers, most dead from starvation. (Josephus, War 6:429-433)
Gibson credits the rich amount of detail and archaeological information present at the first century level of the dig with the accident of the site’s location in Jerusalem. Ruins in major urban areas are rarely preserved with parts of the structure buried intact because subsequent residents tend to cannibalize buildings for materials for their own structures. However, when the Jerusalem of Jesus’s era was destroyed by the occupying Romans in 70 CE, it was deserted for 65 years, until the Roman Emperor Hadrian re-built a city (Aelia Capitolina) on the ruins in 135 CE. At that point however, the new development was on the other side of the present-day city and Mount Zion was left unoccupied.
“The ruined field of first-century houses in our area remained there intact up until the beginning of the Byzantine period (early 4th Century),” Gibson said. “When the Byzantine inhabitants built there, they leveled things off a bit but they used the same plan of the older houses, building their walls on top of the older walls.”
Subsequently, the sixth century Byzantine Emperor Justinian contributed another layer of preservation when he completed the construction of a massive new cathedral, the Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos, just to the northeast of the site on Mt. Zion. The construction involved the excavation of enormous underground reservoirs and the excavation fill was dumped downhill, burying the more recent Byzantine constructions.
“The area got submerged, ” Gibson said. “The early Byzantine reconstruction of these two-story Early Roman houses then got buried under rubble and soil fills. Then they established buildings above it. That’s why we found an unusually well-preserved set of stratigraphic levels.”
In addition to straightforward archaeological research, the excavation is being used as a field school for the instruction of UNC Charlotte students in archaeology; especially since the site is remarkable in the way it exhibits the complexity of the urban history of Jerusalem. In addition to Roman-Jewish and Byzantine layers, there are also strata present reflecting a variety of the many Islamic cultures that have ruled the city between the Umayyad and Ottoman periods (seventh to twentieth centuries).
“One of the purposes of this dig is an educational one,” Gibson said. “One of the ways it can be used is to try to understand the different cultures that had possession of Jerusalem at different points in time. The Islamic part of this is not fully understood, at least not in terms of the domestic picture.
“Once again, we know about mosques and madrassas, but we know hardly anything about the daily life. Here, in this site we have three superimposed levels — belonging to the Umayyads (seventh to mid eighth centuries), Abbasids (mid-eighth to ninth centuries) and Fatimids (ninth to eleventh centuries)– which allow us to reconstruct the cultural life in the houses from these periods,” he said.
Though Gibson expects the site will eventually be open to visitors who wish to see the ruins, he notes that the site at present remains closed until the archaeological work can be completed in subsequent seasons and the fragile structures there have been stabilized through conservation procedures. The area remains too dangerous for tourists to enter.
The UNC Charlotte dig, licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Parks Authority, is the only archaeological excavation in Jerusalem currently being conducted by an American university. The 2013 excavations were done between June 16 and July 11, with continuing work on the site expected to take place in the summers of 2014 and 2015. The work was made possible through the generous support of The Friends of Mount Zion, a group of private funders organized by the Office of Development at UNC Charlotte. The University of the Holy Land and The Foundation provided other assistance for Biblical Archaeology.
Words: James Hathaway. Images: Courtesy of James Tabor.