Extraordinary Finds at the Mt Zion Excavation
by James Tabor
A PDF version of this report is available here and can be downloaded and circulated: MtMionJulyUpdate.
I wanted to offer a preliminary update report on the Mt Zion Excavation in Jerusalem after three weeks of digging. The results have been simply astounding, the finds quite spectacular, and the whole area has been transformed. I would dare say that those who have seen the site in past years would hardly recognize it. We owe much to our loyal team of 50 registered participants, averaging 30 per week, who have sacrificed their own money, time, and hard labor to advance this important effort. Given the times, with the pressures of the recession, many excavations have had to either cancel or severely cut back, due to lack of volunteers. UNC Charlotte is the only university presently digging in Jerusalem that offers students and volunteers a field school experience. This unique opportunity, along with our location in Jerusalem, has been a large part of our appeal. Our site offers an opportunity to uncover all periods of habitation of this important city (from modern through Ottoman, Crusader, Arab, Byzantine, and Jewish periods—all the way back to the Iron Age). Further, our precise location, on the slopes of Mt Zion, overlooking the Kidron and Hinnom valleys and the Mt of Olives, was in ancient times precisely at the center of Herodian/2nd Temple Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. And what’s more, we have extraordinarily well preserved ruins from this 2nd Temple period, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.
Our major goals this season have been to remove much of the garden fill and rubble that has accumulated over the past decades so as to get down to the archaeological layers that lie below, with particular emphasis on the 2nd Temple period levels that are preserved to an extraordinary height of 10-12 meters. We began our work on June 14th with two days of manually clearing the site of overgrowth and winter debris. At the same time heavy earthmoving equipment was brought in to remove up to one meter of modern garden fill and tumbled boulders left from the building the modern road that parallels our site. This preparatory work allowed us to concentrate on genuine archaeological layers from antiquity rather than wasting our precious time on debris, fill, and even modern trash layers. As a result the entire site was transformed and has begun now to look like a proper archaeological site. As readers might recall, we are digging in an area that was probed in the 1970s and then abandoned for 40 years! The deep pits and gauged out areas left behind had to be incorporated into our systematic plan to develop a proper archaeological approach to the area. As a result we have had to adopt an “open field” method of digging, rather than a strict grid of squares, however, slowly but surely, the whole site is beginning to make some coherent sense, even to the untrained eye.
Our progress has been amazing and the finds have been quite extraordinary. We will, of course, publish full reports on our Web site later this year but in terms of an overview here are some of our more spectacular finds so far:
1. A stone vessel with an ancient inscription of ten lines written in an archaic Jewish script. Such stone vessels were used in connection with maintaining ritual purity related to Temple worship, and they are found in abundance in areas where the priests lived. We have found a dozen or more on our site over the past three years. However, to have ten lines of text is unprecedented. One normally might find a single name inscribed, or a line or two, but this is the first text of this length ever found on such a vessel. We have shared high-resolution photos with various epigraphic experts in Jerusalem who are working together to try and decipher this text. It is written in a very informal cursive hand and is quite difficult to read.
2. Murex snail shells with holes drilled through them. Prior to our excavation one or two such shells had been found in all of Jerusalem but our site has yielded a half dozen or more. These snails were cultivated at sites along the Mediterranean Sea and a royal blue dye was extracted from them. According to some experts this blue color was used for the priestly garments, as well as the tzitzit or threaded tassels worn by all pious Jews of the period. That so many would be found at our site further supports our supposition that we are in a priestly residential area in terms of the 2nd Temple/Herodian city in the time of Jesus. As we descend into the preserved ruins of the houses of this period perhaps we will learn more of how these snails and their precious dye were used within the city of Jerusalem itself.
3. A fire pit that can be precisely dated to just after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE and the rebuilding of the city by Hadrian following the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE. To come upon this level was an amazing thing. Clearly someone had returned to the area after the Roman conflagration and was living outdoors literally on the ruins of Jerusalem, despite its total destruction. Further up the slope of Mt Zion we know that the 10th Legion of the Roman army had their camp. This little glimpse through a window of time, preserved by the fire pit, we found quite moving to contemplate. Our bone expert, Ram Bouchnik, will be examining the type of meal this mysterious “dweller in the ruins” might have prepared.
4. The threshold of a magnificent Fatimid period double gate that led into the Tower just adjacent to our site along the present city wall built by Suleiman “the Magnificant” in the 16th century. Magen Broshi, who had conducted the initial probes on our site in the 1970s, had always insisted there was a gate leading into the city at the tower, despite denials by Avigad and others, who had excavated inside the Jewish Quarter on the other side of the Wall. We also happened upon the rusted metal sign that Broshi had erected at the site at the time proclaiming this as the “Tower Gate” It is entirely possible that this threshold goes back to even earlier times, perhaps as far back as the Ayyubid period of Saladin (1200s CE). This discovery is most significant and will help us in reconstructing the periods of habitation that run through our site and provide a dramatic display for the public of the early and late Arab periods of Jerusalem’s history.
5. An arched doorway with mosaic floor and plastered wall. Last season we had uncovered the top of a plastered wall along the eastern edge of our excavation. We opened an extension of that area and were eventually able to expose the entire arch in situ with the plastered floor below, approximately 4 meters below the present ground surface. Dating is still pending but we are leaning toward Byzantine or Roman, and it is possible there is an earlier floor below. To have intact structures at this depth shows the amazing preservation levels that characterize the Mt Zion site.
6. Exposure of several well preserved 2nd Temple period vaulted chambers likely containing mikvot (ritual baths) and storage areas, similar to what was found by Avigad in the Jewish Quarter. After three weeks of hard work the extensive fill above one barely visible 2nd Temple period vaulted chamber has been removed, allowing access to the room above and its preserved walls, with the floors just centimeters below. Several chambers leading far below the visible structures are now visible and we have indications of multiple vaults under the debris and fill still to be removed. We anticipate going into these vaults and chambers before the end of this season, with the mysteries beyond awaiting us. Since these remains are better preserved than some of those in the Jewish Quarter (Burnt House and Wohl Museum), our anticipation at what might be found, remaining from the Roman destruction in 70 CE, is quite high.
In addition to these highlighted finds we have uncovered multiple coins, intact lamps, ceramic and glass vessels, bits of jewelry, and so forth as one might find in any excavation of ancient Jerusalem from this period. We have also found two crosses from the Byzantine period. We also collect all bones, metal, and glass fragments, mosaic pieces, plus carbon and plaster samples for dating purposes.
Our dig schedule has been full with many visitors from the archaeological community stopping by to take a look at what we are finding as well as tourists and other groups who happen to come by. We have also had invited lectures for our students and staff from a distinguished roster of experts including Zvi
Greenhut, Tina Wray, Rafi Lewis, Jodi Magness, Tsvika Tsuk, Boaz Zissu, and Joe Zias—as well as your very own Shimon Gibson and James Tabor.
Our dig was shortened from six to four weeks due to financial constraints but we are discussing possibly extending things into a fifth or sixth week, contingent on funding, since we are poised this fourth week just over the well-preserved remains from the 2nd Temple destruction of Jerusalem, with chambers, several tabun (bread ovens), and other features emerging. It seems important to enter these chambers this season rather than waiting for a year. A skeleton team of volunteers is willing to stay on if we can manage to work this out.
Funding has been extraordinarily tight this season with North Carolina state funds frozen entirely and many donors feeling the pinch of the recession. In order to complete our season, plus a minimum of conservation and post-excavation work, we have inaugurated a Web fund drive (http://digmountzion.com/information/Donations.html) to raise $50,000 by August 31st and we are about 1/3 there. Gifts have ranged from $25 to $3000, with the average around $100. I hope you will join this fund drive and pass on the word to others. I think by pulling together a few hundred of us can easily meet our goal.