A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah holds a copy of a famous mosaic map of Jerusalem, pointing out the location of the portion of the ancient Roman city she’s just excavated. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
How did the opportunity to dig at one of Jerusalem’s most famous places—the Western Wall Plaza—come about?
We started excavating in September 2005 because the Foundation for the Heritage of the Western Wall—the body that runs the whole plaza area—decided to plan a building here. A modern building used to stand here. It was the place where the police had their offices. The foundation had decided to construct a new building or at least plan one. On one side, they wanted to have some offices and a police station. On the other side, a cultural center and library for the many students who come here. It will reflect a little bit the history of the site and the Old City. The building is to be based on the bedrock that forms the western boundary of the plaza.
So that’s where you started digging?
Exactly. And we completed excavations in February . But from the very beginning, it was obvious that archaeological excavations should take place here. Of course, there was a very high probability that the remains would be very impressive and should be restored and presented to the public in the basement of the new building.
Why were you so sure they’d be impressive?
Because we are 100 meters away from the Temple Mount. It was quite obvious. Also, we knew we were seated on the route of one of the main colonnaded streets of the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Therefore, we had reason to assume that whatever was going to be found here would be quite impressive. But excavating here was not that simple.
Weksler-Bdolah’s IAA team excavated just 100 meters from the Temple Mount. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
This is a very holy place and a very sensitive place. We excavated here for about three years, every day throughout the year. Most of the time we were between four and five archaeologists and a group of between 40 to 60 workers. We only had, from time to time, to stop a little bit in order to build temporary bridges, over which machines were brought in to take out the earth and everything that was excavated. It was a big issue here. There was also a limit to the number of people you could put inside and expect to work. We had to do everything very carefully. Of course, not everything was dug at once. We started in the south and slowly, slowly went north and east.
Why did you decide to start in the southern part?
Actually, the police building still stood in the northern part for about a year and a half. Eventually, we extended the excavation 14 meters to the east, and farther to the north. In the end, the whole site was about 50 meters from north to south and about 35 to 40 meters from east to west. It is important to say that compared with other excavations around the Old City of Jerusalem, this was a very, very big area—and an important opportunity to excavate in a place that had never been excavated before.
That’s amazing. No archaeological work had ever been done here?
Ever since the archaeology of Jerusalem started about 150 years ago, from the end of the 19th century until today, the city has been excavated in many places but mostly at a small scale. Large-scale excavations only took place, for example, in areas such as the Jewish Quarter and south of the Temple Mount. But this area—the area of the Western Wall Plaza—had never been excavated before. This was really the first chance to excavate in this very, very special area. The site is located on the slopes of the western hill of Jerusalem, where the upper city of the First and Second Temple periods was situated. So just on the slopes that are sloping toward the Temple Mount. And, as I mentioned, we are quite near the Temple Mount itself. So it was really a big opportunity to excavate here.
Did the finds live up to your expectations?
Everyone agrees that what has been unearthed here is much, much, much beyond our expectations—the state of preservation and everything. It really amazed us.
What in particular amazed you? Take it from the beginning...
We started excavating at the level of the plaza of today. The Western Wall Plaza was actually artificially created by the government of Israel in 1967, following the Six Days War, when the Maghrebine neighborhood was destroyed in order to create it. The surface, even, was raised a little bit. Therefore today, when you stand in the western part of the plaza, the surface actually slopes a little to the west.
How did you go about excavating there?
We started going down slowly, slowly. From the very beginning, we knew where we were: there is a famous mosaic map—today it is in Jordan—which is the oldest map that depicts Jerusalem quite accurately. Except that the Temple Mount is not shown. It’s probably “ideologically” missing. It must have been left out on purpose because, of course, it’s still here! But they didn’t present it in the map. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, of course, at the center of the city and shown on the center of the map. On it, however, you can see Jerusalem in an oval shape in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, in the height of its Christian Byzantine period. The map also shows that the city had two colonnaded streets. We knew that we were located, more or less, on the route of one of those streets, what was generally called the secondary, or eastern Cardo.
The archaeologists discovered a portion of the eastern Cardo (flat, rectangular slabs), one of Roman Jerusalem’s main thoroughfares. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
And no one had ever found it before?
In the 1930s or ’40s, the drainage system of the Old City was repaired and some digs were conducted under the pavement of El Wad Street. At that time, the excavators reached the pavement of the eastern Cardo. So we knew of its existence and that it was about four meters down. But there were many debates about the dating of this street. Some said it was Byzantine. Some said it was Roman. This was the biggest debate. It takes us into a larger debate about the size of Jerusalem and about the development of Jerusalem in the Roman period after the destruction of A.D. 70, when Hadrian founded and built the city of Aelia Capitolina. What was the exact size? There was a very big debate among archaeologists, especially following the excavations in the Jewish Quarter by Hebrew University after 1967. More and more, the new generation of researchers had started to believe that the city of Aelia Capitolina actually was only in the northern part of the Old City of today—and never inhabited the southern part here, near the Western Wall. And only in the Byzantine period, when the city extended to the south, also the southern part was settled. So this was something that more and more came to be accepted among the archaeologists and historians.
Did you begin to answer these questions?
When we started to dig, the biggest questions we had in mind were not only to find the eastern Cardo—and to trace its development—but also to be able to date the street and see its place in the layout of the city of Aelia Capitolina. Eventually, we really reached it and it turned out to be a very, very, very impressive street, which was made more or less in the standards of the most impressive colonnaded streets of the Roman Empire in the second century. Also, we could date it according to pottery and coins and other small finds that we discovered underneath the slabs—we lifted some of them—and the date is second century. The latest date, at least for now, is the time of Emperor Hadrian in the first third of the second century.
Each of the Cardo’s massive slabs was 30 to 40 centimeters thick and up to a meter wide. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
Had other parts of the eastern Cardo been unearthed before?
This is really the first time in the archaeology of Jerusalem that a whole section of the street has been unearthed. We are aware only now that when the street was planned, from the very beginning, a huge amount of work was invested in order to create such a flat surface along its route. Naturally, we’re on the slope of the hill. When the Romans came and decided to pave one of their main colonnaded streets here, they carved away the bedrock and they left only the walls, which were used to separate the shops that were actually carved directly into the bedrock. They’re almost four meters tall and still standing! We were very impressed by the amount of work that was invested in this street, including creating a 10-meter-high vertical cliff by carving the bedrock. Along with the natural cliff, it still separates today the Jewish Quarter from the Western Wall Plaza. The Romans didn’t care so much about the amount of bedrock they had to carve away. They just went along, according to their level, and everything that was on the way or in the way, they just took it away. And this is really very, very impressive.
The Romans carved shops directly into the bedrock on the western side of the eastern Cardo. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
There is another important thing here—a very impressive drainage system that was constructed in the Roman period. You don’t see it really now because it’s under the pavement, but there is a big canal going down. It’s a few meters deep and about a meter wide and it’s covered with slabs of stone underneath this street. And this drainage canal, which was originally constructed when the street was paved in Roman times, went on being in use until modern times. Everyone in the city used it and many drains just continued to cut through down to the Roman system. Only in the 20th century, I think, only until Jordanian...or Israeli rule after ’67, a new drainage system was constructed in this area. Until then, actually, the Roman system went on being in use and it just worked. Even today, when it rains—and it rains quite heavily in the winter here—nothing stays for more than a couple of hours or days, maximum.
The Roman drainage system worked so well, it was in continuous use until the late 20th century. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
Do you have an idea of how the street actually looked?
It was very wide—11 meters—with two wide sidewalks, five meters wide each, and a row of shops in the bedrock on the western side. We’ve finished excavating, so actually we do not know what was going on in the eastern side of the street. Of course, we are quite interested to know, but there’s no money now for the continuation of the dig.
What we do know is that people did not actually walk on the street. There were stairs on either side of it as there were on the main colonnaded streets of cities such as Jerash in Jordan. The stairs were usually inside the pillars that lined the street, not on the sidewalks, allowing an easy climb to the street to cross it. We found two of these stairs on the western side of the street. They also served as benches. So it was very nice. This quite characterizes the main colonnaded streets in the Roman architecture of the East. Actually, the width of the pavement in the center of the street was only eight meters and then on each side there was about a meter and a half where there were stairs that led to the sidewalks. Along the streets most probably were pillars. We found only one pillar in situ. It looked like it had fallen, was replaced at once, and then afterward strengthened inside an older pilaster that stands there today. We saw other pillars like this in “secondary use” in the walls of the Early Islamic period. Also, the bases of the pillars are very strange. We don’t know of too many parallels.
They’re not...if you look at Jerash—we can only envy them! We don’t have those nice, Attic bases of the columns. Here, they’re quite primitive, not that developed. And the question is: Why? What, exactly, is the date of this? The experts are now looking at this. Maybe we will have an answer someday. But we know that this really characterizes the street, also because we found many of them lying down here, incorporated into the walls of later periods.
Most of the pillars that lined the Roman street were found lying down and incorporated into the walls of later-period buildings. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
Were there any other unusual architectural elements of the Cardo?
We have four column bases in a very small area. We also have two Corinthian capitals. One looks as though the carving was never finished. Actually, most of the architectural elements that we found here were reused in later periods. One very impressive pillar base...let me back up. The Cardo goes north to south on two streets. There are two streets that go to the east from the main Cardo. One, here, starts with a row of five stairs that go down and another one to the west. Then there’s one street going to the east, you don’t see it really, and another one to the north. And in between them, 28 meters in size, is “something.” Now, this is paved with a mosaic floor today that dates to the Byzantine period, the sixth century, and a wonderful, heart-shaped base of a pillar that stands just in the corner.
What do you think it was used for?
We don’t know exactly, but it looks very much like an entrance into something because it forms a corner...if you stand here, you can see the heart shape. But the corner of what? That’s the question. We can only suggest this is an entrance, or propylaeon, into a building, an important building that stood on the eastern side of the street. If we had a chance to excavate it, we might have learned more about it. But for now, we can only say that this is, of course, only the southern corner of an entrance into a building. We didn’t find, unfortunately, the northern one. It had probably been robbed in antiquity. Although we do have the northern street that splits off the Cardo, we didn’t find another heart-shaped column.
Were heart-shaped columns typical of the period?
We have examples like this but usually not this monumental, not this big. In the Byzantine period, more, in the fourth or fifth centuries, we do have them. And also in the Roman period. But this is unique. Everything that has to do with the pillars here and the columns is unique. We don’t know exactly when these were carved and made. Are they second century or maybe a little bit later?
This heart-shaped column base lined the entrance to an important building on the eastern side of the Cardo. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What more do you know about the mosaic floor?
All the floors were paved with mosaics. But, of course, the Early Islamic buildings were built on top of the mosaics and they had their own white plaster floors. So they preserved the mosaic floors a little bit. But the whole sidewalk was paved with mosaics, which date to the sixth century—not second century—and this is something that we still have to explain. What was here in Roman times? Because, of course, if the street is Hadrianic, second century, then naturally, there was something on the sidewalks as well, but the Byzantines reshaped it. Maybe something very important was built on the eastern side, and they repaved or reshaped the street. We’re still thinking about it.
Overall, is the layout typical of a Roman street at this time?
We know that from the very beginning there were 11-meter-wide streets in the eastern part of the Roman Empire—but they weren’t so common. So this is quite big and quite amazing to see it. Remember, we are only 100 meters away from the Temple Mount. So I believe that the eastern side of this street, between the street and the Western Wall itself, was probably also shaped quite monumentally. The pavement is made of big slabs of local limestone, a good quality of stone. The slabs are 30 to 40 centimeters thick and sometimes more than a meter wide. So these are quite massive stones! And once they were laid along the route of the street, they were actually not removed for more than 500 years. They were in constant use until the eighth century A.D., which was the first time the street started narrowing and its level was raised.
What else do you know about the site during this period?
It narrowed into half, at once, when a big building was built on the western side of the street in the eighth century A.D., taking advantage of half the street, all of the western sidewalk, and the row of shops that had been carved into the bedrock. We found the remains of its walls. It had an open courtyard in the south and an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms, some of which were formerly the shops. At this time, the street was only five meters wide. But the level was still the same as it was in the second century.
Later, also on the eastern side, shops were built and the street narrowed a little more in the Abbasid, Early Islamic period. We can see here many periods, one upon the other. Beginning in the late part of the eighth century or the early part of the ninth century, the level of the street also started rising. In the later Islamic period, the street, once again, remained quite narrow, only half the size of the Roman street, and the buildings on both sides of it went on developing. Actually, we documented the police building that stood here until May 2007 as part of the excavation. Its roots were in this Early Islamic building that went on to exist through the Middle Ages, through the later Islamic and Ottoman periods, and to modern times.
Were there any other major discoveries in the northern area?
The big, big, big, biggest surprise we had was when we continued digging to the north, after the police building was removed. All of a sudden we saw that there was no more bedrock. It disappeared. The bedrock slopes down very, very sharply to the north, contrary to the situation on the south where the street was carved into the bedrock. Therefore, we found nothing earlier than the second century A.D. on the southern part of the excavation area because the Romans cleared everything when they created the street. In the northern part, however, there were no more slabs of the street. They had been robbed in antiquity. The eighth-century A.D. house with the courtyard extended into this area. When we continued the excavation to the north, we expected to find bedrock as we had in the southern area. But the minute we took away the Early Islamic eighth-century plaster installations, including the courtyard, immediately, in 20 centimeters—“one basket of dirt,” archaeologically speaking—we went from the eighth-century A.D. to the eighth century B.C.!
The excavators found the remains of a seventh-century B.C. building, which may have served an important administrative center. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What did you find there?
We soon reached the top of the walls of an Iron Age building that is still standing there, five meters high. There is a line of quarries in this area and, as it turns out, there was no bedrock there. The remains of the building, its floors, we dated to the seventh century B.C. It is a four-room house that was constructed on the slopes of the upper hill, facing the Temple Mount. And we believe it was preserved only because when the Romans paved their street, if there was anything of the Second Temple period above it, they just took it down. They shaved the area. They just took everything to their level and laid their very heavy slab stones upon it. So actually, this had preserved the remains of the building until the eighth century, when these slabs of stone were robbed, probably by the early Muslims, because they didn’t need the pavement here. They wanted the stones for other use. They didn’t bother digging down. They just covered everything with installations—very poor plaster installations that were not that big a deal to excavate. But the whole structure of the Iron Age was wonderfully preserved. Its plan resembles a four-room building, which is typical of the buildings of the Israelites and also in Judea. There was one broad room and three elongated rooms perpendicular to it. The one broad room is divided with walls into three sections, three smaller rooms.
What did you find inside the building?
First of all, I must tell you that we found evidence a collapse inside the broad room. There was a pile of stones, probably a second floor or a tower or something that was above it. But it appears to have collapsed all at once. The room was filled up. The stones weren’t “arranged.” And the collapse went all the way into the room. Immediately, when we saw it, it felt like something of a catastrophic nature because we saw that nothing had accumulated between the stones. If a building stands and decays slowly, you know, some stones fall and get covered with dirt. But if everything collapses at once, there’s nothing between the stones, only the stones one upon another, like dominoes. And this was the picture here.
What do you think caused the collapse?
When you excavate a First Temple period building and you see a collapse, a catastrophic collapse, immediately you think of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C., which might be responsible for the destruction of this building. So, we still think it might be. One thing, however, is that we didn’t find any restorable pieces of pottery or jars or other things underneath the collapse. So if the building was ruined during the war or at the end of the war in 586, when Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians, even if this is the picture, the people who lived here ran before that and took their belongings with them. The house was empty when everything collapsed. So I can’t say 100 percent for sure that this is the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem because I would expect to find some more arrowheads, evidence of fire, restorable big jars—something. But here, the building was empty, so it might also have collapsed afterward in an earthquake or something else happened that we don’t know about.
Do you have any idea what happened afterward?
At least we know the house was ruined. Afterward, we assume, the erosion from the upper slopes of the Jewish Quarter just covered the building because inside, to the top of the walls, we found only Iron Age potsherds. No one really settled in Jerusalem after 586 for a couple hundred years, until the later Hellenistic period. Therefore, there was enough time for soil and other things to be washed from the upper parts of the city and cover everything. So we believe this is actually the story because everything was covered to the top of the walls, and when the Romans later paved the street, they just sealed off the Iron Age building underneath it. We found clean Iron Age fill inside the floors.
What else did you find?
Now above the floors, of course, everything was both a little earlier and later than the floors themselves because the floors—and everything that was underneath the floors—dated the building to the seventh century B.C. But the whole western hill of Jerusalem was settled already in the eighth century B.C. So things that eroded from above and filled the building also contained things from the eighth century B.C. to the sixth. This is the later phase of the Iron Age of the Biblical period in Jerusalem. The building really contained very, very important things, the most famous of which are four private seals.
What makes them so special?
There is one seal, for example, which I think is the most important one. It depicts an Assyrian archer—or someone who looks Assyrianized, or at least an Assyrian-style archer—with a name that is written in ancient Hebrew script, “Hagab.” The combination of Assyrian and Judaic elements is the first time in the history of archaeology. And it dates to the seventh century. Actually, the whole impression of Jerusalem in the seventh century, as reflected by the finds in the house, is very cosmopolitan. We have all kinds of influences: Egyptian, Assyrian, Judaic. Another important seal, which is very, very small, carries the name of “Netanyahu.” This was found, by the way, before the election of our prime minister. It’s decorated with four pomegranates. The other important seal is made of bone. We also found part of an Egyptian scarab inside the fill of the quarries. We don’t know if it served as an amulet because it’s quite early, earlier than the seventh century. It was probably carried as an amulet in the family and someone lost it. We also found many—almost 20—handles of jars, carrying the inscription “l’melech.” You know these?
Inside the seventh-century B.C. building, the team found this seal of an Assyrian archer with a name (“Hagab”) inscribed in ancient Hebrew, a unique combination of elements. (Photo courtesy of the IAA)
I’m not familiar with them...
They’re jar handles of the Iron Age that are very typical of Judea around the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. They used to belong to big jars with four handles. We don’t know what the jars contained, whether it was oil or something else, but they belonged to the storehouses, probably of the king of Judea. The factories were in four cities around Jerusalem. So once you find these jar handles, it marks that you are in a layer or stratum of the eighth or seventh century. And here we found quite a lot, either with “l’melech” inscriptions or with concentric decorations that have parallels in this time. We also found a kind of amulet decorated with a winged snake, a cobra that comes from Egypt. It turned into a Judaic symbol, too. In addition, we found almost 450 parts—most of them are broken—of small statues or fertility idols. Most of them are animals. Some of them are women. Just think about the Israelites in the seventh century B.C. holding all these idols in their houses! You can understand why the prophets were so angry with them! These people really were influenced by their neighbors, by other cultures. The material culture we found, including the personal seals, amulets, fertility idols, and potsherds—there’s also a big assemblage of local pottery, which is very Judaic: bowls, jars, cooking pots—everything is very typical to Jerusalem around the seventh century B.C.
So what do you think this building was used for?
We think that the building—as it is so well built, so close to the Temple Mount, and located on the slopes of the hill that is facing the Temple Mount, and with all of these personal seals that are quite unique to find—probably served as an administration center. The people who gave orders may have had to sign documents here. It may also have been a place for the rich, the more important people, because the location is really important. In the Second Temple period, just a little bit above us, there was the quarter where the priests lived, the Herodian Quarter. So probably the people who were seated here on the slope of the upper hill, facing the Temple Mount—ever since the beginning of the habitation of this area in the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.—probably they were more the rich people or the important ones who influenced what was going on, and not the regular people of the city. I think, more or less, this concludes the story of the dig.
What a story!
Again, the main, main, main, most important finds, I think, are the building of the First Temple period of the seventh century B.C. and the remains of the colonnaded street, which is for the first time, really, in Jerusalem, we see its size, its monumentality. Before, as I mentioned, there was a big scholarly debate over whether this area was at all included in the city of Aelia Capitolina. Everyone thought, actually, that this area was outside and added to the city only in the Byzantine period. Today, not only do we know that it was included in the city, we also see the monumental shape of the street and we think that the area by the Temple Mount in the Roman period was really a very important center in the layout of Aelia Capitolina. These excavations really contributed a lot, I think, to the study of Jerusalem in the ancient periods. But, we’re in the middle of the work now and in the beginning of the work. Today, many more archaeologists participated in the publication, of course, and experts are still working on glass, metal, coins, pottery, animal bones, everything.
The site exits directly onto the Western Wall Plaza. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
It sounds like the excavations are raising as many questions as they're answering, right?
Yes, many things were more or less accepted before we started excavating. I think many questions relating to the history and development of the city have to be rechecked today. You know, the first archaeologists to work here in the Old City of Jerusalem in the 19th century—they were not always wrong. Mostly, they were right. But afterward, with more and more excavations, we started checking and rechecking many things...we certainly have to retrace our steps. Now it’s necessary to discuss many issues in the history and the archaeology of Jerusalem because it’s really much more amazing, impressive, and monumental than we ever expected.
What was it like for you, personally, to be involved with this project?
This is, I think, the best thing one can wish for. It was really very, very special, I must say.