Archaeology Magazine Archive

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A depiction of a menorah was found inside one of the world's oldest synagogues, discovered recently in northern Israel. (Mati Milstein)

Three recent discoveries in Israel dating to the first century A.D.—the time of both Jesus's life and the Great Jewish Revolt against Roman occupation (A.D. 6673)—are offering new evidence of life in the Holy Land.

In Jerusalem, a team led by Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Shimon Gibson uncovered a Jewish man's burial shroud in a tomb inside a cave. The looters who first exposed the tomb left the shroud behind, believing it had no monetary value. "We really hit the jackpot," says Gibson. Though some 1,000 tombs dating to this period have been discovered in the area, no other shrouds have survived the high humidity of Jerusalem's caves. Unlike other tombs which were left open to the air, this one was sealed with plaster, and the remains had not been transferred to an ossuary a year after death, as was customary. Sealing the tomb created moisture-free conditions that preserved the shroud and some of the man's hair. DNA analysis revealed that he suffered from the earliest documented case of leprosy, which may have led his family to abandon accepted burial customs.

The researchers also announced that the shroud, radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1-50, supports the idea that the Shroud of Turin had not been used to wrap the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. The Jerusalem shroud is made of simply woven linen and wool, while the Shroud of Turin is made of a complex twill weave, a fabric not thought to have been available in the region until the Middle Ages.


Next to Nazareth's Church of the Annunciation, above, archaeologists uncovered a small house near the possible location of Jesus's childhood home. (Courtesy Moshe Hartal, Israel Antiquities Authority)

During excavations at the town of Migdal on the Sea of Galilee, Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the IAA uncovered one of the world's oldest synagogues, a 1,300-square-foot building with mosaic floors and stone benches, dating to between 50 B.C. and A.D. 100. Only six other synagogues in Israel have been found dating to this time. "We started digging [prior to new construction] without even knowing antiquities were there," Avshalom-Gorni says. "The synagogue was exposed less than a foot underground. You could have uncovered it with a broom." The team also discovered a menorah engraved on a stone inside the synagogue. During the first century, Jews made three pilgrimages a year to the Temple in Jerusalem—the center of Jewish religious life until it was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Avshalom-Gorni believes the artist who made the engraving based the depiction on the Temple's menorah after seeing it on such a pilgrimage.

And in December, Yardenna Alexandre of the IAA uncovered a two-room dwelling in Nazareth that stood next to the Church of the Annunciation, built in 1969, where some Christians believe Mary and Joseph raised Jesus. Nazareth was a small village then, some four acres in size, and contained no more than 50 houses. "This [house] may have been a place that Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar with," Alexandre says. The Church of the Annunciation's Rev. Jack Karam was elated when the discovery was announced just days before Christmas. "For me, who was born in Nazareth, this is a great gift."