Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Yana Tchekhanovets (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

How did these excavations come about?

For many, many years in Jerusalem, we couldn't afford to make such large excavations. The city is heavily populated and, of course, the most ancient part is the most heavily populated. That's the problem of all the ancient Mediterranean cities—Gaza, Damascus, Jerusalem—it's the same everywhere. So surprisingly, this part of the City of David, the nucleus of ancient Jerusalem, was unpopulated for the past several hundred years. It was an area of cultivation, probably gardens. And that's why, also in the 20th century, it was useful in different public purposes, including as a parking court for the last 40, 50 years. The part of the City of David across the street is probably the most excavated site in Israel, but this part had never been excavated.

So no excavations were conducted here mainly because this area was in continuous use?

Probably also because all the researchers of the 19th and 20th centuries were working mainly on the remains on the other side of the street, closer to the water spring. They believed they couldn't find anything interesting here. It seemed to be too far from the entrance to the Biblical City of David. So we're actually the first archaeologists here. It's also surprising because we were dealing with absolutely virgin soils. About 20 centimeters below the asphalt level of the parking court, we already found archaeological remains.


The IAA is excavating on the northern edge of the Biblical City of David, where a multistory parking lot is being planned. In the far part of this photo, the team discovered an Iron Age building and an early Roman complex. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

So how does this site relate to the City of David site across the street?

The buildings across the street mainly belong to the Biblical periods: First Temple period, Iron Age, some Bronze Age. Here, the main part of the remains, and the most interesting ones, belong to the Classical periods: Second Temple and early Roman before the destruction of Jerusalem. We discovered a very beautiful early Roman complex that was built in the middle of the first century. And the remains of another Roman building that were surprising to us. In general, I have to tell you that almost every historical period brings many surprises. So where do you prefer to start, from the earliest or the latest?

How about the earliest?

The earliest things we discovered were the remains of an Iron Age building almost 16 meters deep, sitting on bedrock. It is a straight continuation of the Biblical City of David that you can see across the street. Nobody knew that the boundary of the city was so large into the western direction. We also believed—not only we but everyone—that the Tyropoeon Valley, one of the main valleys of Jerusalem that today is covered with houses, cut somewhere through our excavation area. We found out that it was not so. It passes somewhere to the west of us. So we can say this is a main topographical "addition" that this excavation brought to the general research of the archaeology of Jerusalem.


Excavations have revealed that the site was in use from about 800 B.C. until A.D. 800. The remains of an impressive Roman-period complex are shown here. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

What came next?

We found a Second Temple period [516 B.C. to A.D. 70] building that is a little diagonal. Its walls were plastered and painted. The building was probably originally facing the street. We also found a square water cistern and two mikvehs, or ritual baths, and one regular bath. On it are the foundations of the Roman building.

What can you tell me about the site's Roman period?

Until the last maybe 10 or 15 years, we knew very little about the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. It is one of the darkest spots in the history of Jerusalem. We knew only about its monumental buildings, such as the arches of Hadrian, the city walls somewhere near the Damascus Gate, and the Holy Sepulchre, but not the "living" areas. Only some parts of the streets were known. In the last few years, however, the excavations near the Western Wall have uncovered a beautiful part of one of the main Roman streets, the eastern Cardo.

And here?

We're digging a huge Roman mansion, a beautiful building with a peristyle courtyard whose rooms stand on two floors. Its walls go straight—north, south, east, and west. It was covered originally with frescoes and mosaic floors. We made many beautiful little finds. The building, we believe, collapsed at the end of its existence, probably in the middle of the fourth century A.D. As we continued to excavate in another part of the area, we found a thin, standing Hellenistic wall. Actually, in Jerusalem, there are almost no remains of Hellenistic architecture.


The archaeologists have christened one of the site's boundaries Sir Charles Warren Street, after the British general who conducted the first excavations in Jerusalem in the mid-1860s, including at the City of David. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)


In December 2008, the team discovered a hoard of 264 gold coins that date to between A.D. 610 and 613 in the wall of the building at the top right. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Do you know what caused the Roman building's collapse?

Probably an earthquake in A.D. 363. It's a picture we receive according to numismatic finds, mainly. The buildings above it belong to the next historical period, the end of the Byzantine period, and they were probably ruined in the beginning of the seventh century. In one of these buildings, we found a hoard of 264 golden coins, the biggest one in the history of Jerusalem. It's a serious find because it's a hoard. As much as I know, before that only once there was found a golden hoard in a citadel. It was five coins.


The 264 coins found here were minted in Constantinople by Emperor Heraclius, known as the re-conqueror of Jerusalem. The coins are dated to a very short, specific period of time, from A.D. 610 to 613. Probably, this money was received from the capital for some public or church purpose. Someone hid it in this building. And after that, the building collapsed. Now the coins are being studied by the IAA and soon we hope to receive a numismatic report that will tell us more. For right now, it's very important because it gives a very good date for the destruction of the city.

When did you discover the hoard?

We found them on December 21, 2008, the shortest day of the year. They were in a bag in a wall near the top of the building, close to where we had to drill to create supports for the side of the site. The drilling passed through the Byzantine street slabs like a knife through butter. Unfortunately, we see only a small part of the street. It continues westward.

What else do you know about the building?

Attached to this building was a system of gardens, probably agricultural lands of the city, supported by terrace walls and crossed by water channels. And above it were the remains of the early Muslim settlement of Jerusalem, the Abbasid period. The remains of the walls in that section were heavily, heavily plastered. Not much is known about the history of Jerusalem in the Abbasid period, so it's also very important information for our general understanding of the city at this time.


An international team of archaeology students, including many who have just finished serving in the Israeli army, get paid to work at the site while they finish their BAs. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

What are you learning about it?

We have information about the Abbasid period almost solely from historical sources. Archaeological remains did not preserve well for two reasons. First of all, in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, archaeologists did not take it seriously. For them, it was too "late." So early Muslim and even Byzantine periods...sometimes, excavators didn't pay any attention to them. Second, the nature of the construction of these buildings is so poor. They're heavily plastered because the stones are very small. Some aren't built properly. The builders just took plaster and put it all over the walls. It's very difficult to preserve it. And here we have a huge living area of the Abbasid period. We also have houses with kitchens and bedrooms and stables. There is also some kind of public space, maybe a market, a huge piece of information very close to the mosques of the Temple Mount. So the archaeology is rich with a huge amount of material. We found amazing things. Mainly, unbroken ceramic vessels, even idols made of gold, amazing stuff.

It really is amazing. Especially in a city like Jerusalem where so much archaeological work has already been conducted, it must be quite rewarding to be making these unique discoveries.

All the time, every month, there is something small and exciting. Every day is exciting. Archaeology is a very romantic, adventurous occupation. Those are the two main reasons people go into it. Archaeology is not something you go into for the money.