Sunday, January 15, 2012

Archaeologists Uncovering the Heart of Ancient Aelia Capitolina

Popular Archaeology - exploring the past

Sun, Jan 01, 2012

Excavation of a major ancient Roman thoroughfare in Jerusalem is shedding new light and raising new questions.

Recent excavations by a team of archaeologists just west of Jerusalem's famous Western Wall and plaza are illuminating scholars while raising new questions about 2nd century C.E. Jerusalem. 


Under the directorship of Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, Alexander Onn, Shua Kisilevitz and Brigitte Ouahnouna of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the systematic excavations were conducted between 2005 and 2010 and revealed a major Roman-constructed thoroughfare that sliced through the heart of 2nd century Jerusalem, the period that followed the downfall of the First Jewish Revolt and saw the transformation of the city into a newly Romanized city, renamed Aelia Capitolina.

A detailed article about their discoveries has been published in an article entitled Layers of Ancient Jerusalem in the January/February 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. This article relates the results thus far of excavations that progressed as far down as the underlying 8th century B.C.E. quarry used by stone cutters to produce the well-known limestone building blocks used to construct much of ancient Jerusalem's monumental structures. Just above that quarry, the archaeologists also found part of what has been interpreted as a large "four-room" house laid out in a style typical of Israelite house structures of the First Temple period, featuring three long, parallel rooms and a larger room extending perpendicularly across the ends of the other three (see model example pictured right). Within the structure was found several personal seals (small round or elliptical incised pieces of clay used, for example, to sign and seal ancient correspondence) bearing Hebrew names. Within its dirt fill were hundreds of pottery shards and fragments of clay zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines, all dated to the latter part of the First Temple period, between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C.E. The archaeologists suggest the likelihood that the structure was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., along with the rest of the city, but lack of evidence of any fire normally associated with the Babylonian destruction raises other possibilities, such as an earthquake. In any case, the team suggests that the structure represents a house that was inhabited by members of Judah's social elite, as evidenced by the seals, and that other material found within the house indicate a possible cultural connection to Assyria. 

Curiously, they found relatively few artifacts or other finds from the end of the First Temple period in 586 B.C.E. to the beginning of the Late Roman period (early second century C.E.). This, despite the fact that Jerusalem had been greatly expanded during the Hasmonean (167 - 37 B.C.E.) through the Herodian (37 B.C.E. - 70 C.E.) periods. The answer, they suggest, is found perhaps in the evidence that lay on top of the First Temple period house structure — the remains of the colonnaded street known as the Roman eastern cardo (one of two 2nd century C.E. Jerusalem's main north-south streets). Here, according to the excavators, the Romans destroyed virtually all of the layers that would have contained material from the Second Temple period in order to properly lay the cardo. Constructing the level cardo, in fact, required cutting into Jerusalems's natural slope at that point, creating in effect a steep, vertical cliff on one side. 

Features of this cardo uncovered by the excavations consisted of the street itself, which was 26 feet wide and paved with large, limestone slabs or paving stones in a diagonal pattern. The street was flanked by 5-feet-wide raised sidewalks composed of similar paving stones that were laid parallel to the direction of the street. Also on either side of the street and sidewalks was evidence for rows of columns, representing a pedestrian colonnade. Adjacent and parallel to this, on the western side, they uncovered the remains of a row of eight shops that had been hewn from the rocky cliff produced during the cardo construction. The date of the construction of the cardo (early 2nd century) was determined based on the finds discovered just beneath the paving stones, which included, among many other things, a coin dated to 117 - 138 C.E. and an assemblage of clay vessels dated to the late first/early second centuries (c. 70–130 C.E.) This cardo, however, continued to be used almost unchanged well into the Late Roman and Byzantine periods (second to sixth centuries C.E.), according to the archaeological report.

Of significance are the questions raised by the layout and direction of this eastern cardo. The excavation co-directors report that the direction of the cardo is aligned in parallel with the Western Wall, which during the Herodian period constituted the western wall of Herod's Temple Mount. Moreover, they have uncovered evidence of two significant side streets that run perpendicularly from the cardo toward the Western Wall, or Temple Mount. What does this say about the Temple Mount area during the early 2nd century C.E. time of Aelia Capitolina? Does it indicate that there was something important standing, or still standing, as the case may be, in the place where the destroyed Second Temple once stood? Some scholars have proposed that there was once a temple to Jupitor (Jupiter Capitolinus) or some other Roman deity or combination of deities that was built at the site of the Second Temple after the city had been transformed into a Roman city. There are some written sources that imply that such was the case, but little or no solid archaeological evidence has been recovered to confirm or support it.  

For more detailed information about these excavations and what they mean, see the online version of the Biblical Archaeology Review article, Layers of Ancient Jerusalem.