Excavation work for a new kindergarten in Jerusalem unearthed an almost-intact, 2,000-year-old Jewish ritual bath bearing extraordinary inscriptions, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday.
The ritual bath, or mikveh, was discovered two months ago by IAA officials during a routine archaeological inspection of the construction site in the capital’s southern neighborhood of Arnona. Jerusalem IAA manager Amit Reem said his workers discovered the underground cave leading to the mikveh at the very end of the final day of inspections.
The IAA is tasked with the examination of construction and development plans to ensure that building projects do not destroy any antiquity sites.
The well-preserved find was hailed by archaeologists.
“There is no doubt that this is a very significant discovery. Such a concentration of inscriptions and symbols from the Second Temple period at one archaeological site, and in such a state of preservation, is rare and unique and most intriguing,” excavation directors Royee Greenwald and Alexander Wiegmann said in a joint statement.
The Second Temple-period mikveh was exposed inside an underground cave, along with an anteroom, flanked by benches on either side. A nearby wine press was also excavated.
But what is perhaps the mikveh’s most interesting feature is its unusual inscriptions. The bath’s walls, covered in ancient plaster, are adorned with a number of drawings and inscriptions, etched or written in mud and soot.
As was customary for Jews in Second Temple-period Judea, the inscriptions are in Aramaic and written in cursive Hebrew script.
Among the discernible symbols is a boat, palm trees, plants and possibly a menorah.
While archaeologists identified some of inscriptions and symbols as names or common artistic elements of Second Temple-era Judaism, many remain a mystery to them and to other experts.
If the drawings are confirmed to depict a menorah, Greenwald and Wiegmann say, it would make the find even more unprecedented, as second-century Jews typically refrained from portraying ritual objects found in the Temple.
“On the one hand the symbols can be interpreted as secular, and on the other as symbols of religious significance and deep spirituality,” they said in their statement.
The two archaeologists said they were continuing their analysis to determine the relationship between the inscriptions and the drawings.
Soon after the discovery, the wall drawings began to fade due to exposure to the outside air. Excavators carefully removed them and transferred them to an IAA conservation lab for further analysis.
The IAA said the drawings would be put on display in the future.