Underground operation'These people were eyewitnesses of the Second Temple'

A 2,000-year-old murder leads to an illicit burial in the heart of the West Bank

When archaeologists said 7 women and a youth found in caves were slain by Romans during the Great Revolt, settlers secretly stepped in to illegally pay their last respects

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

A jumble of bones found at the Khirbet el-Maqatir archaeological dig in 2013. (Steven Rudd)
A jumble of bones found at the Khirbet el-Maqatir archaeological dig in 2013. (Steven Rudd)

It was a secret, illegal burial, planned and carried out by a Jewish Temple Mount activist who decades ago sat in jail for planning to blow up the Dome of the Rock. But the story of the seven women and one youth who were buried in the Jewish settlement of Ofra on February 6, 2017, is even more dramatic.

In the course of an archaeological dig in a cave complex at the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir in 2013, a jumble of bones from these eight individuals were discovered amongst Roman arrowheads and nails from soldiers’ boots, alongside ceramic and numismatic findings for the Second Temple period.

“I have no doubt that these people perished in AD 69 at the hands of the Romans,” said archaeologist Scott Stripling, who co-directed the 20-year excavation there on behalf of an American consortium called the Associates for Biblical Research. The team of archaeologists set out to prove that Khirbet el-Maqatir, some nine miles (15 kilometers) north of Jerusalem, was the location of the biblical city Ai mentioned in the book of Joshua, as well as the possible site of Ephraim written in the New Testament Book of John.

The access hole to Cave 3 at the Khirbet el-Maqatir archaeological site. (Facebook)

This was already a big year for the team. Among other finds in 2013 from a swath of periods of Israelite and Amorite settlement, including a rare Egyptian scarab that was made in the early 18th dynasty, ca. 1485-1418 BCE, the dig uncovered a complex of three caves, and eight bodies who had apparently been murdered.

One held an olive oil press, flanked by two ritual baths, where five of the skeletons were found; one held oil run off; and in the third, which appeared to be a secret hideout, the other three skeletons were uncovered.

The excavation had previously uncovered a typical late Second Temple period tomb with seven kokim, holes cut or dug into the sepulcher chamber which have room for a corpse and nothing more, in accordance of Jewish burial customs in the Jerusalem area from about 20 BCE until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Stripling said it was the later find that moved him, though.

“The human remains in the tomb did not affect me emotionally; however, the bones of these murder victims did stir me,” said Stripling. “I thought much about the terror that must have filled the final moments of their lives. It seemed providential that almost 2,000 years later I would be the one to finally tell their story.”

Stripling’s staff anthropologist, Marina Faerman from Hebrew University, conducted the scientific study of the bones, which turned out to be seven women aged 17-25, and one male youth.

Archaeologist Dr. Scott Stripling (far right), stands with Ofra resident Prof. Yoel Elitzur (center) and archaeologist Dr. Bryant Wood at the Khirbet el-Maqatir excavation, 2017. (Abigail Leavitt)

“We were able to determine the sex, age, and health of the individuals,” Stripling said, using C-14 [carbon dating] tests conducted by Elisabetta Boaretto at the Weizmann Institute.

He said the dating matched up with finds of ceramics and coins or other metals found in the cave, placing the date of the murders to 69 CE. One of the coins found there was a shekel which was minted in the third year of the Great Revolt against the Romans in 69 CE.

A few hundred years and a meter of ash later, “the cave was reused in the Second Revolt, and the people at that time were unaware that there were human remains under their feet,” said Stripling.

It is possible that the men of the anonymous Jewish settlement in the area had gone off to fight while the women and child hid themselves in the caves. The evidence of Roman brutality is clear for Stripling.

In the first cave at the Khirbet el-Maqatir excavation, where five of the skeletons were discovered. (Steven Rudd)

“The arrowheads were found in the same jumbled matrix as the skeletons. It should be noted that the skeletons were disarticulated. Perhaps wild animals tore them apart before the tumble and debris further damaged them,” he said.

Stripling said he’d planned to rebury the bones at the site. But then some old friends from the nearby settlement of Ofra stepped in with an proposal to give them a proper burial.

“These people were eyewitnesses of the Second Temple, and it gives me great joy to know that they have finally been properly laid to rest,” said Stripling this week.

“Proper,” however, may not exactly be the word to describe their illegal burial at Ofra in February.

The undercover burial operation

The researchers at Khirbet el-Maqatir, while scientifically vigorous, take the Bible as a sort of textbook for the layout of the historical Land of Israel, a stance which places them outside the mainstream of Israeli archaeology.

As Stripling, who is now excavating at the West Bank site of Shiloh, told The Times of Israel this summer, “There are some who say the Bible is unreliable. We have found it to be very reliable… We’re taking the Bible as a serious historical document.”

This attitude moved Ofra resident Yaakov Erlich, a surveyor who has volunteered with Stripling and the ABR team for many years.

Dr. Scott Stripling, head of the current excavation at biblical Shiloh, exhibits a find. May 22, 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

In an in-depth Hebrew-language article in Yedioth Aharanoth written by his daughter-in-law, Erlich recounted that when he held the cartons of bones in his hands for the first time, tears sprang to his eyes and he spontaneously recited the traditional prayer for mourners.

“There is a feeling of participating in a historical moment of great meaning,” said Erlich.

After they were finished being analyzed, Erlich offered to bury the remains at Ofra. Stripling assented, and Erlich looped in a member of the settlement’s burial society, Yehuda Etzion.

As a member of the Jewish Underground, Etzion had been arrested and imprisoned in 1984 for plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock. Since his release, he has been a foremost activists for the right of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, and also organizes annual re-enactments of the priestly Passover sacrifice near the Old City of Jerusalem.

I thought it suitable to give them — as victims of the Great Revolt — great respect

Moved by the remains and their brutal slaughter 2,000 years ago, Etzion thought to organize a large ceremony at Ofra, complete with Knesset members and other VIPs, and bury the bones next to a memorial for soldiers from an elite IDF unit who fell near Ofra in 2003.

“I thought it suitable to give them — as victims of the Great Revolt — great respect,” Etzion told Yedioth.

Former Jewish Underground terrorist Yehuda Etzion carries a sheep for the Passover Sacrifice ‘practice’ ceremony at Beit Orot in East Jerusalem, on April 18, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The rub? According to remnants of Jordanian law which are still valid in the West Bank, these archaeological remains should be handed over to Hananya Hizmi, the coordination officer for archaeology at the Defense Ministry unit that deals with civilian West Bank activities, under the auspices of the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

There was a prolonged back and forth between Etzion and Hizmi’s team, who demanded the bones be turned over to him, as is the law. Eztion, however, convinced the bones wouldn’t receive a proper burial, was unwilling to give them up.

Perhaps influenced by the looming evacuation and bulldozing of nine Ofra homes (which were found to have been built on Palestinian land) and the thousands of protesters in the settlement at the time, Etzion decided to take matters into his own hands.

On February 6, 2017, he called colleagues from the Jewish burial society and several Ofra residents and they held a small ceremony in which they buried the bones in a collective grave. They then sealed it with a thick layer of cement to deter Hizmi’s team.

Jaw bones from some of the eight skeletons found at the Khirbet el-Maqatir archaeological site. (Steven Rudd)

Hizmi told Yedioth that while he is “an archaeologist, not an idealist,” the bones would have received a proper burial.

He said the excavation at Khirbet el-Maqatir and a similar dig at nearby Beit El, which both uncovered a clear ash layer, Roman arrow heads and coins from 69 CE, “shed light” on the destruction of the Jewish settlements north of Jerusalem during the Great Revolt.

“Today, a picture is becoming clear that these two settlements were razed during the Great Revolt in 69 CE,” said Hizmi.

In a statement to The Times of Israel this week through the COGAT spokesperson, Hizmi elaborated that “The bones found in Khirbet al-Maktir were buried in Ofra without the knowledge and consent of the Civil Administration. We would emphasize that if the bones had not been buried in Ofra and reached the Civil Administration as we demanded, they would have been buried in the grave of Israel with the respect they deserve.”

Teeth from some of the eight skeletons found at the Khirbet el-Maqatir archaeological site. (Steven Rudd)

This Tisha B’av, some 200 Ofra residents attended a ceremony to inaugurate the “Sisters’ Grave.” The holiday, which commemorates the destruction of the Temples, seemed an apt time to unveil a large memorial made out of local orange-toned stone, upon which was printed a reproduction of a shekel from the third year of the Jewish Revolt — one of the coins found at the archaeological site.

A sign in Hebrew and English clearly marks the location and tells the victims’ tale.

“This was our basic obligation to our mothers from 2,000 years ago,” said an unrepentant Etzion.

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