Home renovation usually entails picking paints, buying furniture, and dealing with contractors. For the Shimshoni family living in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood, it meant calling in archaeologists after stumbling upon a perfectly preserved 2,000-year-old ritual bath under their living room.
Last week the Israel Antiquities Authority finished excavating the subterranean bath, which archaeologist Amit Reem said Wednesday was “a significant find” and may have belonged to a private home in a first century Jewish village.
The ritual bath adheres to Jewish halachic requirements and measures 1.8 meters (5 feet, 11 inches) deep, 3.5 meters long and 2.4 meters wide.
More intriguingly, it lends some support to Christian tradition linking Ein Kerem, today a quaint neighborhood clinging to a hill on Jerusalem’s southwestern edge, with the birthplace of John the Baptist.
Starting in the 6th century, Christians began associating the “town in the hill country of Judea” mentioned in the Book of Luke as the birthplace of John the Baptist, the mentor of Jesus, with Ein Kerem. The village is home to the Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, dedicated to his birthplace.
“All these events took place 2,000 years ago in the days of the Second Temple [in Jerusalem] but until now we didn’t have archaeological evidence supporting the notion that there was a Jewish community in Ein Kerem” during that period, he said, standing next to the gaping maw of the mikveh in the Shimshonis’ living room.
Previously, archaeological remains in Ein Kerem from that time period were “fragmentary,” limited to a handful of graves, bits of wall, an olive press and a mikveh. “The discovery of this mikveh strengthens the hypothesis that in the area of Ein Kerem today, there was a Second Temple Jewish settlement,” he said.
While Reem was reluctant to draw any direct associations between John the Baptist and the ritual bath found in the Shimshoni home, he said its discovery pointed to the presence of religious Jews who were fastidious about matters of ritual purity. Within the soil filling the mikveh, which plunges about 10 feet below ground, archaeologists found potsherds and remnants of stone vessels from the first century.
According to Jewish tradition, stone vessels do not contract religious impurity, whereas ceramic ones do and once contaminated must be destroyed.
“Maybe this is the ‘town of Judea’ [mentioned in Luke], we don’t know,” he said.
Archaeologists also found a burnt layer, possibly from destruction during the Jewish Revolt against Rome between 66 and 70 CE. Reem said it had yet to be dated, however.
Oriah Shimshoni, who owns the house with her husband Tal, said they’d bought the home several years ago and, like many of the old Arab houses in Ein Kerem, it required some fixing up.
“We started work, getting rid of layer after layer of flooring and pipes,” she said. “And at some point while the workers were breaking up flooring, the jackhammer disappeared. It just plunged downward.” It had broken through the ancient limestone ceiling of the mikveh.
They stopped work and began digging by hand, unaware of what lay below. Upon realizing what they’d found, she said they were concerned about going through the bureaucratic procedure of reporting the finds, but “this thing gave us no rest.” In the end, Oriah and Tal called the IAA and reported the discovery.
The IAA on Wednesday awarded the Shimshonis a certificate of appreciation for reporting the find, as required by law.
The Shimshoni family invited the press to their home where they shifted some furniture and removed a carpet to reveal a trap door leading down in to the dank and stuffy bath.
“It still fills up with water in the winter,” Tal Shimshoni said. “Where it comes from, we don’t know.” The dehumidifier in the corner was working overtime, and he said it sucked up four liters of water per day.
“Finding antiquities under a private home or public building only happens in Israel, and in Jerusalem particularly,” Reem said. “Every time it’s thrilling anew.”