Large Hasmonean-era agricultural village found under Jerusalem Arab neighborhood
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Large Hasmonean-era agricultural village found under Jerusalem Arab neighborhood

Impressive, multi-generation burial chamber and large dovecote point to well-heeled settlement in rural area, near today’s Biblical Zoo

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

The rock-cut dovecote discovered at the Hasmonean-era site in Jerusalem's Sharafat neighborhood. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
The rock-cut dovecote discovered at the Hasmonean-era site in Jerusalem's Sharafat neighborhood. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

New evidence of 2,000-year-old Jewish ties to the greater Jerusalem region was recently uncovered during a salvage excavation in the city’s Sharafat neighborhood. In a location that today is a relatively underdeveloped mixed Muslim and Christian Arab neighborhood in the Jerusalem municipality, archaeologists have unearthed a large Hasmonean-era agricultural village.

In preparation for the construction of a new elementary school in Sharafat, located between the Biblical Zoo and Gilo, an excavation was funded by the Moriah Jerusalem development corporation on behalf of the Jerusalem municipality. Ahead of the excavation’s completion on Wednesday, archaeologists discovered an impressive burial estate, an olive press and many jar fragments, ritual baths, a water cistern, rock quarries, and a dovecote, all dating to circa 140 BCE–37 BCE.

According to the IAA spokeswoman Yoli Schwartz, the excavation has been backfilled and the possibility of exhibiting at least part of the site is being examined.

During the Hasmonean era, previously modest Jerusalem “assumed its role as the center of a sizable state,” according to Hebrew University’s Lee I. Levine in “Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (BCE-70 CE).” This expansion broadened the city’s stature, economy, and size. “Jerusalem under the Hasmoneans grew fivefold, from a relatively small area in the City of David with some five thousand inhabitants to a population of twenty-five to thirty thousand inhabitants,” writes Levine.

Those inhabitants would have needed to be fed, and the recent excavation points to a large agricultural settlement that may have contributed food products to the nearby city.

Archaeologist Ya’akov Billig stands in the Hasmonean-era burial site being excavated in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sharafat. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Previous excavations at the site in 1994 also uncovered a ritual bath, and in 2007 further digs unearthed a Hasmonean-era coin in terrace fill.

However, the discovery of a luxurious, multi-generational burial chamber in current excavations provides indications of a much larger settlement.

Aerial image of the Hasmonean-era site being excavated in Jerusalem’s Sharafat neighborhood. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“It seems that this burial estate served a wealthy or prominent family during the Hasmonean period. The estate was in use for a few generations as was common in that era,” said Ya’akov Billig, director of the IAA’s excavations.

As seen in drone footage provided by the IAA, the impressive burial vault includes a corridor leading to a large courtyard chiseled into the bedrock. Inside the courtyard, archaeologists discovered a large bench. The entrance into the multi-chambered burial cave was through its facade, behind which oblong burial niches were carved into the stone walls.

Aerial image of the Hasmonean-era site being excavated in Jerusalem’s Sharafat neighborhood. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Among the more interesting architectural elements so far uncovered at the site is a large dovecote, where pigeons roosted. As was common for the Second Temple era, pigeons were bred as both a Temple offering and a food source: the bird and its eggs were eaten, while its excrement was used as fertilizer.

Also discovered in earth outside the burial chamber were a heart-shaped pillar’s Doric capital and a few other elements common in the Second Temple Period.

Archaeologist Ya’akov Billig stands near a dovecote located the Hasmonean-era burial site being excavated in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sharafat. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to the IAA press release, “Such quality craftsmanship of architectural elements is very rare, found mostly in monumental buildings or burial estates in the Jerusalem area, such as the burial estate of the priestly family of Benei Hazir in the Kidron valley and several tombs in the Sanhedriah neighborhood.”

Although only a small portion of the site has been uncovered, the IAA believes it is part of a larger village, which was found to its south.

An ancient olive press for the production of olive oil in the Hasmonean-era site found in Jerusalem’s Sharafat neighborhood. (Ya’akov Billig/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“The finds seem to indicate that the village was of agricultural nature, and among other things produced wine and olive oil, as well as breeding doves,” said the IAA.

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