Evidence of a mass slaying, including cruel beheadings, committed during the bloody reign of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) was recently uncovered in a courtyard next to the Jerusalem municipality during excavations of an ancient water cistern.
“We removed from the pit more than 20 neck vertebrae which were cut by a sword,” said Dr. Yossi Nagar, an anthropologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). “We discovered in the pit, bodies and body parts of infants and adult individuals, women and men, who were probably victims of a brutal slaughter.”
Embryonic bones discovered in the excavation indicate that among victims were even pregnant women.
IAA archaeologists Kfir Arbiv, Nagar and Tehillah Lieberman presented their gruesome discovery on Thursday in a talk called, “The Riddle Behind a Mass Burial in the Russian Compound.”
As the son of John Hyrcanus, Alexander Jannaeus, known in Hebrew as Alexander Yannai, also served as the High Priest of the Second Temple during his 27-year reign. The era of the “holy man” was marked by court intrigue and seemingly endless war campaigns in which he conquered — and lost — swaths of territory.
It was a time of violent power struggles between the Jewish Sadducees and Pharisees, which led to a six-year Judaean Civil War that, according to historical sources such as the Pharisaic historian Josephus, left some 50,000 Jews dead. During the war, the Judaeans engineered a failed intervention by the Seleucid king, which, while eventually uniting the Jewish people against a common enemy, backfired mightily against those who had enlisted him.
According to the commentary on the book of Nahum discovered as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, after the war’s end, Alexander Jannaeus punished some 800 of his political enemies, sentencing them to crucifixion. Others, such as those discovered in the courtyard next to the Jerusalem Municipality, were beheaded and dismembered.
During excavations, the archaeologists discovered broken human bones, which were randomly discarded together in a water cistern and covered in ash, rocks and boulders.
According to archaeologists Arbiv and Lieberman, what they discovered aligns with accounts recorded in historical sources.
“It is told in the historical sources that the king captured and killed many of his Jewish opponents — as well as their sons and wives, in front of their eyes. Indeed, on the bones carelessly discarded in the water cistern, there were innumerable sword cuts, which wounded not only the neck, but also the lower jaw, and even sometimes the base of the skull, which indicates beheading,” said the archaeologists.
The gory Hasmonean-era mass burial discovery was presented in a session called, “Of Internments and Interred,” delivered at the 12th Annual Conference on New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region, held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In a packed, chillingly air-conditioned hall, IAA archaeologists and those from the country’s leading academic institutions presented updates on existing excavations and new discoveries in a long day of lectures.
Although the general public was invited, the day is clearly meant for the archaeologists’ peer-enrichment, and includes an awards ceremony for the David Amit Prize for Young Archaeological Scholars and awards from the Ancient Jerusalem Research Center.
A presentation by archaeologist Meir Edrey about his work in the West Bank’s Atarot industrial area at Hirbat A-Ram drew interest from the crowd upon mentioning the dig was funded by Israeli supermarket mogul Rami Levi.
A spirited lecture by Cambridge University historian Renan Baker enlightened the room about the incredibly problematic nature of accurately dating the ancient world and discussed little known primary sources in Latin and Greek which could help complete a picture of Jewish life in Jerusalem immediately before and after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Among the other updates was a brief summary of the past year’s work by archaeologist Joe Uziel on the small, unfinished theater-like structure discovered in the Temple Tunnels dating to the period of Roman colonization following 70 CE in which the city was renamed Aelia Capitolina. Uziel said the new section of some 30 meters of the Western Wall, as well as the conserved theater are now partially open to the public, and will be fully accessible shortly.
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