The Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem recently unearthed dozens of bronze and iron arrowheads dating from around the time of the Maccabees. But the stunningly preserved artifacts weren’t hidden under meters of dirt and carefully excavated by veteran archaeologists. Instead, they were sitting in a dusty cardboard box behind an old air conditioner in one of the guard towers at the Tower of David, which is undergoing a massive renovation.
“I was with one of the managers, and I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” Eilat Lieber, the director of the Tower of David Museum, recalled of the moment they discovered the five boxes of artifacts behind a rusty air conditioner.
“The first thing I did was take out my cellphone to call Renee Sivan,” one of the foremost archaeological experts who excavated the Tower of David in the 1980s, Lieber told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
Sivan recalled that some of the archaeologists must have put them aside in hopes of publishing a future paper on the intricate markings of the Greek letters epsilon and beta on some of the bronze arrowheads. But other matters captured the researchers’ attention and they lay forgotten for decades.
On a sunny winter day, the Tower of David stands sentinel at the entrance to the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, a mishmash of conquering cultures with stone walls dating from the First Temple period to the Ottomans, Herod to the Hasmoneans, with a sprinkling of Muslim, Crusader, and Mameluke influences throughout the courtyard. The site’s geographic importance made it a crucial place for every passing conqueror.
“If you wanted to rule the city, you had to stay here to protect the city,” said Lieber.
Therefore it’s no surprise that the arrowheads are just part of a collection of war detritus that littered the area next to the ancient Hasmonean walls at the Tower of David, including slingshot bullets inscribed with winged lightning icons and more than 100 ballista, or carefully carved stone balls that were flung from the walls as projectile missiles.
Reut Kozak, part of the all-female team of local archaeologists at the Tower of David, said the sheer number of surviving artifacts made an impression on the archaeologists and researchers.
“It shows us the power of the siege that was here in Jerusalem, and that it was not an easy fight; it was a very strong battle,” she said. Some of the weapons date from 132 or 133 BCE, during the Hasmonean period.
The discovery of the arrowheads was a windfall for the Tower of David, which is completely redoing its museum and is struggling to locate the original artifacts from the excavation, which had been turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority as required by Israeli law. In the intervening years, many of the star artifacts from the site were loaned permanently to museums around Israel.
An ancient story and an ’80s hologram
When it opened, the Tower of David Museum was considered a state-of-the-art, groundbreaking museum — back in 1989.
“When the museum opened to the public in 1989, it was a different concept. It was the end of the ’80s, and people were really excited about graphic design and screens,” said Lieber. Back then, using screens to tell the ancient stories of the site was revolutionary in museums, she said. The museum featured short films, moving graphics, and a hologram — but, counterintuitively, no original archaeological artifacts.
“Especially over the past decade, screens and technology are everywhere, and the originals are really rare,” Lieber explained. “Now, people are looking for the authentic, the real evidence, especially when we’re talking about the media, and what’s real and what’s fake.”
“It was clear to us, and especially to me as a curator, that the power of the original is necessary here to build the new concept and context together with the beauty of the past,” Lieber added. She said that while the walls and arches of the historical site are beautiful, they can be overwhelming, while smaller artifacts can be easier for visitors to understand and help them relate the past to their present lives.
A new museum for an old story
The renovation of the entire Tower of David site has been in the planning stages for much of the past decade, and construction was set to begin in March 2020. In January 2020, the site’s leadership started holding talks to try to understand how they could undertake a massive renovation while still hosting half a million visitors a year.
When the pandemic shut down tourism, the museum was able to accelerate its renovations and is on track to finish in half the time. The new museum is expected to open in spring 2023, with hundreds of artifacts uncovered on-site on display. There will also be some multimedia explaining the history of the site. However, to the possible disappointment of ’80s nostalgia buffs, no holograms are planned.
The Tower of David is hosting tours in English during Hanukkah to connect the story of the holiday to the stone walls that visitors can see and touch, to bring to life the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks and the recapturing of Jerusalem, with the miracle oil that lasted for eight full days.
The site contains some of the best-preserved excavations of daily Hasmonean life during the time of the Maccabees, including private homes near the original city walls of Jerusalem. Traditional Hasmonean stone carving, more rough-hewn than the smooth Herodian stones, make up the bulk of the original city walls.
“These arrowheads are part of the story that we’re telling the visitors every day, and especially now on Hanukkah,” said Leiber. “When we have evidence, it gives so much power to the story, to be able to see real evidence of the story they’ve known since they were very young children.”