Ancient prison cells unearthed in Tiberias dig
A bit of what prisoners suffered in ancient times can be seen as of yesterday at the archaeological dig in the old city of Tiberias. Excavations of the basilica compound in the eastern part of the old city recently unearthed two small chambers believed to have served as holding cells for prisoners awaiting trial.
If today's custody conditions at police stations elicit complaints from detainees and defense lawyers, well, prisoners didn't have it all that good 1,800 years ago either.
The cells are located below the level of the main administrative building, the basilica. That fact bolsters the theory that they served as holding cells, where crowded prisoners waited to be called for trial. Each cell measures 1.8 by 2.7 meters, and is 2.07 meters high. Its walls are extremely thick, with the outer wall (1.1 meters thick) containing two narrow openings onto the city square. The slits presumably provided ventilation, and one also served as a food portal.
"Food was delivered by family members," says Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who is directing the dig. "The regime denied any responsibility for the prisoner's fate."
Hirschfeld explains that jails did not exist in antiquity because of the costly maintenance, so the accused were punished by death, or, in the best cast scenario, disfigurement. The death penalty was an inexpensive solution, providing entertainment for the masses and example as a deterrent. The lucky ones were sentenced to labor in silver and copper mines.
Narrow benches run along the length of the cells uncovered. One can only imagine what the prisoners experienced as they waited in the blazing heat of the Tiberias' summer. Some might have languished there for months, waiting for the governor to arrive, in the event of a complicated trial.
The prisoner pit was uncovered by three volunteers from the American and British embassies and Kibbutz Degania Bet.
According to Hirschfeld, the importance of the discovery is that it is in keeping with the theory that the structure currently being uncovered at the site served as a basilica.
Shortly after the three volunteers finished cleaning the eastern cell and began clearing dirt from the western cell, another volunteers found a coin beneath the floor plaster. Hirschfeld thinks the coin had belonged to one of the plasterers. One dig participant hypothesized it might have belonged instead to a white-collar criminal awaiting trial.