Dig at Jerusalem's Infamous Holyland Hill Uncovers Bronze-age Dwellings

The hill between Wadi Refaim and the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem has lived through numerous life cycles. Its most famous one - as the territory of the Holyland housing project - has become symbolic of bad architecture and political corruption.

The hill between Wadi Refaim and the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem has lived through numerous life cycles. The most famous one is its present manifestation - as the territory of the Holyland housing project, which has become symbolic of bad architecture and political corruption.

The journal, Kadmoniot, recently published an article reviewing the hill's earliest settled period, exposed during works on the controversial project. Excavations on the hill revealed a 4,000-year-old cemetery, caves used as dwellings from an even earlier period, and dozens of items testifying to one of the earliest permanent settlements in this part of the city.

Tomer Appelbaum

The excavations on Holyland Hill began in 1995, when the first bulldozers climbed the hill to begin work on the housing project. But the most fascinating discoveries were made after 2005, when the Eretz Hatzvi Hotel, situated on the hill, was vacated, along with the famous model of Jerusalem in the times of the Second Temple. Beneath the site where the model stood, a crowded cemetery dating back to the Bronze Age was discovered. Scholars from the Antiquities Authority who undertook the excavation - Zvika Greenhut, Yanir Milevsky, Noha Aga and Uzi Ad - date the cemetery mostly to the period between 2200 and 2000 B.C.E., a thousand years before David and Solomon, and four thousand years before Olmert and Lupolianski.

No less than 80 graves were found in the area, in which, according to the archaeologists' estimates, some 210 bodies were buried. Luckily, unlike most burial caves throughout the country, the Holyland caves were not broken into or raided prior to the scholars' arrival, allowing them to find many whole items that shed light on life and death in Jerusalem during the Bronze Age.

Thus, for example, one of the caves revealed the grave of a warrior of the period. His skeleton was laid out in a supine position, with his personal belongings and gifts for the afterlife positioned near his head. Among other things, his "battle kit" was discovered, as one of the article's authors put it - including an axe, a wide copper belt and a dagger. Also unearthed nearby were a number of delicate yet whole clay utensils.

For Greenhut, the axe was a particularly exciting find. Some 19 years earlier, in 1987, he had worked on an excavation site just beneath the hill, at the current spot of the popular Malha shopping mall, where he discovered the exact same axe. "Apparently it was made at the same workshop, by the same blacksmith; it is the other axe's twin," Greenhut says.

Beyond the surprising coincidence, the similarity between the axes suggests that Holyland Hill was the graveyard for the villages dotting the valley below, most likely for village dwellers of higher status. According to Greenhut, the villages whose remains lie hidden beneath the mall are some of the earliest permanent settlements in the Jerusalem area. Before the excavations in the area in the 1980s, there was no knowledge of Bronze Age permanent settlements in this area.

The question that remains open is what city served as the district center for these villages: Was it an early version of Biblical Jerusalem, located in the area of the present-day City of David, or perhaps a more southern city, in the locale of the present-day Palestinian village of Batir?

Among the additional items discovered in the excavation and described in the article were a number of scarabs - beetle-like amulets that testify to a strong cultural connection with Egypt.

Other items found were beads, candles and clay utensils.

An excavation carried out at the site recently, in preparation for the project's next stage, also revealed artifacts from a much earlier time - the Chalcolithic Period, dating from 6,500 years ago.

This is the first time that dwelling caves have been found in the Jerusalem area from this period, on the threshold of pre-history.