Decapitated 2,000-year-old Skeletons Unearthed at Downtown Jerusalem Dig

Most of the 125 skeletons belonged to women and children from the Jewish Pharisee sect, who were likely massacred by king Alexander Yannai of the rival Sadducees, archaeologists say

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A salvage excavation at the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, in advance of construction of the new Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, at which Israeli archaeologists unearthed some 125 skeletons from the 1st century B.C.E., most of them from bodies of women and children who had been decapitated, Oct. 11, 2018
The Israel Antiquities Authority dig at Jerusalem's Russian Compound. Most of the skeletons had marks showing that neck vertebrae and skulls had been cut or severed.Credit: Yuli Schwartz/IAA
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Some 125 human skeletons dating back more than 2,000 years have been dug up in the Russian Compound in downtown Jerusalem. Researchers have established that most of them are the remains of women and children who belonged to the separatist Pharisee community and had been decapitated. Members of this ancient sect of Judaism opposed the rule of Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus – popularly as Alexander Yannai – who apparently slaughtered them in the first century B.C.E.

In the stratum above the skeletons, Israeli archaeologists unearthed burned bones and other remains that are believed to have belonged to Roman legion soldiers serving in Jerusalem.

The Israel Antiquities Authority dig at Jerusalem's Russian Compound. Credit: Yuli Schwartz/IAA

The skeletons were found in an ancient water cistern discovered during a recent salvage excavation carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, in advance of construction of the new compound that will house the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The site is close to the offices of the Jerusalem Municipality.

IAA archaeologists Kfir Arbiv and Tehila Lieberman, along with authority anthropologist Dr. Yossi Nagar, detected three strata in the large cistern.

The earliest layer, from the first and second centuries B.C.E. – dated according to the ceramic shards and coins found in situ – consisted of the remains of at least 125 individuals, including men but also mostly women, children and infants. Three tiny skeletons found there are presumed to be fetuses from the wombs of murdered women. A large number of the skeletons had marks showing that neck vertebrae and skulls had been cut or severed.

Pottery shards from a cooking vessel from the Roman era, which were also unearthed during the salvage dig at the Russian Compound. Credit: Yuli Schwartz/IAA

It was evident that the incisions had not healed, so the IAA team concluded that they had been the cause of death – in the majority of cases, by decapitation. An examination of the skeletons also showed there was no trauma or other wounds in the hands and feet, corroborating the conclusion that the death was not caused during battle, but by execution.

The skeletons were lying at the base of the huge cistern in a disorderly fashion, not in a typical burial position, so the researchers assumed the bodies had been thrown in after the execution.

Hasmonean-era coin.Credit: Clara Amit

Based on the findings at the site, it appears that the burial took place during the period in which Yannai ruled over the ancient kingdom of Judea, between 103 and 76 B.C.E. The reign of Yannai, who was also a high priest, was marked by numerous wars launched to expand his kingdom but also by considerable internal violence, especially among the Pharisees and the Sadducees, a different Jewish sect to which the monarch belonged.

Historic documentation abounds with gruesome descriptions of Yannai's brutality. For example, Flavius Josephus (born Yosef Ben Matityahu) recounts an incident, during the celebration of the fall festival of Sukkot in 95 B.C.E., when masses subjects protested the fact that Yannai poured the ritual libation liquid on his feet instead of on the Temple altar. The crowd threw citrons at the king and in response, according to Josephus, the king sent in his troops, who murdered some 6,000 people. The historian notes that this event sparked an unsuccessful rebellion against Yannai, during which over 50,000 people were eventually murdered.

In his book "The Wars of the Jews," Josephus noted another violent incident, in which, while Yannai was “drinking and lying down with his concubines” in a public place, he “ordered eight hundred to be hung upon crosses in the midst of the city” and “had the throats of their wives and children cut before their eyes."

Yosef Ben Matityahu

In an article published in a journal called New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region, the IAA team of Arbiv, Nagar and Lieberman suggested that the first-century B.C.E. skeletons they discovered probably belong to victims of one of these massacres.

“It is possible," they wrote, " that the large burial stratum discovered in the water cistern in the Russian Compound ... are archaeological evidence of one of the clashes between the Sadducee Hasmonean king and Jerusalem’s Pharisee population."

Roman soldiers' remains

Bones from the later, Roman period (63 B.C.E. through 476 C.E.) were discovered at the same site in the layer above those from the Hasmonean era. The bones were partly burned and almost all belonged to adult men. Near the charred bones archaeologists found remains of ceramic cooking vessels along with metal objects characteristic of Roman army soldiers – a nail from a sandal, part of the sheath of a sword, a part of a horse's bridle, and so on.

The researchers thus believe these more recent bones and relics belonged to Roman legion soldiers deployed in Jerusalem beginning in the middle of the first century B.C.E. If this is true, this would be the most ancient burial site of legion soldiers in Israel.

Archaeologist Arbiv presented the findings from the Russian Compound dig last week at a joint IAA-Hebrew University conference on archaeological innovations in Jerusalem.

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