1,900-year-old Ritual Bath With World-War-II-era Graffiti Found in Israel

Aussie soldiers training in Palestine left their mark on mikveh from the period of the Second Temple.

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The water cistern associated with the mikveh in the Elah Valley.
The water cistern associated with the mikveh in the Elah Valley.Credit: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Israeli archaeologists excavating an enormous, ancient mikveh from the period of the Second Temple were surprised to find graffiti on the ceiling of the Jewish ritual purification bath, carved there by rather pedantic Australian soldiers during World War II.

Evidently the 1,900-year-old mikveh, which was carved out of the bedrock, and the cistern that fed it were open to the elements at least until the 1940s, say the archaeologists.

The mikveh, located near the Ha’elah Intersection, south of Beit Shemesh in central Israel, was abandoned during the second century C.E., perhaps in connection to the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, says Yoav Tsur, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

We’ll get to what the huge mikveh is like but let’s start with the ceiling, into which were carved “Cpl” and the names “Scarlett” and “Walsh,” helpfully augmented with the initials “RAE,” the numbers “NX7792” and “NX9168” and a date: May 30, 1940.

“An inquiry with the proper authorities revealed that the numbers engraved inside the cistern are actually soldiers’ serial numbers, and that RAE stands for Royal Australian Engineers,” says Tsur.

The graffiti scratched into the ceiling by the Australian soldiers.Credit: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Out of curiosity, the Israel Antiquities Authority did some digging of its own through Australian government archives. It found that Cpl. Philip William Scarlett was born in Melbourne in 1918, drafted into the army in 1939 and died in 1970.

Patrick Raphael Walsh was born in Cowra in 1910, also drafted in 1939 and died in 2005. The two apparently belonged to the Australian Army’s 6th Division, which at the time was training in Mandatory Palestine prior to being sent to fight the Germans in France.

Because France surrendered before the troops could deploy, they wound up fighting in Egypt, Tsur related. So much for the men who left their mark on the ceiling of the mikveh.

Five steps carved into the chalky rock lead into the mikveh; the fifth serves as a bench at the edge of the immersion pool.

“The mikveh itself had been sealed during the first quarter of the second century C.E., between the Jewish revolts against the Romans,” Tsur told Haaretz, explaining that the material that used to seal the opening is typical of that era. Another indication of the date is the whitish-gray plaster, in use from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.: Newer plaster is different.

While the mikveh was evidently abandoned, possibly as Jews were killed in the rebellion and the survivors scattered, not so the water source that filled it.

Under Jewish religious law, mikvehs must get their water from either a natural well or spring, or a cistern that collects rainwater. After finding the mikveh, the archaeologists looked for its source, Tsur says. Close by, “half a meter to a meter south of the opening to the mikveh,” they found the opening to the otzar, the reservoir.

After careful analysis they concluded that after the mikveh was abandoned and sealed, the reservoir was enlarged to vast dimensions and replastered, and a platform was built to facilitate drawing water.

The plaster used on the platform was typical of the third and fourth centuries C.E., Tsur says to explain one of the means used to date the expansion.

The excavation of the mikveh is still in the early stages. Tsur notes it is very deep, though how deep remains to be seen: The pool is filled with water and the archaeologists have not yet reached bottom.

Other finds from the site include pottery fragments dating to the second century from oil lamps, a jug, cooking pots and red burnished vessels, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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