A bizarrely large 2,700-year old water system with human and abstract figures scratched into the walls of the chalky bedrock has been discovered near Rosh HaAyin in central Israel. What a system that big is doing in a place not known for major settlement at the time is not clear.
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What is clear, is that the ancients knew how to build. The elaborate reservoir apparently remained in use until modern times, meaning the last 100 years, says Gilad Itach, the site director of excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority.
We do not know who dug out this elaborate system. It was, very roughly, at the same time, 2,700 years ago, that the Assyrian Empire conquered Israel, then Judah, following which large areas of the land lay desolate. But not all.
A number of farmsteads dating from the late First Temple era, including the Assyrian period, have been found around Rosh HaAyin (picture shown below). They may have been erected after the Assyrian destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in 720 B.C.E.
The water system found now also dates to around that time. Ergo, it could have been carved out of the bedrock ahead of the conquest; or by Israelites who survived the war with Assyria; or (just as theoretically), by peoples that the Assyrians deliberately settled there after conquering the region, Itach told Haaretz.
The system's walls bear primitive engravings of human figures, abstract crosses and a vegetal motif. The archaeologists cannot even say at this stage whether similar engravings have been found elsewhere because of their state of degradation. "We're just starting to study them," Itach says. "It's difficult to date the carvings on soot, especially as the images there were not preserved terribly well and are pretty abstract."
That said, they did manage to identify seven human figures, 15 centimeters to 30 cm in height. "Most have outstretched arms and a few appear to be holding some kind of object,” Itach describes.
Not surprisingly, the reservoir was part of a greater compound. It had been carved out underneath a huge square structure measuring about 50 meters by 50 meters, says Itach. So far the archaeologists have exposed rooms in the building's south and west.
On the edge of the empire
Like many major edifices of the era, the structure had a courtyard, and the water system had been dug underneath that, Itach tells Haaretz. Its walls had been impressively robust and the building was large; the excavators even found bits of pottery typical of royal palaces.
But a palace, it was not. Itach for one suspects the structure was an administrative building that controlled the farming in the area on behalf of the Assyrian overlords. Other areas within the decimated Kingdom of Israel remained desolate, the IAA points out, but it seems the Assyrians chose to settle and develop this area.
But for one thing, the Assyrians didn't built their palaces in the ancient equivalent of the boondocks, he explains. Also, when an Assyrian king wanted to build a palace, it would be significantly bigger than this thing, with much more awe-inspiring walls, and a very orderly architectural plan. Not a square squatting in the middle of nowhere, albeit atop an impressive water system, Itach explains. Hence his postulation that this was the center of a local administration for this isolated area on the far-flung edge of the Assyrian empire.
Also, there are much bigger water systems from the era than this one, generally located in the big cities of the time, such as Megiddo, Hatzor and Beit Shemesh. Some date to earlier times and some to the later Iron Age, but remote villages like this one generally featured no more than water systems a tenth or eighth the size of this one, explains the archaeologist.
Some of the potsherds found on the floors of the rooms probably belonged to vessels used to draw water from the reservoir, the diggers believe.
Ultimately the building was abandoned during the Persian period, going by the pottery remains: Persian-style sherds are the latest found there). But the reservoir was still in use until modern times, which the archaeologists can tell from the Arabic writing over ancient soot on the walls. The village may have been abandoned centuries before but locals continued to draw water from this ancient subterranean pool until, it seems, faucets and modern plumbing became all the rage.