A Jerusalem family ripping up its living room floor found a staircase lost for 2,000 years, leading to a large ritual bath carved out of bedrock.
It took the family some years to call in the authorities and show them the discovery beneath their house, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem. Throughout the interim, the family blocked off the entrance to the mikveh with wooden doors, and simply continued to live over it.
When they did call in the Israel Antiquities Authority, beneath the doors, the archaeologists found the carved stone staircase leaving to a big mikveh, 3.5 meters in length and 2.4 meters wide, with a depth of 1.8 meters.
The staircase leading to the mikve. Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA
The rock-hewn bath was meticulously plastered according to the laws of purity appearing in halacha. The staircase leads to the bottom of the immersion pool.
Carved stone is hard to date, but pottery vessels discovered inside the ritual bath date to the time of the Second Temple (first century CE). The mikveh also shows traces of fire that might constitute evidence of the destruction following the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE.
Also attesting to the period were fragments of stone vessels. Those became common during the Second Temple period, because stone cannot be contaminated and remains pure.
"Such instances of finding antiquities beneath a private home can happen only in Israel," remarked Amit Re’em, Jerusalem District Archaeologist for the IAA. (Much the same could be said for porcupine archaeologists).
The homeowners admit they had been hesitant to contact the IAA, being uncertain about the historic value of their discovery, and worried about "consequences" involved in contacting the authorities. Ultimately, "our sense of civic and public duty clinched it for us," one commented. They called in the IAA, profess surprise that the IAA treated them courteously – and in fact were awarded a certificate of appreciation (for good citizenship) today.
The neighborhood of Ein Kerem is sacred to Christianity because of its identification with a "city of Judah” – the place where according to the New Testament, John the Baptist was born, and where his pregnant mother Elisabeth met with Mary, mother of Jesus, Re'em says. Yet archaeological remains in and around Ein Kerem from that era (the Second Temple period) are rare, and fragmented.
In recent years, due to extensive and controversial development work in the area of Ein Karem, many secrets of the neighborhood’s long history have been uncovered. A complex water system was discovered alongside the spring, which also dates from the Second Temple period.
Higher up in the village, various agricultural facilities were discovered - and mostly destroyed afterwards - in preparation for the construction of a new neighborhood. Some of these were also dated to the Second Temple period. In the 1940s, Franciscan monks excavated an impressive Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) from the Second Temple period, within the confines of the Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness, just outside of Ein Karem.
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"The discovery of the ritual bath reinforces the hypothesis there was a Jewish settlement from the time of the Second Temple located in the region of what is today ‘Ein Kerem," Re'em said.
The Jerusalem living room beneath which the Second Temple-era mikve lies. Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the IAA