An enigmatic subterranean system of rooms has been discovered near the entrance to the tunnel system beneath the Western Wall Plaza, while peering beneath the mosaic floor of a newly discovered and mysterious Byzantine edifice. The system had been hewn into the bedrock during the early Roman period about 2,000 years ago, shortly before the Romans leveled the Second Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
It is the first time that an underground system cut into the bedrock has been found by the Western Wall, says the Israel Antiquities Authority, which unveiled the discoveries Tuesday. The system consisted of an open courtyard and two rooms arranged in three levels, one above the other, connected by hewn stairs, the IAA said.
It was found in the Beit Straus complex beneath the entrance lobby to the Western Wall Tunnels. The IAA revealed the finds ahead of Jerusalem Day this coming Friday, marking the reunification of the capital during the Six-Day War in 1967. Excavation at the site was accelerated a year ago with the help of students from pre-military academies in Jerusalem, in a joint project between the antiquities Authority and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
This story starts with the discovery of a monumental public building from the Byzantine period, which featured a large vaulted hall and white mosaic floor. It was built about 1,400 years ago. During later renovations in the Abbasid period 1,250 years ago the Byzantine building was split into smaller rooms.
What purpose the building served remains unknown, but the archaeologists add that they found an inscription in Latin in one of the corners, which could have been part of a larger Roman inscription in a building, long gone, from the time the Romans turned Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina.
Elaborate pillar capitals from the Herodian period were also used in building the later walls. These capitals may have even come from the Second Temple complex, say the archaeologists.
As is standard practice at a site like this, the archaeologists prised up part of the mosaic floor at several places to see if there was anything underneath. Two pits dug beneath the floor found nothing but rock.
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The third pit revealed the extraordinary subterranean space: the three small rooms carved into the bedrock, below what was street level at the time. That was not expected. Two thousand years ago the norm in Jerusalem was to build homes and other edifices using stone brick, but: “The question is, why were such efforts and resources invested in hewing rooms underground in the hard bedrock?” said Barak Monnickendam-Givon, the excavation director for the IAA, along with Tehila Sadiel.
The rock-hewn system of rooms are baffling, say the archaeologists. “We are in the heart of Jerusalem during the Roman period, the eve of the destruction [of the Second Temple]. We know of excavations [into bedrock] for burials, water cisterns or ritual baths, but that is not the case here,” the archaeologists stated.
Theoretically, the space could have been used for storage, a sort of pantry, for a structure above it which did not survive – or a hiding place.
Depressions in the walls were found at the entrance to the rock-cut complex, apparently to firmly fix door hinges and bolts. Round and square niches were carved into the walls as well as small, triangular niches for oil-lamps, and elongated shelves carved into the rock. These suggest the subterranean system was used on a daily basis.
The excavators also found an array of objects that also shed light on the daily life of the residents of the ancient city: clay cooking vessels, oil lamps used for light, a stone mug unique to Second Temple Period Jewish sites, and a fragment of a qalal – a large stone basin used to hold water, thought to be linked to Jewish practices of ritual purity, the IAA said. Stone tableware and cookware is indeed well known from early Jerusalem because under Jewish law, in contrast to pottery, they cannot become ritually impure.