In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” a Jewish rebel leader sarcastically asks “what have the Romans ever done for us?” – only to be forced by his bumbling acolytes to acknowledge a laundry list of the empire’s achievements: aqueducts, sanitation, education and so on. The fictional People’s Front of Judea would be outraged to learn that we can now add another item to the list of Roman contributions in the Holy Land: a giant bridge that enabled Jews to flock to the Temple in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.
The remains of the bridge, better known today as Wilson’s Arch, are still visible next to the north side of the Western Wall and have been the focus of a five-year excavation and analysis by Israeli archaeologists and scientists who published their findings Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. The experts conclude that the structure was initiated by Herod the Great and completed, or at least majorly refurbished, under Roman governors, possibly even the infamous Pontius Pilate, the official best known for sentencing Jesus to death.
The study puts an end to nearly two centuries of argument over the dating of the bridge, which has been going on since the arched causeway was first documented in the mid-1800s by the British explorer Charles William Wilson, who gave it its modern name. Experts have attributed the bridge to everyone from Herod, who reigned in the first century B.C.E., to the Umayyad caliphs who built the Dome of the Rock shrine atop the Temple Mount in the seventh century C.E., says Joe Uziel, the archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority who led the dig.
The new dating of Wilson’s Arch also adds to growing evidence that, while Herod initiated the massive renovation of the Second Temple, the Romans made major contributions to construction in the area just a few years before much of the holy site was destroyed by their own legions at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E.
“When you think of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem you think of Herod,” Uziel says. “But the data we have published supports the idea that the Temple Mount as we see it today was completed after Herod, under the Roman procurators.”
The conclusion is based on the radiocarbon dating of tiny samples of short-lived organic materials, mainly seeds, twigs and blades of grass that were collected during the 2015-2019 excavation by Johanna Regev, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and the lead author on the study. Regev painstakingly extracted the samples from the mortar that binds together the massive stones of the arch and of other structures connected to it.
In antiquity, mortar was made by burning limestone to produce lime and then mixing it with charcoal, straw and other organic materials, explains Elisabetta Boaretto, who heads the radiocarbon dating lab at the Weizmann Institute that analyzed the samples.
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By studying 40 organic samples taken from the mortar rather than from the layers of sediments covering the structures, the scientists were able to precisely date when the stones were first laid and identify who built what, Boaretto says.
Bridge over troubled city
Wilson’s Arch, which spans more than 13 meters, is only the easternmost and most visible part of a 100-meter-long causeway, still largely standing today under later structures, that was built of superimposed arches to bridge the valley that separated the Temple Mount from Jerusalem’s “Upper City,” which lay to the west of the holy site.
The study identified two distinct phases for the construction of this monument. The first phase, in which a narrow bridge was built, was dated to Herod’s reign or shortly after his death in 4 B.C.E. The second phase, in which the bridge’s width was doubled to nearly 15 meters, was dated to between 30 and 60 C.E. During this period, Jerusalem and Judea were mostly under the direct control of Roman envoys, including Pilate, whose tenure is traditionally set between 26 and 37 C.E. (though some researchers believe it may have been longer).
“The arch as we see it today was built in the first century, just prior to the destruction of the Temple,” Uziel concludes.
“I was very surprised to learn that the Romans completed the bridge,” Boaretto tells Haaretz. “Even though they were conquerors, they contributed to this massive project that was the Temple.”
Of course, we don’t know to what degree the Roman leadership was involved in the project, but it is hard to imagine such major construction going in a central and sensitive area as the Temple Mount without at least the knowledge and approval of Judea’s occupiers.
The findings of the team at Wilson’s Arch contribute to increasing evidence that the initial period of direct Roman control over Judea cannot be solely viewed as a corrupt and brutal occupation – as Jewish and Christian sources often describe it. Last year, archaeologists concluded that a monumental stepped road that climbed from the south of Jerusalem up to the Temple Mount had been erroneously attributed to Herodian times and had in fact been built under Pilate.
We can only speculate as to why Pilate or his fellow governors were so active in improving access to a Jewish holy site, Uziel says. They may have simply been following the Roman playbook of building massive infrastructure in their provinces to consolidate their presence and aggrandize their name. They may have also been keen to stimulate the trade and economic activity that was centered around the Temple, while also attempting to curry favor with the restive Jewish population by showing respect for the most important shrine in their religion, the archaeologist says.
“If you want to keep the local population quiet, and keep taxing them, building a temple or contributing to completing a temple that is important to them might not be such a bad idea,” Uziel says.
The importance of dating
The pillars supporting Wilson’s Arch were not the only structure studied by archaeologists in the confusing jigsaw puzzle of interlocking and superimposed buildings at the site. The experts unearthed and dated structures ranging from the remains of a Hasmonean wall from the beginning of the first century B.C.E., to plastered pools built by the Mamelukes in the 14th century. They also confirmed the dating of a small Roman theater that was unearthed during the dig nestled underneath the arch.
As suspected when the find was first announced in 2017, the theater was built after the arch and the subsequent destruction of the city and Temple in 70 C.E. Based on samples taken from between the stone seats, the venue belongs to the first half of the second century C.E., when Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman colony under the name Aelia Capitolina. The theater was never finished, possibly as a result of the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 C.E.) or the death of the Emperor Hadrian in 138 C.E., the paper in PLOS ONE concludes.
The newly published study is part of a broader, ongoing project to use radiocarbon dating to build a more precise chronology of ancient Jerusalem. While the city has been excavated for the better part of the last two centuries, only a few digs have used this modern scientific method to date finds, relying more on pottery, coins, inscriptions and architectural styles.
“People haven’t been using carbon-14 enough in Jerusalem, whereas everywhere else it’s a basic tool,” Uziel says.
“This often leads to a circular argument: dating something because it’s similar to something else that we think dates to a certain period,” Boaretto adds. “Our goal is to create an absolute, not a relative chronology, reconstruct how Jerusalem looked in each different time period and rewrite history.”