Elaborately decorated capitals bearing the symbol of the Judahite monarchy apparently from a palace erected 2,700 years ago were discovered in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed on Thursday.
The finds from the First Temple Period were made in the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv, a strategic hill located south of Jerusalem's Old City.
A team headed by IAA archaeologist Yaakov Billig discovered the buried pieces of palace, with beautifully carved capitals in the style of the Kingdom of Judah, in November, during a dig ahead of the construction of a visitors' center.
The finds were revealed at a press conference, attended by Culture Minister Hili Tropper. The evidence of a palatial edifice outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem is "the discovery of a lifetime," Doron Spielman, vice president of the City of David Foundation, said.
The palace was possibly destroyed during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., said Yuval Baruch, the head archaeologist for the Jerusalem District at the IAA. The remains were found in the area of destruction.
"The quality not only of the capitals but other finds, such as the columns, is extraordinary," Baruch told Haaretz. He added that throughout the Levant, finds of this exceptional quality are associated with royal estates.
Billig explained that "The capitals hadn't just fallen during the destruction. They had been purposefully buried in the ground." The rest of the site had been leveled. In antiquity, what could be recycled and used somewhere else was taken. But in this case, the decorated architectural elements were removed from the building and squirreled away in a niche.
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"Was it a matter of sanctity? Someone didn't want them to be desecrated? For now, we don’t know," Billig says
"Most capitals discovered to date, even the bigger ones, were only decorated on one side, the face facing the people entering the edifice. This was carved on both sides, front and back," he said. "And then when extracting the capital from the ground – we found another one." The second one was also elaborately decorated.
A third, smaller capital was discovered a few days later, near the first two, Billig said. The small capitals had niches on top for pins: when connected, they form a decorated windowsill.
How can we know where these capitals came from? "They must have belonged to a palace, or a royal estate or wealthy home built on the ridge of Armon Hanatziv – maybe a royal figure, with a view of the City of David and Temple Mount. It was situated strategically," Billig said.
The palace was likely built in the early seventh century B.C.E. in King Hezekiah's time, after Jerusalem had survived a siege by the Assyrians. "Evidently they felt confident enough to build beyond the walls, villas and royal estates," Billig noted.
Sadly, the palace or estate would not last long, he said, as the building was apparently destroyed, along with much of the city and the First Temple, when the Babylonians conquered Judah.
Previous excavation had uncovered a destruction layer in Jerusalem from the period of the Babylonian conquest. It cannot be certain that the presently unveiled edifice was razed then, but it seems plausible. Then at some point, as is the norm in human history, the stones of the original edifice were removed and repurposed, except for the buried capitals.
The blocks are also unique in size. About 20 to 30 similar capitals had been found throughout Judah and the Kingdom of Israel: they were probably the lintels of doorways into palaces. These were medium-sized and probably served as decoration on top of pillars in a courtyard. They later found miniature capitals too – extra small, which may have decorated windowsills.
"This shows they used the same symbol, the same decoration for multiple formats," Billig said.
Baruch noted that the decoration on the capital is absolutely typical of the Kingdom of Judah. The same monarchic symbol, which some scholars interpret as a stylized palm tree, appears on today's five shekel coin.
The archaeologists dated the putative palace based on the style of pottery fragments they found to within the seventh century B.C.E – from King Hezekiah who survived the Assyrian siege to the reign of Josiah – just before the Babylonian destruction.
"The whole strata with the rubble and the fragments of pottery can be dated with resolution roughly of several decades in the 7th century B.C.E. The pottery, jugs, cooking pots, lamps, repertoire of fractured clay vessels are all from that time period," Billig said. The First Temple dating should be backed later using other technologies.
Billig said that the capitals definitely came from the structure excavated in Armon Hanatziv, which is about two kilometers from the Temple Mount. The location has always been a strategic one, and received its modern name (which translates to Governor's Palace) because it once housed the seat of the British High Commissioner during the mandate period.