Jerusalem is built in white, mostly. Some of the limestone comprising the buildings or their facades - today builders can get away with a facade over concrete – is somewhat more colorful, with pink, yellowish or orange hues. But once upon a time buildings consisted of actual “Jerusalem limestone” bricks, quarried locally.
Now archaeologists have found one of the many places where the limestone was quarried, fittingly enough in a neighborhood called Har Hozvim – Quarrymen’s Hill.
“In fact, north of the Old City of Jerusalem was essentially one vast quarry,” says Moran Hagbi, the excavation’s director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. There was almost a continuity of quarries reaching nearly to the Old City itself. Over time the incessant quarrying actually lowered the topography of Jerusalem north of the Old City, the IAA says.
This particular one operated in the Second Temple period, the archaeologists judged based on several lines of thought.
Crucially for dating, at different times in the city’s history, builders used different kinds of limestone brick. Thus, for example, during the Second Temple period, there was demand for monumental bricks, as a glance at the Western Wall shows. During the Byzantine era, the bricks used were smaller.
So the mere size of the bricks extracted at a site can hint at its timing, though we qualify that, of course, a given quarry could also produce small bricks suitable for building humble houses, not just temples and palaces.
This was true too in the case of the Har Hotzvim quarry, but the average size of its bricks during its Second Temple period phase seems to have been a massive 2 meters in length and 1.5 meters high, Habgi says.
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A quarry found where Shmuel Hanavi Street runs now had been producing bricks even larger – 2x2x3 meters, he adds.
That too was dated to the Second Temple period, over 2,000 years ago.
Some of the quarries in the Jerusalem vicinity have been dated by coins dropped at the site. Even if no such discovery so convenient for dating is made, the archaeologists can draw parallels with well-dated sites based on the size of bricks produced and the quarrying methodology (hammer and chisel), Hagbi explains.
The stone bricks produced would have been enormously heavy, easily a few tons each in the case of the bigger ones.
“Building blocks in various stages of working were discovered in the quarry. For example, we uncovered large, square blocks of stone about to be detached from the bedrock, prior to loading and transporting them to the ancient city,” Hagbi says.
So far the excavators have uncovered about 600 square meters, but they believe the quarry may be at least two or three times as large, based on comparison with other quarries in the area – at Sanhedria, Ramat Shlomo and others, Hagbi explains. Excavation will be continuing.
Given that the land north of the Old City was littered with quarries and this one was found on a hill known as Quarrymen’s Hill and given that it was still being used in the Byzantine period, and then again late 19th century and early 20th, when the quarriers drilled holes in the rock and then blasted it – how much of a surprise was this discovery?
“It had disappeared,” Hagbi explains. It had vanished under the detritus of the modern age and construction, and there was no documentation of the quarrying there a century ago.
And now it has been rediscovered thanks to yet more artifacts of the modern age: our cars, and our need to park the things somewhere.