Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Roman Period Mansion On Mt. Zion
September 18, 2013

Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Roman Period Mansion On Mt. Zion

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

When archaeologists are excavating sites in a long-inhabited urban area like Jerusalem, they are accustomed to noting complexities such as how various occupying civilizations layer over one another during the site's continuous use over millennia. However, when an area has been abandoned for intermittent periods, the finds in those areas might be paradoxically even richer as some layers have been buried and remain undisturbed by development.

At an archeological dig on Jerusalem's Mount Zion, conducted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013, excavations have revealed the well-preserved lower levels of what the team believes is an Early Roman period mansion from the first century AD. The mansion possibly belonged to a member of the Jewish ruling priestly caste.

The dig team hopes the relatively undisturbed situation of the buried ruin will yield significant domestic details about the rulers of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus, should this mansion prove to be an elite priestly residence.


Of this dig season's discoveries, a buried vaulted chamber was of particular importance. It has proven to be an unfinished bathroom -- with a bathtub -- adjacent to a large below-ground ritual cleansing pool (mikveh). This is only the fourth bathroom to be found in Israel from the Second Temple period. Two of the others were found in palaces of Herod the Great at Jericho and Masada.

Shimon Gibson, Senior Associate Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute, co-directs the UNC Charlotte excavation at Mount Zion. He notes that the addition of the bathroom to the mikveh is a clear sign of the wealth and status of the resident.

"The bathroom is very important because hitherto, except for Jerusalem, it is usually found within palace complexes, associated with the rulers of the country," Gibson said. "We have examples of bathrooms of this kind mainly in palatial buildings."

The only other example of a mikveh with an attached bathroom was excavated in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

"It is only a stone's throw away and I wouldn't hesitate to say that the people who made that bathroom probably were the same ones who made this one. It's almost identical, not only in the way it's made, but also in the finishing touches, like the edge of the bath itself," explained Gibson.

"The building in the Jewish Quarter is similar in characteristics to our own with an inscription of a priestly family," Gibson added. "The working theory is that we're dealing also with a priestly family."

Other details in the new site also suggest that its first century residents may have been members of the ruling elite. "The building that we are excavating is in the shadow -- immediately to the southeast -- of the very, very large palace of Herod the Great, his compound and the later seat of the Roman governors (praetorium)."

The mansion's location is another strong indicator of a high-status resident. "Whoever lived in this house would have been a neighbor and would have been able to pop into the palace," he speculated.

Dig co-director James Tabor, UNC Charlotte scholar of early Christian history, is cautious about reaching premature conclusions. However, he believes there might be significant historical information uncovered, should the building turn out to be a priestly residence.

"If this turns out to be the priestly residence of a wealthy first century Jewish family, it immediately connects not just to the elite of Jerusalem -- the aristocrats, the rich and famous of that day -- but to Jesus himself," Tabor said. "These are the families who had Jesus arrested and crucified, so for us to know more about them and their domestic life -- and the level of wealth that they enjoyed -- would really fill in for us some key history."

The artifacts found during this season's dig are still being evaluated, however, one set of items in particular stand out as highly unusual. The team found a large number of murex shells, the largest number ever found in the ruins of first-century Jerusalem. During Roman times, species of murex - a genus of Mediterranean sea snail - were highly valued because of a rich purple dye that could be extracted from the living creature.

"This color was highly desired," Gibson said. "The dye industry seems to be something that was supervised by the priestly class for the priestly vestments and for other aspects of clothing which were vital for those who wished to officiate in the capital precincts."

The excavation team doesn't understand why anyone would be in possession of such "a very large quantity" of murex shells, however, since the dye making process doesn't involve the shells. The shells might have been used to identify different grades of dye, Gibson speculates, since the quality of the product can vary from species to species. Some species are used to make a turquoise blue dye.

"It is significant that these are household activities which may have been undertaken by the priests," Gibson said. "If so, it tells us a lot more about the priests than we knew before. We know from the writings of Josephus Flavius and later rabbinical texts about their activities in the area of the Jewish temple, but there is hardly any information about their priestly activities outside the holy precinct. This is new information, and that is quite exciting. We might find in future seasons further aspects of industries which were supervised by these priestly families."

Tabor notes that understanding domestic details of the first-century Jewish ruling class may yield insights into New Testament history.

"Jesus, in fact, criticizes the wealth of this class," Tabor said. "He talks about their clothing and their long robes and their finery, and, in a sense, pokes fun at it. So for us to get closer to understanding that -- to supplement the text -- it could be really fascinating."

According to Gibson, historical legends from several centuries later also point to the possibility that the building is a priestly residence. "Byzantine tradition places in our general area the mansion of the high priest Caiaphas or perhaps Annas, who was his father-in-law," Gibson said. "In those days you had extended families who would have been using the same building complex, which might have had up to 20 rooms and several different floors."


Other discoveries have revealed further suggestive details of history from first century Jerusalem. For example, at the bottom of the residence's large, 30-foot deep cistern, the excavators found cooking pots and the remains of an oven. Gibson stresses that it is too early to draw any real conclusions about these items; however, the team is considering them as a possible indication that the emptied cistern was used as a refuge by Jewish residents hiding from Roman soldiers during the siege of AD 70.

"When we started clearing it we found a lot of debris inside, which included substantial numbers of animal bones and then right at the bottom we came across a number of vessels, which seemed to be sitting on the floor -- cooking pots and bits of an oven as well," Gibson said. "We still need to look at this material very carefully and be absolutely certain of our conclusions, but it might be that these are the remnants of a kitchen in use by Jews hiding from the Romans -- their last resort was to go into these cisterns. It was a common practice, but this conclusion is theoretical. It makes for a very good story and it does look that way, but we've got to be certain."

Roman-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus describes such a scene during the seige:

"One John, a leader of the rebels, along with his brother Simon, who were found starved to death in the cisterns and water systems that ran under the city. Over 2000 bodies found in the various underground chambers, most dead from starvation." (Josephus, War 6:429-433)

The rich and varied amount of detail and archaeological information present at the first century level of the dig, according to Gibson, is due to the accident of the site's location in Jerusalem. In major urban areas, ruins are rarely preserved with parts of the structure buried intact. Subsequent residents tend to cannibalize buildings for materials for their own structures. The Jerusalem of Jesus' era, however, was destroyed by the occupying Romans in AD 70, and deserted for 65 years, until the Roman Emperor Hadrian re-built the city of Aelia Capitolina on the ruins in AD 135. The new city, however, was on the other side of the present-day city, leaving Mount Zion unoccupied.

"The ruined field of first-century houses in our area remained there intact up until the beginning of the Byzantine period (early 4th Century)," Gibson said. "When the Byzantine inhabitants built there, they leveled things off a bit but they used the same plan of the older houses, building their walls on top of the older walls."

In the sixth century, Byzantine Emperor Justinian contributed another layer of preservation. Just to the northeast of the site on Mt. Zion, he completed the construction of a massive new cathedral, the Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos. To complete the construction, enormous underground reservoirs were excavated and the excavation fill was dumped downhill. This buried the more recent Byzantine constructions.

"The area got submerged, " Gibson said. "The early Byzantine reconstruction of these two-story Early Roman houses then got buried under rubble and soil fills. Then they established buildings above it. That's why we found an unusually well-preserved set of stratigraphic levels."


The UNC Charlotte excavation is also being used as a field school for the instruction of UNC Charlotte archaeology students. The remarkable way the site exhibits the complexity of the urban history of Jerusalem, along with the Roman-Jewish, Byzantine, and other strata reflecting a variety of the many Islamic cultures that have ruled the city between the Umayyad and Ottoman periods -- seventh to twentieth centuries --make  the site an excellent teaching environment.

"One of the purposes of this dig is an educational one," Gibson said. "One of the ways it can be used is to try to understand the different cultures that had possession of Jerusalem at different points in time. The Islamic part of this is not fully understood, at least not in terms of the domestic picture."

"Once again, we know about mosques and madrassas, but we know hardly anything about the daily life. Here, in this site we have three superimposed levels -- belonging to the Umayyads (seventh to mid-eighth centuries), Abbasids (mid-eighth to ninth centuries) and Fatimids (ninth to eleventh centuries) -- which allow us to reconstruct the cultural life in the houses from these periods," he said.

At present, the site is closed until archaeological work can be completed in subsequent seasons and the fragile structures have been stabilized through conservation procedures. Gibson foresees a time when the site will be open to visitors wishing to see the ruins; but for now it is too dangerous for tourists to enter.