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A chat with an archaeologist: Dr Monnickendam-Givon tells us about a new underground structure found in Jerusalem
The site is in the heart of ancient Jerusalem, just below the Western Wall's plaza. Three underground chambers were found carved into bedrock beneath the plaza: a courtyard and two rooms. Dr Barak Monnickendam-Givon (Excavation Co-Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority) is co-director of the excavation.
How was the site discovered?
The place my team and I are excavating is called the ‘Strauss House’ (Beit Strauss in Hebrew). It was first excavated by Dr Peter Gendelman and Ortal Chalaf of the Israel Antiquities Authority between 2013 and 2016.
In their excavation, they exposed a monumental building dated to the Byzantine that continued to be in use for about 600 years, including a series of renovations during the Abbasid period (~8th-9th centuries CE).
It collapsed during the Fatimid period in the 11th century CE. The original building was composed of a series of rooms that were divided by a set of arches. It had a floor of plain white mosaic.
During fall 2019, my team and I renewed the excavation and continued the work there.
How have you dated the chambers?
Like many other rock-cut installations, the original time of hewing is almost impossible to date.
We do know from the finds inside the system that it was in extensive use during the 1st century CE in the last decades before Jerusalem was destroyed during the summer of 70 CE by the Roman legions.
No finds later than 70 CE were found on the floor of the system (besides some 6th-7th century finds from when the structure was sealed off and the monumental building was constructed above it).
What was the purpose of the chambers?
Since we are dealing with a work in progress, the actual function of the system is as of yet unclear. However, we do have evidence for extensive daily use.
We found hundreds of clay oil lamps, alongside cooking vessels, storage jars and a few stone-made vessels (most of the vessels are broken on the floor).
All the artefacts the excavation yielded are sorted and catalogued for further study by us and other experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority or the academy. All the dirt from inside the system is sent for wet sifting. So, hopefully, we will find some smaller surprises hidden in the soil.
Could anyone else have been inside before the 'official' discovery?
As far as we can see, the only time people entered the system was during the construction of the monumental building. The system was then filled with large boulders, and a column in secondary use was put inside the second room to support the wall of the building.
How are the rooms arranged?
At first, we found an open room carved in the bedrock with no ceiling. On its northern end, there is an opening with three steps into the second room, which is entirely hewn in the bedrock. The third room is located south of the second room, just below the first one.
The system is pretty small by modern standards. The rooms each have an area ~2.5x3m and height ~1.7m. The bedrock to the lower part of the third and deepest room is ~3.5 m.
Was the courtyard ever 'open-air'?
It is hard to say if the first room was covered or not. We believe the first room was roofed and maybe even with a vaulted roof. It is possible that the system was the basement of a building that did not survive but which covered it.
Similarly, were the chambers originally underground?
The system is curved in the bedrock. As far as we know, most of the buildings in Jerusalem 2000 years ago were stone-built on street level.
Some of those buildings had a hewn installation, such as ritual baths (miq'vaot). However, they were only partially carved into bedrock, compared to what we found.
Could there be other underground chambers?
We are still excavating and clearing the third room, so who knows what we will find? We are a long-running project and are planning to be here for the next few years.
How does this compare to your previous finds?
This is my first excavation in Jerusalem. Most of my academic training and past research was on the coastal plain of modern-day Israel, a region known as Southern Phoenicia. So it is very different from my previous excavations.
Any excavation highlights?
Every excavation is unique and has its discoveries. As an archaeologist, I am happy with everything I find. The vital issue is how do we address the findings and what can the study of them tell us about how people lived in the past. The findings continually add to our knowledge about human behaviour and experience in antiquity.
Dr Andrew Cuff (Associate Lecturer in Anatomy at Hull York Medical School) gives us a whirlwind insight into the evolution and life of dinosaurs, what they looked like, and how we dig for their fossilised remains, as well as his work on ancient felids (cats). Please note, unless otherwise stated, pictures are from pixabay.com or unsplash.com, and are purely for illustrative purposes. Subscribe to my blog here.
Do you have a favourite dinosaur period?
Broadly speaking the Mesozoic Era (spanning the Triassic period: 250-200 million years ago, Jurassic period: 200-145 million years ago, Cretaceous period: 145-66 million years ago) was a hugely important time.
During the Triassic, the world is recovering from the largest mass extinction of all time and has a wide diversity of weird and wonderful species that evolve and try to fill some of the roles that were previously filled by the then extinct species.
The Jurassic is when dinosaurs really take over the world, and their marine reptile cousins dominate the seas. However, the Cretaceous is the specific time within that range I’d want to see most.
I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was young and somewhat boringly T. rex is my favourite dinosaur, so of course I want to go see it. And if I could safely watch the end of the non-avian dinosaurs with the impact at the end of the Cretaceous about 66 million years ago, who wouldn’t want to go?
So avian dinosaurs survived the end of the Cretaceous?
Birds are dinosaurs. They didn’t all die at the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. We know this because we find a huge diversity of feathered dinosaurs, particularly from China that help show this. Although it is a surprise to many, we’ve known it since the discovery of Archaeopteryx, around 1861, which was during Charles Darwin’s lifetime.
What did dinosaurs look like?
We can tell the colour of some dinosaurs from their feathers and skin. In really well preserved specimens, the melanosomes (the pigment giving organelles in our cells) are still visible. Round ones give browns/oranges, and sausage shaped ones give blacks.
So, we know that some dinosaurs (Sinosauropteryx) were stripy from alternating regions with and without the melanosomes.
We know that Microraptor was nearly completely black, but also likely iridesced (produced different colours depending on the light shining on it). Think pigeon necks which show purples and greens even though there is no actual colour there.
An ankylosaur (the armoured dinosaurs with the big hammer-like tail), Borealopelta, is incredible. It’s a multi-tonne dinosaur fabulously well preserved so that we can tell it is counter-shaded i.e. the skin on top is dark and on the belly is light – think a lot of antelope in Africa. Counter-shading is used to help camouflage, so it suggests these massive dinosaurs were still very much in the food chain even at that size.
The Velociraptors in Jurassic Park should be covered in feathers too! Also they should be the size of the Dilophosaurus, and the Dilophosaurus should have been the size of the Velociraptor.
Speaking of ‘Jurassic Park’, can we use computer wizardry to analyse how dinosaurs might have moved?
Yes. Let’s use a study we published last year as an example.
We looked at a dinosaur called Mussaurus. It belongs to the group called the sauropodomorpha. Most people know the later sauropods, the massive, long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs like Diplodocus, Brontosaurus etc. Mussaurus was an earlier member which hadn’t yet reached great sizes.
We have a growth series from hatchlings all the way up to adults, and can reconstruct their skeletons, and then put flesh back on them. Using some clever maths, we then calculated their centre of mass.
This was then used to show that the hatchlings walked on all 4 limbs, whilst the adults shifted to walking on just their hindlimbs. It’s a fascinating transition, and today we think only humans do something similar.
Why are there more fossils of immature than fully mature dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs are much like all other animals. They produce a huge number of young because so few get to adulthood. This is due to predation, disease, and nutritional requirements.
It is possible dinosaurs had even higher mortality rates for their young due to their extreme growth rates and the food that must have been required, particularly for the largest species.
Did they really have tiny brains? And does that equate to stupidity?
It is true that many dinosaurs had relatively small brains particularly for their body size. This is true even for most of the assumed “intelligent” species such as the raptors.
This does not mean they are stupid, but may have implications for group hunting, and a recent paper suggests that it is highly unlikely they hunted in groups.
That being said, birds are living dinosaurs, and some of them are amongst the most intelligent of living species. Corvids (the family that includes crows), are known to be able to fashion tools and solve complex problems. Underestimate their intelligence at your own risk!