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.
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