THE MIKVE discovered near Beit Shemesh over the summer.
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Antiquities Authority recently unearthed an ancient mikve ritual bath and a water cistern that was scribbled on by Australian World War II soldiers near Beit Shemesh.
The excavation, which began in mid-July, was a test excavation carried out prior to the widening of Route 38 at the Haela Junction. The Antiquities Authority found not only the 1,900-year-old mikve, but also a massive 1,700-year-old water cistern, the ceiling of which was engraved with the names of the Australian soldiers.
According to Yoav Tsur, excavation director of the Antiquities Authority, the mikve was used as far back as the second century CE.
“We found fragments of magnificent pottery vessels there dating to the second century CE, among them lamps, red burnished vessels, a jug and cooking pots,” Tsur said. “Apparently the mikve ceased to be used during the second century CE, perhaps in light of the Bar-Kochba revolt.”
While the mikve was an intriguing find, the more surprising discovery was Australian soldiers’ graffiti. Although the graffiti is only decades old, it indicates that the water cistern was exposed in the 1940s.
Assaf Peretz, an archaeologist and historian with the Antiquities Authority, identified the graffiti as the names corporals Scarlett and Walsh, along with the initials RAE, the numbers NX7792 and NX9168 and the date 30/05/1940.
“Since the initials Cpl. signify the rank of corporal,” Peretz said, “we can assume that these were soldiers who wanted to leave their mark there.
An inquiry with the proper authorities revealed that the numbers engraved inside the cistern are actually soldiers’ serial numbers and that RAE stands for Royal Australian Engineers.”
“A search in the Australian government archives revealed the following information: Cpl. Philip William Scarlett was born in Melbourne in 1918, was drafted into the army in 1939, survived the war and died in 1970, shortly before his 52nd birthday.
His comrade, Patrick Raphael Walsh, was born in 1910 in Cowra, was drafted in 1939, survived the war and died in 2005 at the age of 95. It seems that the two were members of the Australian Sixth Division that was stationed in the country at the time of the British Mandate and was undergoing training prior to being sent into combat in France,” he said.
According to Tsur, “The finds from this excavation allow us to reconstruct a double story: about the Jewish settlement in the second century CE, probably against the background of the events of the Bar-Kochba revolt, and another story, no less fascinating, about a group of Australian soldiers who visited the site about 1,700 years later and left their mark there.”
Tsur said he’s not sure if the Antiquities Authority will return to the site for more excavations, but these discoveries will be preserved. The Israel National Roads Company has agreed to the Antiquities Authority’s request to change the junction’s construction plan to preserve the finds there and rehabilitate them as part of the landscape alongside the road.