The third season of renewed excavations at Ramat Rahel in Jerusalem has come to a close, with several exceptional finds that have increased archeologists' understanding of the site. The excavations are the result of a joint project between Tel Aviv University and the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and are scheduled for another three seasons, with the next to begin in the summer of 2009. Dig director Dr. Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University said that the goals of this year's dig were to expand the area around a Byzantine (fourth-seventh centuries CE) church previously excavated by Yohanan Aharoni of the Hebrew University in the 1950s, and to further expose a garden and a profound water system from a palace or administrative building that was in use from the late Iron Age (seventh-sixth centuries BCE) until the beginning of the Hasmonean period in the 2nd century BCE. These goals were met, he said. "We understand much better the time and the extent of the garden." According to Lipschits, Ramat Rahel was used as an administrative center for various foreign powers ruling over Judea beginning with the Assyrians after Sennacherib's conquest of Judea in 701 BCE. Ramat Rahel was also used as a large administrative center during the Persian period (538-333 BCE) and into the early Hellenistic period (333-165 BCE), but was destroyed by the Maccabees in the second century BCE. Later the Romans had a military camp there, including a bathhouse and villa, followed by the Byzantines who built a church and several support buildings. Ramat Rahel was continuously occupied until the Abbasid period in the 10th century CE. Veteran Jerusalem archeologist Dr. Gabi Barkay, who currently heads the Temple Mount sifting project, disagrees with Lipschits's findings. Barkay led a small expedition to Ramat Rahel in 1984 and although nothing official has been published, some of his conclusions have been presented in the Biblical Archaeology Review magazine. In his articles Barkay points to several "LMLK" (in Hebrew, "for the king") stamps and a small painted potsherd of what appears to be a king on a throne as evidence that the site was built by King Hezekiah, who ruled from around 715-687 BC. According to Barkay, Jerusalem had become too overcrowded and Hezekiah wanted to build a large royal palace at Ramat Rahel that would better reflect his grandeur. Lipschits says that these "LMLK"-stamped jars were taxes collected by the king and then sent to the Assyrian governor at Ramat Rahel. There is still much to learn about the early phases of Ramat Rahel, said Lipschits, adding that future excavations would focus on "the relationship between the eighth and seventh centuries BC and between the Persian and Hellenistic periods." Future digs will also focus on learning more about the area immediately surrounding Ramat Rahel and the relationship between those various sites. This year's excavations yielded several extraordinary finds, including a piece of a proto-Ionic (also known as a proto-Aeolic) capital from the Iron Age. To date only 13 such capitals have been found in Judea, with one from the City of David in Jerusalem and now 12 from Ramat Rahel. The proto-Ionic capital was also used on seals in the Early Iron Age before writing in the Israelite kingdom, and can be seen today on the back of the five shekel coin. Also found this year were some 30 stamped jar handles with variations on the "Yehud" stamp from the Persian period, adding to the more than 320 such stamps previously found at the site. A potsherd bearing the letters "mem," "nun," "lamed" in ancient Hebrew was also discovered, believed to possibly be from a water libation jar. Also found was a mikve with an impressive carving of a tree on one of the plastered walls. Groups of archeologists, students and volunteers worked in different areas of the excavation site, arranged by period. One group excavated a building from the Muslim Ayyubid period, another group a Byzantine church, another a Persian period wall and an additional two groups worked on the Iron Age administrative building and garden. Together these groups uncovered structures that spanned the eighth century BCE to the 11th century CE, an incredible 1,700-plus years of human occupation at Ramat Rahel. In the final week-and-a-half of the dig, a bulldozer dug in an area previously unexcavated, in search of bedrock for the archeologists to better understand the shape and behavior of the hill at Ramat Rahel. However, the bulldozer was halted after uncovering an area of what turned out to be bedrock carved into a large platform. The area was then further excavated by archeologists and several volunteers, who later discovered plastered floors and several channels presumably used for directing water. According to Lipschits, this new area will also be the focus of future seasons. When asked how it was to work with a German university, Lipschits said: "It's the third time we are putting together different Christian and Jewish groups, and for me this is an important part of the project." He emphasized that at Ramat Rahel the two groups were together excavating the structures from both the Old and New Testament periods, and even into the Muslim periods. This year's excavation drew volunteers and students from several countries, including Israel, Germany, the United States, The Netherlands, Canada, Finland, Norway and Australia. "I wanted to go to Israel and I thought this would be a nice opportunity to go with people I knew," said Magdalena Gebessler, a University of Heidelberg student. During her four weeks of excavation work at the site, Gebessler said she found "tons of pottery, and the floor of the mikve." She was joined by more than 20 other German participants, many of them students of theology or Jewish studies at the University of Heidelberg who were in classes instructed by Dr. Manfred Oeming, co-director of the dig. The results of the various seal impressions found at the site, Lipschits promised, would be published within one week of the conclusion of this year's dig. For more information on previous and upcoming digs at Ramat Rahel, visit www.ramatrachel.co.il/archeology/VolunteerPrograms.htm or www.tau.ac.il/~rmtrachl/

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