A dismal future for uncovering the past

By SAM SER
May 15, 2007 11:31

 
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How many people have entered the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate? Millions more than have visited the archeological finds lying just beneath it, that's for sure. You wouldn't know it, because tall grass overlays the ground before it and because building materials clog the approach to it, but the area just beneath the Jaffa Gate square and adjacent to the site where the expansive and swank new Mamilla Project is being built is home to a smorgasbord of historical remnants. "Here we can clearly see the bathhouse from the Byzantine period," Jon Seligman, Jerusalem region archeologist for the Antiquities Authority, says as he walks through the site. "And here are several shops from that era - look, here is the wall of one shop, there are the walls of another, and there the road leading down… "This wall up here," Seligman continues, pointing up to the hill that descends from the Jaffa Gate - "dates to the fifth century. All these things give us a fantastic understanding of what the city looked like in the Byzantine period…" The site is not the most spectacular Jerusalem has to offer, but it does have a lot going for it. Several centuries of the Holy City's history are marked by numerous structures. The spot is directly adjacent to an already famous and highly trafficked location, and the activity noted here - shopping and recreation - mirrors the function of the mall and entertainment center that abuts it. So why is this site not developed? "No funding," answers Seligman. The Antiquities Authority carries out some 50 excavations in Jerusalem each year, with several of them producing noteworthy finds. For some reason, though, some sites grab the attention of visitors - and donors - while others don't. This site, uncovered in the early 1990s, is one of the unlucky orphans. As pilgrims file past on the path overhead and as cars whiz by on the road perched on stilts above it, this hodgepodge of ruins lies unmarked, undeveloped, unappreciated - and unprotected. Anyone who wishes to do so can come and inspect the ceramic pipes, laid more than 1,000 years ago, that lie exposed here… or they could destroy them. "Unless you're actually giving these sites a framework, not only for their development but for their continued maintenance, then there's no real viability to them," Seligman says with a sigh. "It's a constant endeavor to make sure that the place is clean, that stones don't fall from their places, to make sure that vegetation doesn't grow in the walls, etc. Without maintenance, things disintegrate." When the Antiquities Authority can't afford to draw attention to an excavated site, it sometimes has to save it the only way it can. "One of the possibilities, when we can't locate proper funding, is to bring in truckloads of dirt and cover the sites over again," Seligman says. "Then we have to just hope that future generations will take care of them." FUNDING IS about to become a rather acute problem. Mostly because of preparatory work for the light rail that is to traverse the city, Seligman says, the number of excavations in Jerusalem this year could reach as high as 100. Some important finds already uncovered have not yet been announced, as they are not ready to present to the public, he says. Archeological excavations are more common here than one might think, but only a few warrant media attention. Often the findings are few and of interest only to the scholarly community. The backyard or neighborhood playground is covered over again, the information gleaned being more important than the stones themselves. Clearly, though, that is not what Seligman wants to see happen to the Scopus Cave. There is nothing to mark the spot where, during highway construction in 1999, the limestone cave became apparent. Everyone else simply drives past on the way to Ma'aleh Adumim, but Seligman stops his car at the side of the road, climbs the safety railing and heads 15 meters into the grass. That's where the mouth of the cave opens up. Chisel marks on the walls and the squared corners of carved stone pillars and benches make it immediately obvious what the cave once was. "This is a quarry that was used during the Second Temple period for the production of stone vessels, which were important in matters of ritual purity," Seligman explains. "There was a factory down below here for making stone vessels like the ones we find in all the excavations from the First and Second Temple periods inside the Old City of Jerusalem." The slices that the artisans made into the limestone are still apparent. Lathes that were used to cut the stones into transportable blocks were found intact deeper inside the cave - which extends for five dunams below the surface. Cuts in the stone walls for lamps were also found, as were the lamps themselves. Smoothly rounded bits of stone still litter the ground of the cave. A site like this could be turned into an attraction along the lines of an historical reproduction, with actors churning out souvenir stone vessels - again, if only someone were interested in funding such a thing. Seligman doesn't think it's too kitschy an idea. Nor does he think that there are already too many archeological sites in Jerusalem, or that visitors get more than their fill of stones as it is. Jerusalem has no beach, no river winding through it, no distinctive nest of skyscrapers; it is defined by its iconic ancient stone walls. Why not embrace that as much as possible? "Listen, people flock to London and Paris, and they don't say, 'My goodness, there are just too many art museums here.' That's something that makes those cities into great attractions," Seligman notes, claiming there's no such thing as too much of a good thing. "The Coliseum in Rome attracts four million visitors a year. So what if it isn't 4.5 million?" The successful development of excavated sites such as the one at David's Citadel, he says, also proves what kind of added value an investment in archeology can bring. What's needed, he insists, is the right amount of showmanship. "Look," Seligman says, pointing to a spot near the Damascus Gate, "that tower there is the point where the Crusaders took the city. Just to the left is where Titus began his siege. You tell a story like that, and all of a sudden it's not just stones anymore. We just have to do a better job of telling Jerusalem's story."

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