Jerusalem archaeological discoveries back accounts of Roman siege

Recent archeological findings in Jerusalem have provided further evidence and insights into the events surrounding the razing of the Second Temple.

Cooking pots 370 (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
Cooking pots 370
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy” (Psalm 137:5-6).
For centuries, these words, written during the Babylonian captivity, expressing the longing of the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, have been recited by newly married grooms as they shatter a glass at the conclusion of their wedding ceremonies, a reminder of the pain of losing the temple even in their most joyous moment.
Recent archeological findings in the Israeli capital have provided further evidence and insights into the events surrounding the razing of the Second Temple and exile of the Jewish community from Israel in 70 CE. The discoveries, dating to the mid-first century, are three simple, intact cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp. But it is the location of the finding that appears to substantiate the accounts of the Jewish Revolt as recorded by the noted Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
Josephus initially fought against the Romans as the head of the Jewish forces in the Galilee. Once taken prisoner, he wrote a detailed literary account of the Jewish rebellion in his work The Jewish War. He describes not only the uprising against Rome, but also the violent bloodbath within Jerusalem’s city walls as Jewish factions fought each other for power and the city’s dwindling resources.
An internal civil war broke out between the Jewish appeasers, namely the chief priests and Pharisees who preferred to capitulate and live on as Roman slaves, and the more revolutionary groups, who were prepared to die to the last man. Among the plethora of radical insurgents were the social bandits who carried out guerilla warfare; false messiahs, such as Simon bar Giora, who led the largest of all movements that lasted nearly two years; the Sicarii, who blended into crowds and killed their targets with a curved dagger, a sicae, which they easily hid under their cloaks; and Zealots, who opposed the ecclesiastical aristocracy.
Once the chief priests and Pharisees were violently subdued, the factions turned on one other, forcing survivors and the general populace into hiding or risk desertion. Josephus tells of survivors escaping through a labyrinth of subterranean cisterns, channels and tunnels beneath the Temple Mount and fleeing to Masada, where they eventually committed mass suicide two years later, after the Romans laid siege to Herod’s massive mountain fortress along the Dead Sea.
Many archeological discoveries in Jerusalem since 1967 have confirmed the horrifying conditions of war in first-century Jerusalem, that left untold numbers dead and the city leveled. The Burnt House, discovered during excavations in 1970, and other uncovered areas over the past decades testify to the large-scale destruction of entire residential complexes.
The cooking pots and oil lamp unearthed in late June were found in a small cistern located in Second Temple Jerusalem’s main drainage channel.
In 2011, archeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron completed the excavation of the channel that runs from the southwest corner of the Temple Mount complex to the Pool of Siloam in the City of David. The main purpose of the conduit was to channel rainwater to the Kidron Valley. In the first century, the drainage channel was beneath a large road on which Jerusalemites traversed to and from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple area. Walking tours can now be arranged through the lengthy tunnel, which ends near Robinson’s Arch, not far from the Western Wall plaza.
But why would first century Jerusalemites place their cooking pots and oil lamp in the city’s sewer lines rather than in their residences?
Josephus, after already mentioning a “creeping famine” that began to haunt those trapped within Jerusalem’s city walls because of Titus’ siege in the spring and summer of 70 CE, makes it clear that as the blockade wore on, the situation within the city walls deteriorated rapidly. Jews fought and killed each other for control of the city and also for its scant resources, namely food.
“The madness of the seditious did also increase together with their famine, and both those miseries were every day inflamed more and more; for there was no corn which anywhere appeared publicly, but the robbers came running into, and searched men’s private houses,” Josephus wrote. “And then, if they found any, they tormented them, because they had denied they had any; and if they found none, they tormented them worse, because they supposed they had more carefully concealed it.”
The people of Jerusalem who chose to remain within the city walls during the Roman siege were forced to hide any food that they had from all others, at risk to their own lives. It was a battle for survival not only against the Romans, but also against fellow Jews, family members and the stalking famine that took the lives of many.
“Children pulled the very morsels that their fathers were eating out of their very mouths, and, what was still more to be pitied, so did the mothers do as to their infants; and when those that were most dear were perishing under their hands, they were not ashamed to take from them the very last drops that might preserve their lives,” Josephus wrote. “And while they ate after this manner, yet were they not concealed in so doing; but the seditious everywhere came upon them immediately, and snatched away from them what they had gotten from others.”
According to Shukron, who serves as excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first time we are able to connect archeological finds with the famine that occurred during the siege of Jerusalem at the time of the Great Revolt. The complete cooking pots and ceramic oil lamp indicate that the people went down into the cistern where they secretly ate the food that was contained in the pots, without anyone seeing them, and this is consistent with the account provided by Josephus.”