Impressive Jewish artifacts found in Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem

2,000-year-old olive and wine presses, a burial cave and mikvah from the descendants of the Maccabees were found in south Jerusalem neighborhood.

Archaeologist Yaakov Billig stands next to impressive discoveries from the Second Temple period in Jerusalem's Sharafat neighborhood, March, 2019 (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
Archaeologist Yaakov Billig stands next to impressive discoveries from the Second Temple period in Jerusalem's Sharafat neighborhood, March, 2019
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Hasmoneans who lived in what is today’s Sharafat neighborhood made a good living, surmised Yaakov Billig, director of an excavation that revealed impressive finds from 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.
Hasmonean discoveries uncovered in Jerusalem
Working for the Antiquities Authority (IAA), Billig and his team made headlines on Wednesday when the discoveries were announced.
“I’m surrounded by press here,” Billig joked in an interview with The Jerusalem Post – “wine presses and olive presses.”
The veteran archaeologist described a high standard of living for the Hasmoneans (called Hashmonaim in Hebrew), descendants of the Maccabees, the famous warrior-priests who defended the land of Israel in the Hanukka story.
“Large building stones were found in the soil fill that covered the courtyard of the cave,” the authority said in a press release, “some of which were decorated with the finest architectural style of the Second Temple period.”
One of the most unique discoveries was a heart-shaped page title and a number of molded cornices.
“These stone items are very rare and were usually incorporated into luxurious buildings and burial estates of Jerusalem, such as that of the priestly family of the sons of Hazeer in Kidron and several tombs in the Sanhedria neighborhood of Jerusalem,” the IAA said.
Also at the site was a large underground dovecote, which Billig explained was like a chicken coop for pigeons.
“It’s called a columbaria,” he explained to the Post. “It was used locally in Israel in antiquity when doves and pigeons were common for poultry and eggs. Their droppings were used as fertilizer for farms and the birds were also used as sacrifices for the Holy Temple,” he said, noting that the Temple Mount is only an hour’s walk from the site.
Also discovered on the site were several large Jewish ritual baths, called a mikveh in Hebrew. Billig said that the baths correspond to the same basic Jewish law as today, with a minimum requirement of 40 “seah” of water from a natural supply.
The mikvaot (plural of mikveh) found in Sharafat were plastered so that water would not seep out. But unlike other mikvaot, these were quite large.
“Everything here is big,” Billig explained. “Theoretically, a country village like this wouldn’t be so extravagant, but here it seems that even though we are five kilometers away from the city center, the remnants are quite grandiose. It seems like these guys made a good living as a result of their income. They probably supplied the local population and pilgrims,” he stated.
Modern Sharafat started out as a small Muslim village near the equally small Beit Safafa. Today they are both middle-class Arab neighborhoods tucked in between Teddy Stadium, Pat Junction and the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo in southern Jerusalem.
The municipality had zoned the open area for a local elementary school, but as with every building project, the IAA was called in to check out if the earth held any hidden gems.
The hewn burial cave also uncovered at the location consists of a number of rooms, with elongated burial “kokhim” in which the bodies of the deceased were placed, as was Jewish tradition during the Second Temple period.
After the cave was documented by archaeologists, it was sealed off at the request of rabbinic officials, in order to prevent future desecration of the tomb.
The school for local Israeli-Arab children will be built, regardless of the discoveries. “It doesn’t seem like an archaeological park of a high-society Jewish village would make such a great attraction in an Arab neighborhood,” Billig said, but added that all the important finds would be properly preserved and the exact location of the school may be moved to accommodate the discoveries. This is a common practice in Jerusalem, where not every archaeological site is made into a park or museum.
Born in the United States, Billig, now a grandfather, has been working for the IAA for the past 32 years, which he jokingly says qualifies him to be old enough to be one of the artifacts marked for preservation.
Billig specializes in the Jerusalem aqueducts and Second Temple period archaeology. In the 1990s, he worked on an excavation along the Western Wall, something he considers the peak of his career.
“That was real hardcore archaeology,” he said of the famous Jerusalem holy site.
“It doesn’t get any better than that.”