Jerusalem dig sheds light on 2,000-year-old eating habits of local Jews

Sheep and goats were the order of the day, pork and shellfish nowhere to be found, and pigeons were bred for sacrifices on Temple Mount.

The ancient City of David landfill (photo credit: ASSAF PEREZ, COURTESY OF IAA)
The ancient City of David landfill
Ancient Jerusalemites from the Second Temple period were kosher and dined primarily on sheep and goat, while cows and chickens came in a distant second and third, Tel Aviv University researchers reported in the most comprehensive study of its kind.
Following several years of archeological digs at an ancient landfill in the City of David, an analysis of the findings from the 1st-century CE was published this week in the Tel Aviv Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.
The study – written by Dr. Yuval Gadot, Dr. Lidar Sapir- Hen and Dr. Abra Spiciarich – is titled “The Faunal Evidence From Early Roman Jerusalem: The People Behind the Garbage.”
Gadot, a senior lecturer at the university’s department of archeology said on Sunday that the protracted dig took place some 800 meters from the Temple Mount.
“We began digging three years ago in a [ancient] landfill devoted to garbage disposal during the Roman occupation,” he said by phone. “One of the main components found there was food waste, including over 12,000 animal bones, of which we identified 5,000.”
An exhaustive analysis of the bones determined that Jerusalem’s ancient inhabitants strictly adhered to kosher dietary laws and primarily consumed sheep and goat meat.
“We found no pork bones or shellfish whatsoever and that 70 to 80% of the bones were from sheep and goat, with a little cow and chicken bones,” Gadot said.
“What was surprising was that there were no pigeon bones, because we know that they were [breeding] pigeons and that it was quite a big industry,” he said. “In the other landfills closer to the Temple Mount, past researchers found a lot of pigeon bones, and now we understand that they were not bred for food, but rather for cultic activities on the Temple Mount.”
Gadot added that a substantial amount of vegetable and fruit remnants, including figs and dates, were also found in the City of David landfill, although the researchers focused primarily on animal refuse.
“They were definitely eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, wheats and barleys, which we will study in future research,” he said.
Gadot said the cuts of meat from the animals indicates that the inhabitants of the ancient city were decidedly middle class.
“The better parts of the animals were not consumed, which shows us that they were not very rich and not very poor,” he said. “When you go to a restaurant, you see the good cuts of the animal, and we didn’t see that here.”
According to Gadot, the livestock, which were raised in herds nearby, were slaughtered at a facility in the capital.
“You can see by the marks on the bones how they were slaughtered,” he said. “We already had a basic idea of the diet then, but when you conduct research at a garbage dump, you see everything, so this is the most comprehensive study of its kind.”
Apart from the animal bones, Gadot said numerous antiquities, including coins and broken pottery, were discovered during the dig.
“We mostly found things used by people in their homes,” he said, adding that all of the finds have been sent to the Israel Antiquities Authority’s lab for further study.