Faced with enigmatic ‘V’s, archeologists turn to Facebook

Figures in the floor of an ancient dwelling carved into the bedrock of Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood defy explanation.

V's in Silwan 311 (photo credit: Vladimir Neyhin/City of David Foundation)
V's in Silwan 311
(photo credit: Vladimir Neyhin/City of David Foundation)
Finding a room with a "V" (or three Vs be exact) and baffled by their origins and meaning, archeologists in Jerusalem have turned to Facebook for ideas about what could be behind the carvings etched into its limestone floor.
The three Vs were uncovered in a complex of rooms carved into the bedrock near the Gihon Spring, the oldest section of the city whose founding dates back to the fourth millennium BCE. They were carved to a depth of some five centimeters, with each arm of the Vs extending about 30 centimeters. Nothing found in the vicinity offered much help in identifying who made them or their purpose.
“They are strange. I’d never seen such a thing in my life,” Ronny Reich, a University of Haifa archeologist who has excavated in Jerusalem for more than 40 years, told The Media Line, recalling the day he found them.
They were outside Jerusalem’s walls in the remains of a house occupied about 2,800 years ago. That was when Jerusalem was ruled by the kings of Judea and was mostly located in an area just south of the presentday Old City. Today, the area is known both as the City of David and as Silwan, a residential neighborhood where a majority-Arab population lives uncomfortably with Israelis.
In fact, the Vs may not be such a rarity, as Reich realized as he was studying archeological reports several weeks after the discovery. Capt. Montague Parker, a British adventurer and proto-archeologist, reported finding similar carvings a century ago in another house nearby and published them.
“So, now I have two locations with enigmatic carvings, so it must be a more widespread phenomenon, not something unique,” Reich said. But Parker’s dig has since been covered over and his discovery will probably never be confirmed. “Since Parker’s time many houses have been built and we cannot dig where we like.”
The Facebook campaign has elicited a lot of responses and lots of questions about the size and location.
Among the suggestions proffered are that they are characters written in Egyptian, Paleo- Hebrew or Yarmukian, a prehistoric culture that the writer says used “herringbone” glyphs on their pottery. Others propose that the Vs are an image or images – “a person... head and all,” or a symbol for water, “particularly if it was located near a spring.”
Others proposed a more practical use, either as a holder for tools, a mold for metal hinges or that they were used to hold something upright.
One suggested they are an “ancient version of HTML,” adding a :-) in case the archeologists were thinking of pursuing the conjecture.
The Facebook campaign was organized by the City of David Foundation, a non-profit group that funds excavations in the area and operates a visitors’ center. As for himself, Reich said he is relying more on his colleagues than the public for help in trying to fathom the mystery of the Vs.
So far, they have not been much help, but such things take time, he said. In October, he presented the Vs at a conference attended by some 200 of his colleagues, but no one had anything to suggest. Although Reich has been an archeologist for more than four decades and spent 15 years excavating in the City of David, the Iron Age era that the house dates from is not his specialty.
“I’m a classical archeologist, dealing mainly with the Second Temple period, not the Iron Age. Yet I am digging there so I have to deal with strata that are less my expertise, so some of my findings I delegate to others to others,” he explained.
What archeologists can say with certainty is that potsherds found nearby indicate that the rooms with the Vs were last used around 800 BCE, at which point they were filled with rubble to support the construction of a defensive wall. This was around the reign of Joash, the king of Judea.
The straight lines of the house’s walls and level floors suggest that special effort was put into building the complex, and its location next to the Gihon Spring point to their having an important purpose. But the findings also suggest that the rooms were an ordinary place where the daily life of a biblical city went on.
Archeologists discovered nearby the remains of olive presses and a small upright stone used for pagan rites, known as a matzeva. While Jerusalem is the birthplace of monotheism, it was a lengthy birth and remains from the era of the Vs show that many people followed the pagan practices of their neighbors in the shadow of God’s Temple in the privacy of their homes.
“We don’t know what this is for either. It might have been used for domestic worship, someone commemorating an event or a forefather, nothing public,” Reich said.
There is a pointer to what the writing on the floor is all about in the form of a dozen or so weights used to hold down threads from a loom, which were discovered in an adjacent room. “It’s possible that these Vs were used to hold upright vertical looms,” Reich said, admitting that that would be a disappointingly prosaic solution to the mystery. “You always have to look for the simple explanation and not rush into something dramatic.”