Train to antiquity

When ancient archaeological finds and the modern Light Rail collide - which prevails?

arch dig 1 (photo credit: )
arch dig 1
(photo credit: )
An archaeological dig, about five kilometers north of the Old City, has uncovered a complete community that existed during the two generations between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the Bar-Kochba Rebellion in 132 CE. The dig is proceeding along a 360-meter stretch smack in the center island of Shu'afat Road, the main traffic artery from Jerusalem to Ramallah and farther north to Nablus (Schechem). Perhaps more importantly, and certainly more controversially, the artery is also the route of the future line No.1 of the Jerusalem Light Rail system. In fact, the dig was undertaken at the request of the Moriah Company, a municipal company engaged as the contractor to prepare the infrastructure for the Light Rail. Israeli law requires Moriah to coordinate its works with the Authority, whenever archaeological remains are - or could be - affected. Such "salvage digs," as they are known, are standard procedure. Jon Seligman, archaeologist in charge of the Authority's Jerusalem Region, explained to In Jerusalem this week that such digs are intended to "document conditions before damage is done through development. "We assess the findings and consider such questions as a possible demand to change plans, or cover up the site. We determine if the goal is to salvage information through research, or possibly display the site to the public due to its special importance," he said. And these findings are very significant, indeed, perhaps "indicating a new direction" unknown thus far, says Dr. Gideon Avni, head of the Surveys and Excavations Department at the Antiquities Authority. Jews were expelled from the walled city after the year 70 CE. Most archaeologists believe that the new site is the closest settlement to Jerusalem defined as Jewish that has been discovered to date. Caught between the significance of the find and the necessity of the Light Rail, the Israel Antiquities Authority will hold internal discussions to determine its stand regarding the findings, Seligman said. "We try to be part of the development process, rather than delay it. We weigh the factors involved in a balanced manner," he explained. "We'll do this first within the Authority, and then discuss it with the developer." In any event, the excavation will shortly be filled and the site covered up, restoring its traffic-island appearance between busy northbound and southbound lanes. The protective plastic sheets, stretched on a round support structure, will disappear from this Arab neighborhood. Spokespersons for the Light Rail enterprise do not seem concerned that the headline-generating archaeological find will affect their plans. Itsho Gur, speaking for both Moriah and CityPass, the concessionaire who won the government contract to operate the Light Rail, does not expect a delay in development works. Moriah and the Authority work in full cooperation, he said, and have previously resolved issues involving ancient remains. He said permits should be issued within weeks, and work on Line 1 would begin in the spring, originating at Pisgat Ze'ev. The area in Shu'afat will only be reached in 2007, by which time the Authority's position should be known. "They have the authority," Gur stated. "What they decide, we'll do." Asked, however, what could happen if the Authority recommends a change of route, he replied: "That will be very complex indeed." Shmulik Algrably, spokesman for the municipal body responsible for the Light Rail, expressed a similar sentiment. "The whole of Jerusalem is built on layer upon layer of history," he said. The Light Rail authorities, he continued, have cooperated with the Authority on previous projects and expect to do so again. Algrably further said that he is not aware of any intent to turn the dig into a visiting site. He refused to speculate what would happen if the Authority demanded changes. A recent visit to the location gave the impression that it would be hard to maintain an open site at this venue, currently composed of a highway running through a built-up neighborhood. In fact, said Debbie Sklar-Parnes, the archaeologist assigned to carry out the dig, the traffic island prescribed a width of no more than six meters along 360 meters of dug-up road. Sklar-Parnes will have a key role in the next phase of excavation, which includes the preparation of a comprehensive report on what was uncovered. Sklar-Parnes has been employed by the Antiquities Authority since she made aliyah from California ten years ago. Convinced that the site was settled by Jews, she termed it "a small island of Jewish heritage, with people for whom it was important to adhere to the rules of purity (Tahara)." The abundance of lathe-turned stone vessels, which according to Halacha (Jewish religious law) do not take on impurity, is a sure sign of Jewish settlement and was often found in Jerusalem of the Second Temple era, she added. Here, however, there is more, according to Sklar-Parnes, because this is a post-Destruction site. Eighteen ancient coins were found and sent for scientific examination. Almost all were from the period 70 to 132 CE. A few were from a slightly earlier period; none are later. A test of other objects pointed to similar dating, and ceramic finds showed stylistic features as yet unseen. Senior archaeologist Avni backs Sklar-Parnes' position. "We know about the War of Destruction and the exile of Jews from inside the city, but what about neighboring areas? So far, there have been no finds. Now we have a defined period and specific Jewish elements." It is not easy to determine the nature of this settlement, said Avni. Two Roman bathhouses were found during the dig, possibly serving soldiers of the Tenth Legion stationed not far away - so perhaps, for example, the settlement had a working relationship with the Romans. Five ink-wells were found at the site, more than unearthed in Qumran, which is believed to have been home of the Dead Sea Sect, scribes of the famous scrolls. According to Dr. David Amit of the Antiquities Authority, the ink-wells attest to administrative functions carried out here along the ancient Jerusalem-Samaria road. Perhaps the Jewish population was engaged in these tasks under the supervising Romans. "Discovering a settlement of such size and such orderly layout was a big surprise," Amit asserts. Jewish mikva'ot (ritual baths) were not found, much to Sklar-Parnes' regret. "It's a matter of luck," she said, "especially along such a narrow strip as this, being unable to expand left or right because of the road and private properties." The lack of mikva'ot and certain other finds have led Prof. Israel Levine, Hebrew University archaeologist and historian, to question whether the site was indeed a Jewish settlement. But Amos Kloner, archaeology professor at Bar Ilan, endorses its Jewish identity, supporting his belief in extensive Jewish settlement in Judea up to the Bar-Kochba Rebellion. Whatever the determination, Sklar-Parnes insists that this was a planned urban settlement laid out along a grid of streets, as opposed to farm structures that were found near Jerusalem and identified as Jewish. Private and public buildings have been found here - including one of hewn stones, a status feature. Despite its significance, the Authority's Avni doubts that the dig will become an open archaeological site. "The importance lies in the documentation," he said. "I assume it will be published. Perhaps a citation will be fixed at stations of the future Light Rail, telling people what had existed much earlier at this spot."