Found in Jerusalem: Remains of the Babylonian Siege

Avigad's discovery of the Israelite tower helped resolve a dispute between modern historians and Josephus.

Suzanne Singer is the Jerusalem correspondent for Biblical Archaeology Review.

ON THE last day of his 1975 season Professor Nachman Avigad, of Hebrew University, digging in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, discovered four arrowheads buried in ashes at the base of a massive stone defense tower. The tower was built by the Israelites more than 2,600 years ago— before the Babylonian destruction of the city in 586 B.C. It had been constructed to protect Jerusalem's vulnerable northern perimeter. The four arrowheads had fallen short of their mark, apparently hitting the outside wall of the tower. They came to rest in the ashes of the burning city probably when soldiers of the Babylonian leader Nebuchadnezzar "came and burnt down the House of the Lord and the Royal palace and all the houses in Jerusalem . . . and the walls around Jerusalem were torn down" (2 Kings 25:9, 10).

The four arrowheads, one iron and three bronze, are thought to be the first remains ever recovered of the two-year Babylonian siege, which finally broke the defenses of the starving city. (In the 1960's British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon found several Israelite homes on the Ophel which had been burned during the Babylonian destruction of the city.)

Three weeks after Professor Avigad's remarkable discovery, I stood with the 70-year-old archaeologist beside one of the deep rectangular excavation pits on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. Since 1969, Professor Avigad has been digging in the Jewish Quarter for nine months of every year (an impressively long archaeological season). The once densely populated Jewish Quarter had been almost totally destroyed by the Jordanians between 1948 and 1967. Ironically enough, this destruction provided archaeologists with an unexpected opportunity to dig below modern levels in an area of unusual historic interest. In Herodian times, this area was known as the "Upper City," where the royal and the wealthy lived before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in A.D. 70. Whether this area was occupied prior to the Herodian period was, until recent years, unclear. Archaeologists were unable to agree on when Solomon's Jerusalem confined—to the eastern ridge and the Hill of Ophel—became too restricted for an enlarged population, thereby forcing people to build their homes on the western ridge. Equally unanswerable was the question as to when the western ridge was finally included within the defensive walls surrounding the city. Professor Avigad's excavations have now removed much of this uncertainty.

In 1970 Professor Avigad unearthed the stone foundation of a wall—less than 150 feet from the Israelite tower he found in 1975. The foundation of the wall was 22 feet thick and obviously supported what was once the city wall. Avigad followed this wall base for 120 feet and was able to date it from the pottery associated with it to the latter part of the eighth century B.C. The wall base was built of large stones laid with out bonding. The area of the wall which Avigad excavated included a sharp angle. The archaeologists also observed that the wall cut through a pre-existing house of the same period. This led Avigad to conclude that the western ridge had first been settled as an unwalled area in the eighth century B.C., then in the latter part of that century, perhaps during the reign of Hezekiah, the western ridge was brought within the city's defensive boundaries by this wall.

As Professor Avigad stood on the rim of the excavation explaining his most recent discoveries in the careful, technical language of the professional archaeologist, he could not mask the pride and pleasure he took in his accomplishment. He had waited five years to dig at the spot where he stood, amid new buildings and ruins, overlooking the newly discovered tower in the northwest corner of the Jewish Quarter. It had been important to continue explorations here because of the proximity of the spot to the Israelite city wall he had discovered in 1970. But not until the shell of an old house was removed by the Jewish Quarter Reconstruction and Development Company was it possible to start working. The area opened for excavation was a square 28 feet on a side, bounded on the west by a ruined synagogue of the Moroccan community and on the east by a sheikh's tomb.

The first 10 feet of digging produced nothing but empty fill—accumulated refuse. Below this, the southern balk continued to reflect only fill, unsupported by masonry and threatening to fall on the crews working beneath it. In the north balk, a firm stone exterior wall of a Byzantine building appeared, which reduced the likelihood of col lapse.

Bedrock was finally reached forty-five feet below today's ground level. On the bedrock Professor Avigad found what he called "a bit of fortification" from the Hasmonean period (second or first century B.C.). This "bit of fortification" was dated in two ways: first, by the masonry, which was characteristic of the period. Second, portions of the walls were bonded to a surface on and below which were found pottery sherds characteristic of the first and second centuries B.C.

Since this was all found on bedrock, one might be tempted to conclude that the earliest occupation of the area was in the Hasmonean period. However, high above what remains of the Hasmonean fortification walls stood the 22-foot tower. And the Hasmonean fortification walls had been built against the tower. Therefore, the tower must have been built before the Hasmonean fortifications. Moreover, this tower was of a strikingly different style of construction, completely unlike the abutting Hasmonean walls. The Hasmonean fortification walls were built from well-cut, close-fitting, rectangular stones with margins and bosses. The stones of the tower, looming above in the northwest corner, were large, roughhewn boulders chinked between with small stones.

Avigad was able to date the mystery tower by using the same technique which had given him the date of the Hasmonean fortification. He removed part of the Hasmonean surface and about 3 feet below it found another surface of beaten earth, this one tightly bonded to the tower. On top of this surface in a layer of ashes were pottery sherds of the eighth and seventh centuries. In this ash layer Avigad also found the four arrowheads, one of which enabled him to pinpoint the date of the battle which occurred there. One of the arrowheads—in bronze—was of a Scythian type, widely used by archers, including Babylonian archers, after about 600 B.C. The Scythian-type arrowhead was distinguished from the others by its three triangular fins and a hollow socket into which a shaft was inserted (see drawing). It was always cast and in bronze. The Late Iron II pottery on the bonded surface of the Israelite tower indicated that a battle took place between 800 and 587 B.C.; but the Scythian-type arrowhead, which could not be earlier than about 600 B.C., narrowed the range of possible dates of the battle to within a few years of the siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

Avigad next directed his team of diggers to remove the attached surface of beaten earth and excavate below—into the foundation trench of the tower. In this foundation trench were sealed materials which had been placed there when that part of the tower had been built. In the foundation trench, Avigad found more of the same type of eighth-seventh century Israelite pottery, unmixed with any later material. The evidence was conclusive that the tower which we were looking at had also been seen by "King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (when he) and all his army marched upon Jerusalem and laid siege to it" (2 Kings 25:1).

Avigad's discovery of the Israelite tower, against which the Hasmoneans 500 years later built their own fortifications, helped resolve a dispute between some modern historians and the first-century historian, Josephus. In The Jewish Wars Josephus describes three walls which protected Jerusalem, on the north from the Roman siege in A.D. 70. The first (innermost) or "old" defense wall which surrounded Jerusalem at the time was, according to Josephus, "almost impregnable." He also says that "David and Solomon, and later kings too . . . tackled the work (of constructing this wall) with enthusiasm." Some historians have assumed that Josephus exaggerated the antiquity of the first wall and that in fact the wall which he described was built by the Hasmoneans only about 200 years before his time. From the great height of the Israelite tower still extant today it is obvious that in Josephus' time the tower was a dramatically visible structure. As a result of Professor Avigad's excavation, we know the tower, which must have been part of a defense wall, was built in about the eighth century B.C., during the Judean monarchy. Thus, although Josephus may have exaggerated some what when he called the wall of which the tower was a part Davidic, his exaggeration regarding the Israelite tower was by no more than about 250 years. (David ruled from approximately 1000 B.C. to 960 B.C.).

The location of the wall discovered in 1970 so near to the line described by Josephus as stretching from Hippicus (near today's Jaffa Gate) to the west colonnade of the Temple is additional confirmation that Josephus' account is reliable as an eye-witness observation.

Next season Professor Avigad plans to follow the line of the Israelite tower to the west by continuing to dig in front of the Moroccan synagogue now being restored. Although he cautiously re frains from speculating about what he may find, it is probable that further digging to the north will show that the Israelite city wall foundation found in 1970 was originally linked to the massive tower which Avigad found in 1975.

By the time this appears in print, Avigad's Israelite tower will be buried again—but only for a relatively short period—to permit construction of a modern building above it. However, like other unique discoveries in the Jewish Quarter (Herodian frescoes, mosaics, and a Herodian house burned in A.D. 70), the Israelite tower will once again be reopened to view when the modern construction is completed. At that time, all will be able to visit the remnants of ancient Jerusalem beneath the reconstructed homes of the twentieth century.

Reprinted by permission from The Biblical Archaeology Review March 1976.

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Suzanne Singer is the Jerusalem correspondent for Biblical Archaeology Review.

November 1976

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