(Credit: Shimon Gibson)
During new excavations at Jerusalem’s famous Mount Zion, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a possible mansion that dates to around 2,000 years-old. The dig leaders think the building and its contents could shed a good deal of light on the wealthy class of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.
Artifacts and other clues suggest the mansion looks to be the home of an elite Jewish family during the early Roman period. The building would have been located close to the expansive complex of Herod the Great, and inside, excavators found traces of an exceptional bathroom and the shells of sea snails that were valued for their rich purple dye.
“If this turns out to be the priestly residence of a wealthy first-century Jewish family, it immediately connects not just to the elite of Jerusalem — the aristocrats, the rich and famous of that day — but to Jesus himself,” said James Tabor, the dig’s co-director, who is a scholar of early Christian history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“Jesus, in fact, criticizes the wealth of this class,” added Tabor. “He talks about their clothing and their long robes and their finery, and, in a sense, pokes fun at it. So for us to get closer to understanding that — to supplement the text — it could be really fascinating.”
Inside the building, the they discovered a vaulted bath chamber next to an underground Hebrew ritual cleansing pool called a mikveh — an arrangement that has been found elsewhere within elite complexes. Archaeologists had previously uncovered a nearly identical mikveh-bathroom combination, while digging up a palatial mansion in the nearby Jewish Quarter. That complex bore the inscription of a priestly Jewish family.
“It is only a stone’s throw away, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the people who made that bathroom probably were the same ones who made this one,” it reads in a statement made by archaeologist Shimon Gibson, the other co-director of the dig. “It’s almost identical, not only in the way it’s made, but also in the finishing touches, like the edge of the bath itself.”
Researchers also unearthed a vast amount of murex shells in the building. Murex sea snails were the prime source of a very expensive and highly sought after natural purple dye that could be extracted from the animal’s secretions when still alive.
Even though it appeared that the shells, themselves, were not used to make the royal purple dye, they may have been used to identify different grades of the stain, which could vary between sea snail species. Gibson theorizes that the priestly class may have supervised or in some capacity oversaw the industry that supplied the dye for ritual garments.
The artifacts were discovered this past summer during a dig that lasted a month, and the findings have yet to be published in any peer-reviewed journal. The team plans to return to the Mount Zion site during both the summers of 2014 and 2015. After they complete the great deal of archaeological work they have yet to do, the researchers aspire for the ruins to eventually be open to visitors some time thereafter.