Excavations reveal first-ever Hasmonean structure found in Jerusalem

More than a century of dedicated archaeological study has yielded some tantalising clues about Hasmonean-era Jerusalem (ca. 140-37 B.C.E.) but until now there have been no Hasmonean structures uncovered in the ancient city. In recent months, however, a team of researchers working with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have been carefully digging beneath the Givati Parking Lot located near the City of David National Park, and what they have found may help to fill in a crucial gap in Jerusalem’s long and fascinating history.

The team, led by Dr. Doron Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, has excavated two large walls made of roughly hewn limestone blocks arranged as headers and stretchers, a construction design said to be characteristic of the Hasmonean period. The walls are about 1 meter thick and stand about 4 meters tall, and cover an area of 64 square meters.

They say that coins discovered on and beneath the floor indicate the construction was probably begun earlier than Hasmonean times, before being completed under the control of the dynasty founded by the family of Mattathias and his son, Judah the Maccabee. The coins date from the reigns of the Seleucid kings Antiochus II, IV and VII, with the coins depicting Antiochus IV being especially important as it was his harsh measures which led to the Hasmonean revolt in the second century B.C.E. Their presence strongly suggests the structure was at least partially completed at the time of the uprising.

Fragments of pottery at the location have also helped to date the construction to Hasmonean times or earlier. Dr. Ben Ami believes that, given the size of the walls, the construction was most likely a public building of some sort rather than a residential dwelling.

According to Dr. Ben Ami, the discovery may help archaeologists and historians to piece together a little more information about a period which is still shrouded in mystery.

Apart from several remains of the city’s fortifications that were discovered in different parts of Jerusalem, as well as pottery and other small finds, none of the Hasmonean city’s buildings have been uncovered so far, and this discovery bridges a certain gap in Jerusalem’s settlement sequence, Dr. Ami said.

There are few primary sources which tell of the Hasmonean era. Although there are records of the dynasty’s origins in 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, these books are accepted as Biblical canon only by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and are not considered to be part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). And yet the stories told within the First and Second Books of Maccabees are significant as they describe the ousting of Antiochus IV and the rededication of the Temple in the second century B.C.E, events which inspired the Jewish religious holiday of Hanukkah.  

The most important primary source is “The War of the Jews” and certain other writings by the controversial Jewish-Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (ca. 37-100). Josephus has sometimes been accused of impartiality, and his narratives describe events which took place more than a century before his birth, but they are rich in detail and are accepted by many scholars as authoritative.

For instance, in 2007, Ehud Netzer from Hebrew University followed clued in Josephus’ writings to locate what he believed was Herod’s Tomb. Although Netzer’s identification has been challenged by other scholars, it is nevertheless true that the tomb’s location was precisely where Josephus had suggested it would be.

Dr. Ben Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets are also fans of Josephus’ historical works.

The Hasmonean city, which is well-known to us from the historical descriptions that appear in the works of Josephus, has suddenly acquired tangible expression, they said in a statement.

Excavations at the Givati Parking Lot have already produced some remarkable finds. Over several years, archaeologists have unearthed pottery and coins – some dating back to the Byzantine period – as well as remnants of a building from the time of the Second Temple and a “curse tablet” which may be 1,700 years old. The parking lot is part of The City of David, an area which has witnessed more than 6,000 years of human settlement.