The “Tours with the Investigator” follow a set pattern. The archaeologist introduces himself and gives a brief introduction. Then he takes off at a rapid pace, because if we are to hear everything he wants to tell us, he must be quick. Our destination? A white sheet metal wall with a sign that says, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Archeological Excavation. Danger. Do Not Enter.” He pulls a large ring of keys from his pocket, unlocks the padlock on the barrier, and motions for us to enter. The he locks it behind us.
Nahshon Szanton unlocked one of the barriers on Maalot Ir David, and told us to go down the stairs. We walked down and down, to three or four stories below street level, through a hole in the rock, and into a large tunnel. Lit by a string of light bulbs hanging from a wire, the tunnel stretched several hundred meters in each direction. Its lower sides were crudely plastered, the upper walls and roof held in place by a double metal arch. A chain conveyor belt hung from one row of arches—it looked like it traversed the length of the tunnel. Nahshon asked than no one take photographs since the work has not yet been completed. He does not want to see the first publication of his discoveries on Facebook.
All of us on these tours are archaeology groupies. We have all been to dozens, if not hundreds, of archaeology sites in Israel. We could tell from the large size of the neatly cut rectangular stones that we were standing on Roman pavement. The original Roman pavement. It still seems incredible to me that I can walk on streets that have been here for two thousand years. Nahshon is sure he is excavating the Pilgrim’s Route, the road pilgrims followed from the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam) to the Temple during Roman times. But when he started digging where we entered, he didn’t know where the road would lead. He needed more evidence than a few Roman style paving stones in a spot that seemed right.
There is an axiom in archeology: Not finding something is not evidence that it is not there. Negative evidence is meaningless in the context of the past. If you didn’t find anything, it may only mean you did not look in the right place.
Sometimes the “right place” is a matter of a few centimeters.
From 1894 to 1897, the British-based Palestine Exploration Fund sponsored Frederick Jones Bliss and Archibald Campbell Dickie. Their goal was to uncover some of the history of Jerusalem. In just a few years, Bliss and Dickie managed to discover parts of Roman Jerusalem’s southern wall, the drainage channel in the Tyropoeon (or Central) Valley, and parts of the road from the Pool of Shiloah to the Temple Mount. These are all significant finds. About two thirds of the way up the hill from the pool, they dug out the corner of a few steps. They concluded that these steps were the entrance to a building that fronted the road. But by excavating exactly in that spot, they did not uncover the whole structure of the steps. Another meter further, they would have found something even more interesting.
But before we walked down the road to see Bliss and Dickie’s work, Nahshon needed to explain some things he had found. From the Pool of Shiloah, two roads appear to ascend toward the Temple Mount. So far, the archaeologists are unsure if they are two separate roads, or the two sides of one very wide road. Additionally, the excavated part of the road goes only part of the way up the hill. People who want to follow the Pilgrims’ Route to the Kotel Plaza have to walk in the old Roman sewer the rest of the way. (You can see the road and sewer under it in this video featuring Nahshon. It was published on YouTube a few months after he led our tour of the site).
Since the Romans always constructed sewers under streets, it is reasonable to assume that the old road overlies the old sewer. Nahshon moved a large stone and lifted a thick piece of wood, uncovering a hole. We peered down and saw a paved tunnel beneath us—the Roman sewer. Later, as Nahshon was talking, we would hear voices floating up through some of the holes in the pavement. He interrupted himself to comment on them, “Tourists.”
The question of major importance that Nahshon wants to answer is who built the road, and when did he build it? Among the most important clues in dating findings are layers of destruction. In Jerusalem, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, a thick layer of black ash remained. Anything below this destruction layer must have been in place before the 9th of Av 70 CE. Archaeologists get very excited about finding a destruction layer, especially when, as in the case of this road, the ash lies right on top of what they want to date.
They also look for other things to help them date construction—pottery, coins, glass, stone vessels, bones, organic matter. The latest thing you find under something gives a clue to when it was built. The coins Nahshon and his team found dated from the fourth decade CE, somewhere around the year 30, at the time of Pilatous.
Investigators often use the rulers’ and writers’ Latin names, which are unfamiliar to those of us who do not read Latin. Apparently, we were supposed to recognize Pilatous, because he stopped and asked, “You know who is this Pilatous?”
A man standing behind me replied, “He killed their god.”
From the murmur around me, I realized that most of us were putting it together at the same time—that Pilatous, Pontius Pilate.
Satisfied with our reaction, Nahshon continued the history lesson. Although he said he is not a historian—“I work with details”—he showed his firm grasp of the history of Roman Judea.
Every Roman leader had to build. They built to honor the new Caesar, they built to further the glory of Rome. Pontius Pilate ruled the province of Syria for only ten years, but in that time he was responsible for several significant construction projects. Because water is always in short supply on the edge of the desert, Pilate decided to bring water to Jerusalem from south of the city, and built the upper aqueduct. Additionally, he built the street on which we were standing. Most likely he built the Pilgrims’ Route to curry favor with the Jews.
We walked a short way down the street, to a set of steps standing in the middle of the tunnel. These are the three steps Bliss and Dickie had found. At their base, they look like the bottom of a monumental stairway, the kind that leads up to a Temple or important building. Bliss and Dickie had thought they led to a shop or a home. But Bliss and Dickie had uncovered only the corner of the steps. Nahshon’s team has excavated the steps in their entirety. They do not lead to a doorway; the top is flat.
So why were they built? Steps this large and well built must have served an important purpose. The Romans sometimes constructed such platforms to support a pillar topped with a statue. But there is no inscription on the steps, nor are there any remnants of a pillar.
The archaeologists looked for a parallel structure somewhere, but didn’t find anything. Then a member of the team remembered his Gemara studies. A Braita, a statement by an early Rabbi, described an Even Toane, a stone of testimony. This was a specific covered place in Jerusalem where people could seek lost items and announce items they had found.
Could this be an Even Toane ? Nahshon smiled. He pointed out that in Jerusalem there have always been things that are found only here and nowhere else. It could be the Even Toane, or it could be something we don’t know anything about.
He admitted he wanted to say yes. “If I were a youth group leader,” he said, “I would point to those steps and say ‘Here you see the Even Toane.’ But I’m not, I’m an archaeologist.”