Most people are afraid of breaking a water pipe when doing home renovations. But when a family in Jerusalem broke through their living room floor, they uncovered a 2,000-year-old ritual bath (mikvah) and pottery vessels dating to the time of the first century CE Second Temple.
They called the Israel Antiquities Authority to report their find.
“Such instances of finding antiquities beneath a private home can happen only in Israel and Jerusalem in particular,” says Jerusalem District Archaeologist Amit Re’em. “Beyond the excitement and the unusual story of the discovery of the mikvah, its exposure is of archaeological importance.”
Indeed, pretty much every stone unturned in Israel leads to an archaeological find.
In the 1980s, another private home in Jerusalem turned out to be sitting atop a Hasmonean mansion inhabited by children of the Maccabees 2,000 years ago. In April 2014, while digging a new road in the Negev, archaeologists unearthed a monastery dating to the Byzantine period.
The recently discovered mikvah was “hiding” under the family’s living-room floor in their private home in the picturesque neighborhood of Ein Kerem. During renovations, the jackhammer used to drill through their floor tiles disappeared suddenly. Digging by hand uncovered the important find.
“We had a strong feeling that what was situated beneath the floor of our house is a find of historical value and our sense of civic and public duty clinched it for us. We felt that this find deserves to be seen and properly documented,” the Shimshoni family said. “We contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority at our own initiative in order that they would complete the excavation and the task of documenting the discovery.”
On July 1, the Israel Antiquities Authority awarded the owners a certificate of appreciation for “exhibiting good citizenship in that they reported the discovery and thereby contributed to the study of the Land of Israel.”
“Representatives of the IAA arrived and together we cleaned the mikvah. To our joy and indeed to our surprise, we found them to be worthy partners in this fascinating journey,” the Shimshonis said, noting they were hesitant about the potential bureaucratic nightmare they could have encountered.
“The IAA archaeologists demonstrated great professionalism, interest and pleasantness. They were solely concerned with preserving and investigating the finds.”
Here’s what they found: a complete ritual bath measuring 3.5 meters by 2.4 meters, with a depth of 1.8 meters. It is rock-hewn and meticulously plastered according to the Jewish laws of purity, the IAA reports. There’s also a staircase leading to the bottom of the immersion pool.
Archaeologists also found pottery vessels dating to the time of the Second Temple and traces of fire that might constitute evidence of the Roman destruction of 66-70 CE. Fragments of stone vessels were there too; stone was commonly used during the Second Temple period because it cannot be contaminated and remains pure.
Re’em said the find is extremely important because it strengthens the premise that there was Jewish settlement during the Second Temple era in what is now Ein Kerem.
“Ein Kerem is considered a place sacred to Christianity in light of its identification with ‘a city of Judah’ – the place where according to the New Testament, John the Baptist was born and where his pregnant mother Elisabeth met with Mary, mother of Jesus. Despite these identifications, the archaeological remains in Ein Kerem and the surrounding area, which are related to the time when these events transpired (the Second Temple period), are few and fragmented,” says Re’em.
Since the discovery, the family has set down a pair of wooden trapdoors in their floor to cover the mikvah entrance, with a stylized rug on top. Unless you know what to look for, you’d have no idea about the history beneath this spacious home.