Archaeologists discover lost portions of Western Wall Tunnels

Archaeologists discover ancient theater, new stone courses, in Western Wall Tunnels.

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The newly discovered theater-like structure
The newly discovered theater-like structure
Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), with the participation of volunteers, have uncovered large portions of courses of the Western Wall that have been hidden for 1,700 years. In addition, an ancient Roman theater-like structure was exposed for the first time.

The stone courses and the amazing remnants of the theater were presented at a press conference held Monday morning beneath the Tunnels' Wilson’s Arch. The press conference was conducted with the participation of Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, IAA Director Israel Hasson, Western Wall Heritage Foundation Director Mordechai (Suli) Eliav, IAA District Archaeologist Dr. Yuval Baruch, and the excavation's directors.

Eight stone courses of the Western Wall buried under an 8-meter layer of earth were recently uncovered in the Western Wall Tunnels thanks to excavations conducted by the IAA. These stone courses, completely preserved, are built of massive stones and are outstanding in the quality of their construction.

After the soil was removed, archaeologists were surprised to discover that it covered remnants of an extraordinary theater-like structure from the Roman period, confirming the historical writings that describe a theater near the Temple Mount.

Apparently, a great deal was invested in the construction of the theater which contained approximately 200 seats.

Since archaeological research began in Jerusalem over 150 years ago, scholars have been seeking the public buildings mentioned in the historical sources, especially the often-mentioned theaters and theater-like structures. Descriptions of these buildings are found in written sources from the Second Temple period (such as Josephus Flavius), and in sources from the period following the destruction of the Second Temple, when Jerusalem became the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina. Many theories were advanced as to the location of these complexes, but until now, they were without archaeological foundation.

Wilson’s Arch is in fact the only intact, visible structure remaining from the Temple Mount compound of the Second Temple period. The arch, built of enormous stones, is the last of a series of such arches that once constituted a gigantic bridge leading to the Temple Mount from the west.

The arch stands high above the foundations of the Western Wall, and it served, among other purposes, as a passageway for people entering the Temple Mount compound and the Temple. A huge aqueduct also passed over the arch.

Site excavators Dr. Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman and Dr. Avi Solomon said that “from a research perspective, this is a sensational find. The discovery was a real surprise. When we started excavating, our goal was to date Wilson’s Arch. We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theater.”

“Like much of archaeological research, the expectation is that a certain thing will be found, but at the end of the process other findings, surprising and thought-provoking, are unearthed. There is no doubt that the exposure of the courses of the Western Wall and the components of Wilson’s Arch are thrilling discoveries that contribute to our understanding of Jerusalem. But the discovery of the theater-like structure is the real drama.

“This is a relatively small structure compared to known Roman theaters (such as at Caesarea, Bet She’an and Bet Guvrin). This fact, in addition to its location under a roofed space – in this case under Wilson’s Arch – leads us to suggest that this is a theater-like structure of the type known in the Roman world as an odeon.

“In most cases, such structures were used for acoustic performances. Alternatively, this may have been a structure known as a bouleuterion – the building where the city council met, in this case the council of the roman colony of Aelia Capitolina – Roman Jerusalem.”

Interestingly, the archaeologists believe the theater was never used. A number of findings at the site indicate this – among them a staircase that was never completely hewn. It is clear that great effort was invested in the building’s construction but oddly, it was abandoned before it was put to use.

The reasons for this are unknown, but they may have been connected to a significant historical event, perhaps the Bar Kokhba Revolt; construction of the building may have been started, but abandoned when the revolt broke out. Additional evidence of unfinished buildings from this period has been uncovered in the past in the excavations of the Eastern Cardo in the Western Wall Plaza.

Numerous findings have been unearthed in the excavations beneath Wilson’s Arch, some of which are unique, including pottery vessels, coins, architectural and architectural elements, and more. Advanced research methods from various fields were employed to uncover remains invisible to the naked eye, but only viewable through a microscope. This enables conclusions to be drawn at a level of precision that would have been impossible in the past, transforming the study of the findings at Wilson’s Arch into pioneering, cutting-edge micro-archaeological research.

“Time after time the amazing archaeological findings allow our generation to actually touch the ancient history of our people and Jewish heritage and its deep connection to Jerusalem,” Rabinovitch said. “Each finding thrills me to new and powerful heights. We have a great deal of archaeological work ahead and I am certain that the deeper we dig, the earlier the periods we will reach, further anchoring the profound connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem.”

According to Hasson, he IAA is “working toward advancing a national project to unveil ancient Jerusalem. The project was approved by the government in its meeting marking 50 years of the unification of Jerusalem.”

“The exciting finds from the excavations beneath Wilson's Arch enhance the importance of expanding the archaeological excavations in this region, and I hope that these finds will help push forward the general plan, so that we each get to see and be awed by Jerusalem's glorious past.

“We hope to complete the excavations in Wilson's Arch and all around ancient Jerusalem with the help of high school seniors, as part of the program "I have a stone from Jerusalem.”

“The exposure of finds beneath Wilson's Arch began as a joint venture between the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the IAA, in an interest to create a new tourist path in the Western Wall Tunnels,” Yuval said. “This would provide the visitor with a new perspective and exposure to the grandiose finds of recent years.”

“The findings include portions of a magnificent structure from the Second Temple period, ritual baths and now the truly exceptional finds beneath WIlson's Arch. Upon completing the excavations, the IAA and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation will begin planning the preservation and presentation of the findings."

According to Eliav, “This is indeed one of the most important findings in all my 30 years at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. This discovery joins many other findings uncovered in the area of the Western Wall Plaza, which together create a living historical mosaic of Jerusalem and the Western Wall for which the generations longed so powerfully.”

“There is no doubt as to the immeasurably rich scientific value of the discoveries in this area. The findings symbolize the guests from past empires that were here over the years, as opposed to the Jewish people, who held fast to this place some 3,000 years ago and have been here ever since and always. The uncovering, for the first time after some 1,700 years, of these stones from lower courses of the Western Wall is very exciting.

“The Western Wall, a remnant of our Temple, and the abundant findings surrounding it, reveal thousands of years of our presence here and are a lodestone for the hundreds of thousands of people, and more, who visit the site, as we witnessed recently during the High Holy Days and Sukkot.”

The dramatic discoveries will be presented to the public for the first time at the conference titled “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Environs,” to be held this week in at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. The conference will mark 50 years of archaeological research since the city's reunification.

Eight courses of the Western Wall were discovered in the excavation.
Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority
Excavations at Wilson's Arch Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority