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Archaeologists narrow dating of Jerusalem structure to time of Herod the Great

WILSON'S ARCH
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Jesus might have walked over the structure that has been the source of scholarly debate.

To the casual visitor, everything in the Old City of Jerusalem is just that — old. A tour guide might point out that such-and-such a structure is from the Second Temple Period, or such-and-such a building dates to the time of the Ottomans.

For archaeologists and historians, however, precise dating is essential. But an exact date of a building’s construction or an artifact’s origin is often elusive.

Now, a team of archaeologists and scientists have narrowed down the date of a structure that has been the object of debate for a long time. Wilson’s Arch, part of which can still be seen by visitors to the Wailing Wall, was thought by some experts to date from before 70 B.C., by others from the 1st to 2nd centuries A.D., and by others from the early Islamic period.

In fact, its origins were from somewhere between 20 B.C. and A.D. 20, the time of Herod the Great and his successors, the team asserts in an article published Wednesday in a science journal, PLOS ONE.

Not only that, the causeway leading to the Temple, which likely was supported by Wilson’s Arch, was expanded between A.D. 30 and A.D. 60. That means there’s a chance that either Jesus himself walked across the causeway to the Temple or its reconstruction was going on in the background when he was undergoing his trial, passion and crucifixion.

The arch was named after British geographer Charles William Wilson who conducted a survey of Jerusalem in the 19th century.

The new theory about its age came out of work done between 2015-2019 by an interdisciplinary team from the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Antiquities Authority. What led the team to a more precise dating of the structure was a new archaeological technique that retrieves and carbon-dates organic material such as seeds or charred material from the mortar holding the stones together or the plaster that covered them. Their work retrieved a large number of samples in a small excavation area. The technique also requires stratigraphic analysis, looking at the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.

We absolutely dated monumental structures to very narrow windows of time — even to specific rulers,” the team writes in their introduction to the PLOS ONE article. “Wilson’s Arch was initiated by Herod the Great and enlarged during the Roman Procurators, such as Pontius Pilatus, in a range of 70 years, rather than 700 years, as previously discussed by scholars.”

The new approach makes it possible to conduct archaeological expeditions of historical structures, which obviously cannot be dissembled, not only in Jerusalem but also in places like Athens. But it requires the integration of radiocarbon experts in archaeological fieldwork, alongside the use of microarchaeology during the archaeological excavation. Microarchaeology investigates molecular elements of archaeological samples.

The hypothesis that the bridge leading to the Temple Mount was constructed between 20 B.C. and A.D. 20 and doubled in size between A.D. 30 and A.D. 60 comports with the writings of Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who noted its importance in the cityscape and the constant state of construction in Jerusalem.

“The only event which caused the cease of the constant construction, reconstruction and expansion of the temple platform and its surroundings was the outbreak of the revolt against Rome and Jerusalem’s demise,” say the team members .

 

 

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