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An underground excavation in Jerusalem has revealed an ancient street built by Pontius Pilate, known most by Christians around the globe as the biblical villain who crucified Jesus.
Discovered by British archaeologists in 1894, the 220-meter long road known as the Stepped Street extends between two important religious landmarks, the first of which is the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus is said to have healed a man who had been blind since birth.
The pool dates back hundreds of years before Jesus was born, and it still stands today and is visited by millions of people every year.
From there, the road leads to the Temple Mount, arguably the most sacred religious site on the planet that is contested by three different religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Pilgrims would use the road to make their way to the Second Jewish Temple on the Mount, which stood until it was destroyed in 70 CE. Since 691 CE, the Dome of the Rock has stood on the site and is one of the holiest sites of the Islamic world.
The road had been completed sometime between 26 CE and 36 CE, which is the exact time period when Roman Emperor Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate to serve as the fifth governor of the Roman province Judea, which included Jerusalem.
And we know this because of what a team of archaeologists has found in a tunnel dug under a neighborhood in the last few years, which they documented in a study published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University:
In probes beneath the street, coins were retrieved in the layers of the constructional fill which had been placed and subsequently sealed beneath the pavement. These fills had been deliberately dumped below a hard layer of mortar. The mortar separated the constructional fills and the pavement stones in order to level the area according to the desired height of the intended street, and also to provide support for the pavers. The latest coin found in these sealed contexts dates to 30/1 CE. It was issued by the governor of Judea under Tiberius, Pontius Pilate.
Coins are evidence used to date sites, as Israel Antiquities Authority coin expert Dr. Donald Ariel explained:
“Dating using coins is very exact,” Ariel said. “As some coins have the year in which they were minted on them, what that means is that if a coin with the date 30 CE on it is found beneath the street, the street had to be built in the same year or after that coin had been minted, so any time after 30 CE. However, our study goes further, because statistically, coins minted some 10 years later are the most common coins in Jerusalem, so not having them beneath the street means the street was built before their appearance, in other words only in the time of Pilate.”
This was no simple street either. The Stepped Street had a clear purpose and was constructed using high-quality paving stones and was laid down in a short period of time.
“We think it was a single project built at one time,” Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Joe Uziel said. “If this was a simple walkway connecting point A to point B, there would be no need to build such a grand street. At its minimum, it is 8 meters wide. This, coupled with its finely carved stone and ornate ‘furnishings’ like a stepped podium along the street, all indicate that this was a special street.”
The street was so special, in fact, that the Romans had no qualms burying the Stepped Street under rubble when they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE in the middle of the First Jewish Revolt that began four years earlier with an anti-taxation protest, which the team found evidence to support.
The excavation is located approximately 220 m north of the Siloam Pool and 360 m south of the Temple Mount. The street is at least 7.5 m wide (not including the curbstones). In most of the excavation area, the eastern and central portions were uncovered. The street was bordered on both sides by the 0.6 m wide curbstones; they were built of finely-carved limestone of the Mizzi-Hilu Formation in the same manner as the street, raised approximately 0.15 m above street level. The street was sealed beneath a thick destruction layer, attributed to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Along the eastern edge of the street, a stepped podium was unearthed. Close by a group of broken pottery vessels was found, as well as glass, metal and coins dating to the days of the First Jewish Revolt.
The team believes Pilate built the road partly as a way to appease the Jewish residents in order to prevent unrest, but also to serve other purposes important to the empire.
“Part of it may have been to appease the residents of Jerusalem, part of it may have been about the way Jerusalem would fit in the Roman world, and part of it may have been to aggrandize his name through major building projects,” Tel Aviv University archaeologist and study co-author Nahshon Szanton said. “We can’t know for sure, although all these reasons do find support in the historical documents, and it is likely that it was some combination of the three.”
But again, this appeasement clearly did not last long and an uprising would occur just 30 years after Pilate’s time as governor ended, resulting in Rome destroying the city and the Second Jewish Temple.
The road does teach us, however, that Roman and Jewish religious leaders were capable of working together if only temporarily to prevent a major conflict.
“It provides some evidence of cooperation between the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious authorities,” Matthew Adams, director of Jerusalem’s W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research told National Geographic.
But not all archaeologists approve of the project, particularly the way the road is being excavated.
The tunnel lies underneath a neighborhood populated by Palestinians, whose plight has drawn international condemnation as the Israelis commit war crimes against them in an effort to claim more and more territory. Critics contend that this excavation is an effort to legitimize Israel’s claim on East Jerusalem, which Palestinians consider their capital.
This criticism is supported by the way the researchers are conducting the dig, which puts everything out of context and ignores other evidence, according to University of North Carolina archaeologist Jodi Magness.
“The material they are finding is coming from fills that might have been brought in with wheelbarrows from anywhere, so I’m skeptical of the dating,” she told the Times of Israel. “It is not impossible that Pilate was responsible for the construction, but that is not the only, or even the most likely, possibility. You don’t have context—you can’t see what’s above or to the side. It’s unacceptable.”
Indeed, the archaeologists conducting this dig are doing so horizontally, which is not the accepted way excavations are done, which is from the top down layer by layer. A horizontal dig basically mixes layers and makes it far more difficult to ascertain the context of any artifacts that are found. Many of these coins could have easily ended up where they were found as the dig jostled them around.
And so, this excavation just adds to the political tensions that have made the Middle East a powder keg for generations and any finds will have a stain of controversy.
Pilate would die sometime after 37 CE, but the exact year and manner of his death are unknown. Regardless of whether or not he is responsible for the road to the Temple Mount, the Stepped Street is now causing tensions in the city instead of alleviating them as it did 2,000 years ago.
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Featured Image: Ecce homo by Antonio Ciseri via Wikimedia Commons, public domain