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The Archaeology of Jerusalem

The “stepped stone structure” in Area G from the excavations at the City of David (view from the north).

The archaeology of Jerusalem is as exciting as it is complex. Modern exploration began in the 1830s, yet investigation is far from over. New discoveries frequently challenge even the most long-standing interpretations. Excavating a city that has been occupied for millennia has special challenges. Excavations are often confined to small areas and must work through many meters of modern and ancient debris. Archaeologists must also work within patchworks of neighborhoods, nationalities, and religious backgrounds. Still, the materials that are retrieved from the city’s past are integral for understanding Jerusalem’s story.

Occupation of Jerusalem began in the Chalcolithic period (4500–3400 B.C.E.), and many remains from the Middle Bronze II period (1800–1500 B.C.E.) have been discovered. Yet materials from the period of the Jebusites, who occupied the city in the Late Bronze period (1500–1200 B.C.E.) according to the Hebrew Bible (Judg 1:21;  2Sam 5:6-9), and from the time of Israelite beginnings, between 1200 and 1000 B.C.E., are relatively scarce. The most impressive find from that time, a large stepped-stone structure that may have supported a palace or citadel, is still poorly understood.

Archaeology requires interpretation, and experts do not always agree. The history of Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C.E. is hotly debated, not least because there are so many exciting biblical stories that seem to be about this period. For a long time, people interpreted archaeological discoveries of places with great biblical importance such as Jerusalem by looking first to the Bible; biblical tradition associated many structures in Jerusalem—from tombs to city walls—with either David or Solomon. Yet further research shows that many of these remains are much later than the 10th century B.C.E., in some cases dating to the Roman (63 B.C.E.–330 C.E.) or Byzantine (330 C.E.–638 C.E.) periods. Ongoing excavations in the city of David, a narrow ridge south of the present-day Old City of Jerusalem, have yielded contested information. For example, some archaeologists claim to have found evidence for David’s palace, while many others remain skeptical that this is the best interpretation of the archaeological discoveries.

There is more of a consensus about remains from the beginning of the eighth century. Archaeology shows clearly that the city expanded, perhaps because of an influx of refugees after the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722/721 B.C.E. Houses and public buildings were constructed on the southeastern hill in the city of David, in several areas of the Old City, and on Mount Zion. By the end of the eighth century new defenses had been constructed, including large city walls and part of Hezekiah’s tunnel. That structure gave inner-city residents access to water from the Gihon spring, which was outside the city walls. After the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (circa 701 B.C.E.), the city seems to have contracted in size. At the same time, the presence of an elite quarter on the southeastern hill suggests that Jerusalem was home to religious and bureaucratic professionals who enjoyed the finer things in life, such as ivory furniture decorations and even imported seafood.

Archaeology also sheds light on the daily practices of Jerusalem’s population. Pottery, stone tools and vessels, animal bones, loom weights, and plant remains help archaeologists understand the ways of life of its inhabitants. Imported objects reflect Jerusalem’s trade relations with many areas of the Mediterranean world. Stamped pottery and small weights hint at the complex administrative structure connecting Jerusalem to other sites in Judah. Small incense altars, rattles, figurines, and written remains help archaeologists understand Jerusalem’s religious culture. Tombs surrounding the ancient city also provide information about burial customs.

In 587/586 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army destroyed a bustling Jerusalem. Evidence for the destruction has been recovered throughout ancient Jerusalem, confirming the scope and gravity of the attack. Despite the tragedy, some people continued to live among the ruins. Those ruins provided the foundation upon which later inhabitants would rebuild their beloved city.

  • Erin Darby

    Erin Darby is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. Her work tracks connections between iconographic objects and the various political and socioeconomic aspects of ritual practice in Iron Age Jerusalem.