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Nahman Avigad. “Jerusalem in Flames—The Burnt House Captures a Moment in Time.” Biblical Archaeology Review 9, 6 (1983).

Burnt House KitchenWe came upon it suddenly, in the very first year of our excavations. At that time we had not yet excavated a single house that had witnessed the catastrophe of 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. We were still emotionally unprepared for the impressions and associations raised by the prospect before us. In subsequent years, after several other burnt houses had been discovered, our emotions became somewhat blunted to the sight of such stark violence. But not only was this Burnt House the first such discovery, its preservation of traces of destruction and fire and the quantity of objects found in it were never exceeded. In January 1970, after heaps of rubble and refuse had been cleared away, we removed a rather thick layer of fill and refuse containing nothing ancient. Then stone walls suddenly began sprouting out of the earth. We saw immediately that these were the walls of rooms. As a first step in stratigraphic excavation, we dug a trench the breadth of one of the rooms, in order to determine the sequence of the layers. At a depth of about a meter, we encountered a floor of beaten earth. Already, the sides of the trench were providing a clear and impressive cross section, which we were able to read like an open book.

The upper layer contained fallen building stones that had changed color as the result of a fire. The layer beneath was a mixture of earth, ashes, soot and charred wood; at the bottom of the cross section, overlying the floor, were pottery fragments and parts of scorched stone vessels. The plastered walls were also black with soot. The picture was clear to any trained eye. There was only one phase of occupation, and its composition was unambiguous: the building had been destroyed by fire, and the walls and ceiling had collapsed along with the burning beams, sealing over the various objects in the rooms. When did this occur? The pottery indicated that it was sometime in the first century A.D.

Was the destruction of this building, so close to the Temple Mount, connected with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.? We seemed to have before us a unique picture of a house sacked by the Roman legions. The household effects were buried and left just as they had been, undisturbed by later activities.

In the excavation diary I wrote: “On the same day (13 January 1970) I was somewhat excited.” But after the initial excitement came moments of doubt. My initial impression might merely have been wishful thinking, and the facts might not lend themselves to such far-reaching conclusions. My chief assistant at the time, Ami Mazar, was away, and Roni Reich, the area supervisor, was as carried away as I was. I therefore invited several of my fellow Jerusalem archaeologists to visit the site, each one separately, to see their reactions to the cross section. All of them arrived at the same conclusion as ours.

Systematic excavation of the entire area only served to increase our tension as well as our expectations. The salient question was whether the same phenomenon would be found in the other rooms as well. As we cleared each room, an identical picture emerged. First we would come across stone debris from the collapsed walls, which filled the rooms. The dressed blocks were of the soft, local nari limestone, which had been baked to various colors by the great heat of the fire. Some had become lime-white, while others were gray, red, and yellow, and mostly very crumbly. Among the debris filling the rooms were a mixture of ash and soot and large quantities of charred wood.

Soot reigned over all, clinging to everything. It covered the plastered walls. Even the faces of our workmen turned black. There was no doubt that the fire had rampaged here, apparently fed by some highly flammable material contained in the rooms. It may well have been some oil, which would account for the abundance of soot. The traces were so vivid that one could almost feel the heat and smell the fire.

When we reached the floor level, objects began appearing, scattered about or in heaps: pottery, stone vessels, broken glass, iron nails, and the like. The known types of pottery gave us a general dating in the first century A.D. for the destruction of the building. But the many coins strewn over the floor—partly from the Roman Procurators of Judea and mostly from the First Jewish Revolt against Rome—permitted a more precise dating. The coins of the revolt bear the legends “Year Two/The Freedom of Zion,” “Year Three/The Freedom of Zion,” and “Year Four/Of the Redemption of Zion.” The latest, from the fourth year of the revolt, date to 69 A.D.

It was now quite clear that this building was burnt by the Romans in 70 A.D., during the destruction of Jerusalem. For the first time in the history of excavations in the city, vivid and clear archaeological evidence of the burning of the city had come to light. We refrained from publicizing this fact immediately, in order to keep from being disturbed by visitors. But word of the discovery soon spread and people began thronging to the site to see the finds on the spot.

The already considerable excitement upon seeing the scorched objects being recovered from the ashes increased with the discovery of a spear leaning against the corner of a room. Beyond the image of the destruction, each of us pictured in his mind the scene so vividly described by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus: the Roman soldiers spreading out over the Upper City, looting and setting the houses alight as they slaughtered all in their path. The owner of this house, or one of its inhabitants, had managed to place his spear so it would be readily accessible, but he never got to use it.

Something amazing occurred in the hearts of all who witnessed the progress of excavations here. The burning of the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem—fateful events in the history of the Jewish People—suddenly took on a new and horrible significance. Persons who had previously regarded this catastrophe as stirring but abstract and remote, having occurred two millennia ago, were so visibly moved by the sight that they occasionally would beg permission to take a fistful of soil or a bit of charred wood “in memory of the destruction.” Others volunteered to take part in uncovering the remains, regarding such labor as sacred. The latent sentiment released—by people normally quite composed and immune to showing their emotions—was unbelievable.

The series of rooms uncovered was from the basement level of a large house whose continuation lies under a new dwelling on the north, so it could not be excavated. On the west, the building is abutted by an earth fill and building remains from the Israelite period. This is a good example of how a house from the days of the Second Temple was built over a site from the First Temple period.

The plan of the Burnt House, as far as it could be recovered, included a small courtyard paved with stones (1), three medium-sized rooms (2, 3, 4), a small room (5) that was the only one not burnt and that contained no finds, a small kitchen (6), and a small, stepped ritual bath (7). The walls of the rooms were generally preserved to the height of about one meter; they were coated with a thin white lime plaster, while the floors were of beaten earth. The ovens sunk into the floors of these rooms are evidence that these were not dwelling quarters but probably a workshop. Although a variety of small objects were scattered in disarray throughout the rooms, the outstanding feature in each room was a heap of broken objects, including stone vessels, stone tables, and pottery. Before the building collapsed, the violent hand of man had cast unwanted belongings into heaps on the floor—seeing this, we recalled Josephus’s description of the Roman soldiers looting the houses after the city had been conquered.

One fine day in January 1970, while we were still excavating the Burnt House, our registrar of finds, Sara Hofri, came running over from our expedition office with a stone weight in her hands, shouting “Inscription”—a word that electrifies any archaeologist working on a dig. This weight, one of the many found in the Burnt House had been washed and was then found to bear letters incised in thin lines. The inscription was not in the Greek script so often found on such weights but rather in Hebrew (to be more precise, in the “square” Aramaic script). Except for the first letter in the upper line, of which only the tip remains, and the first letter in the lower line, which was partly blurred, the inscription was intact could clearly be read: “(of) Bar Kathros,”or “(of) the Son of Kathros.”

Brief inscriptions of this sort which lend a personal touch to the silent finds, are invaluable to the excavator. They bring bone-dry discoveries to life by adding the historical dimension of the material itself. This inscription opened up the possibility of identifying the owner of the house and ascertaining the sort of people who lived there. Did the name Bar Kathros fit into the picture of the period, the locale and the events being revealed before us through the archaeological discoveries? The “House of Kathros” is known as one of the families of High Priests who, in practical terms, ruled the Jews of Palestine in the days of the Roman procurators. They had taken over important offices in the Temple and abused their position there through nepotism and oppression. A folksong preserved in Talmudic literature relates the corruption of these priests:

Woe is me because of the House of Boethus,
woe is me because of their slaves.
Woe is me because of the House of Hanan,
woe is me because of their incantation.
Woe is me because of the House of Kathros,
woe is me because of their pens.
Woe is me because of the House of Ishmael, son of Phiabi,
woe is me because of their fists.
For they are the High Priests, and their sons are treasurers, and their sons-in-law are trustees,
and their servants beat the people with staves.”
(Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 57, 1 = Tosefta, Minhot 13, 21)

This refrain gives vent to the groanings of a people under the oligarchic rule of a priesthood that used any means to further its own interests. Apparently, each of the priestly families mentioned here practiced its own form of oppression: the one through a sharp tongue, the next through a sharp pen, and most of them, through simple brute force. The members of the “House of Kathros,” who are accused of misusing the written word, were infamous for their libelous slander.

It can be assumed that our Bar Kathros was a scion of this same Kathros family. He lived in the same period, and his name not a common one was unknown outside that family.(The word bar, literally “son of” without a personal name before it, indicates that the name here is a family rather than that of an actual father.) The house in which his inscription was found is situated opposite the Temple Mount, in a neighborhood that was populated by the nobility of Jerusalem.

We have defined a small room (6) at the northern edge of the Burnt House as a kitchen. This room, too, was entirely burnt out during the fire. Near its northern wall was a crude hearth of small fieldstones, built in two parts. The left hand section contained a round pottery oven.

A unique find came to light near the doorway on the east, where more of the wall was destroyed than at any other spot. Learning against the preserved fragment of the wall were the skeletal remains of the lower arm and hand of a human being, with the fingers still attached. The hand was spread out, grasping at a step. Dr. B. Ahrensburg, who examined these remains, determined that they were of a woman in her early twenties. The associations conjured up by this spectacle were rather frightful. We could visualize a young woman working in the kitchen when the Roman soldiers burst into the house and put it to the torch. She tried to flee but collapsed near the doorway, only to perish in the flames. This arm seems to be the first and only human remains discovered so far that can definitely be associated with the great human tragedy that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This tangible evidence, surprising in its freshness and shocking in its realism, gave us the feeling that it had all happened only yesterday.

We are well aware of the events of this tragedy: The Romans captured the Temple and burnt it on the ninth of Ab (28 August, 70 A.D.), taking the Lower City at the same time. But the Upper City on the Western Hill, above the scarp facing the Temple Mount, held out stubbornly. On the eighth of Elul, a month after the Temple had been burnt, the Romans attacked the Upper City with full fury, taking it, setting the houses afire and slaughtering the inhabitants. Josephus describes the fighting in detail:

Caesar, finding it impracticable to reduce the upper city without earthworks, owing to the precipitous nature of the site, on the twentieth of the month Lous [Ab] apportioned the task among his forces. The conveyance of timber was, however, arduous, all the environs of the city to a distance of a hundred furlongs having, as I said, been stripped bare … The earthworks having now been completed after eighteen days’ labor, on the seventh of the month Gorpiaeus [Elul], the Romans brought up the engines. Of the rebels, some already despairing of the city retired from the ramparts to the citadel, others slunk down into the tunnels. Pouring into the alleys, sword in hand, they [the Romans] massacred indiscriminately all whom they met, and burnt the houses with all who had taken refuge within. Often in the course of their raids, on entering the houses for loot, they would find whole families dead and the rooms filled with the victims of the famine … Running everyone through who fell in their way, they choked the alleys with corpses and deluged the whole city with blood, insomuch that many of the fires were extinguished by the gory stream. Towards evening they ceased slaughtering, but when night fell the fire gained the mastery, and the dawn of the eighth day of the month Gorpiaeus [Elul] broke upon Jerusalem in flames—a city which had suffered such calamities … The Romans now set fire to the outlying quarters of the town and razed the walls to the ground. Thus was Jerusalem taken in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, on the eighth of the month Gorpiaeus [20 September, 70 A.D.].
(The Jewish War VI, 8–10)

The story of the Burnt House, which so dramatically and vividly illustrates a most tragic and fateful chapter in the history of Jerusalem, thus comes to an end. But although the house met its end, the story itself is actually not yet complete, for in our own days, two thousand years later, when the descendants of the slaughtered returned to the site, they uncovered the physical traces of the destruction and rebuilt their homes over the ruins. Now they too, like Bar Kathros, can look out through their windows and see the Temple Mount, where the “previous tenant” had apparently worshipped. History has repeated itself. We hope that no other folksong beginning with the refrain “woe is me” will ever be heard here again.

This article has been adapted from Chapter Three, section 5, of Discovering Jerusalem: Recent Archaeological Excavations in the Upper City by Nahman Avigad (Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1983). Printed by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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