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New York Times Misrepresents Major Jerusalem Discovery, Hershel Shanks, BAR 7:04, Jul-Aug 1981.

New York TimesUnique monumental structure inside Israelite Jerusalem defies explanation

There it was in the headline on page one of what is supposedly the most reliable and accurate newspaper in the country, the prestigious New York Times– “Palace of David or Solomon Believed Found.” The headline writer cannot be faulted, for he accurately reflected reporter Michael Widlanski’s lead- “Israeli archaeologists have unearthed what they believe was probably the palace-fortress of King David or King Solomon,” the story began. This inaccurate lead was then picked up and repeated in dozens of newspapers through out the country.

Yigal Shiloh, the Hebrew University archaeologist who directs excavations in the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem (an area known as the City of David) had surely made a discovery of front-rank importance in the unusual and monumental stepped structure which the New York Timesfalsely represented as a palace-fortress. But the more than 50-foot-high structure found near the crest of the dusty spur on which the 11-acre City of David is located is probably not even a building.

The top half of the stepped-structure has long been known. (The picture of the eastern slope in the previous article shows the stepped-structure before the 1980 excavations when only the upper courses were exposed.) It was first uncovered by Irish archaeologist R. A. S. Macalister who excavated in this area between 1923 and 1925. Adjacent to the structure, on the south, Macalister found the remains of a massive tower which was part of a wall circumvallating the ridge. Macalister assigned this wall to the Jebusite period. This, he said, was the defensive line of the pre-Israelite city of Jerusalem. The tower itself he dated to King David’s time, with the exception of the top four courses which he attributed to King Solomon. Thereafter, the tower became known as the “Tower of David.”

Macalister identified the stepped-structure adjacent to the tower as a Jebusite bastion or rampart, a kind of additional defense structure added to the city wall.

This was the commonly accepted view until Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s Jerusalem excavations of 1961–1967.

About 100 feet lower down the slope from the installations found in Macalister’s excavations, Kenyon found another wall which she was able to date to as early as 1800 B.C. Moreover, she found evidence that this wall had been in use until about the eighth century B.C. This, she said, was the city wall during the Jebusite and most of the Israelite period. The wall-line which Macalister had excavated, higher on the slope, had surrounded a smaller city than the Jebusite city. Kenyon dated this wall to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, in the sixth century B.C., when Jerusalem, with a far smaller population of returned exiles, had shrunk considerably.

Kenyon’s argument made—and still makes—good sense. In addition to the archaeological evidence and the historical arguments already mentioned, her conclusion was supported by two other lines of reasoning. The first was based on the water supply system known as Warren’s Shaft which is described in this issue by Dr. Shiloh himself (“Jerusalem’s Water Supply During Siege—The Rediscovery of Warren’s Shaft,” BAR 07-04). Warren’s Shaft, which clearly dates from at least as early as the Israelite monarchy, was intended to provide the inside of the city with access to water from a spring outside the city wall. Access was obtained by means of a complicated series of underground shafts and tunnels which made water available inside the city even during times of siege. Such a system was necessary because Jerusalem’s only living source of water, the Gihon Spring, lay too low in the valley to be protected by a city wall. A city wall so low in the valley as to include the spring inside the city would be vulnerable to attack from the rise on the other side of the valley.

However, even the tunnel entrance to this water system was outside the wall line Macalister had investigated higher up the slope. Therefore, if Macalister was right to call this wall line the Jebusite (and early Israelite) wall, then the Warren’s Shaft entrance to the water supply system would have been outside the city wall during these times when this water system was supposedly used. This could not be true. Macalister’s wall-line must have been the city wall only at a later date. The city wall, during the period of the Israelite monarchy and during the Canaanite period, had to have been lower down the hill than Warren’s Shaft entrance to the water supply system.

That the wall line investigated by Macalister must have dated to the Second Temple period (after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.) was finally confirmed when Kenyon removed part of the stepped-construction adjacent to Macalister’s Tower of David. When she excavated at a lower level, beneath the stepped-structure (which Macalister identified as a Jebusite bastion or rampart), Kenyon found the ruins of eighth–seventh century B.C. Israelite houses that had been destroyed in the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Obviously, the stepped-construction above these houses must post-date the destruction. Kenyon dated Macalister’s “Tower of David” to the Maccabean period—the second half of the second century B.C. The adjacent stepped-structure, Kenyon theorized, had always been underground (thereby explaining why the “steps” could not be used by an enemy to “walk up the wall”). This stepped-structure, which she dated to an even later period, strengthened the wall.

In 1978 Yigal Shiloh began his excavations in this same area (see “Digging in the City of David,” BAR 05-04, by Yigal Shiloh and Mendel Kaplan), hoping to uncover more of the Israelite residential area originally discovered by Kenyon beneath the stepped-structure. Instead, however, Shiloh found a steep, smooth glacis.a When he excavated the glacis, he found that it was more than 15 feet thick, sometimes even 20 feet thick. The glacis was composed of terre pisée (beaten earth), with alternating layers of pebbles and earth. The core of the glacis, however, was the stepped-structure which Macalister had uncovered at a higher level. In short, the stepped-structure was the base or core of a glacis and had originally been covered with a smooth skin between 15 and 20 feet thick.

The use of the stepped-construction as a defensive bastion had always been a puzzle since the steps could provide an enemy with a convenient way to surmount it. As noted above, Kenyon speculated that the structure was always underground and therefore could not be used for this purpose. Shiloh showed, however, that the true solution to the problem lay in the fact that the stepped-construction was originally covered with a smooth, steep, sloping skin which, combined with the degree of the slope, would both prevent an enemy from climbing it and make it difficult if not impossible to use a battering ram against it.

That the position of the glacis was above the Israelite city which had been burned in the Babylonian destruction, indicated to Shiloh, as it had to Kenyon, that it had been constructed sometime after the Babylonian destruction. This glacis strengthened the city’s fortifications in the Second Temple period, Shiloh wrote. “This new and impressive defensive glacis helped to protect Jerusalem during the end of the second century and the first century B.C. (the Hasmonean period).”

Shiloh expected that in later seasons he would find beneath the glacis, the remains of the Israelite city. And he did. He found considerable residential remains similar to those Kenyon had found. The entire system of residential remains was not only built on but was also built into the stepped-stone structure indicating that, contrary to earlier thought, the stepped-structure in fact pre-dated the eighth-seventh century houses that were built into it.

When Shiloh went still deeper, he again found the stepped-construction—under the residential remains which had been built in about the eighth–seventh century B.C. and had been destroyed by the Babylonians at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.

Shiloh’s team uncovered an additional 22 feet of this stepped-structure beneath the Israelite houses, before coming to the structure’s base which rested on a layer containing 13th century B.C. Canaanite remains.

Thus, the stepped-structure appears at several layers of what Shiloh refers to as a “time-sandwich.” At the bottom of the sandwich were the Canaanite remains from the 13th century B.C. Above this was the base of the stepped-structure which at this point was never covered with a smooth skin. Above this was a residential area of Jerusalem during the Judean monarchy. The next stratum was a thin layer from the Persian period. Then the stepped-structure reappeared higher on the slope, during the Second Temple period when it was apparently covered with a thick glacis to form a part of the defensive fortification of the new wall constructed when the exiles returned from captivity.

What was the function of this monumental structure, now uncovered to a height of more than 50 feet, as high as a five- or six-story building?

The structure is located on the city’s Second Temple period wall line so it can be understood as having been part of the city wall’s defensive fortification of that period. But it must have also been an important structure when it was built at a far earlier period.

We now know that the original stepped-structure was constructed sometime before the Israelite city of the divided monarchy and after the Canaanite settlement of the 13th century B.C. which are underneath the structure’s base. During the Canaanite and early Israelite period, the city wall, the one uncovered by Kathleen Kenyon (see picture), was much lower down the slope than the stepped-structure. Therefore, the stepped-structure could not be part of the city wall at that early period. When the stepped-structure was built, it was well inside the city, about 100 feet up the slope from the city wall. It was not built in association with the city wall, but as a structure inside the city.

When, within the range of the time period during which its original construction is possible, was the stepped-structure built? Shiloh believes the most likely period is during the reign of King Solomon. It was then that Israel was prosperous enough to have built this kind of unusual structure and, as we know from the Bible as well as from archaeological evidence, this period was one of very extensive building activity. Shiloh says he cannot now be sure when the structure was built; he hopes to find better dating evidence in coming seasons.

Of one thing, however, we can be sure. It is a unique structure. There is nothing like it, nor anything to compare to it, in the entire relevant archaeological repertory. “Until this day, no monumental construction such as this has been uncovered in Israel in any other Biblical city,” announced Shiloh in a press release.

To make matters even more mysterious, two and perhaps three postern-like doorways, which appear to lead nowhere, are at the base of the apparently solid structure. Shiloh hopes to explore these openings further.

Shiloh is the first to admit that he does not know what function this monumental structure served.
Since the structure is unique, its function may have been related to the fact that it was found in the Israelite capital. It may—or may not—have been part of a citadel inside the city. The citadel may or may not have been part of a royal palace-fortress complex. One problem with interpreting the structure as part of a citadel is the fact that, as we have already noted, it could have been climbed so easily by an enemy.

Another interpretation is that it is a mausoleum—a kind of latter day pyramid. Perhaps it was part of another monumental building. Shiloh has suggested that perhaps it stood by itself or was a section of the southeast corner of the upper city of Jerusalem. Another possibility that Shiloh has mentioned is that it might be the substructure of a fortification. Perhaps BAR readers will have some ideas for Dr. Shiloh.

Shiloh took the press on a tour of his excavations and perhaps he mentioned some of these possibilities to emphasize the fact that the function of the structure is still a complete mystery. No one who knows how careful and cautious Shiloh is could imagine him saying that the structure is “probably” the palace-fortress of King Solomon or King David, as the New York Times reported.
Moreover, the highly respected archaeological reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Abraham Rabinovich, also attended Shiloh’s press tour. Rabinovich’s press report stated that “Shiloh did not offer speculation as to [the structure’s] function. During the tour, Shiloh declined to be pinned down when reporters pressed him about what he thought the structure was.”

Whatever the original function of the structure, we shall look forward to a further unfolding of the mystery as excavations continue. The structure is surely exciting enough to maintain our interest without sensational and unfounded newspaper claims that it is probably the palace of King David or King Solomon.

a. A glacis is a steep-angled reinforcement and defensive structure built of terre pisée (beaten earth) which is constructed against the outer walls of a city. It is usually covered with a hardpacked soil layer or a facing of large stones.

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