One of my favorite things about Jerusalem is that everywhere you go you find layers upon layers of human history. It’s a lot like geological layering, but in human history each layer has a story. I liked writing the Michener history of The Hill of Evil Council and was planning to do that this week, but I’m going to come at it from a slightly different angle.
My office has what might be called a backyard. It’s an archaeological site, but still it’s a space between us and St. Andrew’s Scottish Church. Even now, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, it would look like someone had carved into the rock and made a few flat surfaces and cleared some space in the middle. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good picture of it, but that’s not really what this post is about anyway.
Just below the domes of the church – upper right of the image – is the archaeological site. (Postcard from 1930 when the church was completed.)
In short, it’s a First Temple Period burial cave. In 1979, Gabriel Barkay excavated the site and found evidence of a burial cave, Roman coins to suggest that the 10th Legion had been there during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and mosaics from a Byzantine-era church. The cave had collapsed because it had been used as a weapons cache during the Ottoman period and most likely something exploded accidentally causing the cave to fall in. In Jerusalem, that’s a pretty typical backyard.
Once the archaeological team decided they had cleared the site, they brought kids in for field trips to do some amateur archaeological digging. They brought in a group of 12-13-year-old boys and among them was one nudnik. A nudnik is a Yiddish word meaning an annoying pest of a person. I don’t think it’s quite as harsh as it sounds in English.
Anyway, the nudnik is aggravating Barkay and he sends the kid down into a hole and tells him to brush the floor and make it as clean as possible. The kid, being a nudnik and a boy, gets bored and finds a hammer. Rather than brush the floor, he starts hammering it.
Our nudnik comes back to Barkay and tells him that he found something. Barkay is completely incredulous. They go down and realize that the “floor” was a false floor – or possibly the ceiling fell in and created the illusion of a floor. Barkay gathers his team and they dig and find one of the biggest and most significant archaeological hauls in Israel. Lots of jewelry, bones, trinkets, pottery, and most significantly, two tiny scrolls of silver that have verses from the Bible written on them in script that dates from the late First Temple Period (650 BCE – 587 BCE). On the silver scrolls were written what is known as The Priestly Blessing (“May the Lord bless you and keep you…”).
These scrolls are the oldest artifacts ever found with biblical text on them and they are 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Don’t worry. They are in the Israel Museum now.)
MORAL OF THE STORY 1: Don’t underestimate a nudnik! Imagine that one of the greatest archaeological finds in Israel stood undisturbed for 2,500 years. None of the thousands of people who built on that hill ever found this treasure. No soldiers, no tomb raiders, no shepherds, no archaeologists. It was a nudnik kid!
MORAL OF THE STORY 2: Looks can be deceiving. A rocky hillside that functions as a backyard is actually the site of one of the greatest treasure troves found in Israel!