During August–September 2011, a salvage excavation was conducted in two caves at Umm Tuba in East Jerusalem (Permit No. A-6276; map ref. 22157/62647), whose openings were discovered during the construction of a retaining wall. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by A. Eirikh-Rose and E.D. Kagan (field photography), with the assistance of N. Nehama (administration), A. Hajian and M. Kahan (surveying and drafting), Y. Shmidov and N. Zak (plans) and I. Lidski-Reznikov (pottery drawing).
The two caves were excavated on a steep southern slope of a ridge on Sha‘ab el-Batih Street, in the southern part of Umm Tuba village (Fig. 1). The cave openings were c. 7 m apart. The excavation ascertained that both of the caves are natural; the western cave was adapted for use as a columbarium and the eastern one was converted for use as a ritual bath (miqwe).
Several previous excavations had been conducted at the site and a built complex, possibly a monastery that dated to the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, was uncovered (Permit No. A-4397), remains of a farmhouse from the Iron Age and a columbarium cave from the Second Temple period (Permit No. A-5529) and two other columbarium caves, one of which contained an arcosolium tomb from the Byzantine period that was hewn in it after the columbarium was no longer used (Permit Nos. A-5868, A-6035).
The Western Cave (columbarium; c. 6.5×7.0 m, depth 5.5 m; Fig. 2). A natural fissure in the bedrock was visible in the southwestern corner of the cave, next to the ceiling, through which water penetrated, dissolved the limestone and formed the cave. The cave opening was located in the southeastern corner of the ceiling (not excavated); it was discovered blocked with large stones that included ashlars (Fig. 3). During the excavation, the southern part of the cave’s ceiling was removed and a trench was excavated from east to west (L105). A thick layer of alluvium was exposed (thickness c. 2.5 m). Columbarium niches (average dimensions 0.25×0.25×0.30 m) were hewn very close together in all sides of the cave, as well as inside a crack in the southwestern corner, at whose bottom steps were hewn (Fig. 4). The niches in the western side were hewn above a height of 1.4 m from the bottom of the cave (L109) and in the eastern side above a height of c. 0.5 m from the bottom (L106). The lower part of the cave’s sides, below the niches, and the bottom of the cave (L113) were coated with hard plaster mixed with small charcoal inclusions (Fig. 5). It seems that the cave was used at first as a cistern and in a later stage, it was converted for use as a columbarium, when the plaster was removed from its sides and the niches were hewn. Fragments of the ceiling (thickness 0.7–1.0 m) were discovered on the floor of the cave; among these fragments in the western part of the cave (L109) was a large ashlar, possibly an architectural element of some kind.
The Eastern Cave (ritual bath [miqwe]; c. 3×5 m, max. depth c. 2.5 m; Fig. 6). This is a smaller cave, which had two natural openings that were blocked with stones. One opening located in the ceiling of the cave was blocked with stone fill, while the second opening (L110), located in the southeastern part of the cave, was blocked with ashlar construction. A hewn rectangular opening (c. 1.2×1.5 m; Fig. 7) was in the south of the cave; ten steps (Fig. 8) led from the opening to a shallow immersion basin (depth c. 0.5 m) that was hewn at the bottom of the miqwe. The entire miqwe, including the staircase and the ceiling, was coated with three layers of gray hydraulic plaster mixed with large amounts of grog and limestone inclusions. The miqwe was discovered almost completely filled to its ceiling with alluvium and pieces of rock and plaster that had fallen from the ceiling. At the bottom of the ritual bath, two ashlars that were evidently discarded into it shortly after the miqwe went out of use were discovered. Two cupmarks were exposed west of the ritual bath’s opening, the western cupmark was round and small (L112; diam. 0.3 m, depth 0.2 m) and the eastern one was large and rectangular (L111; 0.5×0.6 m, depth 0.5 m).
The alluvium in the two caves contained several fragments of pottery vessels, including deep burnished bowls with a folded rim (Fig. 9:1, 2) and a jar with a holemouth rim (Fig. 9:3), which dated to Iron Age II, baggy-shaped jars with an everted rim (Fig. 9:4, 5) dating to the Late Hellenistic period (end of the second–mid first centuries BCE), a bowl with a ledge rim and a rouletted decoration (Fig. 9:6) and a jar with a thickened rim (Fig. 9:7), both dating to the Late Roman period (third–fourth centuries CE).
A columbarium installation and a ritual bath were discovered in the excavation; however, neither can be dated based on the finds from the excavation. Columbaria, which were probably used to raise doves, are known in the country from the Hellenistic period (third–second centuries BCE) until the end of the Roman period (third–fourth centuries CE). Ritual baths are found in sites of Jewish settlement, dating to the time of the Second Temple. The discovery of ashlars at the bottom of the columbarium and the miqwe, beneath the alluvium, apparently indicates that some building, which did not survive, was located near the installations; stones from this structure were discarded into the installations after they were no longer in use. It is feasible that both installations were associated with this building.