During August–September 2007, a salvage excavation was conducted within the precincts of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (Permit No. A-5243*; map ref. NIG 21937/63116; OIG 16937/13116), after an underground ritual bath (miqwe) was damaged during the course of development work. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by A. Kohn-Tavor, with the assistance of I. Ohayon (administration), M. Kunin (drafting), M. Avissar (pottery reading), A. Ganor-Vernay (pottery restoration) and I. Lidski (drawing of finds).
The miqwe, discovered below the old entrance boulevard to the museum, at the eastern bend of the spur on which the museum is built, was hewn in soft limestone bedrock and opened to the east. The ceiling, upper steps and most of the entrance were destroyed by development work. The miqwe should be dated to the Second Temple period, based on its plan.
A staircase that survived by the bottom two steps (length 1 m, height c. 0.25 m; Fig. 1) led to the miqwe
. A rock-hewn double portal (width of openings 0.57 m and 0.67 m) separated between the steps and the immersion chamber. The bottom part of the partition pillar, which apparently bore two arches, one on either side, survived in the center of the portal. The immersion chamber was almost square (2.45 × 2.90 m, max. height 2.5 m) and at its bottom were four rock-cut steps (each c. 0.25 m high; length of two top steps 0.4 m, length of two bottom steps 0.8 m). The entire miqwe
, including the remains of the ceiling, was coated with gray plaster of very high quality. The bottom part of the side (to a height of 1.5 m) was coated with another plaster layer of a similar quality. Based on the height of the maximum possible water storage capacity in the miqwe
, there were probably one or two other plastered steps outside the bath that were destroyed prior to the excavation. The miqwe
was the first allusion to the existence of a small settlement or farm from the Second Temple period in this region; the nearest known settlement of this period is located at Sheikh Badar (Binyene Ha-Umma), c. 2 km north of the miqwe
(ESI 13:72–78; HA-ESI 120
During the modern era, the miqwe was used as a room or storeroom. The interior of the miqwe was filled and leveled to the height of the top step. It is apparent that the fill was deposited in an orderly manner after the miqwe had been cleaned of earlier finds. The fill included various sized fieldstones and indigenous terra rossa soil, which contained some eroded potsherds. A tamped earth floor was set on top of the fill. Several steps of roughly hewn stones that led into the room were built in this phase. A jar from the Ottoman period (Fig. 2) was positioned near the outer side of the portal pillar, below the level of the floor, to collect the runoff from the outer steps and prevent water from entering into the chamber. The finds above the floor, which included ‘Gaza’ potsherds, glass fragments and soles of shoes, as well as the jar in the entrance, date the second phase of the miqwe to the second half of the nineteenth century or the first half of the twentieth century CE. The fill contained ceramic fragments, mostly dating to Iron II, some were from the Second Temple period and a few dated to the Byzantine period, as well as bones of sheep or goats and chickens.
During its last phase of use, the miqwe served as a repository for old holy books, probably a the nearby synagogue. The repository was probably established in the 1940s and 50s, or at the very latest, prior to the construction of the Israel Museum in the 1960s. According to the testimony of I. Israel, a cave in this region, probably a reference to the miqwe was used for storing holy books in the 1950s. Despite their poor state of preservation, Pentateuchs, prayer books, a Babylonian Talmud, an ornamental curtain (parochet) or a covering for a torah scroll and tefillin straps were identified, as well as a metal plaque fragment (c. 0.35 × 0.45 m; Fig. 3) that bears soldered metal letters symbolizing the Ten Commandments. These artifacts were transferred to another repository of sacred objects.