Shimon Gibson marvels at a depth of irony that’s borderline mythological: While digging up Jerusalem’s past, he’s also digging up his own.
The UNC Charlotte adjunct professor of archaeology has been co-directing an annual dig on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion that returns him to the historic, mysterious region he first explored as an 8-year-old. The UNCC team is using maps Gibson made in 1975 – at age 17 – as it uncovers unprecedented findings that provide important clues about life in first-century Jerusalem.
“This dig is the only academic archaeological expedition currently working in Jerusalem,” said Gibson, 57, an English native. “UNCC did some probes in the early 2000s, but it was in 2006 and 2007 that we really started excavating.”
This summer his crew has continued to investigate a finished bathroom it discovered in 2013, on the lower levels of what it believes to be an early Roman mansion. The team also found another complete vaulted room, again easing decades of concerns by archaeologists that remains from first-century Jerusalem were poorly preserved.
“These remains are extraordinarily well preserved,” Gibson said, “such that not only do we have the complete basements of houses with their rooms intact, but also the first story of these houses are also very well preserved. This is truly amazing.”
Reasons for the buildings’ condition are twofold, he said: Occupying Romans destroyed the Jerusalem of Jesus’ era in AD 70. The city was deserted for 65 years, until the Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt a city on the ruins. “Then, in the Byzantine period (AD 330-1453), the buildings were filled in so the area could be flattened in order to build houses and structures on the top.”
Because of the elaborate nature of objects found in these buildings and their proximity to an excavated mansion in the nearby Jewish Quarter, “we surmise that the houses either belong to aristocrats, or probably to well-to-do priestly families,” Gibson said. If this can be verified – ideally via an inscription or document – the find may provide details about the lives of those who ruled Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.
One UNCC discovery underscoring this opulence was the largest number of murex shells ever found in the ruins of Jerusalem during that period. Murex – a Mediterranean sea snail – was coveted due to a rich purple dye that could be extracted.
Gibson said many of the tools used in digs haven’t changed over the years – pickaxes, hoes, trowels, brushes used for cleaning, buckets for carrying. He credited technological advances and a more sophisticated approach to digs as primary factors in the team’s finds.
An example: “In the 1970s, they excavated on the southern side of Jerusalem the remains of a medieval gate that dated to the beginning of the 13th century. Nothing was known about the area outside the gate.
“Well, this season, we know because of new scientific techniques of microarchaeology,” which involves taking soil samples. “We were able to determine once and for all that this area was a marketplace. So outside of the gate of the city was a marketplace where they specialized in the selling of chicken eggs and fish.”
Another newer approach is counting pot shards. “By charting these millions, billions of pot shards statistically, we can trace the movement of different types of vessels that date back thousands of years. This is a main way of dating for archaeologists.… Also, there’s all kinds of technology that can record and visualize remains that didn’t exist 40 years ago.”
Gibson says the mindset of archaeologists has evolved as well: “Forty years ago, it was all about getting down to the bottom as quickly as possible and unearthing the earlier remains as quickly as possible. Now we’re much more sensitive to the academic questions that are being asked about certain periods of time.”
James Tabor, a professor in UNCC’s department of religious studies, met Gibson during an excavation after the archaeologist had been studying agricultural landscapes in the area of Ein Karem, the traditional hometown of John the Baptist. Tabor said their collaboration is part of an unusually large community effort.
“Eighty percent of funding for these digs comes from the Charlotte community,” Tabor said. “These people aren’t just writing checks. We get people of all ages and faiths who join us on these digs,” which he said typically last about four weeks and cost $100,000 a week.
He’s excited about future possibilities. Gibson, who has lived in Jerusalem and conducted digs there most of his life, will teach a UNCC course on the history of Jerusalem this fall. Tabor hopes public tours will be available at some of the dig sites several years down the road – and that thanks to UNCC’s strong ties with Jerusalem, “maybe there will even be a day when UNCC will be able to design an archaeological site there after having done the excavations.”