National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Underground Tunnels Found in Israel Used In Ancient Jewish Revolt

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 15, 2006
 
A series of underground chambers and tunnels recently found in Israel were likely used as refuges during the First Jewish Revolt, archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority announced.

Storage jars found in one pit were an apparent stockpile of foodstuffs for the uprising against Roman rule that began in A.D. 66.

Archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre directed excavations at the Israeli Arab village of Kfar Kana—a Galilee-region site near the city of Nazareth in Israel (see map).

"The pits are connected to each other by short tunnels, and it seems that they were used as hiding refuges—a kind of concealed subterranean home—that were built prior to the Great Revolt against the Romans," Alexandre said in a statement.

The complex was located underneath homes and was probably accessed through the floors.

In the entire first century A.D. the Galilean community sat atop the ruins of a still-older Iron Age city.

Galilean Jews had to dig through some 5 feet (1.5 meters) of debris from that older settlement to excavate their underground passages. They reused stone from the destroyed city to build the igloo-shaped pits.

The ruins of the Iron Age settlement are also a new discovery. Sections of the city wall and buildings, which date to the tenth and ninth century B.C., have been exposed.

Alexandre suggested that this settlement, too, was likely sacked by some enemy force and only reinhabited during the first century A.D.

So far Alexandre's team has found pottery, animal bones, and other artifacts at the Iron Age site.

A ceramic seal was unearthed bearing the image of a lion, as well as a scarab beetle ornament featuring a man flanked by two crocodiles.

Site Suggests Organized Revolt

The pit and tunnel complex may offer new evidence about how the First Jewish Revolt was conducted.

"I think it's important and fascinating, because it shows deliberate preparation," said Andrea Berlin, an archaeologist at the University of Minnesota.

"This evidences a kind of organization, planning, and subversiveness that we didn't have any idea was going on."

When Roman armies reached the Middle East to stamp out the revolt, they turned first to the Galilee region, because it was a hotbed of civil unrest.

While southern communities had time to prepare for the oncoming legions, those in the northern region of Kfar Kana probably did not.

The timing suggests that the underground dwellings were prepared prior to the arrival of the Romans in A.D. 67 and therefore might have been used to conduct the revolt.

"When the Romans came from the coast, it was just a matter of weeks before they got to the first siege site," Berlin said. "And I don't think these sort of tunnels could have been constructed that quickly."

But Andrew Overman, an archaeologist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, said that the carefully prepared complex might not have had a military purpose.

"[It's] proof of the unrest and the conflict that happened, but it's not necessarily a place where rebels were," he said.

"I think it also may have been a place where people prepared to take cover when they were aware that this grand presence, in the form of the Roman army, was about to be visited on them."

The chronicles of Josephus, a Jewish scholar and priest, are the only literary sources that describe the revolt. Josephus initially led troops against the Romans but later became a favorite at imperial court.

"Josephus describes what it was like at Jotapata [the site of one of the revolt's definitive engagements]," Overman said.

"He claims to have watched the whole battle and the massacre of the village. It's so apocalyptic. So people hid, they got ready for the war to end all wars."

Archaeological research confirms a history of savage fighting and massacres in the region. Some evidence has been found to closely match descriptions given by Josephus to events at the same locales.

Jotapata, the Golan Heights city of Gamla, and several Jerusalem sites have yielded Roman arrowheads, boots, weapons, and other remnants of battle dating to the second half of the first century.

Conquest Boosted Roman Dynasty

The First Jewish Revolt began during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, who placed a military official named Vespasian in charge of the war against the Jews.

But Nero died in A.D. 68 while Vespasian was in Egypt gathering troops to quell the uprising.

Vespasian became the new emperor at this opportune time. The revolt was essentially crushed two years later when Vespasian's son Titus sacked Jerusalem and left the city in ruins.

Their conquest of the revolt became an important symbol of their family's strength. The victory was heavily exploited on subsequent triumphal arches and coinage.

Overman suggests that the story of the revolt has endured largely because it served the needs of the Flavians—the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus.

"What the Flavian house did was use this relatively minor event on the eastern outskirts of the empire to prop up their image as suitable rulers of the whole empire."

"Vespasian and especially Titus had never really won battles on their own," Overman explained, "and that was one of the main ways that you could prove that the gods were with you.

"So they promoted the hell out of it."

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).

 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.