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A Dig Into Jerusalem's Past Fuels Present-Day Debates

Archaeologist Eilat Mazar, guided by the Bible, believes she has uncovered the palace of King David on this site outside Jerusalem's Old City. Others disagree.
Archaeologist Eilat Mazar, guided by the Bible, believes she has uncovered the palace of King David on this site outside Jerusalem's Old City. Others disagree. (By Hosatte Jean-marie -- Gamma Via Newscom)

But despite her detailed pitch in a journal archaeologists say is a bridge to wealthy American Jews interested in Israel's history, no one offered to fund the idea. "The lack of interest, I think, was caught up in politics," Mazar said.

Mazar joined the Shalem Center, a research institute in Jerusalem whose policy journal promotes "Ideas for a Jewish Nation." The center is now helping fund the project, which Shalem's president, Daniel Polisar, estimates will cost $1.1 million in its first phase. The center's chairman, Roger Hertog, vice chairman of Alliance Capital Management and part owner of the New Republic and the New York Sun, pledged $500,000 of his money.

In a telephone interview, Hertog said, "These were people who had done as much work as possible without actually putting a shovel to the ground." Asked if he contributed in the hopes of enhancing the Jewish claim to East Jerusalem, Hertog said that it "was not the most significant" reason.

"All of history is used politically," Hertog said. "If something wasn't found, that would have been used. If something is found, that will be used. This is one of the most contested pieces of geography in the world, and there have always been arguments about it. Whether or not this will be used -- and I'm sure it will be -- it should also be critiqued in a meaningful way."

'A Fantastic House'

Mazar began digging in February. Within weeks, she had uncovered the remains of rooms -- including pools probably used as ritual baths -- from a Roman building dating to the time of Herod, in the 1st century B.C. Those rooms rested on bedrock in places, leaving little underneath to use in evaluating her finds.

But in other parts of the cramped site she discovered the remains of massive older walls underneath the Roman structure, running toward the rim of the Kidron Valley.

Dating the finds is always difficult. An error of even 40 years can place buildings in significantly different eras. The task is especially hard when there is no identifiable floor running between walls. Mazar has yet to find one.

A building's age is commonly fixed by what Mazar calls a "chronological sandwich," comparing material above and beneath an identifiable stratum to set the range of dates. Even without a floor, Mazar believes she has enough evidence to date the building to the 10th century B.C.

Pottery found in the one-foot layer of fill below the stone walls dates to the 12th and 11th centuries B.C. In one small room above that layer, Mazar discovered 10th-century B.C. pottery free of any material from another period. Amihai Mazar, who has excavated ancient settlements near Bethlehem, said that while scant, the sample was among the finest from that time found in Jerusalem.

"This was not just a house, but a fantastic house," Eilat Mazar said of the remains, which would have stood just outside the city walls at the time. "This would have been an intellectual step for a new king to build his palace here, a statement of his vision to expand the city."

In one room, Mazar also found a bulla, or seal, roughly dating to the 6th century B.C. It bears the words, written in ancient Hebrew, "Jehucal, son of Shelemiah, son of Shevi." The name Jehucal is found at least twice in the Book of Jeremiah. The find suggests the building was used, in one form or another, for centuries. "We're left with the assumption that this is the palace," Mazar said. "It fits so well with the history. We're not forcing it into anything."

Finkelstein, who is in charge of the excavation in northern Israel where the Bible says the battle of Armageddon took place, visited Mazar's dig a few months ago. The 56-year-old scholar, tall and voluble with a salt-and-pepper beard, has often argued with colleagues whose reliance on the Bible he finds misguided.

He believes all buildings described in the Bible were built more recently than Mazar and others believe, perhaps by a century. The interpretation would mean that Jerusalem developed into a thriving, fortified city well after David and Solomon. But Finkelstein said Mazar's find appeared to show that Jerusalem, while perhaps not important during David's time, began emerging as an important city earlier than he previously believed.

"This is the missing link we have been looking for. It represents the first step in the rise of Jerusalem to prominence in the 9th century," he said. "Why does it have to be the palace of David? Once you bring that in you sound like something of a lunatic."

Seymour Gitin, director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, said it was too soon to know precisely what Mazar had found. But, he said, "if this can be proven to be 10th century, it demolishes the view of the minimalists," referring to those who dismiss the unified monarchy as a petty kingdom or even as mythical.

"This find is so unusual that to really understand it she needs to keep digging," Gitin said.

With only a tenth of the building uncovered, Mazar intends to. But there is little room to expand in this place where the Bible has brought her, surrounded by Christian, Arab and Jewish houses and the Kidron Valley falling away to the south, the direction from which David arrived from Hebron three millennia ago.

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