ASHKELON, ISRAEL -- Archeologists in this seaside town have uncovered a 1,600-year-old brothel complete with heart-shaped pillars, an ancient version of a hot tub and a broken sign beckoning visitors, "Enter in, enjoy, and ..."
"And ... what?" will remain a mystery. The rest of the sentence, written in Greek in red letters, has crumbled to fragments and dust.
Archeologists say additional finds at the site, including heated bathhouses and erotic art, indicate that the brothel was built in this ancient Greco-Roman resort in about the 4th century.
"I guess people have been having a good time here for quite a while," said Douglas Esse of the University of Chicago, who is associate director of the excavation. The site is adjacent to Mediterranean beaches that are as popular with vacationers today as they were with the ancients.
The brothel was part of a large villa that contained a complex of baths and small rooms. Steps at the site lead to one oblong bath about the size of a modern hot tub in which a half-dozen people could sit. It is surrounded by heart-shaped pillars, which are believed to have supported a canopy, Esse said.
The 130-member archeological team, composed mostly of volunteers from 15 American and Canadian universities, found fragments of oil lamps decorated with erotic art a few yards from the bath.
"We managed to reconstruct about 12 of the lamps, six or seven of which included erotic scenes," Esse said. "This kind of art isn't unusual for the time period, but the quantity of it certainly is."
The site still poses many unanswered questions, Esse said, including the significance of a graveyard for dogs, nearly a millennium older than the brothel, that was discovered about 100 yards away.
Esse, an expert on Syrian and early Palestinian archeology, said he knows of only two other ancient dog cemeteries -- in Iraq and Turkey. Neither is as large as the one in Ashkelon.
The complete skeletons of about 50 adult dogs have been found, and the remains of 100 other dogs and puppies have been discovered meticulously buried at the site during the period of Persian rule in the 5th century B.C.
"The Persians buried these dogs so that every bone in their tails was preserved," Esse said. "It's such an unusual thing that we don't have parallels to draw from yet. We've only just begun to expose the whole cemetery."
Ashkelon, which has been inhabited for about 9,000 years, developed into a flourishing port city and agricultural center under the Phoenicians. It is mentioned in the Bible as one of the Philistines' five main cities, and it become a power center of ancient Israel.
The dig, now in its third season, is being financed by New York City businessman Leon Levy and is headed by Harvard University Prof. Lawrence Stager