The excavation (Fig. 2) uncovered a wide range of features: two rock-hewn burial caves (L100, L200) of the late Second Temple period (Re’em, Wiegmann and Arbiv 2015:263–277, and see history of site and references therein), one of them monumental, two rock-cut pit graves (L201, L700) of unknown date, a rock-hewn double-arcosolia tomb (L301) of the Late Roman–Byzantine periods, two ritual baths (miqva’ot) quarried in the late Second Temple period (L400, L500), quarry remains of indeterminate date (L300), and a rock-cut cistern (L501) that probably began as a late Second Temple-period ritual bath (miqveh). Restrictions imposed on the excavation prevented the burial caves and graves from being fully excavated. Approximately ten stone slabs found scattered in the western part of the excavation area probably derive from the graves.
The excavation area was located in the eastern part of the Schneller compound, where the hard limestone rock is riddled with karstic cavities exploited in antiquity for producing rock-cut installations. Until 2014, the compound housed an IDF military base, and the entire area was a leveled, asphalt-paved parking lot. Consequently, the upper parts of some of the antiquities found in the current excavation were removed. The northeastern part of the area produced evidence of dynamite used to quarry into the rock. Beneath the asphalt and down to the natural bedrock, large quantities of modern debris and fieldstones were found. Layers that did not contain modern debris were encountered only where the remains had been covered with alluvial soil.
Three salvage excavations were conducted at the site in recent years. In 2013, a cistern was excavated in the northeastern part of the compound (Tanami 2014). In 2016, excavations uncovered a building complex that belonged to a Late Roman and Byzantine villa, a Late Roman–Byzantine rock-cut winepress and a Second Temple period burial cave (Permit No. A-7638). Most recently, in 2019, rock-hewn installations and a cistern were excavated in the eastern part of the compound (Mizrahi and Peretz 2021).
Monumental Burial Cave 100 (Figs. 3, 4). A rectangular courtyard with a roughly leveled floor was hewn to the west of the cave (4.0 × 8.5 m, depth 2.0–2.9 m; Fig. 5). Two niches in the courtyard’s northern wall may have been attempts to cut additional burial caves that were not completed. A five-step stairway (width 3.7 m; Fig. 6) led down into the courtyard from the south. Beside and west of the staircase, a deep channel (L600; upper width 0.4–0.6 m, lower width 0.1–0.2 m, depth 1.8–2.0 m, length c. 14 m) led from the courtyard south to drain it of rainwater. There was a c. 5 cm difference between the channel’s northern and southern ends. The channel ended near a karstic cavity that featured chiseling marks, probably to extend the channel southward. However, the work does not seem to have been completed, and the channel does not lead to other cavities.
A hewn entrance chamber (2.25 × 3.00 m) on the courtyard’s eastern side was capped with a leveled rock ceiling. An opening (1.00 × 1.25 m) in the middle of the chamber’s eastern wall led to three steps that descended into a square burial chamber (3.00 × 3.05 m). This chamber consisted of a standing pit (1.5 × 1.6 m, depth 0.4–0.5 m) in its center and six burial niches (0.5–0.8 × 1.4–2.2 m, depth 0.6–1.1 m; Fig. 7) with arched openings (width 0.4–0.5 m, height 0.6–1.0 m) in its western, southern and eastern walls. A recess in the north of the eastern wall might have been the start of another burial niche that was abandoned due to a fissure in the rock. While no niches were hewn in the burial chamber’s northern wall, a square aperture (0.50 × 0.55 m; Fig. 8) in an inset frame (0.85 × 0.90 m) was cut in its middle near the chamber’s ceiling. It first led to a vertical shaft (L701; 0.55 × 1.40 m; Fig. 9) and then to the surface; the shaft was not excavated to its full depth. It may have been related to the ritual laws of purity and impurity and served as a “defilement outlet” (Re’em, Wiegmann and Arbiv 2015:267). The cave contained an abundance of recent refuse and a fragment of a first–second centuries CE lamp; no human bones were recovered. The cave’s architecture and meager pottery date it to the end of the Second Temple period.
Burial Cave 200 (Figs. 10, 11). The cave was entered from the southwest through an opening (0.55 × 0.65 m) that was hewn in an inset frame (0.85 × 1.00 m). The burial chamber was square (2.0 × 2.2 m, max. height c. 1.5 m) with a standing pit in the center (0.8 × 1.2 m, depth 0.4 m). A single burial niche (0.6 × 2.2 m; height 0.6 m) with an arched opening (0.55 × 0.70 m) in a sunken frame was hewn in the center of the southern wall. Pottery from the late Second Temple period (first century BCE–first century CE) and the late Ottoman period was found in the southwestern part of the cave and inside the niche. No human remains were found.
Pit Grave 201 (Figs. 10, 11). A deep rectangular pit grave (0.55 × 1.85 m, depth 2.1 m) aligned northeast–southwest was cut in the rock. It featured protrusions on its narrow sides intended to hold covering slabs above the deceased, thus enabling burial on two levels. On the southwestern side, the protrusion (width 3–4 cm) was placed 0.15 m above the grave’s floor, while on the northeastern side, it was placed c. 1.4 m above the floor. The grave was empty of finds and human bones. The head of a pickax was found at the bottom of the grave, indicating it was robbed. Another pit grave was located to the southeast (L700; 0.55 × 1.20 m); it was not excavated.
Double-Arcosolia Tomb 301. An east–west aligned double-arcosolia tomb (arcosolium dimensions 0.40–0.45 × 2.10 m) was hewn in the bedrock, its burial troughs separated by a rock partition (width 0.2 m). The upper part of the tomb’s northern wall (height 1.3 m) curved southward. There may have been a burial cave here, whose upper part and southern and eastern walls were removed by quarrying and modern development work. Similar tombs have been found elsewhere in Jerusalem, dated to the Late Roman–Byzantine periods.
Ritual Bath 400 (Fig. 12). A ritual bath was excavated; it consisted of six steps (width 1.3–1.6 m) descending northwest into an oval subterranean cavity (max. depth 2 m). A single layer of light gray plaster (thickness 2–4 cm) replete with stone grits coated the walls and the steps. The alluvium inside the cavity yielded abundant potsherds of the Hellenistic–Byzantine periods. The ritual bath was located at the southern end of a long karstic crevice that stretched over c. 15 m northwards. The ritual bath probably exploited a pre-existing karstic cavity in the fissure. An irregularly shaped pit (L401) beside and west of the ritual bath produced numerous pottery fragments from the late Second Temple and Byzantine periods; the pit was not fully excavated.
Ritual Bath 500 (Fig. 13). The rock-hewn ritual bath had a rectilinear plan (2.60 × 3.05 m). It seems to have been hewn inside a cave whose roof was removed during modern development work. The ritual bath included five steps descending in a curving anticlockwise direction into the immersion pool (0.7 × 1.1 m, max. depth 1.6 m). A single layer of light gray plaster (thickness 1–3 cm) containing charcoal and pottery grits coated the ritual bath’s walls and steps. The alluvium inside it yielded potsherds of the late Second Temple and Byzantine periods. An Alexander Jannaeus coin (79/80–76 BCE) was recovered from the bottom of the immersion pool.
Quarry 300. The quarry featured severance channels quarrying marks consistent with medium-sized stones (c. 0.15 × 0.30).
Cistern 501 (Fig. 13). A rectangular water cistern (1.85 × 3.55 m, max. depth 2.2 m) was uncovered north of Ritual Bath 500. In its southwestern corner, a natural hollow in the rock had been filled with fieldstones forming a rounded corner. It consisted of three steps descending in a clockwise curve into a rectilinear cavity (2.2 × 3.3 m, max. depth 1.5 m). The cistern was coated with a layer of light pinkish plaster (thickness 1–3 cm) applied over a bedding of flat crushed stones and large Roman–Byzantine potsherds. In a few places, patches of earlier dark gray plaster (thickness 2–3 cm) were observed beneath the light pinkish plaster; these patches were probably local repairs of the cistern’s walls and did not constitute an earlier plaster layer. The alluvium that filled the cistern contained numerous fieldstones, roughly dressed stones and Byzantine pottery. A complete Byzantine jar was found at the bottom of the cistern. Notably, the cistern’s dimensions and stairway resemble those of nearby Ritual Bath 500, suggesting it was originally a Second Temple-period ritual bath that was subsequently deepened in the Roman–Byzantine periods to serve as a cistern.
The excavation area was used for burial as of the late Second Temple period. Double-arcosolia tombs, like L301, are common in caves and mausolea in Late Roman–Byzantine Jerusalem; pit graves are also common in these periods but have been observed in Second Temple period contexts as well (Avni 1997:28–30, 32–36, 69–70). The latest archaeological remains belong to a quarry that damaged some pit graves and the arcosolia tomb. The quarry cannot be dated based on finds from the current excavation.
Unlike the main Second Temple-period burial sites north of Jerusalem, such as those in the Shemu’el Ha-Navi, Sanhedriyya and Tel Arza neighborhoods, the burial caves in the current excavation were not hewn into an extensive ashlar quarry. The bedrock in this area has numerous karstic cavities, and the distribution of the caves and installations may coincide with the locations of these cavities. The ritual baths’ proximity to burial caves in the late Second Temple period is well-known and discussed at length in the research literature; it probably reflects the need for purification for funerary workers and visitors to the burial sites (Kloner and Zissu 2003:16; Reich 1990:119–121).
Surprisingly, archaeological research in Jerusalem had missed the monumental burial cave uncovered in the current excavation, probably due to its location inside a military base since the end of the British Mandate. According to a 1918 aerial photograph (Fig. 14), the burial cave’s courtyard was exposed at least as early as the First World War. Furthermore, the cave’s wide stairway and courtyard are marked on a 1927 mandatory map of Jerusalem (Re’em, Wiegmann and Arbiv 2015:277). The cave was defenitely known when the Schneller compound was used as an IDF military base and was apparently used to store munitions.
The cave includes two unusual elements: the deep drainage channel (L600) and the vertical shaft leading to the surface (L701). The need to drain rainwater from the courtyard is evident, and the area’s topography demanded that a deep channel be cut down to the courtyard’s floor to drain rainwater and prevent flooding. The vertical shaft was probably associated with the late Second Temple period laws of ritual purity. Vertical shafts have been found in three other contemporaneous niche-burial caves in Jerusalem: on Mount Zion (Vincent 1904), in the Frieze Tomb in the vicinity of the Shemu’el Ha-Navi neighborhood (Vincent 1901) and at Beit Safafa (Kloner 1980:78). A horizontal shaft leading out of the burial chamber in the Abba Cave at Givʽat Ha-Mivtar may have served the same function (Tzaferis 1974). Shafts of this type are related to an aspect of Jewish law reflected, for instance, in the Mishnaic tractate Ohalot 3:7. Essentially, insofar as an unclean cavity like a tomb lacks an outlet, the defilement spreads to the area above it; but with the provision of an outlet, the defilement is adequately channeled and does not affect the space above (Zlotnick 1966:167). Accordingly, cutting such a shaft would allow one to cross the area above the burial chamber without fear of contamination.