Just because something is considered history doesn’t mean it isn’t subject to change. Despite the finality of the word, “history” is always being shaped by new discoveries about the way people used to live. Deep beneath the surface could be an artifact that changes everything we think we know about a culture, and this is especially possible in ancient cities like Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, deemed a holy city by many faiths, is one of the most historically significant places in the world, and it’s surrounded by buried cities that hold their own historical legacies. There are biblical artifacts buried all around the area, but one team of workers struck the mother lode…and all because of a burst pipe.
When the sewage workers arrived at the scene in 2004, they accidentally unearthed a piece of ancient history. It was lying in wait under a humble potato field in Silwan, a neighborhood of Jerusalem’s Old City. Silwan is, after all, a historical treasure trove.
Back in the day — more accurately, in 516 B.C. — Silwan wasn’t just an unassuming suburb outside Jerusalem. The community was a hub of religious activity, all because of where it sat on a map.
If you were a Jew in the midst of your religious awakening, you went to Silwan. It had the Pool of Siloam, where you’d stop for ritual cleansing before journeying to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Still, Silwan was important for one other reason.
The City of David was once located right in Silwan, and it had a fascinating history. Originally called Jebus, it was naturally home to the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe who lived there until David, King of the Israelites, seized the city.
The Watchman with Erick Stakelbeck/YouTube
There’s little evidence that King David existed, though the few sources that corroborate him are hard to ignore: He’s in the Bible, obviously, and he features on one or two ancient stone tablets. Together they form a controversial history for the king.
David wasn’t always in a position of power. He only became leader of the military after he defeated the giant Goliath with a single slingshot. He later became King David, and when he seized Jerusalem, the city became the Israelite’s capital.
And of course, it later became the City of David. Known as the King of the Israelites, David himself ruled for 40 years, making Jerusalem and the City of David locations of huge historical significance…which obviously means one thing.
Chaim Molcho, Ezrat Niddachim Org.
Silwan and Jerusalem are now crawling with archaeologists, all hoping that they uncover something groundbreaking from thousands of years ago. There’s just one problem: The cities have been built up and torn down and built up again countless times.
In fact, when the Romans took over Jerusalem in 64 B.C., they built a new city that buried all of the sacred sites once erected by the Israelites. Those monumental places were considered long gone…until 2004, that is.
That’s when those workers were sent to repair a burst pipe, but what they found wasn’t at all what they expected. When they saw what was at the site, all they could do was drop their equipment and send for the experts.
What these workers found in Silwan goes all the way back to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. Along with the pipe, they found odd carvings in the surrounding stone, carvings that weren’t at all formed by nature.
The Jerusalem Post
Closer analysis revealed they weren’t even carvings at all, but steps. The workers were shocked when archaeologists told them that they had discovered an ancient staircase! Of course, the number one question on their minds was, where does this staircase lead?
But those workers and archaeologists in Silwan didn’t just discover a staircase. As they soon realized, the steps led to one of Silwan’s most religiously significant locations, a place the city had assumed was buried far beneath the rock and dirt.
See, there were once two temples on the site, the first of which was erected by King David’s son. The First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C., but the Second Temple stood until A.D. 70 when Jerusalem (and Silwan) was taken over by a familiar foe.
: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
The Romans. It’s this Second Temple that was near the mysterious staircase uncovered by the unassuming workers in 2004, and the staircase wasn’t the only relic waiting to be found in the same site as the ancient temple.
The staircase led to the sacred Pool of Siloam, the same pool where Jews once washed before heading on to the Temple Mount. It had laid in wait for approximately 2,000 years, and it led experts to even bigger finds.
The Jerusalem Post
Since that 2004 discovery, archaeologists have uncovered much more than the staircase and pool near the hidden Second Temple. They eventually unearthed an ancient roadway that led from the pool up to the Second Temple itself.
The excavation of this roadway led to an unexpected discovery: the builder’s identity. Someone had to have built the roadway, after all, but the identity of the man who did took the archaeologists — and historians — by complete surprise.
They discovered his identity in conjunction with another archaeological find: About 100 ancient coins were found embedded in the roadway, and the dates inscribed on these coins offered up the surprising builder of the road.
The dates indicated that the ruler at the time of the road’s construction was Pontius Pilate, the man who, according to the New Testament, sent Jesus to his death. How can they be sure? Donald Ariel of the Israel Antiquities Authority explained their reasoning.
The Passion of the Christ/Icon Productions
The coins are from A.D. 31, though most excavated coins are from after A.D. 40. This means that the road was built before the A.D. 40 coins, “in other words, only in the time of Pilate,” Ariel explained. It was a remarkable discovery…
Only matched, of course, by the discovery of that fateful staircase. The ancient road’s route is now known as Pilgrimage Road, and the excavated road leads right up to another staircase…
The staircase that leads to the Second Temple. Archaeologists know that other artifacts are lying in wait in the underground City of David, and that innumerable priceless artifacts are buried all over, especially in one other ancient part of the world…
The Jerusalem Post
It began on a cool March day in the mountains northeast of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Seeking to tap into the area’s plentiful water reserves, a group of farmers had begun digging a small well about a mile east of the imposing Mount Li.
The Wall Street Journal
As they got deeper, the farmers couldn’t help but cast a hopeful eye at the dirt as they pulled each shovelful from the earth. For centuries, these mountains had revealed countless bits of promise for hopeful treasure hunters.
Fragments of terracotta, as well as roofing tiles and chunks of masonry, were common discoveries, yet these small finds had never given way to anything larger. Was there more to be found, or was this just some thousand-year-old garbage dump?
The answer seemed to indicate the former, as just a few hours into digging one farmer unearthed something remarkable — a man. Yet this one wasn’t made of flesh and blood: he was entirely terracotta.
No sooner did the farmer make his discovery that archaeologists were on the scene, clearing the surrounding earth to free the terracotta figure from the dirt. But there was something else beneath the next shovelful: yet another terracotta soldier.
Sensing this deposit of stone men was more than just a few misplaced garden statues, the archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to see what else was lying below the surface — and what they found was nothing short of historic.
Texas Farm Bureau
More than 8,000 figures appeared on the scans, all placed in tight formations around what appeared to be an underground tomb. But there was no sense in guessing what else was down there: it was time for the archaeologists to see for themselves.
A massive excavation began, with hundreds of workers brought in to help unearth this army of stone soldiers. One by one, terracotta men poked their heads from the earth and breathed fresh air for the first time in centuries.
Along with the soldiers, hundreds of animal statues were also recovered, including those of birds and military horses. There were also more than 500 working horses pulling close to 150 full-size chariots.
Laypeople were also well-represented, as statues of entertainers like acrobats, strongmen, and musicians were unearthed as well. This discovery was unlike anything the archaeologists had seen before, yet one question remained: what was this terracotta army doing here?
Colleen Shepherd / Flickr
Scholars looked to historian Sima Qian’s Shiji — also known as the Records of the Grand Historian — for the answer. Written in 94 BCE, the ancient historical text included tales of the ambitious Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
Shortly after ascending the throne at age 13, Qin Shi Huang began work on an enormous mausoleum to serve as both his final resting place as well as a testament to his greatness. However, not everyone was a fan of the new ruler.
While Qin Shi Huang is credited for uniting the warring states of China, he did so through conquest and plenty of bloodshed. Yet even after his enemies were no more, the emperor feared they’d return to seek revenge in the next life.
O. Louis Mazzatenta / National Geographic
And so, as his grand mausoleum began to take shape, he commissioned local craftsmen to build terracotta soldiers to protect his tomb. Qin Shi Huang was laid to rest in 210 BCE, and his army of over 8,000 has stood guard ever since.
The Jakarta Post
Yet it appeared that these soldiers weren’t much for fighting, as archaeologists were now snaking their way through the ranks in search of Qin Shi Huang’s treasures — that is, until they hit a snag.
As the archaeologists approached Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, they began picking up high levels of radiation. Had the emperor’s builders left behind more than just soldiers to protect his resting place? The answer, it seemed, was far more unbelievable.
During his lifetime, Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with discovering the key to eternal life and went to incredible lengths to find it. In addition to dispatching armies in search of some kind of everlasting elixir, the emperor also became fond of one unusual liquid…
And that liquid was mercury. Believing the radioactive element would preserve his youth, Qin Shi Huang surrounded himself with mercury and actually ingested it regularly. When his great mausoleum was complete, he even had rivers of the metal flowing through it!
Bertrand Berube / Flickr
While this prevalence of mercury definitely contributed to the emperor’s early demise at 49, it’d also made Qin Shi Huang’s resting place highly radioactive. To this day, the tomb remains sealed from even the most experienced archaeologists.
Nearly 50 years later, Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum is now open to the public and attracts thousands of tourists each year. But while the legend of the Terracotta Army is one known far and wide, there’s another ancient artifact whose origin has been highly disputed — until now.
The ancient Jewish manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls have fascinated scholars for decades. While no one’s exactly sure of the details surrounding them — their true origins, for instance — experts agree on a few facts.
The scrolls were first found inside an alcove in the Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert in the 1940s. After a chemical analysis, scientists dated the pieces of parchment and papyrus between 150 B.C. and 70 A.D.
Once they’d uncovered the scrolls, the experts were stunned. They contained some of the oldest known biblical documents ever found, and for their age, they were in amazing condition. To this day, the discovery brings people from all over to visit the Qumran caves.
Specifically, people flock to the caves to see first-hand where some of the most historically astounding texts were found. This gives them a glance at one of the world’s oldest mysteries — who wrote the darn things?
First, scholars generally believed the Essenes, a small sect of Jews who occupied the region near the Qumran Caves, penned these early documents. However, one man isn’t buying this commonly held belief — and his theory could have major impact.
During a National Geographic program called Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls, an archaeologist named Robert Cargill said, “Jews wrote the Scrolls, but it may not have been just one specific group. It could have been groups of different Jews.”
Cargill’s new research suggests that after the Roman siege on the Temple of Jerusalem around 70 A.D., a separate group of authors fled from the burning Temple and wrote their own contributions to the scrolls. However, not everyone buys into this theory.
Many scholars think Cargill has his facts wrong, including a New York University professor named Lawrence Schiffman who felt Cargill’s claims are “going to be very disputed.” He’s not alone, either.
Another archaeologist and Catholic priest who supported the belief the scrolls were written solely by the Essenes was Roland de Vaux. In 1954, he led a team that studied the scrolls, concluding all the writers lived solely in Qumran.
One of the reasons for de Vaux’s belief was the discovery of several pools the team believed to be Jewish ritual baths. The scrolls mentioned these local inventions, indicating a regional author.
In fact, some of the scrolls contained other detailed guidelines for communal living — such as bathing and dining — that lined up with the ancient traditions and customs of the Essenes.
However, an archaeologist named Yuvel Peleg who spent 16 years studying artifacts around Qumran challenged long-held beliefs about who wrote the scrolls, as well. This was all thanks to one specific item found on Mount Zion.
It was a 2,000-year-old cup with an inscription that read “Lord, I have returned” on its side in a code similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Peleg believed this could mean religious leaders from Jerusalem played a role in the scrolls’ writing.
To make things even more interesting, there’s another emerging theory that states the Essenes community was comprised of Jerusalem Temple priests who exiled themselves because of unlawful kings. Once in exile, they wrote the scrolls.
Although Robert Cargill’s opinion might be unpopular, there are clearly those who agree with him. The discovery of ancient sewers beneath Jerusalem by archaeologist Ronnie Reich could indicate that, during the Roman siege, groups of Jews smuggled religious texts to various areas.
Even further evidence the scrolls were written by various groups came from studying the jars the scrolls were found in. Scientists eventually concluded only half the vessels were local to Qumran. Even with this, however, not everyone’s convinced.
Especially Lawrence Schiffman, saying, “I don’t buy it. The notion that someone brought a bunch of scrolls together from some other location and deposited them in a cave is very, very unlikely.” Still, Robert Cargill stands his ground.
He agrees with Schiffman that the scrolls show “a tremendous amount of congruence of ideology,” however, “it’s difficult to explain some of the ideological diversity present within some of the scrolls.”
If, in fact, Robert Cargill’s research is accurate, it would change everything scholars believed about the scrolls being the work of just the Essenes. They could very well be the unrecovered treasures of Jews who escaped the Roman siege.
Regardless of whether or not the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of the Essenes or not, every archaeologist agrees that they provide a rare glimpse into first-century Judaism. Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away, researchers are still exploring caves for more treasures.
Subterranea Britannica is a society of like-minded people with a few common interests: abandoned mines, out of commission tube stations, and man-made caves.
Subterranea Britannica / Facebook
On one particular group outing, the UK-based group included two below-ground-buffs who’d done their homework. Hayley Clark and Ed Waters brought their expertise of ancient history — along with remarkable attention to detail — on an important excursion.
Together the Sub Brits (as they are known) made their way to the British Midlands. They were headed towards Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge with a series of archaic caves, last inhabited over 10 thousand years ago.
Just a few steps into the entrance of what is known as the Robin Hood Cave, Hayley and Ed stopped abruptly. Then, the pair dashed straight to the rocky walls and ran their hands over the cool surface: they’d made a gripping discovery.
Karl101 / Flickr
Covering vast stretches of the limestone interior walls were countless scratches and carvings, undoubtedly thousands of years old. The markings were obvious, the first thing you’d notice when entering the cave; to the untrained eye, they were also totally insignificant.
The Vintage News
For years, locals and facility workers believed that the carvings on the walls were meaningless scrawlings, graffiti dating back to the Victorian period. Every passerby through the cave noticed them, but no one had ever recognized what they truly were…
Michael Allan Hall / Flickr
Until Hayley and Ed noticed the markings, their hidden meaning was overlooked for centuries. Hundreds of individual characters were etched into the surface, but what pulled them away from the wonder of the tour were two letters: V V.
The Vintage News
Immediately, Hayley and Ed knew the letters represented a phrase that carried a curious weight. “V V” stood for “Virgin of Virgins,” a prayer beseeching Mary of Nazareth for protection against dark forces.
Dionicio Godina / Flickr
The “V V” annotations were repeated dozens of times on any surface the carvers could reach. Hayley and Ed shared their findings with the rest of the tour group. Their guide, Heritage Facilitator John Charlesworth, was gobsmacked.
He notified the Creswell Heritage Trust at once, and experts were called in to examine the symbols. They scoured every inch of the caves. Even in the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, they found hastily made inscriptions.
Crosses, maze patterns, and boxes were repeated ceremoniously, just like the religious “VV” pleading. Apparently, these kinds of messages were used to trick and subsequently trap evil spirits.
With the serious and dramatic meanings of the marking finally understood, there was a giant red flag: What were all these people afraid of? Clearly, a dark force had driven them to a desperate state to carve symbols on the walls of a cave for help.
Artemii Zhdanov / Flickr
Answering that question started by identifying the persons responsible for the carvings. Allison Fearne, a Ph.D. of Archaeology at the University of Leicester, claimed these apotropaic markings are usually associated with places of worship or the door frames of the home.
East Anglian Daily Times
Spending hours a day chiseling into stone, back when it would be slow painstaking work, is the act of someone in fear. The root cause of such panic has something to do with the other common name for apotropaic markings — witch marks.
Visit Blue Mountains / Flickr
Historians from Creswell Heritage teamed up with Historic England and determined the markings date back between the 14th and 18th centuries, and attributed their carving to residents of nearby Creswell.
There’s no way to prove indefinitely that the citizens of Creswell were suffering from a real-life version of The Witch, but the sheer quantity of the markings means something spooky was going down.
Connections between nature and the supernatural go back centuries and in a setting plucked out of the pages of a fantasy novel, with cliffs and a picturesque lake, anyone could see how the caves could exude power.
Lee Wyatt / Flickr
It’s also possible the villagers were facing merciless diseases or debilitating poverty and blamed a witch. Taking to the caves to perform a ritual saving themselves from unknown despair could have been their last straw.
Alfonso Coya Testón / Flickr
No matter what the cause, the caves at Creswell Crag represented an overwhelming visual depiction of something sinister. When understanding of the markings swept the tour group, everybody felt a prickle of fear.
“It was like something from The Shining,” said the director of Creswell Crags Museum and Heritage Center, Paul Baker, after entering the cave armed with his new knowledge about the innumerable symbols.