Outside Jerusalem’s Old City, a once-in-a-lifetime find of ancient Greek inscription

During a salvage excavation ahead of telephone cable infrastructure placement, archaeologists uncover a rare intact 1,500-year-old mosaic from the dawn of the Christian empire.

An extremely rare ancient early Christian Greek inscription has been discovered about a kilometer north of Jerusalem’s Old City. The once-in-a-lifetime dream archaeological find was discovered by chance during infrastructure work for a phone cable.

The intact 1,500-year-old mosaic was uncovered in the flooring of what is thought to have been a pilgrim hostel during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Israel Antiquities Authority director of excavation David Gellman was supervising the salvage dig ahead of the placement of Partner communications cable infrastructure outside American Consulate buildings in East Jerusalem.

Gellman called the find “extremely exciting,” saying that “it’s not every day that one finds an inscription — a ‘direct letter’ from someone — from 1,500 years ago.”

The black-lettered mosaic inscription was discovered on a white tile floor during the last day of salvage work.
“The fact that the inscription survived is an archaeological miracle,” said Gellman.

Gellman, who has spent the past four years working on digs in Jerusalem, said with one more day left to his excavation permit, he had been unsure of any remarkable finds from the dig. The team was excavating an area approximately one meter below street level.

“The excavation in a relatively small area exposed ancient remains that were severely damaged by infrastructure groundwork over the last few decades. We were about to close the excavation when all of a sudden, a corner of the mosaic inscription peeked out between the pipes and cables,” he said.
“My heart leapt out of my chest,” the Toronto-born Gellman said on Wednesday at a press tour at the IAA’s Rockefeller Museum headquarters.

“Amazingly, it had not been damaged. Every archaeologist dreams of finding an inscription in their excavations, especially one so well preserved and almost entirely intact,” said Gellman. He said one area of the mosaic was slightly raised by a tree root growing beneath it, and a there are a few gaps of letters among the six-line inscription.

After three days of work on his extended excavation permit Gellman’s team uncovered, in addition to the mosaic, a few remnants of walls of the pilgrims’ hostel, pottery shards of bowls and other vessels, and three Byzantine coins dating from the 6th century.
The Greek inscription was deciphered by the Hebrew University’s Dr. Leah Di Segni, an expert on ancient Greek inscriptions.

The inscription reads, “In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction.”
Di Segni believes it was written to commemorate the founding of the building — presumed to be a pilgrim hostel — by a priest named Constantine. The word “indiction,” said Di Segni, “is an ancient method of counting years, for taxation purposes. Based on historical sources, the mosaic can be dated to the year 550/551 CE.”

The new inscription is currently being treated and researched by conservation experts at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s mosaic workshop in Jerusalem.

The inscription was found on a road leading to the Damascus Gate, the main northern entrance to Jerusalem in the period surrounding the era of the charismatic emperor Justinian. Also known as Justinian the Great, the monarch was considered the “last Roman emperor” for his desire to revive the vast strength and greatness of the Roman empire. It was under Justinian that the Byzantine empire completed its conversion to Christianity.

According to Gellman, the foundation of the hostel by Justinian on the Damascus Road points to the importance of Jerusalem in the empire.

“Knowing that, it is no surprise that this area is rich with archaeological remains,” said Gellman. “In the Byzantine period, with the emergence of Christianity, churches, monasteries and hostels for pilgrims were built in the area north of the gate, and the area became one of the most important and active areas of the city.”

A similar mosaic was found in the 1970s during excavations of the Old City under the remains of the Nea Church, or new church, also founded by Justinian, in 543 CE. The church, dedicated to Jesus’s mother Mary, was a jewel of the Byzantine empire. It is now on exhibition in the Israel Museum.

According to the IAA, the abbot of the church was the same priest Constantine whose name appears in the newly discovered inscription. Gellman said that the inclusion of the priest Constantine in the newly found mosaic points to the influence of the priest, whom we now know was not only in charge of the Nea Church but also of the pilgrim complex uncovered by the IAA outside the walls of the city during salvage operations ahead of construction of new roads and a gas station over the past several dozen years.

Ancient Greek expert Di Segni concurred that the two mosaics are “fairly similar” in that they include mentions of both Justinian and Constantine.

“This new inscription helps us understand Justinian’s building projects in Jerusalem, especially the Nea Church,” said Di Segni. “The rare combination of archaeological finds and historical sources, woven together, is incredible to witness, and they throw important light on Jerusalem’s past.”

Uncovering this mosaic, said Gellman, is, “so far, the height of my career.”

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