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updated 11/5/2010 5:25:16 PM ET 2010-11-05T21:25:16

A newly discovered 7th century B.C. palace garden near Jerusalem could reveal details about how royals liked to let loose in ancient times.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University and Germany's Heidelberg University uncovered the royal garden at the site of Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz (communal farm) in Israel, and are leading the first full-scale excavation of this type of archaeological site in Israel.

"We have uncovered a very rare find," archaeologist Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University said.

The garden was a massive and lush green space royals would use to relax. Such pleasure spots were once the ultimate symbol of power, according to the researchers.

In fact, the garden would have been the most prominent feature of Ramat Rachel, visible from the west, north and south, said researcher Boaz Gross, a graduate student in archeology at Tel Aviv University.

One of the main features of the Ramat Rachel gardens is its intricate irrigation system, the likes of which have never been seen before outside of Mesopotamia (home of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon). The irrigation system includes open channels and closed tunnels for water to travel though, as well as stone-carved gutters and the framework for elaborate waterfalls.

When the garden was built, being able to control water — especially in the desert — was a great show of political strength.

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Based on their analysis, the researchers think Ramat Rachel was built by the Judeans, but commissioned by foreign powers. The archaeologists hope to study the site more to unravel its story, and shed new light on the complicated political maneuverings between the various empires that ruled in Israel. The site was in use from the 7th to the 4th centuries B.C., a period that saw many wars and exchanges of power, with the garden evolving under each civilization.

According to the researchers, the first phase of the garden can be dated back to the 7th century B.C., when Judah became a vassal kingdom of the Assyrian empire.

"It is our assumption, due to a combination of our finds at the dig correlated with historical texts, that the garden and the main parts of the citadel were constructed during this period, and probably following some kind of 'order' of the empire, or at least to facilitate the needs to raise taxes to it," Lipschits told LiveScience in an e-mail.

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"The abundance of stamped jar handles, a form of administrative-economic system, from the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian periods (7th-4th centuries B.C.), indicate the site was in use throughout the changing of powers, and the lack of destruction layers suggest the transition went smoothly in Ramat Rahel, and that it continued with its original purpose — an administrative center of produce distribution," he said.

The researchers are using a combination of excavation methods to study the garden site. For example, botanical and agricultural analysis will reveal which plants and animals lived in the garden, while geological inspection should show where the soil originated. The scientists are also studying the plaster inside water trenches to try to find hidden pollen remains.

"Proper excavation will provide an essential tool to future researchers," Gross said. "We are carefully deciphering what we have in front of us. There are no parallels to it."

The researchers' findings will be reported in an upcoming issue of the journal Near Eastern Archaeology.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Good times in ancient times

  • Courtesy Betsy Bryan  /  JHU

    Summertime fun isn't a modern invention: Ancient cultures liked to let the good times roll as well. Some celebrated with a few drinks. Others partied hard through the night. There were days at the spa, nights at the theater and time to play a little ball. The evidence for the good times in past eras comes from archaeologists who painstakingly dig through ancient remains. The fruits of their efforts help piece together tales showing how today's leisurely shenanigans are just the latest incarnation of cultural customs quite old.

    Take the ancient Egyptians, for example. Not only did they drink beer to excess, they had an annual "festival of drunkenness" dedicated to the cause. Participants got wasted, had gratuitous sex and woke the next day to blaring music, according to an Egyptologist excavating a temple in Luxor where the festivities occurred. The debauchery even had a point: re-enactment of a myth about an evil goddess who became a savior after being tricked into drinking mass quantities of beer. This drawing is based on a wall painting that depicts the festivities. Click the "Next" button above to learn about six more good times in ancient times.

    - John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Wari brewskis

    The Wari, an Andean culture that pre-dated the Incas, made and drank their beer in style. Archaeologists working on a mountaintop in Peru discovered a 1,000-year-old brewery that churned out 475-gallon batches of spicy beerlike chicha. Elegant shawl pins found on the brewery floor indicate that elite women staffed the facility. The brewery was burned to the ground in a final festival that ended with ritualistic smashing of beer mugs in the embers. One of the mugs pieced back together is pictured here.

  • Roman hot-tub party

    Andrew Medichini  /  AP

    For a wealthy, 2nd-century Roman said to be friends with the Emperor Hadrian, nothing, apparently, beat a good hot-tub party. His two-story villa, spread out over 5 acres, included a lavish bath complex with mosaic floors and marble latrines. Archaeologist Darius Arya, who is leading the dig, told The Associated Press that such baths were popular places for Romans to pass their days: "You could eat well, you could get a massage, you could have sex, you could gossip, you could play your games, you could talk about politics - you could spend your whole day here." In this image, archaeologists work on the ruins.

  • Wine-tasting in China

    PNAS

    Oenophiles may lack the vocabulary to describe it, but an archaeological chemist is confident residues he found on 9,000-year-old pottery shards from the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu are from the world's first fermented beverage. The winelike liquid was made with rice, honey and fruit of the hawthorn tree or wild grape. About 6,000 years later, the wine makers had become a bit more sophisticated: The rice and millet wines found in sealed bronze vessels from the Shang Dynasty, including the one pictured here, were flavored with herbs such as chrysanthemum and pine resins.

  • Greek theater

    Georgia Tech

    Theater as we know it today has its roots in ancient Greece, where tragedy and drama played to swelling crowds. These productions trace their roots to songs sung at festivals related to the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and the madness it inspires. Pictured here is the great theater at Epidaurus, which dates to the 4th century B.C. Scientists recently discovered that the limestone seats serve as an acoustic filter, hushing background noises from the unruly crowd and reflecting the voices of the actors on stage.

  • Play ball, Maya-style

    Image: Mars Polar Lander
    Andrew L. Demerest

    The Maya, like many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, gathered to cheer at ball games long before the dawn of soccer. Known as "pitz" among the Maya, participants in the ancient ballgame used their hips, knees and elbows to send a rubber ball through stone hoops attached to the sides of the court. Pictured here is a 1,300-year-old stone altar recovered from looters who took it from the royal ball court at Cancuen. It depicts King Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte playing ball with another king. The game was often more ceremony than sport, used to seal alliances with neighboring kings.

  • Cana's miraculous wine?

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    According to the Bible, Jesus once turned water to wine. The miracle, said to be his first, happened at a Jewish wedding in the Galilee village of Cana where the celebratory drink had run dry. In 2004, archaeologists working in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one pictured here, that are thought to have contained wine. The site could well represent the biblical Cana. However, other researchers have found pieces of stone jars at a site several miles to the north that could also date back to the time of Jesus and is thus also a candidate for the biblical Cana.

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