Image: Two ancient bronze coins
Gali Tibbon  /  Gali Tibbon / AFP - Getty Images
Two ancient bronze coins which according to Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists were struck by the Roman procurator of Judea, Valerius Gratus, in the year 17/18 CE and recently were revealed in excavations beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.
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updated 11/23/2011 7:38:32 PM ET 2011-11-24T00:38:32

Newly found coins underneath Jerusalem's Western Wall could change the accepted belief about the construction of one of the world's most sacred sites two millennia ago, Israeli archaeologists said Wednesday.

The man usually credited with building the compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary is Herod, a Jewish ruler who died in 4 B.C. Herod's monumental compound replaced and expanded a much older Jewish temple complex on the same site.

But archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority now say diggers have found coins underneath the massive foundation stones of the compound's Western Wall that were stamped by a Roman proconsul 20 years after Herod's death. That indicates that Herod did not build the wall — part of which is venerated as Judaism's holiest prayer site — and that construction was not close to being complete when he died.

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"The find changes the way we see the construction, and shows it lasted for longer than we originally thought," said the dig's co-director, Eli Shukron.

The four bronze coins were stamped around 17 A.D. by the Roman official Valerius Gratus. He preceded Pontius Pilate of the New Testament story as Rome's representative in Jerusalem, according to Ronny Reich of Haifa University, one of the two archaeologists in charge of the dig.

The coins were found inside a ritual bath that predated construction of the renovated Temple Mount complex and which was filled in to support the new walls, Reich said.

They show that construction of the Western Wall had not even begun at the time of Herod's death. Instead, it was likely completed only generations later by one of his descendants.

The coins confirm a contemporary account by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish general who became a Roman historian. Writing after a Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the Temple by legionnaires in 70 A.D., he recounted that work on the Temple Mount had been completed only by King Agrippa II, Herod's great-grandson, two decades before the entire compound was destroyed.

Image: Ritual bath
Gali Tibbon  /  AFP - Getty Images
Archaeologist Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority kneels inside a ritual bath exposed beneath the Western Wall. Archaeologists have uncovered coins inside an ancient Jewish ritual bath by the Wailing Wall in the Old City which challenge the assumption that all walls of the Second Jewish Temple were built by King Herod.

Scholars have long been familiar with Josephus' account, but the find is nonetheless important because it offers the "first clear-cut archaeological evidence that part of the enclosure wall was not built by Herod," said archaeologist Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, who was not involved in the dig.

Josephus also wrote that the end of construction left 18,000 workmen unemployed in Jerusalem. Some historians have linked this to discontent that eventually erupted in the Jewish revolt.

The compound, controlled since 1967 by Israel, now houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-capped Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock. The fact that the compound is holy both to Jews and Muslims makes it one of the world's most sensitive religious sites.

The dig in which the coins were discovered cleared a Roman-era drainage tunnel that begins at the biblical Pool of Siloam, one of the city's original water sources, and terminates with a climb up a ladder out onto a 2,000-year-old street inside Jerusalem's Old City. The tunnel runs by the foundation stones of the compound's western wall, where the coins were found.

The drainage tunnel was excavated as part of the dig at the City of David, which is perhaps Israel's richest archaeological excavation and its most contentious.

The dig is being carried out inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, and is funded by a group associated with the Israeli settlement movement that opposes any division of the city as part of a future peace deal.

The excavation of the tunnel has also yielded a Roman sword, oil lamps, pots and coins that scholars believe are likely debris from an attempt by Jewish rebels to hide in the underground passage as they fled from the Roman soldiers.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Eight Jewish archaeological discoveries

  • Image: scroll fragment
    AP

    It's been decades since the first pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the caves of the Judean desert, but yet another piece of parchment bearing 2,000-year-old scriptures - verses from the Book of Leviticus - was found just recently. Such finds demonstrate that the Holy Land can still produce ancient treasures, thousands of years after the events described in the Bible.

    Click the "Next" label to learn about seven more archaeological discoveries in recent years that have shed light on Jewish history and the Old Testament.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Ceramic shard may bear oldest Hebrew inscription

    Image: Elah Fortress ruins
    Bernat Armangue  /  AP

    A 6-by-6-inch pottery shard unearthed at the archaeological dig site of Hirbet Qeiyafa (the Elah Fortress) in Israel, shown here, contains five lines of faded characters that may bear the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found. The 3,000-year-old text dates to the time of the Hebrew Bible's King David and is thought to be written in proto-Canaanite, a precursor to the Hebrew alphabet. While other people used proto-Canaanite characters as well, the inscription contains a three-letter verb meaning "to do" that existed only in Hebrew, according to Yossi Garfinkel, a Hebrew University archaeologist in charge of the dig. "That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found," he told the Associated Press. Other scholars, however, have urged caution until more is known about the inscription and its context.

  • Elusive biblical wall discovered?

    Image: pottery shards
    AP

    The Book of Nehemiah describes the construction of a wall as part of a rebuilding project after Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians. Archaeologists think they have now found the wall. Their case rests on the pottery pieces and other artifacts shown here. They were discovered near a wall that was previously thought to date to the Hasmonean period of Jewish history (142-37 B.C.). These pottery pieces date to the 5th century B.C., which suggests that the wall is older and corresponds with the time of the biblical account. Other archaeologists, however, are unconvinced.

  • Remains of 'miracle pool' found

    Image: water flows through remains of Siloam Pool site
    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    In this image, water flows through a site where the remains of a pool serve as a link between Jewish rituals and a famous miracle said to have been performed by Jesus. The site, known as Siloam Pool, was used by Jews for ritual immersions before heading down to the Temple Mount. Jesus is said to have miraculously cured a man of blindness in the pool. Archaeologists have also found biblical-era coins with Jewish writing, pottery shards and a stone bottle cork — all helping confirm the authenticity of the site, located in what is now the Arab neighborhood of Silwan.

  • Dead Sea Scrolls shrouded in mystery

    Image: Dead Sea scrolls
    Tara Todras-whitehill  /  AP

    The ancient texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, yet to this day they remain shrouded in mystery and controversy. The 2,000-year-old collection of writings, which includes the earliest surviving pieces of the Bible such as the Book of Isaiah, shown here, was discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave above the ancient settlement of Qumran. Conventional interpretations hold that the texts were authored and stored by the Essenes, a hard-core Jewish sect thought to have occupied Qumran at the time. However, in recent years this view has come under attack by scholars who believe Qumran was a fortress or pottery-making facility that had nothing to do with Essenes. These scholars contend that the cave was just a convenient storage locker of sorts for Jews fleeing the Roman siege on Jerusalem in the year 70.

  • Evidence of King Herod's tomb mounts

    Image: sarcophagus
    Bernat Armangue  /  AP

    Archaeologists excavating King Herod's winter palace in the Judean desert continue to unearth what appear to be the remains of the ancient ruler's tomb. The sarcophagus shown here was pieced together from scattered fragments of a mausoleum archaeologists believe was smashed apart by Jewish rebels who reviled the king as a Roman puppet. Herod was the Jewish proxy ruler of the Holy Land under Roman imperial occupation from 37 to 4 B.C. After his death, scholars believe the palace became a stronghold for rebels fighting the Roman occupation. The rebels were defeated, and the palace destroyed, in the year 71.

  • Tunnels, chambers aided escape from Romans

    Image: drainage channel
    Emilio Morenatti  /  AP

    When the Romans sacked Jerusalem around the year 70, Jews took refuge in a network of underground tunnels and chambers, archaeological finds have revealed. This image depicts one of the tunnels dug beneath the main road of Jerusalem during what is known as the Second Temple era. Pottery shards and coins from the end of the era attest to the channel's age, according to one of the project's researchers. Elsewhere in the city, archaeologists have uncovered chambers filled in with supplies, an indication that the ancient Jews prepared for the uprising.

  • Archaeologists question Masada saga

    Image: archaeological site in Masada
    Rachael Strecher  /  AP

    The mountaintop fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea is famous in Jewish history as the final holdout for about 900 rebels who chose suicide over capture by the Romans in A.D. 73. The story plays a central role in Israel's national mythology, though recent studies have cast doubt on its credibility. Some scholars think the mass suicide was greatly exaggerated or never happened at all. In the 1960s, archaeologists found two male skeletons and the braided hair of a woman in a bathhouse - and the Israeli government gave those remains a state burial in 1969, thinking that they came from Masada's Jews. More recently, however, some archaeologists have suggested that the remains were actually those of the Jews' Roman enemies. Despite the recent controversies, the Masada fortress, seen here, remains one of Israel's top attractions. A cable car carries visitors to the top of the rock.

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