Biblical Past Unearthed in Holy Land Construction
JERUSALEM Building a housing complex or a road in the Holy Land can often have grave implications.
Ancient cemeteries, burial caves from biblical times and centuries-old artefacts have been unearthed during construction work in Israel over the years, forcing contractors by law to call in archaeologists and sometimes halt building projects.
In Holyland Park, a complex of apartments being built on a hill in Jerusalem, archaeologists will soon finish removing bones and other remnants from a field of 40 tombs estimated to be 3,700 years old.
Ianir Milevski, one of the leaders of the excavation, said the graves likely contained the bodies of dozens of Canaanites who lived in a nearby village during the Bronze age.
Across the road and on top of where their homes once stood, one of Israel's largest shopping malls does a brisk business.
"That was their village, and this is their graveyard," Milevski said. When the shopping mall was built "we were able to learn how the Canaanites lived. Now, we can potentially learn how they died."
Workers constructing the Holyland apartments were lucky -- Milevski spotted markings on the ground that led to the discovery of the graves before major foundations were laid.
Israeli law dictates such finds be preserved and Jewish remains salvaged for proper burial.
The solution was to build around the excavation, giving Milevski, colleague Zvi Greenhut and their team time to extract the remnants, which included human bones, skeletons of animals likely used as "offerings", beads, weapons and work tools.
Now that the graves have been extracted, more apartment buildings are set to be built over the site, which is pitted Swiss-cheese like with gaping holes.
CIRCLE IN THE SAND
Archaeologists from Israel's Antiquities Authority monitor all construction projects in the country. If they find what appears to be an artefact, construction is stopped.
"It can be something that looks unusual -- a circle in the earth, or a stain-like patch on the ground," Milevski said.
Antiquities officials in the Palestinian territories employ a similar policy. An archaeological dig was recently conducted in a neighbourhood in the West Bank city of Ramallah, a Palestinian commercial centre.
The precautions to preserve archaeological remnants have often delayed large building projects.
In 2003, graves from the Byzantine period were discovered during groundwork for a train track. Workers were forced to halt construction until the builders and archaeologists agreed to build a rail tunnel under the tombs, delaying the project's completion by a year.
Israel has also often stopped infrastructure work because of protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews citing the possible desecration of Jewish graves at sites where bones were found.
Archaeologists believe many such cemeteries contain remains of Roman troops who occupied Judea between around 63 BC and 638 AD.
Construction of a new wing at Israel's Megiddo Prison, near Armageddon, the site where the Bible says the final battle between good and evil will take place, led to the discovery of a church dating back to the third or fourth century.
Dozens of inmates from the prison helped archaeologists extract artefacts from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Contractors repairing a Tel Aviv high school had to take a 2,100-year-old burial cave into consideration, first filling in the space where tombs had been excavated decades ago before shoring up the building.
And workers laying pipes for a town in northern Israel got into hot water when they accidentally damaged burial caves believed to be 5,000 years old.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)