A person’s trash can reveal a lot about that person. Likewise, a community’s landfill can reveal a lot about that community. This is why lovers of history, specifically Biblical history, are geeking out over the announcement that a group of archeologists have uncovered an ancient landfill in Jerusalem.
Writing for the Biblical Archaeology Society, Megan Sauter explains: “One of the world’s oldest landfills was recently uncovered in Jerusalem.”
Yuval Gadot’s article is hidden behind Biblical Archaeology Review‘s paywall, but Sauter provides some insight into what Gadot and his team are uncovering.
Situated on the eastern slopes of Jerusalem’s Southeastern Hill (the “City of David” or present day “Silwan”), Jerusalem’s ancient landfill dates to the Early Roman period (first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.). Through a systematic excavation of this landfill, Yuval Gadot and his team have been able to shed light on Jerusalem during a particularly tumultuous chapter of its history—when Rome ruled, the Temple stood, and Jesus preached.
In Biblical Archaeology Review, Gadot details some of the interesting discoveries from the landfill and how he and his team excavated this difficult terrain. They have successfully gathered information on the dietary habits, trading practices, and vocational diversity of the ancient residents of Jerusalem—and much more.
Further, digging through these ancient trash layers has illuminated how garbage was processed in the ancient world. The scale of garbage found at the Jerusalem site suggests that this enterprise was a public work. This is especially significant considering that not all ancient cities at this time had a trash collection system. Gadot explores why trash collection was valued and prioritized in Jerusalem.
The landfill located on the eastern slopes of the city is not just impressive for its size: its alternating layers of ancient trash and soil suggest there was a deliberate attempt to systematically cover the garbage to prevent smells and deter scavengers, Gadot says.It isn’t that the people of ancient Jerusalem organized to collectively and obediently throw their dross over the city walls. “It looks like there was a mechanism in place that cleared the streets, cleared the houses, using donkeys to collect and throw away the garbage,” Gadot speculates. The system may have developed out of a combination of Roman administrative knowhow and a growing observance among Jews of religious purity norms, researchers theorize.
As researchers continue to comb through the landfill, the possibilities of what remains to be found are intriguing. Information that reveals “trading practices, and vocational diversity of the ancient residents of Jerusalem” may mean that information about the religious practices, including ancient Hebrew texts, may turn up. If so, Hebrew scholars and Biblical textual critics will rejoice. Regardless, this ancient landfill will provide scholars a wealth of information about life in Jerusalem around the time that Jesus Christ walked the city’s streets.