~ The Cenacle Scroll ~
Just once, I'd be nice to catch a break... thought Udi Kohavi, a professor of biblical anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was wishful thinking, especially given the location of his present dig. Conducting a painstakingly detailed and rigorously documented archeological excavation on a politically, culturally and religiously sensitive site would be a challenging enough endeavor under the best of circumstances. Having to do so under the duress of a possibly imminent terrorist strike didn't make things any easier.
He lit a cigarette and listened to the sounds of the city. Behind him, four Israeli undergraduate students took turns lugging buckets of soil from the indoor excavation site and sifting the material for artifacts using a large, framed screen. Beyond the good-natured chatter of the busy archeology majors, there was nothing unusual in the air. Udi hoped it stayed that way. Literally.
Despite the UN peacekeepers stationed along the Lebanese boarder, Hezbollah militants had resumed their Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel, and were reaching deeper and deeper into their cities and towns. Now there were warnings that the terrorists, with the tacit approval of the Hamas government ruling the Palestinian territories, had penetrated the West Bank through Syria and Jordan. If true, that would put the Holy City of Jerusalem within striking distance of their new Fajr-5 rockets, an upgraded, Iranian version of the Katyusha rocket, with a reported range of up to 50 miles. Other reports told of massive Iranian troop movements near the Iraqi border.
Udi was standing in the courtyard of the three-story, 12th-century building purporting to house both King David's Tomb and, on the second floor, the Cenacle, believed by Christians to be the site of the Last Supper. The truth was King David was no more entombed beneath the building than he was under Udi's front yard. But it had been venerated as such for almost a thousand years and there seemed little point in stopping now.
The reality was that the Crusaders had constructed the building as a chapel to the Last Supper over an already existing synagogue memorializing David's Tomb. The romanticized tourist literature aside, in the eyes of the scientific community that's all it was, just a very old memorial chapel with nary a stone, scrap of plaster or fragment of tile ever found and dated to the time of Christ.
Inside the building was the rest of the small crew for which Udi was responsible. Professionally, he had few concerns about their aptitude, dedication and technical skills. He was somewhat less confident as to their physical well being. He squinted and scanned the eastern sky for danger. Air raid sirens would give a two-to-four-minute warning before a missile strike, more than enough time for him to run back into the building and be buried alive with the others should one of the 200-pound, high-explosive warheads slam into the ancient stone structure.
Udi was the host and supervising faculty member for a joint program of the respective anthropology departments of Cornell University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cornell had sponsored two graduate students, along with their faculty supervisor, on what would, in more peaceful times, be considered a newsworthy, even historical dig. It was the first excavation on the site since Pinkerfeld's 1951 dig.
During Israel's War of Independence, a mortar round had struck the building, causing considerable damage. In 1951, Jacob Pinkerfeld, an Israeli archaeologist, was sent to repair the damage. He took the opportunity to dig two pits, and was able to document the existence of three earlier floor levels: the 12th-century Crusader plaster floor, a fifth century Byzantine mosaic floor, and a late first century Roman plaster floor.
Based on some graffiti-scratched fragments of plaster found by Pinkerfeld, believed to have come from the late first century Roman wall, many historians believed that at that time the building had housed a Judeo-Christian synagogue. The present dig hoped to gather additional evidence in support of that theory, and possibly dig beyond that level in pursuit of another.
Talk of the location as being the site of the Last Supper had been reliably documented back to the fourth century, but not before then. The American academic team working inside was looking for evidence that might point to the existence of an early first century public house, which would lend great weight to what was now just an ancient legend.
Yet another search for the Holy Grail, Udi smiled to himself. He was surprised that both the Ministerial Committee for Holy Places and the Israel Antiquities Authority had agreed to the dig and issued the requisite permits. On the other hand, he supposed, the site was long overdue for a modern, scientific examination and, anticipated rocket attacks aside, he was more than grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.
It's not like the idea was entirely off-the-wall--it was certainly credible to believe that there might be something beneath the Roman floor. The Romans had essentially burned Jerusalem to the ground around 70 A.D., during the First Jewish Revolt, some 40 years after the death of Christ. So whatever structure was standing on the spot at the time, home to the Last Supper or not, would likely have been destroyed. The Roman floor Pinkerfeld had uncovered would have been built after 70 A.D., atop the ruins of whatever stood before it.
He would have preferred to delay the start of the project for a while, until the military situation worked itself out, but the tedious negations with the local Orthodox Jewish community who worshiped at the location had yielded this one, carefully chosen time slot, allowing for the month-long closure of the small synagogue on the lower, King David's Tomb level; any significant delay would likely kill the project, at least in the short-term. He stamped out his cigarette, stopped to offer a few words of encouragement to his hardworking undergraduate students, and headed back into the building.
"Udi! Look at this." Sam Williams, professor of anthropology from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, was standing alongside the neatly organized excavation. It was a four-square-meter grid, quartered into one-square-meter segments by lengths of white string stretched taut across the site. The first segment, designated "1" on their simple coordinate map, had been dug down five inches below the existing marble floor, exposing the fourth century plaster Crusader floor. The adjacent unit, to the east, designated "E1," extended a foot and a half below the Crusader floor to the fourth century Byzantine floor, exposing the still discernable geometric designs on the tile mosaic floor. A third unit, south of unit 1, designated "S1," had been dug to a level four-inches below the Byzantine mosaics, exposing the first century Roman plaster floor.
One of the Cornell team, Jennifer Goodwyn, was squatting in the final, deepest grid--"S1E1"--where she'd carefully removed sections of the late first century floor and was surgically scraping away the soil below with her brand new Marshalltown pointing trowel, a gift from her parents especially for this trip. She was a fourth-year graduate student, pursuing her Ph.D. in Anthropology with a concentration in archeology. Jennifer, a very young-looking 25-year-old, stood 5 feet 6 inches tall with a petite build. She had long, dark hair which, at the moment, was collected into a ponytail and snaked through the back of a dusty, mud-stained New York Met's cap.
"Have you found the gold chalice?" Udi joked.
"No, not yet, anyway," Williams said. "We found sand."
"Ah! And we thought we might be wasting our time. Is it first century sand, at least?"
"It's under the first century floor."
"That's a start..."
Udi sidestepped the several cardboard boxes scattered beside the excavation, all holding scores of carefully labeled plastic, zip-locked bags containing the various floor samples and artifacts so far recovered from the dig. He peered into the grid where the graduate student was working, now approaching 30-inches below the modern floor.
"How is the texture?" Udi asked. "It looks quiet hard."
"It is," Jennifer responded, gently tapping her trowel on the exposed surface to demonstrate. The steel tool pinged sharply on the hard surface.
"I wouldn't get too excited," Udi commented. "It looks like it might be sediment from an old, clogged aqueduct, maybe from one that ran under the building at some point. Have you found any organics?"
She sat back on her heels, rubbed the muddy sweat from her brow, then shook her head. "Nothing so far." She used a stiff brush to move aside some of the loose material and resumed scraping away at the firm surface. This was technically her dig, her first independent field research project, approved and financed by her dissertation advisory committee. Professor Williams was her doctoral advisor. The rest of the students, both American and Israeli, were along for course credits and experience.
"Do you think maybe they put down a layer of sand as a foundation for the Roman floor?" Dave Kemper asked, the second American student team member, moving up alongside the Israeli professor. Kemper was 24-years-old, stood 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed in at a lean but muscular 175 pounds. He was on his college cycling road racing team as an undergraduate, and still worked out with the Cornell team when he found the time.
"Possibly," Udi allowed, still studying the surface carefully as he spoke. "But the compression and density of the material--it's almost cement-like--speaks to the action of water. Wait! What's that? You see?" he pointed. "That dark streak..."
"See what?" Jennifer stood up gingerly and shuffled back out of the way. Udi stepped into the pit next to her.
"Could you move that light over here, please?" He gestured to one of the tripod-mounted, high-intensity quartz-halogen work lights focused on the other quadrants of the pit. Kemper dragged the light over and pointed it to the spot Udi was interested in.
"May I?" he held an open hand to Jennifer, who handed over her trowel. "Thank you."
Udi knelt down on the hard surface and started delicately shaving away at the sand surrounding a dark streak, now more noticeable with the extra illumination. He worked slowly, even artistically, as if icing a cake, smoothly running the trowel right up to the edge of the streak but never touching it.
"What do you think?" Williams asked, squatting at the edge of the pit, admiring the Israeli's surgeon-like technique.
Udi reached for the brush and cleared his work area. "I don't know, but it definitely seems to be organic matter. If I had to force a guess, I'd say it's wood. Could be a piece of an old Roman aqueduct, could be a table, maybe it's just a 2,000-year-old piece of firewood. We won't know until we dig some more." He stood up and handed Jennifer back her trowel.
"Here you go," he said, smiling impishly. "It's your show!" He climbed out of the pit and dusted off his pants.
"Nice catch," Williams whispered, waiting until they'd stepped back from the students clustered around the pit, not wanting to embarrass them. "We could have scraped that clean away without even noticing it."
"There's no shame in your student's making such a mistake. The shame would have been mine, had I missed it. I've been digging in these sediments since I was an undergraduate; I've seen hundreds of such stains. There's no wood left, of course, though it is possible we could recover a few splinters. But if the object is left to disintegrate undisturbed you frequently get those telltale stains left behind. The lab tests will tell us for sure."
"Well, I owe you a beer for that one, just the same," Williams smiled.
The dig proceeded without interruption for the next two days. Udi followed the military situation carefully; Israeli fighter jets had flown several sorties into the northeastern corner of the West Bank to neutralize a convoy of Hezbollah fighters before they had a chance to do any damage. Far from being comforting, it merely confirmed what was up to now speculation--that Jerusalem would soon be within the range of enemy rocket attacks.
The first century pit yielded additional traces of what Udi was now convinced must have been a table, a hutch, or some other such piece of furniture. He secured a good-sized, testable sample of the material and had the students continue digging.
Udi was in the courtyard having a smoke when Professor Williams stuck his head out the door and called him.
"We've got something. Looks like stone, limestone, maybe ... way too thick to be pottery," he said.
"Very good," Udi commented, taking a last drag on his cigarette, then dropping and stamping it out with his boot. "Let's see what my ancestors left behind for me today."
Dave was in the pit, clearing the loosened sand around the artifact with a stiff brush. He'd exposed about an inch of the object, which appeared white, with a rounded edge and four squared sides. It was protruding from the ground about a foot to the right of the organic stain.
"This is not a drill," Udi smiled. "You've got something there..."
"It's big," Kemper said, now back to scraping the compressed sand with a trowel. "I think this is just a corner we're looking at. It seems to be extending out in all directions."
"You know what to do," Williams directed. "Dig around the object, lowering the floor around it. You don't want to dig the object out of the ground, you want to lower the elevation of the ground to expose the object."
Udi silently nodded his approval.
The Cenacle Scroll © Copyright 2009, Anthony F. Lewis