About 2km south of Jerusalem, on a hill next to the road to Bethlehem, salvage excavation was recently done for a new construction project. A team from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) led by E. Kogan-Zehavi excavated the site, and preliminary results have just been published in the latest issue of ‘Atiqot (vol. 35).
Above surface a round tower from Byzantine period was discovered. This tower was already documented in the 19th century. It was a watchtower which functioned until Ottoman times (16th-19th centuries).
But below the tower was another circular structure. This round building has two occupation layers. The earlier layer dates to the late Byzantine period (6th-7th Centuries CE), and it appeared to be a dwelling place of a Byzantine ascetic.
An arched niche led to a small cell. The ceiling still held an iron lamp-holder attached to an iron rod wedged into the vault. The glass receptacle was found in pieces on the floor below.
But this mysterious cell was concealing more. While cleaning the floor of the cell, the excavators realized that the hermit was also buried in his cell, and that in his life his ascetic life style was quite extreme. His skeleton was draped with three iron chains totaling 6 meters in length, and weighting 6 kg. They were worn on his body like a vest that could be taken off, yet it appears that he wore his chains voluntarily. The skeleton was analyzed by physical anthropologist Joe Zias. He identified him as a 24-26 year old male. There was no evidence of traumatic injury or disease which could have led to his death, and so the reason of his death is unknown.
Ascetic behavior such as wearing chains is documented mainly among Syrian monastic anchorites. Wearing chains was intended to punish the body for impure thoughts and to ensure celibacy. It was one of the accepted ways of mortifying the flesh. On the other hand the custom of anchorites living in subterranean structures is known from Byzantine Egypt. Therefore it seems that this hermit adopted neighboring extreme ascetics behavioral patterns. Could such a behavior also be the cause of his early death? That is left as an open question.