Archaeologists in Jerusalem have uncovered a theater dating back nearly two millennia underneath the city's famed Western Wall, providing valuable clues to the Roman influence on the city.
"From a research perspective, this is a sensational find," excavators with the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement this week about the discovery. "The discovery was a real surprise."
As part of ongoing excavations of the areas around Jerusalem's Temple Mount and Western Wall, archaeologists had been digging in the area to look for clues to help accurately date an ancient stone arch in the area that was part of the temple complex, writes Vittoria Traverso of Atlas Obscura. In the search roughly 26 feet under a section of the Western Wall, the team unexpectedly stumbled upon an "extraordinary theater-like structure."
The theater is relatively small by Roman standards, seating about 200 people, reports Rinat Harash of Reuters, and unlike the culture's famous amphitheaters or auditoriums, was enclosed with a roof. This likely meant that the structure either a building intended for musical performances or for local city council meetings, according to the archaeologists. The building was painstakingly carved out of stone, but puzzlingly it appears to have never been finished.
"The reasons for this are unknown," the archaeologists said in a statement, but they speculate it could be related to unrest that often gripped the region as Rome struggled to keep control of it, perhaps leading them to abandon construction. Amanda Borschel-Dan of the Times of Israel reports that records from Roman historians had mentioned the theater, leading archaeologists in the 19th century to start looking for it. The theater is in well-preserved condition because it was thoroughly buried about 1,650 years ago when damage from an earthquake led residents to fill in the area under the ancient stone arch to help shore it up the arch.
Archaeologists expect to continue excavating for six months, in hopes of uncovering further evidence of ancient Jerusalem and more accurately date what they've discovered thus far. Afterward, authorities plan to open the discovered sites to the public.
"We have a great deal of archaeological work ahead and I am certain that the deeper we dig, the earlier the periods we will reach," Shmuel Rabinovitch, rabbi of the Western Wall, says in a statement.