Ancient Street for Pilgrims Possibly Commissioned by Pontius Pilate Unearthed in Jerusalem

A 2,000-year-old street that may have been commissioned by Pontius Pilate for pilgrims has been discovered in Jerusalem by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Details of the discovery have been published in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology. In the study, the team analyzed 100 coins that had been found trapped beneath the paving slabs that would have made up the walkway—which stretched between the Pool of Siloam and Temple Mount. The latest of the coins found dated to between 17 and 31 AD—a period when Pontius Pilate governed Judea—suggesting work was completed on the street around this time.

This ancient road—known as the Stepped Street—would have been almost 2,000 feet long and 26 foot wide. It has been known for over 50 years, however exactly when it was built was unclear. Previous archaeological data suggested it was constructed at some point between the reign of Herod the Great, around 37 BC, and that of Herod Agrippa II, who died around 100 AD.

The street was found beneath layers of rubble from when the city was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The rubble was found to contain weapons, remains of burnt trees as well as stones from the buildings that would have lined the walkway.

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During the latest dig at the site, researchers found the coins within a 700 foot long section of the street, allowing them to get a better constraint for the time of construction. "Dating using coins is very exact," study co-author Donald T. Ariel, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement. "As some coins have the year in which they were minted on them, what that means is that if a coin with the date 30 [AD] on it is found beneath the street, the street had to be built in the same year or after that coin had been minted, so any time after 30 [AD]."

Pontius Pilate is thought to have been governor of Judea—the Roman province that included Jerusalem—for about a decade, from around 26 AD. The researchers argue that the dating from the coins suggests the walkway was built during Pilate's rule—and that he may have commissioned the street: "Statistically, coins minted some 10 years later [than 30 AD] are the most common coins in Jerusalem, so not having them beneath the street means the street was built before their appearance, in other words only in the time of Pilate," Ariel said.

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Stock photo of Jerusalem. Researchers say an ancient pilgrim walkway may have been commissioned by Pontius Pilate. iStock

The street would have been paved with stone slabs and about 10,000 tons of quarried limestone rock—a task that would have required a huge amount of time and skill. Compared to other streets from the time, this walkway would have been very grand, adding weight to the idea it served as a pilgrim route, the researchers say. Pilate, they believe, may have had the street built in order to reduce tensions with the Jewish population in the city at the time.

"Part of it may have been to appease the residents of Jerusalem, part of it may have been about the way Jerusalem would fit in the Roman world, and part of it may have been to aggrandize his name through major building projects," study author Nahshon Szanton, from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

In an email to Newsweek, he added: "We can't know for sure—although all these reasons do find support in the historical documents, such as Josephus, and it is likely that it was some combination of the three."

Archaeological excavations in Jerusalem have been subject of controversy in recent years, and excavations at the Stepped Street have become a point of focus. Some argue excavations are politically motivated, raising tensions between Israel and Palestine. Excavation work at the site poses risk to buildings nearby—including the homes and businesses of the city's Arab population.

Earlier this year, Israeli authorities inaugurated a new tunnel extending between Wadi Hilweh and the Western Wall—an event that was attended by David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Jason Greenblatt, a White House advisor on Israel. Their presence was criticized by the Palastinian Authority, saying the event was representative of the "Judaization" of Jerusalem. Greenblatt later defended their attendance on Twitter, saying: "We can't 'Judaize' what history/archeology show. We can acknowledge it & you can stop pretending it isn't true! Peace can only be built on truth."

This article has been updated to include comments from Nahshon Szanton.