Proto-Aeolic Capital Associated with Judah’s Longest Spring Tunnel


Proto aeolic 1

A stylized palm tree motif is carved onto this proto-aeolic discovery associated with a remarkable Iron Age spring tunnel system near Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Binyamin Tropper.

Investigating royal iconography and large-scale construction in Iron Age Judah

Noah Wiener 

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There has been a lot of talk recently about a “covered up” proto-aeolic capital. I’ll admit: I indulged in a bit of this myself last April. Last week, the conversation was reopened when Arutz-7 reported that the location of the site—sensationally (and without any substantiation) labeled “King David’s Castle”—would be announced Friday, January 17.

The capital is part of an undoubtedly important archaeological site just over five miles from Jerusalem’s City of David and four miles from Bethlehem. The find itself—a one-of-a-kind proto-aeolic capital still attached to its base—is a rare-yet-iconic First Temple period type. The iconography is familiar in Israel; proto-aeolic designs are etched on modern Israeli five-shekel coins.

The capital is associated with a 525-foot-long tunnel system, the largest and most impressively hewn spring tunnel in the region of Jerusalem. This labor required to carve such a system opens new questions regarding the Judahite administration and agriculture around Jerusalem. Unfortunately, most of last year’s discussion hinged on media reports of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) response to the Kfar Etzion Field School’s attempts to publicize the find. The archaeological significance was all but ignored.

Last summer I had the chance to meet with Binyamin Tropper, the Kfar Etzion training coordinator who recognized the capital in February 2013, and Daniel Ein-Mor, the IAA archaeologist who previously surveyed the area, identified the capital, explored the water system and recently published the site (see notes below). Media articles last spring portrayed the Kfar Etzion and IAA camps in a pitched battle over the discovery’s public presentation. I saw no indication of hostile contention—both Ein-Mor and Tropper were cordial and enthusiastic in sharing information about the site.

Before discussing the ancient evidence, we need to address the elephant in the room: the articles last year suggesting that the IAA “covered up” the discovery. While there are modern political sensitivities surrounding the location of the site, Bible History Daily is not the place for such discussion. It is a place for the presentation of archaeological data, so first and foremost, it is important to rectify the notion that this site remains quietly unpublished. Last year, Daniel Ein-Mor and geologist Zvi Ron published the article “An Iron Age Royal Tunnel Spring in the region of Nahal Rephaim” in Guy Stiebel et. al (eds.),New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region. Ein-Mor also published a shorter free online report “Walajeh (‘Ain Joweizeh)” on the IAA Hadashot Arkheologiyot website last summer.

The Proto-Aeolic Typology

In his article “The Origin and Date of the Volute Capitals from the Levant,” Tel Aviv University Professor Oded Lipschits introduces the type:

The Iron Age volute capitals (the so-called “Proto-Aeolic” or “Proto-Ionian” capitals) are among the most impressive and special finds discovered in archaeological excavations in Israel and Jordan. The size of the capitals, their weight, the quality of their carving, and their impressive design provide an indication of their function in the gates and palaces of the ancient kingdoms of Israel, Judah, Moab, and Ammon.

Five shekel

Proto-aeolic capitals have been uncovered at dozens of Israelite and Judahite sites. The proto-aeolic palmetto iconography is often associated with Israelite kingship, and the motif is minted on the modern Israeli five-shekel coin.

The capitals—an architectural term usually referring to decorative supports on top of columns—are widely associated with monumental sites but are poorly understood, in large part because they have rarely been found in situ. Proto-aeolic capitals are decorated with curving date palm tree motifs, associated with the Near Eastern “Tree of Life,” and the architectural style was influential in shaping later architecture from classical Greece to Mesopotamia.

Where have these capitals been found? In the Hadashot Arkheologiyot article “Walajeh (‘Ain Joweizeh),” Daniel Ein-Mor succinctly lists the existing evidence of proto-aeolic capitals, citing a Hebrew article published by Oded Lipschits in 2009:

Twenty-four stone capitals decorated with a Proto-Aeolic design from the First Temple period are known from the main cities of the Kingdom of Israel: Samaria, Megiddo, Hazor and Dan. Eleven others are known from the Kingdom of Judea [Judah]; ten capitals were found at Ramat Rahel where remains of a palace from the late eighth–early seventh centuries BCE were excavated, and one capital comes from the City of David excavations in Jerusalem (Lipschits 2009). Five capitals are known from the site of el-Mudeibi’ – Mudaybi in Moab, and a capital was found in secondary use in the village of ‘Ain-Sara, west of Kerak, next to a spring of the same name. Two fragments of capitals are also known from the citadel in Amman (Lipschits 2009). The capitals from the Kingdom of Israel mainly date to the ninth century BCE and those from Judea and Jordan to the late eighth or early seventh centuries BCE. Although the central motif is identical, the capitals from the various sites differ in some features.

In “The Origin and Date of the Volute Capitals from the Levant,” Lipschits suggests that capitals were first made during Israel’s Omride dynasty in the 9th century B.C.E. He proposes that after the Assyrians invaded Israel, the capitals’ “size, esthetics and quality, attracted the attention of the Assyrian rulers who were known for their adoption of artistic and architectural elements, and for incorporating them in the local Assyrian tradition.” We have artistic depictions of these capitals at numerous palatial Assyrian sites. Lipschits goes on to suggest that the proto-aeolic capitals found in Judah, Moab and Ammon, which were built later than the examples found in Israel, reflect “Assyrian encouragement, approval or sponsorship.”

However, to understand the type, we also need to look west. Haifa University scholar Norma Franklin draws parallels between the capitals and Cypriote architecture, focusing on the similarity between the proto-aeolic motifs and those found in tombs at Tamassos in Cyprus. In her article From Megiddo to Tamassos and Back: Putting the ‘Proto-Ionic Capital’ in Its Place,” Franklin suggests that these “capitals” were never, in fact, used structurally as capitals. Instead she notes a variety of functions from site to site: they served as column bases, support for wooden objects or other non-structural roles within monumental architecture. There is little evidence that proto-aeolic capitals were ever used as structural column capitals, and the phrase persists more due to common usage than accuracy. The proto-aeolic “capital” associated with the Judahite water system is actually a design carved into a monolithic rock.

A New Proto-Aeolic Capital

The recently announced proto-aeolic capital, associated with the ‘Ain Joweizeh water system, is the first ever found still attached to its base. Originally identified as a lintel in a 1982 survey of the water tunnel, the hewn proto-aeolic decoration is part of a massive, partially buried rock that likely weighs several tons, suggesting that it hasn’t moved far from its original location. The decorations—which are undoubtedly carved in the proto-aeolic style—are actually part of a monolithic rock that may have been part of a monumental entranceway.

In terms of style, the proto-aeolic decoration is most similar to examples from nearby Ramat Rahel and the City of David, but parallels can also be drawn between the capital and examples from Moabite el-Mudeibi‘ and Cypriote Tamassos.

Proto aeolic 2

Proto-aeolic capitals have rarely been discovered in situ, and despite the name, there is little evidence that the capitals sat atop columns as architectural elements. This new find is carved from a monolithic rock--while still attached to its base, it is not part of a traditional column. Photo courtesy Binyamin Tropper.

Reconstruction 1

The Hadashot Arkheologiyot report by Daniel Ein-Mor featured the following reconstruction of the partially exposed rock featuring the proto-aeolic element. This may have formed a monumental entrance to the water system or reservoir, along with another nearby--but unexcavated--monolith. IAA:

The capital sits in a “seam” (to borrow a phrase from Daniel Ein-Mor’s Hadashot Arkheologiyot report) between an earlier and later phase of the water tunnel’s construction. It sits across from another unexcavated massive stone monolith. One likely possibility is that the capital marked an entrance to the water system after the first phase of construction. If this marks an entrance, there is good reason to believe that the nearby-but-unexcavated stone across from the proto-aeolic capital may be another capital, and the two together framed a monumental entrance to the tunnel or the system’s reservoir.