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Ark of the Covenant Discovery, Part 3


The Excavation Begins

It was January 1979, when Ron and the boys returned to Jerusalem, and snow was on the ground. He now had to decide how and where to begin. The site he had pointed to was being used as a trash dump and appeared to hold very little promise to the human eye. It was located along this escarpment where the ground met the cliff-face. He had investigated the area adjacent to the escarpment and realized that the ground was raised to a much higher level today, which meant that the bedrock was many, many feet below the present ground level.

In the past, Jerusalem has been destroyed many, many times, and the customary method of rebuilding these ancient cities was to simply build on top of the destruction level. Today, the debris is removed before rebuilding, but not so back then. This is why archaeologists are able to find evidences of many cities which have existed on the same site - they simply excavate through each successive level down to the next until they reach bedrock - which indicates that they have reached the first city to be established on that particular site.

The site Ron was to excavate had a ground level many feet higher than the quarry floor to the south before the city wall. So he and the boys could do nothing but begin to dig straight down.

The original location that he had pointed to in 1978, contained an extremely large boulder just barely exposed above the surface, and Ron decided to begin digging several yards to the right. It was to be a job of mammoth proportions - these three, Ron, Danny and Ronny, would eventually remove many tons of rock and debris, having to sift through all of it for any artifacts. This was a requirement of the Department of Antiquities which they would always comply with.

Their First "Discovery"

They proceeded to dug straight down along the cliff face, forming a steep wall with the earth they had removed. Almost immediately, Ron noticed a "shelf-like" niche cut into the face of the cliff. Digging down further, he discovered there were three of these "niches" cut into the face of the cliff with a smaller one on the right side.

He was convinced that these were cut into the cliff-face to hold signs or notices. And because of the location- in the vicinity of the skull-face, and because there were three of these, he believed they were used to post the notices stating the crime of the crucifixion victim in three languages, Greek, Hebrew and Latin.

Roman Crucifixions

He had studied the available information on Roman crucifixions and had discovered that they used this form of punishment as a deterrent. The well-known quote of Quintillian explains:

    "Whenever we crucify criminals, very crowded highways are chosen, so that many shall see it and may be moved by fear of it, because all punishment does not pertain so much to revenge as to example."

Roman crucifixions consisted of three basic elements, all perfectly described in the account of the crucifixion of Christ - first, the scourging; then the carrying of the crossbeam by the condemned to the site; and finally the nailing or binding of the condemned to the cross-beam and then attaching this beam onto the upright post.

But another element was also involved. In order to be a deterrent, the CRIME of the victim had to be posted in clear sight of the passers-by. For this purpose, they used a titilus, which was a board covered with gypsum, inscribed with black letters. This was usually carried ahead of the victim on the way to the crucifixion, and then posted above the cross in clear sight. The common conception about Christ's crucifixion was that a single sign written by Pilate was nailed to His cross above His head.

This may very well have been, however, in order for the passers-by to be able to read these signs, written in three different languages, they would have been quite large, much larger than a small hand-written notice on paper.  Just recently we learned a great deal about the visibility of signs at our new museum. We put up signs that looked very large to us (six- and eight-inch letters), but when we placed them on our building and walked across the street, or even to the end of the parking lot, we discovered that they were very difficult to read. A sign written by Pilate on a piece of paper, nailed to a cross, would have been almost impossible to read even by those standing directly in front of the cross. Add to this the fact that in Jerusalem, three different languages were common (Hebrew, Greek and Latin) and it becomes apparent that the signs above Christ's head were much larger than we have commonly believed.

"Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews"

When Ron read and reread the accounts of these signs at Christ's crucifixion, he discovered that although they had been translated to read "ON the cross," the Greek could just as accurately have been translated "above the cross" or "over the cross."

    "And they crucified him,... 36 And sitting down they watched him there; 37 And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS." MAT 27:35

    "And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst. And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin."  JOHN 19:17-20

In the above quote from John it states that the "title" was put "on" the cross. The Greek word here translated to read "on" is "epi."  In Luke, this following verse also tells about the same "title," but here the word "epi" is translated to read "over:"

    "And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS."  LUKE 23:38

"Over" certainly could NOT be translated to read "on" in this above verse!  This same word, "epi," is also translated in other places to read "above."  Therefore, the Scriptures do not specifically state that the "title" was nailed onto the physical cross. All it states for sure is that the "title(s)" were placed "over," "above," "about," etc., the cross.  So with this understanding, and the information on Roman crucifixions and the titilus covered in gypsum and written in black ink that the Romans were known to use, Ron felt his conclusions were a possibility.  Little did he suspect how it would later be so incredibly confirmed.

When he first found the niches, he placed boards in them for demonstration purposes. Digging deeper, and showing that there were no more niches below these, he had signs painted in the three languages which they set up and photographed. He believed the much smaller niche was for the ever-present Roman eagle. But again, this wasn't the purpose of this excavation so they continued to dig.

In Danger of Collapse

As they continued to dig straight down, the cliff face was on one side, forming a solid wall. But on the other side, the earth wall began to exhibit signs of instability and Ron feared that it would soon collapse, perhaps burying them in the hole. He decided that they should move back along the cliff-face to the original site that he had pointed to. He dreaded it because of the huge boulder he had found just under the surface - but he felt he had no choice.

Back to the Original Site

Ron had felt justified in beginning the excavation several yards from the original site, because it was in the same general area. With the discovery of the niches, he was satisfied that it hadn't been a completely wasted effort - but still he had another purpose for this excavation.

As they began to dig around the huge boulder extending out from the original site, he discovered that there was enough room behind it (between it and the cliff-face) to begin their dig. As they began to dig downward, they very soon came upon another item of interest. Carved out of the cliff-face was a hole which extended through a section of protruding rock allowing a rope or similar object to be threaded through it. The great care obviously devoted to chiseling out this object indicated that it had an important use, but they would learn about that later.

The first site they had begun excavating was where the cliff-face was relatively vertical like a wall. Here, the cliff-face slanted inward, forming a "roof" over the place they were digging. As they dug down into the earth, they found open areas beneath the surface which contained a large amount of pottery shards, and even a few pieces still intact.

A Grain Storage Bin later Used as a Cistern

They reached bedrock 38 feet below the present ground surface. Carefully removing debris, they found themselves in an approximately 15 foot diameter round chamber carved out of the rock with steps chiseled into the shaft descending from the top in a spiral to the bottom.

At some point in time it had been modified and plastered, reused as a cistern. Either of these explanations would explain the presence of the "rope hole" chiseled in the cliff-face -- it was for the rope that held the bucket or jug which was lowered down into the shaft to retrieve grain or water. Ron chiseled through the plaster and found a large amount of pottery among the dirt and debris used as fill to form the cistern.

When he turned these pottery pieces in to the Israeli Antiquities and they examined them, they informed Ron that some of them date back to the Jebusite time (before David took the city). The latest dated specimens were from the Roman period, which tells us that the grain bin was plastered during Roman times.

As exciting as these discoveries were, again they weren't what Ron was looking for.

Tunneling Along the Cliff-Face

As they descended through the earth and debris, they were able to distinguish the Roman level because of the pottery and coins. Ron decided again that he needed to keep looking - that these things were not the object of his search. They covered up the circular shaft, careful to preserve everything, and began to tunnel under the present ground level along the cliff-face on the Roman level back in the direction of the first site they had begun to excavate. Ron was looking for an entrance into a cave or tunnel in the now underground cliff-face. But his next discovery was so gruesome that it still reflects in his face when he talks about it.

The Stoning Ground

The grain shaft/cistern was cut into the solid rock. When Ron began his tunnel back in the direction of the cut-out niches, he found that the rock floor abruptly ended about three to four feet from the edge of the shaft. Digging a three foot shaft straight down, he found a massive amount of fist-sized and larger rocks. As he sorted through them, he found several human bones, in particular some finger bones. He believed he knew what this represented- while it is common to find rocks in an excavation, it is NOT common to find them of this particular size in such a massive pile. It certainly wasn't a tomb -- and the disarticulated bones among the large rocks led Ron to only one conclusion -- this has been a stoning ground.

    "Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And CAST HIM [Stephen] OUT OF THE CITY, AND STONED HIM"  ACTS 6:57-58

A First Century Building

When Ron realized what he had found, he quickly climbed back up the shaft he had dug and he and the boys continued their tunnel back in the direction of the first site. Soon, they found the remains of a buried structure. This building was built directly adjacent to the cliff-face and a portion of the back wall extended along the actual face of the cliff. The foundations of the building were still in place.

As Ron studied the best preserved sections, he discovered a hewn stone extending out horizontally from the wall against the cliff face- his first impression was that it was an altar. It displayed smooth wear on top.

It was below and in front of this altar stone that Ron noticed a very unusual large rock. When he examined the rock closer, he saw that it was covered in travertine. Travertine is formed when underground acidified water seeps through pre-existing limestone and dissolves calcium carbonate; as this water containing calcium carbonate flows over objects and begins to evaporate or lose its carbon dioxide, this dissolved limestone is re-deposited in the form of stalactites and stalagmites, flowstone, etc. In this case, it was re-deposited in the form of a coating over the rock which can be clearly seen when examining the rock in person.

Ron thought this rock was much too symmetrical to be a natural-shaped rock, so he decided to pick it up and examine it more closely. When he lifted it, he discovered that it was covering a square-like hole chiseled into the bedrock.

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