Archaeologists excavating a construction site near the Ha’Ela Junction have uncovered a curious tale that entwines the fate of an ancient mikveh with that of two Australian soldiers who somehow ended up in the same spot in World War II.
The ancient ritual pool (“mikveh” in Hebrew) was recently uncovered at the Ha’Ela Junction during the routine excavations that are always carried out prior to construction in Israel, in this case to widen Highway 38.
Nearby, an enormous 1,700-year-old water cistern was also revealed, with graffiti scrawled on the ceiling of the reservoir, apparently by Australian soldiers during World War II.
The excavations are being carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority and are financed by the Netivei Israel Company, which is involved in the construction.
Yoav Tsur, IAA excavation director at the site, explained, “We exposed a mikveh in which there are five steps, with the fifth step being a bench where one could sit at the edge of the immersion pool.
“We found fragments of magnificent pottery vessels there, dating to the second century CE – among them lamps, red burnished vessels, a jug and cooking pots.
“Apparently the mikveh ceased to be used during the second century CE, perhaps in light of the Bar Kokhba revolt.
“A rock-hewn opening was exposed south of the mikveh, which appears to have been the entrance to a large water cistern. It seems that in an early phase it was a smaller reservoir and functioned as the “otzar) (water collection area) for the mikveh. When the mikveh ceased to be used, the cistern’s original cavity was increased to its current large dimensions and an extensive surface was built nearby, which facilitated drawing water.”
The archaeologists were also surprised to find during their excavations some graffiti engraved on the ceiling of the cistern, indicating that the site had been exposed at least until the 1940s.
Graffiti carved into ceiling of ancient cistern by Australian soldiers during World War II.
The inscriptions were read by Assaf Peretz, an archaeologist and historian with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who said that two English names were carved in the rock: Cpl Scarlett and Walsh.
“Next to the names are caved the initials RAE and two numbers: NX7792 and NX9168. The date 30/05/1940 appears below the graffiti.”
The IAA inquired with authorities who confirmed that the numbers engraved in the cistern were indeed serial numbers of two actual soldiers, and that RAE stands for Royal Australian Engineers.
A search in government archives revealed that Corporal Philip William Scarlett was born in Melbourne in 1918, was drafted into the army in 1939, survived the war and died in 1970, shortly before his fifty-second birthday.
His comrade, Patrick Raphael Walsh, was born in 1910 in Cowra, was drafted in 1939, survived the war and passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.
It seems the two were members of the Australian Sixth Division. They were stationed in the country at the time of the British Mandate and undergoing training prior to being sent into combat in France.
Because France surrendered before the troops were ready they were ultimately sent to Egypt in October 1940 where they fought at the front in the Western Desert.
The archaeologists added, “If the relatives of these people are acquainted with the story, we’ll be happy if they contact us and we’ll share with them the warm greetings left behind by Scarlett and Walsh.”
Tsur pointed out that the finds from the excavation tell an exciting tale indeed: they “allow us to reconstruct a double story – about the Jewish settlement in the second century CE, probably against the background of the events of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and another story no less fascinating, about a group of Australian soldiers who visited the [same] site c. 1,700 years later and left their mark there.”
Hana Levi Julian