University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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Where Did Jesus Bathe?
Jol’s Ground-Penetrating Surveys
Support Archeology Dig in Nazareth

 MAILED:  Nov. 24, 2003

EAU CLAIRE — The work of a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geographer and his student research assistants are helping to shore up the confidence of an American archeological excavator’s belief that they have found a Roman bathhouse from 2,000 years ago in the town where Jesus was raised.

Last summer Harry Jol, associate professor of geography, and Bryan Frenz, a geography major from Tomah, took their ground-penetrating radar equipment to Nazareth at the request of Richard Freund, who has been involved with important Holy Land digs at the ancient city of Bethsaida and Qumran in the Jordan Valley.

Freund, professor of Judaic Studies and director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, recently put aside his other excavation projects to concentrate on the Nazareth site near the Mary’s Well church because of its significance for archeology and for the knowledge of the life of Jesus.

The site is under a privately owned shop whose owners earlier unearthed a network of tunnels that Freund thinks might be the “bathhouse of Jesus.” The owners came to Freund because he had been working in Galilee for nearly two decades with the most sophisticated technology available in archeology and geography.

“Freund wants to find out if the bath is Roman or Byzantine,” Jol said. “If it’s Roman, then it needs to be excavated and preserved. It could be one of the sites recorded in the Bible.”

In the past decade, according to Freund, questions about the original site of Mary’s Well have arisen. There are discrepancies with sites previously thought to be the Roman period well where the Archangel Gabriel is said to have announced to Mary that she was to become a mother.

“The key to all of this is technology and a good hypothesis,” Freund writes in a recent article. “In the site of the coffee house in Nazareth, we have both, technology to see what is below the surface of the floor of the coffee house and a good hypothesis. Jesus and his family would have bathed and used a major well and bath house. Jewish purity laws of the first century would have caused them to seek out a ready source of water for their own bathing and drinking. A public well on the main road may have been connected to a larger water source, like a bath house, that in the Roman period might have had a Jewish ritual bath attached.”

Jol and Frenz, who will be a junior next semester, used ground penetrating radar to visualize the subsurface under the bathhouse excavated by the shop owner. Their goal was to see if there is something below to help determine if it’s worth excavating.

“We see dipping layers which could be the arch features of another bathhouse or they could be some kind of fill,” Jol said. The next step is to do some test probes to determine if what they’re seeing on radar are archeological features or just fill of some kind.

The use of ground penetrating radar in archeology is a fairly recent use of the technology, Jol said. “In the past archeologists would take educated guesses of where to dig,” he said. “GPR saves money and time. From a scientific point of view it’s very satisfying to use a technique you’ve developed to solve historical problems.”

Frenz, who recently made a presentation to the Wisconsin Geographic Society on the project, said working with Jol has inspired him to pursue a career in physical geography. “I never imagined I would be doing these things. My dream is to go on to graduate school and someday to become a professor of geography,” he said.

“This is where our university really excels,” Jol said. “With the support available for faculty student research collaboration from the Office of University Research, we are able to involve our students in these kinds of projects and give them hands-on research experience.”

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Updated: November 25, 2003