The Burnt House is believed to have been set on fire during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. According to Josephus, Jerusalem's Upper City was known for its wealth. It was located close to the Temple and inhabited by priestly families who served in the temple. The house was destroyed one month after the Temple and Lower City. When the Romans stormed the Upper City, they found little resistance: Much of the population was near death from disease and starvation.
Following the Six-Day War the Jewish quarter was rebuilt, and extensive archeological excavations were conducted in the area. The excavations were carried out from 1969 to 1982 under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Israel Exploration Society and the Israel Department of Antiquities (today, the Israel Antiquities Authority). The excavations were headed by Dr. Nahman Avigad, and in 1970 one of the findings was The Burnt House which was found under a layer of ashes and destruction, indicating that the house had been burned down.
The house is only part of a large complex, which could not be fully excavated and still lies under the Jewish Quarter. Coins were found in the house issued by the Roman governors of Judea, as well as those issued by the Jewish rebels in AD 67–69 and none that were later than that, indicating that the house was burned down at the end of this time. The ground floor of the Burnt House was exposed to reveal a house with an area of about 55 (32 ft) square. It included a small courtyard, four rooms, a kitchen and a Mikvah. The walls of the house, built of stones and cement and covered with a thick white plaster, were preserved to a height of about one meter. In the beaten-earth floors of the rooms were the sunken bases of round ovens made of brown clay, indicating perhaps that this wing of the house was used as a workshop.
The courtyard of the house was paved with stone, and through it one reached the kitchen and the other rooms. Three of these were medium-sized and a fourth, a side room, extremely small. The very small mikvah is covered with gray plaster and has four steps descending to its bottom. In the corner of the kitchen was a stove, basalt grinding-stones next to it, and a large stone tray. Several stone jars were also found in the kitchen. The occupants probably used the heavy stone kitchenware, rather than pottery, because according to Halacha they do not contract ritual impurity. This suggests the occupants were a priestly family, who had to maintain their cleanness in order to work at the temple. This is also indicated by the presence of the Mikvah.
Throughout the house are stones burnt by an intense fire, scorched wooden beams and layers of ash and soot that testify to the huge fire that raged here. Its walls and wood-beamed ceilings collapsed in a conflagration, sealing an abundance of diverse objects in its rooms. And scattered in disarray among the collapsed walls, ceilings and the second story, were fragments of stone tables and many ceramic, stone and metal vessels, iron nails found in the ruins are all that was left of the wooden roof, the shelves and furnishings which were completely burnt.
Also found were inkwells, Roman-period oil lamps that were used to light up the house during the evenings, and other household items, the large jugs, bowls and measuring cups, indicating that this was a perfume production workshop, and a covered drainage channel from the Roman period. According to the historian Josephus, some of the last Jewish rebels to hold out against the Romans hid in tunnels such as this.
In the room identified as the kitchen, the forearm bones from the finger tip to the elbow joint of a woman approximately 25 years old. Since the bone is almost certainly that of a Jewish woman, it was buried in accordance with Jewish law, but pictures are on display. Leaning against a corner of another room was an iron spear, which may have belonged to one of the Jewish fighters who lived here.
Also found in the house were a round stone weight, 10 cm in diameter, on it, in square Aramaic script was the Hebrew inscription (of) “Bar Kathros”, meaning the “son of Kathros,” this indicating that the house belonged to the Kathros family.
According to the Talmud, the Kathros family was a priestly family that had abused its position in the Temple. The Talmud describes them in Pesahim 57A in a poem that lists the priestly families that abused their positions in the temple as follows:
Abba Saul ben Batnith in the name of Abba Joseph ben Hanin said:
"Woe is me on account of the house of Baithos, woe is me on account of their rods
Woe is me through the house of Hanin and through their calumniesfor they were all high-priests, their sons were the treasurers,
Woe is me through the “house of Kathros” and through their pens
Woe is me on account of the house of Ishmael ben Piakhi and of their fists,
their sons-in-law were the chamberlains,
and their servants would beat us with rods.”
The attack for misusing their pens may mean they spread false rumors or misinformation. Although someone may have carried this weight from another house, the Bar Kathros family certainly had a house in Jerusalem, given their priestly position, and this one is a good candidate.
The excavated house is open to the public, and its artifacts are on display in the small museum near the room. The 12-minute audio-visual presentation, set up inside the house, plays back the nearly 2000 year-old events: the preparations of the revolt against the Romans, the different political opinions of the family members, news on the approaching Roman Legions, the destruction of the temple, the storming of both the city and the house, then ending with the torching of the house.
- Geva, Hillel (2010). "Stratigraphy and Architecture". Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem IV. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society. pp. 1–90. ISBN 978-965-221-080-7.
- Geva, Hillel (2010). "Stone Artifacts". Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem IV. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society. pp. 154–212. ISBN 978-965-221-080-7.
- Arensburg, Barush (2010). "Analysis of Human Forearm Bones". In Geva, Hillel. Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem IV. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society. pp. 288–289. ISBN 978-965-221-080-7.
- Wohl Archaeological Museum and Burnt House, Jerusalem
- Jerusalem - The Upper City during the Second Temple Period
- Jewish Virtual Library: The Burnt House
- Frommers: The Old City