A project that aims to increase access for disabled people to Jerusalem’s Western Wall has turned into an extensive archaeological excavation into the ancient city’s history.

Archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem say they have made numerous discoveries at the site of a new lift installation, including an ornate first-century villa with its own attached ritual bath a stone’s throw from where the biblical Temple stood.

Also found were Ottoman pipes built into a 2,000-year-old aqueduct that supplied the city with water, early Islamic oil lamps and bricks stamped with the name of a late Roman legion.

The Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews can pray and millions of worshipers and tourists visit it each year.

The site of a Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, left, discovered near the Western Wall in the Old City of JerusalemThe site of a Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, left, discovered near the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

But to get to the site from the adjacent Jewish Quarter, visitors typically have to descend 142 steps, or take a long detour around the city walls to one of the nearby gates.

In 2017, the Jewish Quarter Reconstruction and Development Company got permission to begin construction of two elevators to let visitors make the 85-foot descent with greater ease.

The location was a narrow sliver of largely undeveloped slope abutting the existing staircase on the eastern edge of the Jewish Quarter.

“The Western Wall is not a privilege, it’s elemental for a Jew or for any person from around the world who wants to come to this holy place,” said Herzl Ben Ari, CEO of the development group.

“We have to enable it for everybody.”

However, like modern development projects in other ancient cities, such as Istanbul, Rome, Athens and Thessaloniki, archaeological finds slowed progress to a crawl.

Clay oil lamps from the Islamic periodClay oil lamps from the Islamic period (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

“This plot of land where the elevator is going to be built remained undisturbed, giving us the great opportunity of digging through all the strata, all the layers of ancient Jerusalem,” said Michal Haber, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Five years into the undertaking, the archaeological work is nearing completion, but the elevators are only expected to be brought online in 2025.

During their dig, the archaeologists carefully peeled back successive layers of construction and debris that had accumulated over two millennia, over 30 feet in total.

Archaeologist Oren Gutfeld said they were surprised to uncover traces from Jerusalem’s reconstruction as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina in the second century.

Fragments of frescoes and intricate mosaics from the villa indicated the wealth of the home’s occupants.

But upon reaching bedrock, Mr Gutfeld and Ms Haber’s team made one last find: a private Jewish ritual bath hewn into the limestone mountainside and vaulted with enormous dressed stones.

Hebrew University archaeologists Michal Haber, left, and Dr Oren Gutfeld pack up a vessel and other items they discovered at the siteHebrew University archaeologists Michal Haber, left, and Dr Oren Gutfeld pack up a vessel and other items they discovered at the site (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Ms Haber said the most significant thing about the bath, known as a mikveh, was its location overlooking the Temple esplanade.

“We are in the wealthy neighbourhood of the city on the eve of its destruction,” she said.

While the elevator project is less contentious, development or archaeology excavations in Jerusalem, a city holy to three faiths, often take on a political dimension.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state and Israel views the entire city as its eternal, undivided capital.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and holy sites to Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the 1967 war.

It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move unrecognised by most of the international community.