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Archaeology in Israel: List of Discoveries

(1999 - 2003) by Hillel Geva

Jerusalem – The Tomb of a Chained Anchorite

On a hill near the Jerusalem – Bethlehem road, a subterranean complex of cells dating to the Byzantine period, was uncovered in 1991. It was composed of a stepped entryway leading to an antechamber lined with masonry and containing eight rectangular niches, probably used for storing personal effects and books. The innermost cell (1.75 x 0.85m, 1.70 m. high) was also partly lined with masonry and had small niches with a ceramic bowl in each; a lamp-holder was suspended from the ceiling.

On the floor lay the skeleton of a 24-26 year-old ascetic; it was on its side, the legs bent sideways, and an iron chain wound four times around the pelvis and back and over the shoulders. The chain, with a total length of six meters, weighs six kilograms and is made of 50 mm.-long links.

The skeleton is that of a Christian recluse who chose to live as an anchorite in this subterranean cell. The wearing of heavy chains was an accepted way of mortifying the flesh, to prevent impure thoughts and ensure celibacy. The anchorite’s secluded habitation became his burial chamber and a round memorial structure, 9.4 m. in diameter, was later erected above it.


A mass grave was discovered in the remains of the Jewish city of Yodfat in the Galilee. Bones of at least 30 individuals were found in a water cistern, in which they had been deposited. The find provides vivid evidence of Josephus Flavius’ eye-witness account of the bloody battle that took place there in 67 CE, during the Jewish Revolt. He reported that at the end of the fighting the Jewish survivors committed suicide and that he himself surrendered to the Romans.

Tiberias – A Hoard of Metal Objects

Three large pottery jars of the Fatimid period (10th - 11th century) were uncovered in 1998 during excavations at the southern end of ancient Tiberias. The jars, hidden under the floor of a building, contained some 500 artifacts of bronze and copper, in an excellent state of preservation: candlesticks, lampstands, bowls, cups, ewers, bottles, small boxes, incense burners, oil lamps, bells and small sculpted birds and snakes. The objects were made in a variety of techniques of casting and hammering and some have intricate punched and engraved decorations and Arabic inscriptions.

This is the largest assemblage of metal artifacts from the Fatimid period found to date in Israel. Many coins with Christian symbols, from this period, were also found. This may indicate that the artifacts belonged to a Christian merchant or metal-smith. Why the treasure was hidden is not known, but it was probably related to the conquest of Tiberias by the Crusaders in 1099.

Pekiin: A Karstic Cave

A karstic cave near Pekiin in the Galilee was used for burials in the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE). The cave contains a large number of clay ossuaries (chests for storing human bones) with painted decorations, several of them representing human faces. They attest to a highly artistic society and provide evidence of the burial customs and the spiritual life of the Chalcolithic people.

Maresha: A Hellenistic Measuring Table

A unique Hellenistic measuring table, carved from a soft limestone block, was found in the remains of a second century shop. The tables front is decorated with lions heads and four funnels of unequal size are carved into its top; the capacity of each funnel is inscribed in Greek around the rim. A Greek inscription above the lions heads reads: Year 170 (of the Seleucid era = 143 BCE), agoranomoi (market inspectors), Antipatros son of [...]doros and Aristodomos son of Ariston[...]

The table was probably part of the official equipment used by inspectors to check the measuring tools for liquids, such as wine and oil, of the merchants of Maresha.

Kastra: An Ancient Bread Seal

A bread seal from the Late Roman-Byzantine period was found in excavations at Kastra. It bears the word Seventh and was probably used in the Shmitta (sabbatical) year. According to Halacha (Jewish religious law) the fields of the Land of Israel have to lie fallow every seventh year, and crops have to be specially handled.

An Early Islamic Fortress at Ashdot Yam

The fortress is located on the shoreline, some 30 km. south of Tel Aviv. It was excavated between the years 1997-1999.

The rectangular fortress (60x40 m.) is built of well-dressed kurkar stones bonded with mortar. The walls, preserved to a height of 8 m., are 2 m. thick and reinforced on the outside by a series of piers, 3-4 m. apart. Eight towers protect the fortress: the western towers, facing the sea, are square; the eastern towers are round. Two pairs of semi-circular towers guard the two gates leading into the citadel.

Vaulted rooms were built aong the walls of the central courtyard. A small bathhouse, consisting of a well, two bathtubs and a furnace for heating the water, is located in the northern part of the courtyard. In its center stood a small mosque (13x3 m.), its mihrab (prayer niche) facing Mecca.

This fortress was built during the Umayyad period (late 7th - early 8th century) to protect the southern coastline against marauders from the sea. It was in use until the Crusader period.

Church of John the Baptist

In July 1999, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that a sixth century Byzantine church dedicated to John the Baptist was discovered at the Tel a-Shakef dig in the Gaza Strip.

The Church, measuring 13x25 meters in area, is covered in marble floor tiles and multi-colored mosaics of geometric shapes and flora motifs, as well as three Greek inscriptions.

The site is located at a military installation in the northwest edge of the Gaza Strip, in an area under Israeli military and civilian control. The excavation is being conducted by the archeology officer for Judea and Samaria and the base commander, with the aid of the Employment Service as part of a public works project for the unemployed.

Two Engraved Bronze Plaques from Tel Dan

Fragments of two engraved bronze plaques, dated to the 9th century BCE, were recently found at Tel Dan in northern Israel. The fragments, each about 9 cm. in diameter, were discovered in a well-planned building of several rooms situated in a large paved courtyard outside the city walls of biblical Dan. The building was probably part of a hutzot, a market place outside the city walls; the term hutzot (Heb. lit. "outsides") appears several times in the Bible, e.g. I Kings 20:34.

On the right side of one plaque is a scene depicting a human figure (king?) with upraised arms, standing behind a table covered with cloth; on the left is a throne, probably of a god or goddess, and at top center is the royal symbol of the winged sun-disk. A bull is depicted in the lower part of the second plaque, with a human figure with outstretched arms standing on it; wings appear to spread from this figure - probably the depiction of a goddess; to the left stands another human figure with outstretched arms.

Many parallels of such scenes are known from Neo-Hittite art, which was widespread in the Aramean Kingdoms (northern Syria today) during this period.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Israel Information Center, Jerusalem 2003 No. 8

Hillel Geva studied archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, participated in excavations in the Jewish Quarter and the Citadel in Jerusalem, and is author of the entry "Jerusalem" in the New Encyclopedia of Archeological Excavations in the Holy Land and editor of Ancient Jerusalem Revealed.