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Archaeology in Israel: Khirbet Tinshemet

The Site and its Research

The site was discovered in 1986 after a section of a mosaic pavement was exposed and damaged. Y. Porat surveyed the site and declared it a protected antiquities site. In 1995 a salvage excavation was conducted on behalf of the Antiquities Authority at the site (map reference 1462-1563), located c. 300 m southwest of Horvat Tinshemet (Sheikh ‘Ali Malikina; Khirbet esh-Shamiya). Horvat Tinshemet was previously surveyed by V. Guérin but was never excavated; based on Clermont-Ganneau we propose identifying Horvat Tinshemet with Betomelgezis, which appears on the Madaba Map.

The excavation uncovered a basilical church dedicated to Saint Bacchus consisting of an atrium in the west, a staircase leading to the narthex and a square church that includes a nave, two aisles and an apse. Along the northern side of the atrium is an open compound with an oil press, water cistern and anteroom leading to the atrium. Some 20 m northeast of the church is a rock-cut pool surrounded by three arcosolia.

The Excavation Results

The church faces east (along an azimuth of 85°) and is 27 m long by 11.7 m wide (excluding the oil press). It was built of large, very smooth ashlars of soft limestone. Although the workmanship was of good quality, in some places the foundation was not secured in the bedrock. The roof of the church was born atop wooden gables and was covered with ceramic tiles.

The Atrium

The atrium is 9 x 10 m. The main entrance into it was in the middle of the western wall and there was another entrance by way of the oil press in the eastern corner of the northern wall. The floor was paved with a crude white mosaic pavement (9-12 tesserae per sq dm) with a round medallion (diam. 1.26 m) in its center in which there is a cross made of red tesserae. Inside the medallion, on either side of the upper part of the cross, appears the Greek inscription ?G??S (holy) and on either side of the lower part is another word that cannot be deciphered.

On the eastern side were four steps, arranged in an inverted ‘U’ that led to the church’s narthex. The steps probably had a railing on the north and south. At the foot of the steps was a dedicatory inscription to Bacchus.

The Narthex

Its inner dimensions are 2.8 x 10.3 m. The entrance from the atrium to the narthex was by way of a single opening in the middle of the western wall. The narthex is paved with a colorful mosaic made of small tesserae (56 tesserae per sq dm) of which only the eastern part of the frame has survived.

The Church

The inner dimensions of the church were 10.35 x 10.35 m, not including the apse which protruded to the east. The church was divided into a nave 4.76 m wide, a 0.60 m wide space on either side of the columns and two aisles that were each 2.2 m wide. In the eastern part of the nave was a bema that was separated from the hall and the aisles by a marble chancel screen of which only the foundation course was preserved. A large amount of mosaic debris was found in the base of the bema indicating that the tesserae were cut on site. A marble altar 0.60 x 0.64 m was found at the front of the apse. In the middle of the altar is a round depression with a small hole in its center. In the four corners of the depression are iron nails that were probably meant to support a small ciborium that was intended to enhance the sanctity of the relics that were placed in the reliquary below the center of the altar. (A fragment of the marble reliquary lid was discovered).

The Mosaics

The church is paved with a delicate mosaic (110-120 tesserae per sq dm) decorated with geometric and floral motifs in black, white, red (brick color), orange and ocher (mustard).

The northern aisle, which is preserved in its entirety, is paved with a pattern of squares, rhombuses, and hexagons enclosed within a double frame. On the western side of the aisle is a tabula ansata in which a large decorated cross is depicted. In the entrance to the aisle is a depression for draining water used when cleaning the mosaic.

Only the eastern section of the floor in the southern aisle was preserved and it is decorated with interlacing circular medallions, arranged in two rows containing different geometric motifs and large crosses. A rhombus with concave sides and a square in the center was placed between every group of four medallions. This mosaic is also enclosed within a double frame.

The intercolumniations are decorated with a scale design that extends from the columns out toward the space between them; they converge midway between every two sets of columns. Three columns were built on each side.

The mosaic in the nave was preserved mainly on its northern side and was decorated with two colorful carpets consisting of a pattern of a circle within a square. The two carpets are bordered by a frame of alternating squares and rectangles in which there are round and rhombic medallions embellished with a wealth of motifs and colors.

The eastern carpet is the larger of the two and its center is located in the exact center of the church. The carpet (diam. 3.5 m) is decorated with interlacing circles of different sizes. In the northwestern corner of the carpet’s border is an amphora from which tendrils issue to either side. In the northeastern corner is a geometric design. These two patterns probably repeat themselves in the two opposite corners that have not survived.

The western carpet (diam. 2.25 m) is also decorated with a circle within a square design and it is bordered by two bands of round and rhombic medallions. In the middle of the carpet is a Greek inscription: the inscription begins with a cross and means: “This place is sacred to the Lord Jesus”. Surrounding the inscription is a colorful and crowded rhomboid design that can be viewed as concentric circles or as rays shining outward from the inscription.

The apse (diam. 3.9 m) was paved with a colorful mosaic consisting of a central triangle emitting rays eastward. The western part of the mosaic is decorated with intertwined square medallions containing interlacing circles.

Oil Press

The oil press (11.5 x 10.6 m) is built next to the northern side of the atrium and is an integral part of the church complex. It is oriented along an east west axis and consists of four rooms and a water cistern. The entrance, in the northern wall of the oil press, led to an elongated room, paved with stone slabs. This room has two doorways: one to the east leading to the anteroom of the atrium, and the other west – to the main room of the complex – to the pressing room of the olive press. A rock cut bell-shaped water cistern, which is located where the three rooms met, was treated with two layers of hydraulic plaster; its capstone was hewn from a single block of stone. Water could be drawn from both the anteroom and the pressing room. Part of the crushing basin (yam) was discovered in the pressing room (3.4 x 7.5m) whose floor was made of crushed chalk.

The pressing installation was located in the western room (3.3 x 9.0 m). The oil press was operated by means of a beam (length c. 7.5 m) and two wooden screws positioned one behind the other which two heavy stone weights were attached to (each weighing c. 4 tons). The collecting vat was hewn in the bedrock next to the surface where the bales of olive pulp were placed.

Pressing installations with two screw weights activated by a single beam are widespread in this geographic region from the sixth to the eighth century CE.

The Finds

The finds at the site included fragments of pottery and glass vessels from the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. The fragments of window panes indicate that the church was illuminated by means of a clerestory. The finds also included a number of metal objects among them an iron needle, bronze oil ladle and coins dating from the fourth to the eighth centuries CE. In addition limestone and basalt basins, numerous chancel screen fragments, a marble altar, the fragment of a reliquary lid, different kinds of shells and a bone button were recovered.

The Medallion of Tyche the Goddess

An extraordinarily unique find is the round medallion (diam. 0.67m, 5.5 cm thick) made of marble that was hewn in western Asia Minor (from one of the quarries at Apion, Aphrodisias or Ephesus), parts of it were discovered scattered in the church and in the oil press. The image of the goddess Tyche (Fortuna) is carved in the medallion; she is wearing a turreted crown with three towers and a gate in the middle and five different strands of necklaces (two strands on the neck over the dress and three on the chest); her hair is gathered at the back and she is wearing long earrings. The Tyche is grasping a cornucopia in her left hand and in her right hand, adorned with three bracelets, she holds a scepter with a rounded head. The medallion is bordered by a frame with two inscriptions that begin and end with a cross. The upper inscription, which was only partially preserved, mentions a governor (?) named Stephanos, son of Theodorus. The name is probably that of the governor during whose tenure the medallion was donated to the church. The lower inscription is complete and reads “In the month of Xanticos (April) of the year 645”. The date is probably based on the Pompeian calendar and corresponds to the year 582-3CE, that is, the reign of the Emperor Tiberius II or Mauricius.

This Byzantine Tyche is unique and there are no marble parallels to it in Byzantine art. The closest parallels to it are found in the mosaics at Beth Shean (BAR XVI, No. 4, 1990 p. 30), in Hypolitus House and in the Burnt House at Madaba (M. Piccirillo, The Mosaics of Jordan, 1993, pp. 23-26, 52-60) and in the ivory diptychon portraying the Tyches of Rome and Constantinople. The city goddesses also appear in a few other Byzantine artistic compositions (K. Weitzmann, Age of Spirituality, 1979, pp. 142-143, 173-178).


Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry