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Archaeology in Israel: The Shoham Bypass Site

The Site and its Investigation

The site was discovered while preparing the area for paving Highway 444, which bypasses the city of Shoham from the east (map ref. – 1455/1556), and was exposed in a salvage excavation conducted by the Antiquities Authority during 1995-1996.

The Excavation Results

Stratum VII – the end of the Iron Age and the Persian period.

A meager settlement of which a few sections of walls have survived on the southwestern side of the site. These remains are insufficient in reconstructing the plan and scope of the settlement. A ceramic figurine of a woman and a few pottery sherds from these periods were found in the lower levels of fill throughout the site.

Stratum VII – the Hellenistic period, the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.

In the northern part of the site three fortified buildings were exposed that were constructed along a north south axis. Building No. 1 is the most luxurious of them. The outer face of its thick walls is built with header-stretchers utilizing large ashlar stones with drafted margins and prominent bosses, reflecting the best of the Hellenistic building tradition. Building No. 2 measures 15 x 15 m and is also built of large ashlars, but without drafted margins.

In the southern part of the site a farmstead extending across an area of c. 2.5 dunams was exposed and included buildings, agricultural installations and water cisterns. This was probably a fortified farmstead of the type known from the northern part of the Judean Shephelah in the Hellenistic period, prior to the time of Hasmonean rule.

Stratum VI – the Hasmonean period.

In the northern part of the site a well-fortified citadel (c. 48 x 60 m) enclosed by a casemate wall was exposed. The walls range between 1.0-1.6 m in thickness and the outer and inner walls of the casemates are c. 5 m apart. Many stones with coarsely drafted margins were plundered from the farmstead buildings of Stratum VI and were incorporated in the construction of the casemate walls. The citadel’s main opening was probably in the center of the western wall, from which extended a narrow street that opened onto the main courtyard of the citadel. A drainage channel is located below the street level. Another opening that was reached by way of a staircase was located in the middle of the southern wall.

The casemate rooms were used for storage. Numerous underground complexes and water cisterns were exposed inside the citadel. The finds included many coins dating to the Hasmonean dynasty.

Stratum V – the 1st century CE until the Bar Kokhba Revolt

The Hasmonean walls were renovated in the Herodian period and many residential structures were added both inside and outside the walls. Two Roman-type bathhouses were incorporated inside the casemate walls, one next to the northern wall and the other next to the middle of the eastern wall. Four ritual baths (miqve) of different types were constructed and hewn in the area of the fortified residential quarters and near the agricultural installations that were built in the southern part of the site during this period. Southwest of the citadel a small and unique miqve was built that was preserved in its entirety, including its stopper and drain, and south of it another miqve was completely exposed that was installed inside a cave.

A fortified structure built of large ashlar stones that was probably a tower was discovered next to the southeastern corner of the citadel and further to the southeast an oil press was exposed. The press’ crushing unit and pressing installation, which was operated by means of a beam and stone weights, were preserved. A cave was discovered near the oil press and in it were different installations that were used for storing jars.

The small finds include numerous pottery and glass vessels and a few metal objects that are characteristic of the Herodian period. The preparations that were made prior to the Bar Kokhba uprising are clearly visible in this stratum: water cisterns and storage caves were adapted for use as refuge complexes and numerous subterranean silos were also hewn in order to store food. Southern lamps, which are characteristic of the period of the Bar Kokhba uprising, were found in the refuge complexes. The bones of more than 20 individuals were discovered in one of the refuge complexes; half of them belonged to women and children under the age of 15.

The site was abandoned following the revolt and during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE there was only a meager presence there.

Stratum IV – the Byzantine and Umayyad periods

By the end of the 5th century CE a large settlement (perhaps a monastery) was built on the site, on top of the ruins of the Hasmonean citadel and the Roman period settlement. The new settlement extended to the east and west, beyond the boundaries of the earlier site. The eastern end of a large building that was excavated by Alexander Onn and Hagit Torgë was exposed southwest of the citadel. (That structure will not be described in this article).

In the southeast of the site a basilica church was constructed that included a narthex and atrium. The nave and northern aisle of the church were paved with colored mosaics. The church has a single exterior apse in the front of which was built a bema demarcated by a marble chancel screen. Two or three steps led from the nave to the bema. Ancillary rooms were built north of the basilica. A marble reliquary cover was discovered in the church and in the atrium was a fragment of a marble basin bearing the inscription: ?tte? s?te??a? which means “for the sake of His salvation…” and several fragments of small marble columns decorated with a mensa sacra or ambo. A complete bronze incense burner was discovered on the steps ascending from the atrium to the narthex.

A crypt was excavated below the paving stones, in the middle of the atrium; this is the only crypt to have been discovered in the country beneath the atrium of the church. Six tall steps lead to a low opening accessing a rock-cut and plastered room measuring 3 x 3 m. The room includes an area for standing flanked on three sides by hewn arcosolia. Also discovered in the crypt were more than one hundred skeletons that were placed one atop the other in primary burial; the upper part of the pile of skeletons was burnt. Funerary offerings that include ceramic lamps, three glass bottles, a glass thimble and metal objects that date to the beginning of the 7th century CE were discovered amongst the skeletons.

The church continued to be used in the Umayyad period, at which time its plan was modified and it was enlarged. At the beginning of the period the two rooms situated north of the basilica’s northern aisle were joined to create a chapel with a square shaped apse. A stylized cross is depicted in the mosaic that decorated the chapel’s bema. Another smaller cross is depicted in the mosaic below the mensa sacra.

The economy of the settlement was based on agriculture and on farm related labor. A winepress and three oil presses were exposed. The oil press that was located west of the Hasmonean citadel was preserved almost in its entirety. It includes a crushing installation and two pressing units that were operated by means of a screw. The two screw weights are in excess of one meter in diameter and stand c. 1.4 m high. Just to the east of the oil press an elongated hall paved with a coarse white mosaic that was probably used for storing jars of oil was exposed. Two plastered collecting vats were installed in the floor of the hall.

The oil press also continued to exist in the Abbasid period (Stratum III).

The small finds recovered in this stratum include a body fragment of a ceramic vessel bearing a rare stamped impression of a winged angel grasping a cross in its hand. Also discovered were two hoards of gold coins that were buried inside small ceramic juglets below the pavement in the northwestern room at the site. It seems that the Christian residents of the site were apprehensive because of the Arab conquest, since most of the coins are those of the emperor Heraclius – the last Byzantine emperor to rule the country prior to the Muslim invasion.

Stratum III – the Abbasid period

The settlement continued to exist and even flourished during the Abbasid period; however, numerous changes were made. Niches, courtyards and streets were blocked off and new buildings were constructed along the fringes of the settlement. The residential buildings of this stratum were covered with domes borne atop four interior pillars. At some point in the Abbasid period the chapel’s mensa sacra was removed and in its place a baptismal font was built. It seems that the church ceased to be used only at the end of the period, when it was destroyed by a fire.

The settlement was abandoned in the 10th century CE.

Stratum II – the 11th century CE

A meager occupation existed mainly in the center of the site. Openings and passages were sealed and walls were built on top of the collapse; tabun were built on the tops of walls. Lime kilns in which limestone and marble were burnt were also built along the edge of the site. It seems that the residents of this stratum were Muslim based on the Arabic inscriptions that were discovered on lamps and pottery and based on the absence of pig bones from the assemblage of animal bones of the period.

This stratum ceased to exist in the 12th century CE.

Stratum I – the surface level

The surface level stratum was damaged in the beginning of the 1960’s when earthmoving works were carried out at the site by the Jewish National Fund. The mechanical equipment destroyed the upper part of the site and damaged the mosaics, walls and floors.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry