A salvage excavation ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood in the central Israel village of Tzur Natan has unearthed rare written evidence of much earlier occupation — 1,600 years earlier — when the agriculturally fertile area was racked by turmoil and rebellion.
Just outside an ancient wine press in the small southern Sharon Plain settlement, the Israel Antiquities Authority team discovered a well-preserved Greek inscription from the 5th century recording a blessing for one “Master Adios.”
According to Prof. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who deciphered the inscription, the short inscription reads, “Only God help the beautiful property of Master Adios, amen.”
Archaeological and historical evidence point to Adios as being a wealthy Samaritan landowner. Previous excavations at the site have also uncovered an ancient Samaritan synagogue that was converted into a church in the 6th century — just after the height of the Samaritan settlement in the region.
The current excavation, which ended this week, was conducted on behalf of the Israel Lands Authority and headed by Dr. Hagit Torge, who has dug there previously. In addition to the wine press and inscription, her team discovered “stone quarries with rock-cut depressions used for cultivating grapevines, apparently part of Master Adios’s estate,” according to the IAA press release.
“The inscription was discovered in an impressive winepress that was apparently part of the agricultural estate of a wealthy individual called Adios. This is only the second such winepress discovered in Israel with a blessing inscription associated with the Samaritans. The first was discovered a few years ago in Apollonia near Herzliya,” said Torge.
Master Adios would have been an elite member of the society, said Torge. “The location of the winepress is near the top of Tel Tzur Natan, where remains of a Samaritan synagogue were found with another inscription, and reveals Adios’ high status,” said Torge.
The current excavation adds insight into a previous well-documented one conducted by the Texas Foundation for Archaeological & Historical Research (TFAHR) Tzur Natan in 1989-1994. The TFAHR dig concentrated on a Samaritan agricultural-industrial complex, which was home to a donkey-mill for grinding wheat that the IAA release states was incised with a seven-branch candelabrum, and the aforementioned synagogue that was later converted into a Christian monastery and church. According to the detailed excavation report on Tzur Natan, there is ample evidence of agricultural activity in the region for millennia.
The erosion of the bedrock creates soil that is “especially good for vines and olives,” according to the report. Nearby is an ancient water source, the Springs of Dardar, which has aided the region’s continuous settlement since the pre-Neolithic period (see this 2007 excavation report) through the Ottoman era, during which the tomb of Sheikh Musharaf was constructed and other graves were dug around it (see the 2016 report). The current Tzur Natan settlement was founded in 1966 and is very close to the Green Line, or the de facto border with the West Bank.
Located a mere 18 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast, there was noted settlement activity at Tzur Natan during the Iron Age (10th-7th centuries BCE), in which two small villages were inhabited in the area and left remains of wine and olive presses. Later, during the Roman and Byzantine eras (2nd-5th centuries CE), the area was heavily cultivated. At that time some 120 wine presses, 50 olive presses, 50 cisterns and multitudes of agricultural terraces were noted in the region, according to the 1994 report.
“These groups were repeatedly found every 100-200 meters… It was thus concluded that in this period the settlement was inhabited by farmers who own their own land and cut their own installations into their individual plots,” states the 1994 report. And the people who settled this land, were the Samaritans, found the Texas team’s archaeologists.
According to TFAHR archaeologist and historian Dr. William J. Neidinger, the Samaritans’ historical origins are not completely clear. One school of thought says they were brought to the Land of Israel by the conquering Assyrians. Another portrays them as peoples living in Israel during the time of the Assyrian conquest, who intermarried with Israelites who were not expelled, and began to worship the same God in a slightly different manner.
The animosity between Jews and Samaritans is clear in the historical record, however, according to Neidinger. Few Samaritans participated in the Jewish Revolt against the Romans (which ended in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple), and none joined the Second Jewish Revolt (132-35). Following the second uprising, in fact, Samaritans often were granted or occupied land from which Jewish farmers were expelled.
The Samaritan community prospered through the 3rd and 4th centuries, until the rise of Christianity during the Byzantine era, which spelled the beginning of the end for the community. Today it only has a small foothold, at Mount Gerizim and in Holon.
After religious persecution and desecration of their holy sites, the Samaritan community embarked upon a series of rebellions that began in 415 CE and continued off and on until 636. According to Neidinger, the most serious rebellion was in 529, which is noted in the annals of the historian Procopius.
A rebellion, states Neidinger, requires capital as well as willing, armed men. That riddle was probed during the Texas team’s excavation at Tzur Natan, which gave insight to the potential wealth amassed by the Samaritan community, he wrote.
The newly discovered estate, wine press and inscription in praise of a wealthy lord, add a further layer of understanding to the Samaritan culture of this “rebellious era,” some 1,600 years ago.
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