The rescue mission to lift out some 100 Second Temple-era vessels from an underground cistern was well under way when The Times of Israel visited the Khirbet Kafr Murr excavation in today’s Beit El settlement, during the first week of November.
Stashed there by Jewish villagers just ahead of the Revolt against the Romans in circa 66 CE, the unexpected collection of pottery jars and cooking pots has survived almost 2,000 years of winters. Now, as the plastered walls are seeping water during the season’s first (much awaited) rains, they are being transferred to drier ground by a team of archaeologists working against the dual threats of nature and construction.
Excavation director Yevgeny Aharonovich, a member of the Ministry of Defense’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) archaeology unit, met this journalist at the excavation site in a newly planned neighborhood of Beit El while flanked by a member of the COGAT spokesperson’s office — a required attaché for media visits in the sensitive West Bank.
Affectionately called “Abu Tomer” by the majority Arabic-speaking laborers, Aharonovich has led sporadic excavations at the site since 2006. For the past two years, he has worked here intensively, keeping time with the construction of a neighborhood of high-rise apartment towers upon “released” land, where his team has finished its documentation and preservation work.
The excavation’s recent discovery of the trove in the water cistern, Aharonovich says, was a complete surprise. As the fill dirt was removed, dozens of intact or nearly intact jars were found stacked neatly together in niches in the cistern. The Jews clearly expected to return for them almost two millennia ago.
“It was a one-time only experience,” he says. “Definitely a high point of the excavation so far.”
Aharonovich has added more archaeological staff to complete the rescue mission and they are buzzing around the opening of the cistern. The pit’s mouth is protected by an olive green IDF tent, while a mechanical air pump’s large pipe injects fresh air inside. An aluminum ladder lets the team go below, while a tripod-held pulley allows them to lift out artifact-laden buckets.
After cups of thick coffee and equally dense historical background, we descend the slick, mud-crusted rungs to find a team of archaeologists feverishly working in relative darkness. Our shoes make suction sounds on the earth as we move, careful not to step on fragile vessels being packed away or trip over (dead) power cables. The electricity had just cut out, we are told, so we all use our ubiquitous phone flashlights to peer around the dank pit. An unfazed archaeologist sits in a corner, cataloguing finds on a ghoulishly lit laptop.
The rains have turned the cistern’s fine dusty dirt to mud and the excavation is inevitably slowed, even as the pressure to remove the objects ramps up with more rain in the forecast. A concerned Aharonovich calmly directs his team, even while feeding information to this journalist. He wants to wrap things up here. Winter is coming.
Later, as parts of his team pray along to the faint strains of a muezzin from a nearby Arab village, Aharonovich explains that he has led nine seasons of excavations here, as the settlement has expanded.
Despite the obvious investment taking place to document and preserve it, Khirbet Kafr Murr is not a classically “important” site: The archaeological surveys and excavations point to a small agricultural settlement spanning from the 8th century BCE to 749 CE. At its peak during the Jewish Revolt against the Romans, a few 100 Jews would have taken a final stand here. Today, just one of the many towering apartment buildings encroaching upon the excavation site holds many more.
As with every salvage excavation, the question looms over how much will be done to preserve and present the findings for the public. And while concrete plans are discussed in the local regional council and COGAT to establish a modest archaeological park in the heart of the new neighborhood, other sections have already been documented, carefully covered, and are now buried under the cement foundations of the new apartment towers.
Archaeologist Aharonovich’s personal history is enmeshed into Khirbet Kafr Murr in an “Only in Israel” way: The fit 50-something immigrated from the Former Soviet Union in 1990, and it was here that he went through IDF basic training in 1992, at the famed Bahad 4 training base.
At the time of Aharonovich’s brief IDF service (he had already served in the Soviet army), he says there was little hint of the archaeology that lay under the asphalt surface of the base’s parade grounds. Pointing to a flat, dark patch, Aharonovich explains that before this was an IDF base, it was a Jordanian base. Both countries made use of a base established by the British Mandate, which had bulldozed the site and paved it over — destroying countless artifacts and ancient architecture.
It was only after the IDF left the scene in 1995 and civilians began building that the archaeological remains truly started to surface.
Today’s attraction — the water cistern and its pottery treasures — were found under the remains of a Second Temple-period stone house. Another earlier archaeological highlight was the discovery of a mikveh (ritual bath) which also would have been under a house.
Aharonovich says that when the Israeli Jews began resettling the area after the IDF’s retreat, a temporary mobile home housing a family had sat on top of the mikveh. He tracked the family down to show them the ancient mikveh that had been under their feet.
Today, he says, the family awaits the end of his exploration of the past so that their future — their new home — can be built in another planned high-rise.
Rise and fall
Khirbet Kafr Murr is found at the top of a hilly area in today’s Beit El settlement, north-east of the Palestinian Authority’s stronghold of Ramallah. At its height just prior to the Jewish Revolt and the Roman conquest of circa 70 CE, Aharonovich estimates it spread over 20 dunams (5 acres) with some 100 residents.
The location is just off main Roman connecting roads — not a main intersection, Aharonovich laughs, but maybe the next junction down the road.
The site was documented in early superficial archaeological surveys — in 1838, 1869, by the British prior to building their army base (later used by the Jordanians). After 1967 it was turned into the IDF army training base Bahad 4, which at its height housed 2,000 soldiers. In the 1980s, when still an IDF base, Prof. Israel Finkelstein completed a quick visual survey, but due to the crowded army structures, concluded there was no salvageable archaeology.
Years after the army base was moved in 1995 to its present location near the Gaza border, nine seasons of salvage excavations began in 2006 ahead of the urban spread of the West Bank settlement. Archaeologists discovered that while the Khirbet Kafr Murr settlement was at its height just ahead of the Jewish Revolt, it had ongoing roots stemming from the 8th century BCE, although it had been briefly abandoned following the Maccabean Revolt.
It was conquered by the Romans before the end of the third year of the Jewish Revolt despite the settlement’s best efforts: Coins dating up through the third year of the Jewish Revolt — but not beyond — testify to the end of settlement.
The team has also found stone cups — used during the Second Temple era for their innate purity — and glass artifacts, he says. Only two mikvaot or ritual baths have been discovered, one of which is already covered by an apartment tower, as well as a pottery center and industrial production of olive oil and wine.
An impressively large, rather amateurly built defensive wall was constructed to protect the villagers. It cuts across a large olive press, which Aharonovich believes was put in place but unfinished ahead of the revolt.
We stand upon a portion of the excavated section of the defensive wall, which runs 32 meters (100 feet), with a width of between 2-2.8 meters (6.5-9 feet). It’s built of dressed stones from houses from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but the stones are chosen haphazardly.
The wall at Kafr Murr was built quickly, as an emergency measure, says Aharonovich, which is seen in the crooked walls and differently sized stone. According to Aharonovich, it is similar to the walls found at Gamla in the north and Yodfat in the lower Galilee which also faced the Romans during the revolt.
There are plenty of other indications of the Second Temple community’s imminent flight, including the dozens of orderly stacked jars discovered in the impromptu storage facility of the water cistern. Aharonovich says that inter-disciplinary residue analysis of the pottery is currently being undertaken at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The dank, humid conditions of the cistern have made it impossible to discern what was stored in the pots otherwise.
Other hi-tech analysis is being done at Bar-Ilan University on some of the hundreds of grape pips, found in an unusually deep wine press reserve that abuts the already built apartment towers. Aharonovich says the reservoir could have held up to four tonnes of grape juice.
Looking around the surrounding hills, it’s easy to imagine that vineyards were apparently plentiful here in Roman era when the settlement was connected to the “Gofna” region, a name based on the Hebrew word “gefen” or vine. (The village “Jafna,” mentioned by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, is 3.3 km north of Kafr Murrm where modern Gifna is today.)
With the grape pips’ analysis, there is some hope and a “rare opportunity” that ancient DNA can be extracted, and perhaps even the revitalization of ancient vine strains, says Aharonovich.
The early Byzantine settlement was much smaller than the previous Jewish one. At this later settlement’s center was a large refectorium, a surprising two-storied building which would have served for eating, and a rather small, poorly preserved church built in the basilica style. There is also what looks similar to a Roman bathhouse, which may have been used by pilgrims during their stay in the area, and a large dovecote.
The settlement was destroyed in the 749 CE earthquake that shook the entire region. Numerous finds point to the earthquake — from piles of shattered vessels, to an intact skeleton of a donkey, which was found next to an iron ring to which he was likely bound.
All told, the archaeological evidence uncovered at Khirbet Kafr Murr paints the picture of a small village that had several periods of growth, which were punctuated by violent conquest and natural destruction.
Even as the Jewish Beit El settlement expands in the heart of the West Bank, an envisioned archaeological park at the center of the new neighborhood, says Aharonovich, would preserve all of the settlement periods — Jewish, Christian and early Muslim.
Gazing at the tall construction cranes alongside the new apartment towers, one can only they think that perhaps this is no field of dreams. If they build an archaeology park, they, the residents, will surely come.
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