Hands-on education as Israeli teens excavate 1,500-year-old Byzantine church
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Mosaic floor decorated with birds, leaves, pomegranates

Hands-on education as Israeli teens excavate 1,500-year-old Byzantine church

Ahead of Ramat Beit Shemesh expansion, discovery of wonderfully preserved compound that was 'swept under the carpet' by later Islamic-period agriculture

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Excavating the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Excavating the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Pillar found at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Pillar found at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Volunteers and students excavating the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Volunteers and students excavating the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Mosaic floor found at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Mosaic floor found at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Volunteers and students who excavated the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Volunteers and students who excavated the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Mosaic floor found at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Mosaic floor found at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists Naftali Isaac, Benyamin Storchan (center) and Aliza Van Zuiden at the site of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Byzantine monastery. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists Naftali Isaac, Benyamin Storchan (center) and Aliza Van Zuiden at the site of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Byzantine monastery. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Contrary to the statement in the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the world of Israeli archaeology there is much new under the sun — under the House of the Sun, the literal translation of the name of central Israel city Beit Shemesh, that is.

In the course of salvage excavations in the central Israel city of Beit Shemesh, archaeologists discovered a massive Byzantine-era church complex of unprecedented size and apparent wealth for the region. Used from circa 150 CE, it was abandoned during the 7th century and eventually used as farm land by early-Islamic period farmers.

Prior to routine test trenching ahead of planned construction during the expansion of the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, archaeologists “had absolutely no clue” that the compound lay beneath the surface, said Israel Antiquities Authority director of the excavations Benyamin Storchan on Wednesday.

As the archaeologists began uncovering massive stone walls, “we knew we had something big,” Storchan said, adding, “The smoking gun was when we uncovered the decorative mosaic floor.”

While the excavation is still in early stages, the site’s significance can be seen in its enormous size along with the presence of imported marble from Turkey. Hundreds of coins were uncovered, as were rare materials, such as glass, which were also used for decorations. Additionally, the structure had a surprisingly large number of windowpanes and ceramic roof tiles, which indicates its high status as a public building, Storchan said.

All of these riches were “swept under the carpet” and preserved when the structure was covered with earth by farmers who obliterated the Christian presence and went on to cultivate the land following the church’s abandonment, he said.

Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists Naftali Isaac, Benyamin Storchan (center) and Aliza Van Zuiden at the site of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Byzantine monastery. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Storchan’s ongoing dig, funded by the Construction and Housing Ministry and implemented by the CPM Corporation managed by Anatoly Snider, is being conducted with the help of over 1,000 teenagers.

For the past three years, the IAA has made a major effort “to make use of teenagers as the manual labor force,” said the US-born Storchan, half-jokingly. Since the current excavation began this summer, it has been “completely staffed by teens, groups from schools, volunteers, summer job kids and pre-army kids. They’ve done all the digging. I haven’t found anything, I’m just putting it together,” he laughed.

Unprecedented preservation

2015 construction in Ramat Beit Shemesh encroaching on the Ella Valley (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Storchan’s dig is being conducted ahead of a controversial Ramat Beit Shemesh expansion, which has been marked by clashes between ultra-Orthodox residents, developers and environmental groups, as well as archaeologists.

In 2013, the discovery of ancient Jewish graves and fear of their desecration led to violent protests in the city and Jerusalem. A fringe group of ultra-Orthodox extremists beat up Haredi businessman Aryeh Golobinzitz, one of the project’s managers, in his Jerusalem home.

Although they can slow the construction of the neighborhood, discoveries such as the 2014 find of an ancient Christian church and oil and wine presses a 10-minute walk to the west from Storchan’s site have been met with less controversy, and plans are underway to display the archaeology within the residential development.

Remains of what archaeologists believe is a Byzantine monastery found near Beit Shemesh. Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Excavation and research are ongoing at Storchan’s site, but preliminary findings are promising for future recognition of the site’s importance to the heritage of the Land of Israel.

“We were surprised by the wonderful state of preservation of the ancient remains, and the richness of the finds being uncovered. During the excavation, we uncovered before our eyes the remains of walls built of large worked stone masonry and a number of architectural elements including a marble pillar base decorated with crosses and marble window screens,” said Storchan in an IAA press release.

“The marble artifacts were brought from the region of Turkey and further inland by wagon. In one of the rooms we uncovered a beautiful mosaic floor decorated with birds, leafs, and pomegranates,” said Storchan.

Mosaic floor found at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A number of ancient churches and monasteries have been discovered in the Judean Shephelah region, including during the Ramat Beit Shemesh expansion. This compound is significant for its “outstanding preservation” and massive size.

“The artifacts found in the large building, which seems to be a monastic compound, may indicate that the site was important and perhaps a center for ancient pilgrims in the Judean Shephelah region,” said Storchan.

Ahead of further excavation, the archaeologists are now able to draw up a reconstruction of the main building’s plan based on their findings and other similar structures throughout the Byzantine Empire.

Volunteers and students excavating the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“In the ancient Byzantine period, we can typify two types of churches: local community and larger, possible pilgrim sites which were not just the day-to-day [churches] to serve the community,” said Storchan.

The east-west orientation of the Ramat Beit Shemesh church and the discovery of two side aisles also point to plans typical of important structures such as those found in large regional seats Caesarea, Jerusalem, and Ashkelon.

Unexpected cross-cultural connections

Among the 1,000 students working on the site, some were using their salaries to fund a class trip to Poland to learn about the Holocaust and the decimation of the historic Jewish communities there.

Along the way, the students began encountering firsthand a period of Israeli history little taught in public schools.

Volunteers and students who excavated the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to 16-year-old Hadas Keich, a student at the Sde Boker Field School, “Little by little we uncovered here exciting finds, which helped to connect us to our country and its history. It is amazing what is hidden here beneath our feet.”

Archaeologist Storchan said that as the excavations proceeded, “I realized that much of the Israeli youth, when it comes to after the Roman period, the history of Israel is basically a vacuum until the Ottoman period.”

Volunteers and students excavating the mosaic floor at a Byzantine-period church complex found in Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2017. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

As the students dig up their homeland, the hands-on work has connected them to a culture and religion that, while not their own, are now part of their national narrative.

“The finds here have been so exquisite, and the students are so excited, that week after week as we’ve uncovered more, I’ve realized that they’ve really related to it as the history of their country,” said Storchan.

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