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Archaeology

Newly found ancient fortified building seen as ‘tangible evidence’ of Hanukkah story

Weapons, coins, burnt wooden beams unearthed in Lachish Forest from structure said to be part of fortified line erected by Hellenistic army to protect city from Hasmonean offensive

  • A weapon uncovered in the Lachish Forest excavation, probably used in battle in the Hellenistic period (Saar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    A weapon uncovered in the Lachish Forest excavation, probably used in battle in the Hellenistic period (Saar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Pottery, slingshot stones, weapons found in the Lachish Forest excavation (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Pottery, slingshot stones, weapons found in the Lachish Forest excavation (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • A student holds a find from the Lachish Forest excavation (Tzachi Zisso)
    A student holds a find from the Lachish Forest excavation (Tzachi Zisso)
  • An aerial view of the excavation in Lachish Forest (Vladik Lifshits/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    An aerial view of the excavation in Lachish Forest (Vladik Lifshits/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Weapons, burnt wooden beams, dozens of coins and a Hellenistic fortified structure have been unearthed at an archaeological dig in a central Israel forest in what the Israel Antiquities Authority says was evidence of a battle between the Hasmoneans and Greek Seleucids some 2,100 years ago.

The discovery in the Lachish Forest was announced Tuesday by the Israel Antiquities Authority to coincide with the upcoming Hanukkah festival.

“The excavation site provides tangible evidence of the Hanukkah stories. It appears that we have discovered a building that was part of a fortified line erected by the Hellenistic army commanders to protect the large Hellenistic city of Maresha from a Hasmonean offensive,” said the excavation directors in a statement.

“However, the finds from the site show that the Seleucid defenses were unsuccessful; the excavated building was badly burnt and devastated by the Hasmoneans,” they added.

In a statement, the IAA said the excavations had uncovered a 15-by-15-meter building that had been designed as a well-fortified unit in around 112 BCE.

The walls were over three meters thick and built with large stones arranged in a slope on the outer side, to prevent them being scaled.

An aerial view of the excavation in Lachish Forest (Vladik Lifshits/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Inside, there were seven rooms and a stairwell leading to a second floor, which was not preserved. The archaeologists estimated that the building would have stood at around five meters high.

Thousands of large stones from the destroyed upper part of the building were removed during the excavations, before what was described as a “massive destruction layer,” about half a meter thick, was discovered.

That layer was made up of hundreds of finds, the archaeologists said, including pottery, slingshots, iron weapons, burnt wooden beams and dozens of coins dated to the late second century BCE.

“Based on the finds and coins, the building’s destruction can be attributed to the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus’s conquest of the region of Idumea in around 112 BCE,” the archaeologists said.

John Hyrcanus’s conquests, described in the Books of the Maccabees and the accounts of the historian Josephus, led to the southward expansion of the Hasmonean state.

A weapon uncovered in the Lachish Forest excavation, probably used in battle in the Hellenistic period (Saar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“The stories of the Maccabees are coming to life before our eyes, and this is the most fascinating part of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s work, when dedicated, hardworking archaeologists breathe life into the historical annals of the people who passed through this land,” said IAA director Eli Eskozido.

“In a few days, we will be celebrating Hanukkah, whose central theme is the Hasmoneans’ defeat of the Hellenists, leading to the establishment of the first independent sovereign Jewish entity,” he said.

Pottery, slingshot stones, weapons found in the Lachish Forest excavation (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The site was on the summit of a hill that gave a view of the ancient main road, which ran along the Nahal Lachish streambed and would have served as an artery connecting the central area to the coastal plain.

In addition, the building overlooked Maresha, today a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was once a culturally diverse Hellenistic city with a small Jewish population in the district of Idumea.

Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper welcomed the find.

“The Israel Antiquities Authority’s fascinating new discovery is a classic example of how traditional, well-known and well-loved stories become part of the historical and archaeological record,” he said.

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