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Northern community successfully transfers ancient ritual bath to new home

Kibbutz Hannaton in the Jezreel Valley raised hundreds of thousands of shekels needed to move 57-ton Roman-era mikveh discovered during highway construction

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

An ancient Roman Jewish farm discovered in the Galilee, with an intact ritual bath that was moved to nearby Kibbutz Hannaton in September 2020 (Courtesy Ibrahim/Israel Antiquities Authority)
An ancient Roman Jewish farm discovered in the Galilee, with an intact ritual bath that was moved to nearby Kibbutz Hannaton in September 2020 (Courtesy Ibrahim/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A Roman-era mikveh, or ritual bath, was successfully transferred this week from a highway interchange under construction to Kibbutz Hannaton, a nearby community in the Jezreel Valley.

It took two weeks to prepare the transfer of the 57-ton stone bath, which included detaching it from bedrock, surrounding it with a steel cage to protect it, and hoisting it onto a tractor-trailer to move it down the road to its new home on the kibbutz, near the community’s existing ritual bath.

“It was really against all odds,” said Steve Gray, a kibbutz member who was part of the team that moved the unlikely project toward completion. “It was a rollercoaster of emotions the whole way.”

The summertime discovery of the ancient ritual bath united the kibbutz, the Israel Antiquities Authority, a public infrastructure company, and the local government in the efforts to save it for posterity.

The existence of the mikveh, found on the remains of an ancient farm, indicated that the residents were Jewish and led a traditional way of life, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists in charge of the dig, Abd Elghani Ibrahim and Dr. Walid Atrash.

It was the first Jewish farm from the Second Temple period found in the Galilee, they said, changing long-held notions that Jews in the Roman period lived only in villages and towns.

About 1,700 years have passed since the farm was destroyed in an earthquake, and about 1,400 years since the site was finally abandoned. 

The Roman-era farm and ritual bath discovered during the construction of a highway in the Lower Galilee, in June 2020 (Courtesy Ibrahim/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Gray, a tour guide currently out of work due to the coronavirus, was volunteering on the Israel Antiquities Authority dig that unexpectedly uncovered the ritual bath in June during the construction of a highway overseen by Netivei Yisrael, the National Transport Infrastructure Company.

When the mivkeh was discovered, locals were allowed to come and see it. Hannaton resident Haviva Ner-David, a rabbi and writer who runs the Shmaya Mikva on the kibbutz, saw the mikveh and decided to try to bring it to Hannaton.

Ner-David, Gray and another community member, Anat Harrel, who spearheaded an effort to raise 256,500 shekels ($75,000), enough money to dig up the ritual bath and move it to the kibbutz’s land — a task that seemed nearly impossible.

“There was a point in the first week of August when we thought we’d have to return money to donors,” said Gray, referring to the money raised from a crowdfunding campaign and family foundations that pitched in as well.

Finally, working with the local government authority, the kibbutz team was given the final portion from a budget set aside for archaeological and historical preservation projects. The highway authority gave them until September 13 to remove the ritual bath.

A 500-ton crane was used to lift the mikveh out of its base and then drop it into its new home at Hannaton, a deep hole that was seven meters wide and three meters deep.

The crane that moved the Roman-era ritual bath to its new home in Kibbutz Hannaton in September 2020 (Courtesy Yuli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Once the mikveh was placed in the hole, there was great celebration among the kibbutz members, said Gray.

“It was so much more emotional than I had anticipated,” he said.

Now the kibbutz has to figure out what to do with the area that is centered with the ancient mikveh. The Israel Antiquities Authority has technically lent the ritual bath to the kibbutz, and the community has to figure out how to present the national treasure to the public, whether that will include using it as a ritual bath, or creating an archaeological park out of the space.

Whatever the decision, it is something of a miracle that the bath is now located at Hannaton, said Gray.

“It’s the power of the narrative that got people enthused,” he said. “It’s a confluence of things, of people who are enthusiastic and the story and Hannaton.”

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