Spa and game room found at 1,700-year-old pottery workshop in Israel
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World's oldest mancala board?

Spa and game room found at 1,700-year-old pottery workshop in Israel

Old-time work and play: With 20 hot and cold baths and a kitted-out break room, an ancient ceramics factory near Gedera could teach employee-friendly Google a thing or two

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

  • The game room in the northern Gedera excavation. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The game room in the northern Gedera excavation. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The excavation in Gedera, July 2018. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The excavation in Gedera, July 2018. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Students unearth piles of potsherds at the excavation in northern Gedera. More than 100,000 damaged jars have been disposed of at the site for 600 years. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Students unearth piles of potsherds at the excavation in northern Gedera. More than 100,000 damaged jars have been disposed of at the site for 600 years. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The Byzantine Pool and the system of water channels at a northern Gedera excavation. (Yitzhak Mermelstein, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The Byzantine Pool and the system of water channels at a northern Gedera excavation. (Yitzhak Mermelstein, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • X marks the spot: Game boards in the games room discovered at a northern Gedera excavation. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    X marks the spot: Game boards in the games room discovered at a northern Gedera excavation. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The excavation in northern Gedera. (Yitzhak Merzmstein, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The excavation in northern Gedera. (Yitzhak Merzmstein, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Third-century Roman potters were, apparently, early adopters of the elusive work-life balance. At the central Israel town of Gedera, an Israel Antiquities Authority team has uncovered an impressive 20-bath spa and robust game room alongside evidence of 600 years of a massive ceramic industry.

Boards for still-popular games are etched into large stone benches at the 3rd century CE site. Among the game boards, the IAA archaeologists identified mancala, an ancient one- or two-player game using a board and seeds or marbles that is still an international bestseller.

“People are people and the archaeology reminds us that we’re not inventing the wheel,” said IAA excavation co-director Ella Nagorsky. “Just like how Google established a play area in its workspace, so too here: We discovered a game room that was perhaps used for breaks from the potters’ intensive work.”

The entertainment complex was discovered during a salvage operation conducted ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood in northern Gedera, under the initiative and funding of the Israel Lands Authority.

The Byzantine Pool and the system of water channels at a northern Gedera excavation. (Yitzhak Mermelstein, Israel Antiquities Authority)

For the past two years, a large-scale archaeological dig has been conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority with the help of students from pre-army preparation programs and local schools as part of an educational initiative to connect the next generation to the historical Land of Israel.

Mancala, modern iteration (Courtesy)

The archaeologists discovered four game boards, two for mancala, and two of the sort commonly found where Roman soldiers take rest stops. Mancala has previously been dated to the 6th and 7th centuries.

An additional large game board was discovered in the center of the room.

The room was set up for a good time. In one corner, a “cabinet” held glass cups and bowls, said Nagorsky. The games were found in another corner in what appears to be a storage space located next to a stone bench.

The game room in the northern Gedera excavation. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

For those workers who preferred to sit back and relax, there was a spa complex with some 20 pools of hot and cold water.

Of the workshop itself, there is no documented historical record. The area around Gedera is hypothesized by scholars to be associated with a number of ancient settlements, including Gedor, which appears on the famous Madaba map of the Holy Land, and the Hasmonean-period Kedron.

Excavation director Ella Nagorsky at the northern Gedera excavation site. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The archaeological evidence at the workshop points to continuous operation for some 600 years, during which the same type of ceramics were made: “Gaza” wine jars.

“The continuous industry could point to a family workshop, which was passed from generation to generation,” said co-directors Nagorsky and Tamar Harpak in an IAA press release.

The site was also a depository for broken or flawed vessels and the team estimates there are remains from over 100,000 pots.

Fingerprints of the potters who fastened the handles to the pitcher some 1,500 years ago at this northern Gedera ancient industrial zone. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

On closer inspection of some of the potsherds, the archaeologists discerned several fingerprints left by the ancient potters.

“It’s like getting greetings from the past, it’s very exciting, which tie us to the people who lived here and created these vessels with their own hands hundreds of years ago,” said Nagorsky and Harpak.

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