Archaeologists Discover Impressive Byzantine-era Compound Near Beit Shemesh

Monastery includes olive press, wine press and mosaics; Antiquities Authority launches new website for archeological survey of entire country.

Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

A large and previously unknown industrial compound from 1,500 years ago was discovered near Beit Shemesh. Archaeologists say the Byzantine-era complex was most likely a monastery.

The discovery was made during infrastructure work to expand Ramat Beit Shemesh, and the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted an emergency salvage dig at the site, paid for by the Housing and Construction Ministry.

The site was originally discovered as part of an archaeological survey in which archaeologists are walking every inch of the country to look for remains on the surface without digging. During the survey, a number of blocked-off water cisterns were discovered at the site as well as an entrance to a cave and stones that hinted at being the tops of several walls buried under the ground.

“These clues to the world hidden underground resulted in an extensive archaeological excavation there that exposed prosperous life dating to the Byzantine period which was previously unknown,” said the IAA.

The dig at the site revealed the compound, which includes two separate complexes, one residential and one industrial. An olive press in excellent condition was found. Outside the built compound is a wine press, which consisted of two treading floors from which the grape must flowed to a large collecting vat. And also found were two large ovens for baking. The size of the complex indicates that the food produced was not just for local residents but was sold to make a living.

A number of rooms were exposed in the housing complex; in some of them the colorful mosaic floors were preserved. One mosaic showed a cluster of grapes surrounded by a wreath of flowers set within a geometric frame. Some of the buildings had at least two stories and probably three.

“We believe this is the site of a monastery from the Byzantine period," said Irene Zilberbod and Tehila Libman, excavation directors for the Antiquities Authority.

"It is true we did not find a church at the site or an inscription or any other unequivocal evidence of religious worship. Nevertheless, the impressive construction, the dating to the Byzantine period, the magnificent mosaic floors, window and roof tile artifacts, as well as the agricultural-industrial installations inside the dwelling compound are all known to us from numerous other contemporary monasteries.

Mosaic floors discovered near Beit Shemesh. Photo by Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

"Thus it is possible to reconstruct a scenario in which monks resided in a monastery that they established, made their living from the agricultural installations and dwelled in the rooms and carried out their religious activities.”

The Byzantine period is considered to be one of economic flowering and population growth. Every once in a while, new communities from ancient periods that archaeologists and historians never knew about — and that didn't survive into later periods — are discovered.

At some point, dating to the beginning of the Islamic period (the seventh century CE), the compound ceased to function and was subsequently occupied by new residents. These people adapted the compound for their needs.

Originally, a road was to have been built over the site, but the Antiquities Authority now wants it to be moved and to preserve the site alongside the road.

Authority officials dismissed the idea that Haredi residents living nearby in Ramat Bet Shemesh would damage the site because it was a Christian monastery. Local residents have shown interest in what the archaeologists are doing, said Zilberbod. “Archaeology and Haredim do not have to be a problem,” she said.

Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem regional archaeologist of the IAI, noted that “after exposing the compound and recognizing its importance, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Ministry of Housing and Construction undertook the measures necessary to preserve and develop the site as an archaeological landmark in the heart of the new neighborhood slated to be built there.”

The Antiquities Authority officially launched its website for the Archaeological Survey of Israel on Friday. It contains a digital database with 15,000 archaeological sites mapped as part of the survey project. The project started 50 years ago. The new site in English is: http://www.antiquities.org.il/survey/new/default_en.aspx

Driving Instructions:

Turn left from Highway 38 at the Ramat Beit Shemesh Junction (the third turnoff for those coming from the direction of the BIG Shopping Mall in Beit Shemesh). Continue to the first roundabout and turn right. Go up in the direction of the neighborhood under construction. Continue straight through the next roundabout toward the contractor’s assembly area. Drive past the earthmoving equipment. Immediately thereafter, the road becomes a dirt road (in much better condition) leading down toward the stream. Turn left at the T and continue straight until you arrive at the excavation.