Byzantine Trash Yields Archaeological Treasure

'Adonai is His name' says the exquisite ring with ancient Samaritan engraving, found with gold coins and jewelry. Were they sacrifices from a culture long gone?

“Adonai is His name” says an inscription on a ring found in a Byzantine-era trash pit near the ancient city of Apollonia. Truly one man's garbage is another's treasure-trove.

The ring has eight sides, each bearing its own inscription. A second inscription reads “God is one”. The remaining six are quotes in Samaritan script from the Samaritan bible.

The ring was an ethnic marker, says Professor Oren Tal of Tel Aviv University, who is running the excavation together with Moshe Ajami of the Antiquities Authority. “Without archaeological evidence, we can only guess at how the ring was used, and at its significance,” he says.

What we know is that “Samaritans and Christians who lived in Apollonia believed in a single deity, which was actually the same one. But each group fostered its own unified identity," says Tal. The Samaritans and Jews used different alphabets, for instance.

As for the ring, it could have been linked to a religious ritual or ceremony, he says -  "But the people who wore such rings also wanted to signify they belonged to a certain group.”

It is also quite the rare find: only 12 remotely like it are known to archaeologists. 

Sacrificing precious objects

The ancient dump where the ring was unearthed is located in the agricultural lands of Apollonia, located in a gorgeous spot on a gently crumbling cliff over the Mediterranean. 

The area was actively inhabited for thousands of years, based on evidence of gleaned from ancient winepresses, storage rooms, and the ruins of what appears to have been an olive press. And the peoples who lived there left ample leavings for archaeologists to sift through.

Theirs was an unusually large trash pit, according to Tal: 30 meters in diameter, the heap was rich in pottery and glass shards, slag from glass-making, and animal bones. And amongst the debris are precious objects such as more than 400 Byzantine-era coins, including one gold coin, gold jewelry and about 200 intact Samaritan clay lamps, some never used.

Were the people of Apollonia simply cavalier about their riches?

Not at all. Throwing away treasure along with the garbage evidently bore ritual significance, the archaeologists explain.

“It seems to resemble customs that exist today, such as throwing coins into a wishing well. It’s possible that throwing in the lamps had sacrificial significance or a religious or mystical connection,” says Tal, adding that objects had been thrown into the pit over decades, perhaps centuries. “People went there year after year and tossed in something that symbolized their identity.”

Christians and Samaritans, side by side

The excavations at Apollonia National Park have been under way since 1950. The group that found the lamps, coins and rings is part of a joint project of Tel Aviv University and the Antiquities Authority.

Trash pits have been found between the coastal highway and the Israel Military Industries plant, in the section between Kfar Shmaryahu and Rishpon.

According to the findings, the site was settled continuously for more than 1,800 years — starting with the Persian period (the late sixth century B.C.E.) to the end of the Crusader period (the seventh century C.E.).

During the Byzantine period, Apollonia — or Sozusa, as it was called at the time, stretched over an area of roughly 280 dunams. There are remnants of a church and an industrial areas of wine and olive presses, whitewashed pools and furnaces for manufacturing raw glass tied to that time.

Christians and Samaritans lived side by side in Sozusa. The Christian group was the dominant one, while the Samaritans were a minority but not a silent one, according to Tal.

In the late seventh century C.E., during the time of the Umayyad caliph Abd el-Malik (685–705), Arsuf was surrounded by a wall. Toward the end of that period, it became a stronghold where Muslim religious scholars toiled. It fell to the Crusaders in 1101, and toward the middle of the 12th century, it was granted to a noble Crusader family and became the center of a feudal estate.

About a century later, in 1241, the inhabitants began building a fortress on site. In 1261, control over the fortress, the city and the estate of Arsuf was handed over to the Order of Hospitallers. The walled city and the fortress in its northern part were destroyed at the end of the Mamluk siege of March and April 1265, and the site has remained uninhabited ever since.

Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority