On the outskirts of the sprawling modern city of Be'er Sheva, archaeologists have solved a mystery going back decades with the discovery of an unmistakably Jewish town that existed during the Second Temple period.
Based on pottery characteristic of the time as well as other finds, Jews seem to have lived there for 150 years or so, from the first century C.E. to the middle of the second.
Until now, archeologists have puzzled over an enduring question: Where were the Jews of ancient Be'er Sheva?
This site in the heart of the barren Negev Desert is richly watered by springs, and has been occupied by people at least since the Chalcolithic period - for at least 6,200 years, and probably far more. Among the oldest finds was a flint-tool workshop, reported in 2004, containing thousands of stone artifacts. In fact the archaeologists, including Peter Fabian, who is also involved in this present study, believe the prehistoric Be'er Sheva residents were making flint sickles there.
In any case, by the Second Temple period, Be'er Sheva was at the southern edge of the kingdom of Judah. Over the years, the odd Jewish artifact had been found in the city – but no settlement where Jews had lived back then. Now the Jews, or rather the remains of their town, have been found.
"This was a border area. We can't say what happened here in that period," said Shira Bloch, the site manager for Ben-Gurion University and the Israel Antiquities Authority explained that the major known Jewish settlement was further north.
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Prior to the discovery of this settlement, the only things found in Be'er Sheva from the Second Temple period were the rare Jewish or Nabatean artifact.
The Jews and Nabateans lived separately, it seems, said Bloch: they didn't find anything that would indicate contact between the populations.
"Nabateans had lived to the south, Jews to the north – but Be'er Sheva itself had been a bit of mystery," Bloch said. "There are a lot of sites in Be'er Sheva from the Byzantine period, such as churches, but the first and second centuries C.E. were a bit of a dark hole."
The archaeologists won't even speculate on how big the ancient Jewish town was; the excavation is in its early days, explained Bloch. It was found about three months ago as ground was being cleared to build a new neighborhood near the northern entrance to the modern city.
Among the marked signs of Jewish inhabitation are a small oil lamp decorated with a nine-branch menorah, stone vessels, and what may be a mikveh – a Jewish ritual bath.
Why the menorah had nine branches
The Jewish settlement was located on the southern border of Judah, along an ancient trading route between the Negev and the southern coastal plain. That strategic location is probably why the inhabitants erected a watchtower.
Its remains were identified as such chiefly by its sheer size, 10 meters by 10 meters at its base, and the thickness of the walls: approximately 1.4 meters, which is indicative of fortification. Regular houses didn’t have walls that massive, Bloch observes. "It was square," said Bloch. "Ancient buildings were not usually exactly square. Here all the walls were exactly the same size." People building houses in days of yore wouldn't go to that geometric trouble. The team also found the remains of a staircase going up to a second story, she said.
After the town's abandonment, during the Late Roman period, the stones of the watchtower were repurposed in nearby buildings, the archaeologists say.
Among other things, the archaeologists found the town's trash pits, where they struck gold, figuratively speaking. The pits contained a richness of broken pottery, including oil lamps typical of the Jewish settlements of the time throughout the region. The lamps were decorated with motifs of grapes, pomegranates, wheat, and on one lamp, a menorah.
"It is one of the oldest depictions of menorahs ever found," Bloch said. "There are others, but there are not many pictures of menorahs in archaeology."
The fact that it has nine branches is not unusual. The menorah in the Second Temple had seven branches, not least according to depictions of the triumphant Roman soldiers who destroyed the temple in 70 C.E., carrying it off as spoils to Rome.
In keeping with the Babylonian Talmud, which said that only the Temple menorah could have seven branches, Jews making or drawing menorahs would obediently depict anywhere from eight to 11 branches, Bloch said.
The limestone vessels – bowls and all kinds of cups - were also a hallmark of ancient Jewish inhabitation. A large number of broken stone vessels were found in the trash pits. The Jews of antiquity believed that while ceramic food-ware would be contaminated for eternity by the slightest contact with non-kosher food, stone remained impervious to the uncleanness. They used stone vessels as a matter of convenience.
The 2,000-year-old garbage also contained olive and date pits, as well as charcoal, which the archaeologists will use to carbon-date the site to verify their assumptions. "We are still excavating," Bloch points out. "Dating usually happen afterwards in the lab after the excavation. "
As for the purported mikveh, an ancient Jewish town would have had a ritual bath, but the archaeologists aren't positive that they identified one. They uncovered a stone staircase leading downward, but haven't reached the subterranean chamber yet. While it could be a mikveh, it could be a storage room instead.
As is usual for an ancient Jewish town that hadn't been destroyed by an invading army, no human remains were found. "They wouldn't be," Bloch explained. "The Jews didn't bury inside the site and we haven't excavated far from the watchtower. Their cemetery could be far away. We haven't found everything yet."
They did find some signs of fire, as to be expected for a place where people live and cook, she said, but did not find signs of conflagration, which would be present if a marauding force burned down the town.
Yet at some point, the town was abandoned. "They cleaned house and left. We don’t know why. There are no signs of crisis," said Bloch. The fact is that after the Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman overlord, which ended disastrously for the Jews in 135 C.E., the town emptied. No coins were found minted from after that time.
"Maybe the Jews moved up north. Maybe they integrated with others," Bloch speculateed. For whatever reason, the Jews left behind their broken pottery and stoneware, and vanished, leaving their town to be covered by the desert sand.