Archaeologists Make Startling Discovery at Ancient Sussita: A Beer Bottlecap

No, the ancients weren’t smelting aluminum. What the find means is that the 2,000-year old sewer system is still working.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

An unexpected discovery awaited a team of Israeli archaeologists in a drainage canal dating from roughly 2,000 years ago: an aluminum bottlecap. From a beer bottle.

No, the good people of ancient Sussita weren’t producing aluminum metal. The meaning of the startling discovery is that millennia after its construction, the drainage canal was still working, centuries after the city's final destruction by earthquake

Made of aluminum and feather-light, the bottle-cap floated on rainwater that washed into the canal, says Dr. Michael Eisenberg, head of an Israeli archaeological team digging the site.

This canal, or less romantically - a sewer, passed beneath the floor of the public bathhouse being excavated in the city, which the Greeks called Antiochia Hippos. Its end was discovered several hundred meters away by Eisenberg and his team.

The archaeologists believe this remarkably robust sewage system drained effluent from a postulated public toilet near the bathhouse. If the sewer’s upper opening is found, the public toilet will be found as well, Aizenberg postulates.

Happily for historians, the Sussita sewer system contained not only a beer bottlecap but much more. For instance several hundred bronze coins, swollen and rusted from eons of exposure to urine, were also found inside.

Ten dice made of bone found near the coins provided further evidence of the sewer’s function: Eisenberg believes that the city’s inhabitants gambled with dice as they sat in the bathroom. Just as latter-day man accidently drops his phone into the john, thus the people of yore apparently let coins and dice fall into the sewer.

Now these artifacts are helping researchers to learn about the inhabitants’ customs.

Serious about exercise at Sussita

In this last summer digging season, the team unearthed a palaestra — a plaza surrounded by columns, where the city inhabitants exercised and which was part of the bathhouse.

The sewage canal passed beneath the floor of the bathhouse’s small pool, whose location shows the ancients also appreciated a good view: it overlooks the low-lying Sea of Galilee and the city of Tiberias on its western shore.

The pool was tiled with high-quality limestone tiles. Some of its walls were decorated with tiles of limestone and marble, and in other places the pool walls were plastered in bright shades of red.

Sussita, which the Hellenes established in the middle of the second century B.C.E., was destroyed in an earthquake in 749 C.E.

Known at the time as Hippos, the city was one of the "Decapolis" - a group of ten cities on the Roman Empire’s frontier in Judea and Syria. The cities were built during the Hellenistic period, after the conquest of Alexander the Great, and some still exist to this very day.

The Decapolis included Damascus, now the capital of Syria; Philadelphia (now the Jordanian capital of Amman) and Nysa-Scythopolis (a town in Israel south of Lake Kinneret, today called Beit She’an). And although Sussita’s culture was Hellenistic-Roman, it had a small Jewish minority.

The Old City lies inside Sussita Nature Reserve and National Park, above Lake Kinneret. Excavations by an Israeli team with partners from abroad, have been going on for 14 years. The head of the team from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, is Professor Mark Schuler.

Elaborate structures in the ancient city of Sussita.
A bust of an angry Hercules, found by archaeologists at Sussita.
An iconic bas-relief found at Sussita.
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Elaborate structures in the ancient city of Sussita.Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg
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A bust of an angry Hercules, found by archaeologists at Sussita.Credit: Haaretz
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An iconic bas-relief found at Sussita.Credit: Haaretz

Roman basilica built on even older ruins

Another new find at ancient Sussita, the bottlecap aside, is that the ruins of a Roman-era basilica lie on even older ruins. This is not a rarity in the Middle East.

The basilica, which was built in the late first century C.E. and which stretches over an area of 55 by 30 meters, was found at an advanced stage of the excavations.

“I think the building is another basilica that was built a century before the one we found,” Eisenberg says. “If we prove it next season, then we have one of the earliest basilica structures in our area.” And rhe ruins of a still older building were found beneath what remains of the basilica’s floor.

“For the first time, we have solid material evidence of the first days of Sussita, or Antiochia Hippos, which was its original name in Greek,” Eisenberg says.

Short transition to Christianity

Sussita isn't the only town in the region to have been destroyed by earthquake. The Sea of Galilee actually sits in the northern part of the Great Rift Valley, which splits the planet from Tanzania in the south to Syria in the north. The nearby town of Beit She'an was also devastated by temblors.The Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, is also housed in that great cleft.

A powerful quake along the great fault destroyed the basilica in 363 C.E., after which the people of Sussita built new public buildings, including the Byzantine-era bathhouse. Over the years Sussita morphed into a Byzantine Christian city, until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.

Evidence of the transition from Christianity to Islam came in the form of a weight that was found in one of the city’s churches. Made of bronze and weighing 150 grams, it was cleaned by Dr. Alexander Iermolin of the Zinman Institute, who found that it included several kinds of metal.

Its front section was decorated with a cross stamped in silver, surrounded by an arch supported by two columns. Professor Sariel Shalev of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa examined the weight and found that the cross was covered in lead.

During the Byzantine era, the piece was an official weight of six ounces. According to Eisenberg it seems that the Byzantine weights continued in use early in the Muslim conquest, during the Umayyad Caliphate. Christian ritual also continued — the city had eight churches, which continued to function undisturbed during the Umayyad period as well. But the Christian community weakened and the Byzantine government symbols were slowly replaced by Muslim ones — just as the cross on the 150-gram weight was covered with lead.

During the seventh and eighth centuries, Sussita’s inhabitants began abandoning the city. Signs of their departure were uncovered this year.

“We found alleyways and blocked openings and signs of an orderly evacuation of residential buildings — evidence of a quiet exodus. Sussita slowly faded away,” Eisenberg said.

In 749, a powerful earthquake destroyed the remaining buildings. Shortly afterward, in 750, the Abbasid Caliphate took over the area, and Tiberias became the region’s largest city. Sussita remained in ruins and was never resettled.

Please see the video at this link.

The view of and from Sussita.Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

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