1,400-year-old Byzantine Hammer and Nails Discovered in Ancient Jewish Village of Usha

Smelting waste found in the village of Usha, where the Sanhedrin sat after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, indicates local ironworking

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1,400 year old hammer and nails found in Usha
1,400 year old hammer and nails found in UshaCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquitie
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

We have known that people in antiquity used hammers but it's always thrilling to actually find one, even encrusted in the crud of centuries. Following a flood of volunteer help on archaeological digs over the Sukkot holidays, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a Byzantine-period hammer and nails as well in the ancient village of Usha, whose remains lie near the modern town of Kiryat Ata in northern Israel.

The encrusted head of the implement sans handle and nails were unearthed by volunteers: a family from Tur’an, a town in the Lower Galilee.

A parallel discovery in Usha of slag, the waste from the iron production process, indicates that the implements may not have been imported. Iron was produced in the village and the tools could have been too, the archaeologists say.

To be clear, hammering technology precedes humankind. The earliest stone tools were crude hammers and they date to about 3.3 million years ago, which is some 3 million years before our species, "anatomically modern humans, began to evolve. Crude metalworking began around nine to eight millennia ago, but somewhat more sophisticated hardware would only come thousands of years later with the discovery of how to produce metals harder than malleable copper.

Actual hammers of the type familiar to every household today date back at least a couple of thousand years. So far, 20 iron specimens have been discovered and recorded in Israel, six from the Byzantine period, say Yair Amitzur and Eyad Bisharat, the directors of the Usha excavation on behalf of the IAA. Another ordinary household tool found in antiquity was the chisel: a 2,000-year-old one was found in Jerusalem in 2014.

Aerial view of the winepresses and the adjacent ritual bath at Ancient UshaCredit: אסף פרץ / רשות העת�

Usha's main claim to fame is the place to which the Sanhedrin law court moved after a stint in Yavne, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E., as described in written Jewish sources. The Sanhedrin's first move to Usha was in 80 C.E., under the leadership of Shimon ben Gamliel the Second, followed by his son Yehudah Hanasi. This village was where the rabbis almost 2,000 years ago thought and decided about how to restructure Jewish life in the region after the Temple's loss.

Green glassware made in ancient UshaCredit: Yaniv Berman, with the courtesy

The village also manufactured fine glassware: "We found many wine glasses and glass lamps together with glass lumps that were the raw material," the archaeologists say. In fact, the Jewish sources name one Rabbi Yitzhak Nafha as living in Usha – his surname being based on the Hebrew word for blowing glass. He may well have been a glassmaker.

Oil press, UshaCredit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquitie

The excavators also found signs of the typical economy for the region: presses to produce olive oil and wine. Olive oil has been produced in this area for over 8,000 years: It is possible that like many other villages in the area, Usha based itself on large-scale processing olive oil and wine production. These occupations presumably went back well before the hammer and nails were created.

The archaeologists also found two mikvehs: ritual baths carved into the bedrock. Typically of such installations, the walls and steps were plastered.

"The discovery of the ritual baths indicates that the Jewish press workers took care to purify themselves in the ritual baths in order to manufacture ritually-pure oil and wine," the IAA stated (an assumption based on proximity).

Families volunteering at the Usha excavation during Sukkot, 2019Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquitie

Whatever the village's charms, the Sanhedrin would not remain in Usha. In fact it moved about quite a bit following the abortive Bar Kochba in the year 132 C.E., traveling from town to town over the decades until ultimately winding up in Tiberias in the year 193 C.E., under Gamliel the Third.

The excavations at Usha are part of the Sanhedrin Trail Project that was initiated by the IAA, crossing the Galilee from Bet Shearim to Tiberias.

Oil lamp found in UshaCredit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquiti

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