Seek and Ye Shall Find Byzantine Activity in Tel Aviv Suburb 1,500 Years Ago

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Aerial view of the archeological excavation.
Aerial view of the archeological excavation.Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

An apparently richly decorated farmstead from the Byzantine period has been found in Ramat Hasharon, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday.

The main reason it hadn’t been found earlier is that apparently nobody ever dug in the vicinity of that Tel Aviv suburb before, archaeologists explain. But the norm in Israel is that before commencing any new construction – be it of a building, a road or, in this case, a new neighborhood – government archaeologists come in to check for antiquities and if any are found, conduct a salvage excavation. And in this case, lo, antiquities were found.

Actually, the discovery was not a complete shock. For one thing, Israel has been thronged by our species, from Homo erectus some 2 million years ago to early modern humans 200,000 years ago to truly modern folks from 50,000 years agoNeanderthals were here too for awhile. Never has the land been free of our footsteps. So it stands to reason that if hominins and humans were trekking through, and later farming, the deserts of the Negev, they would be happy to dwell on the lovely fertile coastal lands of central Israel, which is where Ramat Hasharon is.

Yoav Arbel, the excavation director on behalf of the IAA, agrees that from this perspective, the discovery was no surprise. On the other hand, he says, there had been no record of a major farmstead there, no historic sources mentioning a settlement or facility there. There are no ruins peeping above ground and the quite thorough British archaeological surveys in the 19th century hadn’t mentioned any such thing.

Diego Barkan, the Tel Aviv district archaeologist with the IAA, adds that in two surveys – in the 1970s and a broader one in the ’90s – the researchers found hints that something was there. Preliminary surveys are conducted by archaeologists walking in a line in the field, to gain a rough impression of what may be there, Barkan explains. So the archaeologists had some idea that a proper dig would find an agriculture-industrial establishment.

Remains of an unknown Byzantine farm in Ramat Hasharon.Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

But they hadn’t been expecting the sheer scope of the finds.

“Among other finds, we discovered a large winepress paved with a mosaic, as well as plastered installations and the foundations of a large structure that may have been used as a warehouse or even a farmstead,” Arbel says.

Inside the buildings and facilities, the archaeologists found broken storage jars and cooking pots for the farmers’ own use – and also found stone mortars and millstones that were used to grind cereals and other plants. These were made of volcanic basalt imported from the Golan Heights and Galilee, a hardier material for grinders than the softer local limestone.

The excavators also found a gold coin minted in 638 or 639 C.E. by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. One side of the coin shows the emperor with his two sons and the other shows the cross on Golgotha in Jerusalem, where according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified.

The gold coin unearthed in an excavation, bearing an engraving to mark ownership.Credit: Amir Gorzalczany, Israel Antiquities Authority

The coin has something else that most don’t: somebody scratched writing in Greek and possibly also in Arabic on it, which could be the names of serial owners, and serve as a sign of the changing times: “The coin encapsulates fascinating data on the decline of Byzantine rule in the country and contemporary historical events, such as the Persian invasion and the emergence of Islam,” said Robert Kool, head of the IAA Numismatics Department.

Seeing the light

One decidedly unusual find was a bronze chain set used to suspend a chandelier. This consisted of the main chain that hung from the ceiling, which then split into three chains. At the end of each was a hook that suspended a bronze circle with holes, into which glass oil lamps would be placed.

This sort of thing had until now been found in the context of churches, and in fact exists in some orthodox churches to this day, Arbel explains. “In this case, the glass oil lamps are much smaller,” he adds.

A bronze chain that was used to suspend a chandelier.Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
A rather more elaborate chandelier in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, JerusalemCredit: Maya Levin

So does this mean the farming settlement had a church or chapel? Not necessarily. “Some might say they only existed in churches, but in my opinion the same type of chandelier was used in other public buildings – including Jewish ones – and in upscale homes,” Arbel suggests. “We found no signs of a church there [in Ramat Hasharon]. There is a big building, but we don’t know what purpose it served. Most of it is still underground. It could have been used for storage, or be the main house.”

It doesn’t give the impression of being an industrial building, he adds – and they did find remains of industry, but from a somewhat later time: after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.

Those finds include a glass-making workshop and a warehouse, where four massive clay jars were found sunk into the floor. Likely they were used to store grain and their positioning was designed to prevent rodents from consuming the grains.

“In this period, people were not only working at the site but also living there, because we discovered the remains of houses and two large baking ovens,” Arbel says. The pottery from this early Islamic period includes intact oil lamps and tableware.

Jar fragments exposed at the site.Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The site would remain in use until the 11th century, the archaeologists say. Then it was abandoned, and would remain forgotten for a thousand years.

Today, the site is occupied by the city of Ramat Hasharon, which will be incorporating the ruins, appropriately conserved, in a new park, vows city Mayor Avi Gruber.

Why would a site in such a prime location have been abandoned? We have no idea, but one possibility is that its economic rationale evaporated.

“It was founded in the Byzantine period and continued into the Islamic period, and was then abandoned. It isn’t that wine disappeared entirely during that time: on the contrary, the Abbasids received tax revenues from wine production,” Barkan says. But possibly such activity did fall out of favor.

Ancient oil lamps found in the excavation.Credit: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority
The winepress unveiled in Ramat Hasharon.Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

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