The site of an archaeological dig near Beit Shemesh.
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Israel Antiquities Authority recently uncovered a large and well-preserved compound in Beit Shemesh that likely served as a monastery dating to the Byzantine period, the organization announced on Thursday.
According to a joint statement issued by the excavation’s co-directors, Irene Zilberbod and Tehila Libman, an archeological survey conducted along the hills south of Beit Shemesh brought the findings to light several weeks ago.
“Blocked cisterns, a cave opening, and the tops of several walls were visible on the surface,” the archeologists said. “These clues to the world hidden underground resulted in an extensive archeological excavation there that exposed prosperous life dating to the Byzantine period, which was previously unknown.”
Zilberbod and Libman said the compound is surrounded by an outer wall and is divided on the inside into two regions, including an industrial area and an activity and residential area.
Additionally, an “unusually large press in a rare state of preservation that was used to produce olive oil was exposed in the industrial area, as well as a large winepress revealed outside the built compound, consisted of two treading floors from which the grape juice flowed to a large collecting vat.”
Despite not finding a church or inscription of any kind indicating religious worship, the excavation’s co-directors said they still believe the site served as a monastery.
“It is true we did not find a church at the site... or any other unequivocal evidence of religious worship; nevertheless, the impressive construction, the dating to the Byzantine period, the magnificent mosaic floors, window and roof tile artifacts, as well as the agricultural-industrial installations inside the dwelling compound, are all known to us from numerous other contemporary monasteries,” they said.
Based on that criterion, the archeologists noted it is possible to reconstruct a scenario in which monks resided in a monastery that they established, made their living from the agricultural installations, and carried out their religious activities.
“At some point, which we date to the beginning of the Islamic period (7th century CE), the compound ceased to function, and was subsequently occupied by a new resident,” they said. “These people changed the plan of the compound and adapted it for their needs.”
Moreover, Zilberbod and Libman said the finds revealed that the local residents were engaged in wine and olive oil production for their livelihood.
“The impressive size of the agricultural installations shows that these facilities were used for production on an industrial- scale, rather than just for domestic use,” they said. “In the residential portion of the compound several rooms were exposed, some of which had a mosaic pavement preserved in them.”
The duo added that part of a colorful mosaic was exposed in one room, where there was apparently a staircase that led to a second floor that was not preserved. In the adjacent room another multi-colored mosaic was preserved that was adorned with a cluster of grapes surrounded by flowers set within a geometric frame.
Additionally, two ovens used for baking were also exposed in the compound, they noted.
Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem regional archeologist, said both the authority and Ministry of Construction and Housing undertook measures to preserve the site as an archeological landmark in the heart of a neighborhood slated to be built there.
The excavations were financed by the Ministry of Construction and Housing and were carried out as part of the expansion of Beit Shemesh.