Beersheba underground

Walk or drive around most of the city, and it’s almost impossible not to be standing on top of something exotic from the city’s ancient past.

Byzantine farmhouse 521 (photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)
Byzantine farmhouse 521
There’s a lot more to Beersheba than meets the eye. A good place to start exploring some of its hidden treasures lies at the top of a short driveway off a back street in one of the Old City’s unrestored sections.
Head up the sharply curving one-lane path, then stop. You’ll see a couple of rusty corrugated metal shacks overgrown with weeds and cluttered with litter. Now look down.
It’s what’s you can’t see that’s important.
Buried underneath the modern mess, right under your feet, are the remains of an elegant Byzantine spa, complete with hot and cool water bathing pools, warming ovens, everything required to provide the kind of elaborate bathing experience the residents of Beersheba expected some 1600 years ago.
“The spa, built not far from Nahal Beersheba and today close to the Abraham’s Well Center, was excavated by Peter Fabian of the Antiquities Authority,” notes Flavia Sontag, Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) district archeologist for Beersheba and the Northern Negev. It was excavated, then covered over to protect it.
“The bathhouse was part of a much larger house, some of which was destroyed in the early 1990s, when a car dealership constructed a storage unit on the other side of the drive. But we know where the spa is, and now it’s protected.”
Just a stone’s throw away, last spring, the disruption of Rehov Beit Eshel caused considerable angst among the local population. Drivers and shoppers growled in frustration when the street, which runs in front of a popular supermarket, remained torn up for several weeks, snarling traffic and making access to the store nearly impossible. “People thought it was just the street surface being renewed; but that wasn’t it,” Sontag says. “The city wanted to install new utility lines under the street.
“But when we excavated, we discovered a whole Byzantine house underneath. It wasn’t a big surprise – we knew something was there.
“Here’s how you can tell: Every time you see the level of the roadway going up, as though there’s a slight hill, you know there’s something under the ground. After we found the Byzantine house, I made them put all the utility equipment – sewer, water, electricity – in one confined area off to the side, then we covered the site over and allowed the roadway to be rebuilt over it. The street just lies on the surface of the ground. That will protect it as well as anything.” Walk or drive around most of Beersheba and it’s almost impossible not to be standing on top of something exotic left over from the city’s ancient past.
“The Old City area is particularly rich with remains of construction, with examples from the Chalcolithic, Biblical, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods,” Sontag says. “But other parts of the city have also been built on ancient remains.
“Look around as you drive the city streets: If you see any lot standing vacant, with no buildings, that’s most likely because there’s something under the ground that can’t be disturbed. Some of those areas serve as parking lots – surface parking doesn’t hurt what’s underground.
Those sites will never be developed.”
Many local residents know about some of Beersheba’s bigger treasures – the “Eli Cohen” Byzantine church excavated by Peter Fabian in 1989, which lies directly under the traffic circle in front of the city’s first big mall, Kenyon Hanegev. But at least two other Byzantine churches have also been found, one of them under the open area that during the last several years has served as the informal Monday shuk across from the city’s vegetable market.
Then there’s the monastery that’s under that vast open space on Derech Hebron, just across the road from where the Beduin shuk currently operates.
“There’s probably another church under there, too,” Sontag notes. “We won’t know until we excavate.
We have to watch that site closely, because sometimes people go up there with vehicles and race around, ripping up the ground. We can’t let that happen.”
NOT NEARLY as well known are some of the most significant – albeit invisible – archeological finds in Neve Noy, Beersheba’s southernmost neighborhood. There, in 1983, construction workers operating a bulldozer were surprised when they uncovered a series of underground passageways. Work stopped and archeologists were called in to inspect. What they discovered was a previously unknown fourthcentury BCE settlement, a most unusual find because the dwellings were all constructed underground.
“These were Chalcolithic-era homes from 6,000 years ago,” Sontag says. “We’re assuming they chose to build underground because during Chalcolithic times, the weather here was very hot. By building underground, they protected themselves from the heat.”
The Chalcolithic dwellers were most likely shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats. The Neve Noy settlement – called Bir Safadi, located on the southern bank of Nahal Beersheba – consisted of homes built into low-lying hills. Eight units were excavated. The largest subterranean room was oval-shaped, five meters by 2.5 meters, with a ceiling height of 1.75 m. Two galleries led from this chamber to a slightly sunken courtyard, which contained two hearths and a silo, presumably used for storage or waste. In other dwellings, passageways connected several rooms. Archeologists speculate that the courtyard had been sheltered with a roof, both for protection from the sun and to prevent people or animals from falling in. In winter, families sheltered underground for warmth, dispelling the cold with an open fire built on the floor.
“The homes weren’t small,” Sontag suggests. “They were big enough to allow not just the families to live there, but their animals, too.”
Two subsequent phases of home construction were identified, each showing improvements. In the second phase, sun-dried mudbricks had been used to define the courtyard area, and ventilation shafts were identified. In the third phase, the level of the floor was raised, and large stone slabs used in the grinding of copper ore were found.
Archeologists believe that a smelting furnace was once constructed in one of the blocked galleries. Smelting furnaces consisted of a cavity in the ground, surrounded by a clay rim and a roof, with an animal-hide bellows attached by a ceramic tube. When the copper ore inside the furnace liquefied, the roof was broken open and the copper poured into molds of baked clay.
Bir Safadi is one of the few sites where all three elements of the copper industry – ore, slag and artifacts – were found.
Bir Safadi, too, has been covered over.
“The soil is very unstable here. Many of the dwellings had rooms that had collapsed. Maybe someone will find a way to show them to the public in the future, but for the present, they’re protected,” explains Sontag.
Also found in the Neve Noy dwellings were several skeletons, both child and adult. It was noted that the teeth of one adult male had not been worn down, giving rise to speculation that these early residents ate mainly dairy products and meat. If their diet had been heavy on grains, their teeth would have shown greater abrasion.
Their goats and sheep supplied them with milk, meat, wool and hides. Why the skeletons? Even in Chalcolithic times, the ground here was unstable, and ceiling collapses were not uncommon. Scientists surmised that when a chamber suffered a collapsed ceiling, it was abandoned for living purposes and used instead as a burial site, sealed off after the body was placed inside.
On the other side of Nahal Beersheba lies another Chalcolithic dwelling place, Bir Abu Matar, a site that made Beersheba famous in archeological circles. From the dwellings and artifacts found there, archeologists were forced to revise their opinions about the ability of Chalcolithic peoples to smelt and use copper productively.
The range of artifacts found in Abu Matar included rock anvils for breaking up the ore; fireplaces with remnants of ore; crucibles and smelting tools, as well as the metal products – axes, chisels, awls, mace heads and an array of ornaments of various kinds.
Several ivory figurines caught the attention of the world. Tall – about 30 centimeters – and very thin, the figures bore faces drilled with holes, perhaps to allow real hair to be pulled through to make them more realistic.
After residing for many years in France’s Louvre museum, a number of these figurines were recently repatriated to Israel and are now on display at the Israel Museum.
ONE OF the most delightful stories of archeological prowess concerns the vast Roman army encampment site that today serves as a parking lot for the municipal shuk.
“We’d known the history of the area for decades,” said Isaac Gilead, professor of Archeology at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, who headed up the excavation several years ago. “Not long before, the IAA had excavated about 200 meters to the south, so we knew this area had great potential.”
But it was Fabian who got lucky, making an “armchair” archeological discovery that led to the identification of the Roman Army camp.
“During the First World War, 1917-18,” Fabian says, “The German Army took the first aerial photographs of this site – they were keeping track of what the Turks were doing during the war. When those photos finally came into the public domain, I was looking at them, and the clear contours of what appeared to be a massive stone enclosure, a wall, jumped right out at me.
“We investigated further and, sure enough, that’s what it was. We found evidence of a huge Roman encampment right there.”
What couldn’t be easily seen from the ground became obvious from the air.
“It’s not often you identify an archeological treasure from behind your desk,” Fabian says, “but in this case it was so clear anyone could have seen it.”
Ultimately, the archeologists identified four distinct layers, Gilead notes.
“Once we got past the very dirty surface layers, we came to the Byzantine layer. Below that, we found artifacts from the Late Roman period, and below that, items from the Iron Age. Digging still deeper, we found evidence of inhabitation during the Chalcolithic period, some 6,000 years ago.”
The uppermost Byzantine layer was 2.5 m. deep in places, which archeologists say indicates that the Byzantines remained here for a considerable period.
Coins and pottery were found. The Roman encampment below, a huge building, was constructed on top of Iron Age walls.
The stone walls of the Roman camp were about 1.5 m. thick, and parts appeared to have been recycled from the Iron Age wall already in place. Today, the Roman Army camp remains underground, too, and may ultimately provide additional parking for the new Beersheba bus station which is under construction.
The subject of the new bus station brings forth a rueful smile from Flavia Sontag.
“I’m already getting blamed for holding up construction over there,” she grins. “But this time it’s not true – I haven’t even investigated the bus station yet. I may hold it up. That’s possible. But I haven’t done it yet.”
The new terminal will be constructed exactly where the existing station is, which means that some of the land area has already been disturbed by bulldozers – at least enough to break up and move away the old concrete surface. On the side of the bus station visible to passersby, a couple of dozen small red flags stick up out of the sod.
“See all those little markers? Each one identifies a spot where we know there’s something to be found. We dug a trench, so we know there’s something there; Byzantine artifacts, we know that. But whether or not we excavate – and to what extent – depends on what the bus station developers want to do in that exact spot.
“If all they want to do there is pour new surface concrete, or construct a pedestrian walkway – anything that will rest on the surface of the ground – we won’t do a major excavation, just a small one. But if they want to do something like construct underground parking, then we’ll have to look more closely.
“But we’re not there, yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.
“People get frustrated,” Sontag continues, “and I understand that. But keep in mind that before the excavation, I can’t tell anyone what we’ll find. I can’t even comment during the excavation. Only after the archeologists who actually perform the excavation officially release their findings am I in a position to make decisions on how the property should be treated.”
NOT ALL of Beersheba’s most precious artifacts are buried. Many have been excavated and remain above ground, perfectly visible to anyone who looks. One of the most easily accessible lies open for public inspection on the opposite side of the parking lot to the Old City’s shuk.
“It’s very dirty again now,” Sontag says, looking at the fenced-off area, full of paper litter and other detritus of modern life. ”Just a few months ago, the city spent a half million shekels to clean it up and put up this protective fence.
“But we’re close to a place where the Beduin gather informally to sell and trade, and there’s a lot of debris around. People even manage to crawl inside.
We wanted to take a group of schoolchildren here to see it – education is part of our mission – but we found that it was full of syringes and other things parents didn’t want their kids to see.
“It was a problem. But still, this is a very important excavation. I wanted it left open, protected with the fence. It’s very close to the area where the new Abraham’s Well Center will be built, and this could be a logical display in enhancement of that. It could be a part of that complex.”
What can you see? Rock walls, rooms and corridors from ancient times.
“Look at the different sizes of the stones,” Sontag directs. “All the small stones represent construction during the Chalcolithic period. The bigger stones represent construction added on during the Israelite period, the days of the Kings. When you see a mixture of stones, that’s from the Roman period, and the Byzantine follows that, which is in turn followed by the early Islamic period.
“This is a unique site, to see it all right here in one place. Because of that, and because of its location, I decided to leave this one open.”
Driving out of the Old City toward Ramot, Sontag points out other treasures.
“The courthouse over there is built on graves. I excavated that in 1996 and found 30 fourth-to-fifthcentury graves. By altering the building plan, we avoided most of them, but six were excavated.
“And there, where the new Rami Levy store is coming in? There’s a Byzantine cemetery under that, too.
In order to build there, the construction workers had to do everything by the book in order to move the graves. But graveyards are common in this area.
There were all these Byzantine churches here, and just like in Europe, the area around the churches was where they buried their dead.
“There are graveyards under a lot of the city – including the Hanegev Mall. There were 150 graves under that, but that development took place before 2000, when excavating graves was allowed.
Everything changed in 2000, but all these buildings – the government complex, the Rassco Center, all those office buildings – are built on ancient graveyards.”
Passing the relatively modern Muslim cemetery along Derech Hebron, Sontag notes: “Underneath the Muslim cemetery is a Byzantine cemetery, and under that – maybe, I don’t know for sure – but maybe there’s a Jewish cemetery there, too. It’s easy to distinguish the Christian graves – they have artifacts decorated with crosses. Muslim graves can be identified because the head of the dead person is pointed toward Mecca. Jewish graves are harder to identify.”
REACHING THE eastern outskirts of Beersheba, where three new hi-tech parks are being built, another form of buried treasure was found: Byzantine farms, one of which presents a still-unsolved mystery.
“The new hi-tech parks will be going right here,” Sontag says, pointing to the as-yet bare and windswept area. “It will be in three segments, one belonging to the city, one to BGU and one to the army. Where we’re standing right now will be the main street through the complex. Everything would be covered, so I excavated just a little.
“I found a Byzantine farm – nothing particularly remarkable about it, it was very similar to several other farms of that period we’ve excavated around here. Farms are distinguishable by the four-room structure of the house, plus a guard fence of some kind, and some indication of agriculture – grapes, olive trees, and a ready source of water. We found all that here. This one was just a regular farm.
“Then we came to the place where the railroad depot serving the hi-tech parks will stand. We excavated here, expecting to find another farm. We found some walls first, but then excavating a little more we found things that became much more interesting.
“There’s a round well over there, a cistern, which – oddly enough – still has a green plant growing out of it. Apparently there’s still enough moisture to grow a plant. The well itself is interesting – it didn’t hold water from below the ground, but rather rainwater was channeled into it. You can see the water conduits that were used to fill it.
“Then we discovered something extremely unusual: there were stairs, going down. We’ve found other dwellings that had two floors – but both on the surface of the land, one on top of the other, with stairs that went up. But these were going down into the earth. We kept excavating.
“At the bottom of the arched gateway we found rooms, subterranean rooms. But the most amazing thing we found: A wooden door had been used to close off the rooms. Normally that might indicate that the rooms were used for storage or something, and they wanted to be able to close them off. But that wasn’t what we had here. The wooden door shut from the inside – not the outside.
“If you were going to close off a storeroom, you’d have the door on the outside. But this door was in the inside, you had to be in the room to close it. Why would they have an underground room with a door that closed from the inside?” By this time, Sontag says, they’d realized this was not just a regular Byzantine farm. It was something else – and they’re still not sure what.
“In Chalcolithic times, they had underground dwellings – we saw that ourselves in Beit Safadi, in Neve Noy. But this wasn’t Chalcolithic – this was Byzantine. And the soil here is very unstable, you can see it’s already blowing away, disintegrating, even in the short time it’s been open. When it rains, there will be even more damage.
“So why would they build underground rooms here – especially with a room closed off from the inside? “I didn’t know. This was very unusual. I brought a whole group of archeologists out here, showed them what we’d found, and asked what they thought. No one knew. Was it for protection? Could be. But from what? This was a rural area, far from the city at that time.
“After doing more research, we found that the only similar structure anyone had found – a Byzantine-era building, with subterranean rooms, doors closing from the inside – was in China. Someone suggested a wine cellar, which would make sense; but again, who would want to lock themselves in the wine cellar? “We still don’t know. We’ll be excavating more in this general area of the hi-tech parks, and maybe we’ll find something more that will help us understand.
But we’ve explored the limits of this building – right here, this is all there is. But it’s quite a mystery.”
THE MYSTERY of the thing is what drew Sontag to archeology in the first place. “Every time you excavate, you don’t know what you’ll find. That’s what I like: solving the mystery.”
Born in Romania, Sontag made aliya with her parents in 1983.
“I was 17 years old, three months from high school graduation. But that was the ‘Ceausescu privilege’: It was leave then or never, and if you left, you couldn’t go back. We left and I graduated from high school here – I don’t know how, because I had almost no Hebrew. After that I chose to go into the army instead of to university. That turned out to be a wonderful decision – the army was very good for me.
“When I went to university after that, I earned my BA in prehistorical archeology, studying both archeology and general history. I chose prehistory because I thought it would be too hard for me to do Israeli archeology.
“I knew nothing about Israeli history and had no Bible knowledge whatsoever. I didn’t even understand the language – they’d be talking about Samaria, and I’d say, ‘What was that?’ “So I finished my Master’s in prehistorical archeology, then went to work for IAA and began excavating sites. Little by little, I learned.”
As district archeologist for the IAA, Sontag now spends more time with developers than on the business end of a trowel.
“When the developer brought me the plans for the hi-tech park with the main street running through it, we worked it out. We decided the street would be built up, with a meter and a half of cover over the remains of the farmhouse. He’d already had to change his plans once to accommodate the archeological remains, but that was before we came up with this other building.
“‘Now you’re asking me to change it again?’ he said. ‘Now you’re telling me I have to develop a green site for the railroad station?’ “So we’re working on it again. To me, to do this kind of work right now – preserving important sites by working with the city and with developers – is more important than personally excavating another site. What I’m doing is preserving our history for the next generations.”
ONE OF the things the next generation will enjoy is the Beersheba Archeological Park, which has been included in city plans since at least 1998. The designated park site lies north of Ramot. Driving north on Highway 406, if you look far off to your left, you can see a part of a stone wall, high atop a ridge. That’s one of the elements that will constitute the park when it’s built.
Three individual sets of ruins are already in place.
Two are replicas, one is authentic.
“We did two replicas of real buildings that we’d found when we were excavating the Ramot neighborhood.
One is a Byzantine farmhouse, a duplicate of a building now covered by housing in Ramot. Some of the stones we used in the replica are original. You can see – they look whiter than the non-original stones, which have a darker appearance.
“The other replica is of a Biblical-era home, which is a copy of one that now lies under an electrical substation.
You can tell just by looking that it dates from the Israelite era because of the way the rooms are formed.
The middle section would have been for the goats and animals, then there are bedrooms and a kitchen. The bathroom? That would have been outside.”
The authentic ruins lie in an idyllic location close to a stream with full-grown trees lining the stream bank.
“This was excavated in 1997, and because it’s been open all this time, we’ve had to restore it twice. It’s a farmhouse – they would have had access to water from the stream, and the soil would have been suitable for olives, wine grapes and maybe other things.
“You can see olive trees here now, but those were planted by the Jewish National Fund relatively recently. They’re not original. It’s clear that even then, Beersheba – the area right around today’s bus station – was the main center of commerce.
“Then there were the churches, the graveyards extending out from them. And then here, farther out, were the farms. This particular house would probably have held two families, it’s quite large.
“You think the rooms are small? Not really. There was plenty of room to sleep. Remember that they didn’t have TV or king-sized beds,” Sontag grins.
“Bedrooms were for sleeping. They were very simple.
People would gather in the kitchen, then retreat to the bedrooms to sleep.”
When will the Archeological Park be built? “I don’t know – it’s money. It’s always money. But look over there,” Sontag says, pointing to the plethora of high-rise apartment buildings in Ramot, a short distance away.
“When we excavated here, in the park area, in 1998, none of that existed. There was nothing at all over there except the trees the Jewish National Fund had planted. Now there’s this busy neighborhood.
“So who knows?” One thing we do know: Wherever you find yourself in Beersheba, look down. It’s almost certain you’re standing on top of something extraordinary.”