Beersheba's big dig

The city is not only getting a newly renovated station – it also got a bird’s-eye view of the remains of a bustling Byzantine city as they were excavated by the Antiquities Authority.

The finds were probably the remains of two houses 521 (photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)
The finds were probably the remains of two houses 521
For several months, Byzantine Beersheba presented itself up close and personal for bus passengers riding into the city.
Reconstruction of the city’s venerable but old and dreary bus station required an archeological dig to see what lay under the facility, and bus passengers who looked out their windows were treated to a bird’s-eye view. Once the excavations began, archeologists were delighted to find that just a foot or two below the surface rested part of the remains of the bustling Byzantine city of Beersheba, home to several thousand people and a popular stopping place for Negev travelers.
Interestingly enough, the site of the Old City bus station marked the city center for both the ancient civilization of some 1,500 years ago and today’s modern version.
“For Byzantine Beersheba, this was it,” says Dr. Daniel Varga, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who conducted the dig. “This was the heart of the Byzantine city, right here. Two Byzantine churches were built within a radius of 300 meters from here, and right over there was the Roman military camp.”
All of this came to light when the municipality decided to build a new bus station in the same location as the existing one, which dates from the early 1970s. Instead of shifting the entire transportation operation to some other site during construction, the city decided to keep the busy station open and functioning throughout, closing off and rebuilding it, section by section. Before actual reconstruction began, the IAA conducted its initial inspection, designed to allow antiquities experts to see what, if anything, of archeological significance might be buried underground.
“We didn’t dig deep, just a little below the surface, because we didn’t know what might be there,” said Flavia Sontag, the IAA’s district archeologist for Beersheba and the Northern Negev, in a November 2009 interview. “We had an idea there might be something of high-level importance, because we knew what other Byzantine finds there’d been in this same area. But before we could make any specific plans for excavation, we had to see what the city intended to do with the area. If all they wanted to do was reconfigure something on the surface – driveways or parking areas again, for example – we’d do just a small excavation. If they wanted to do something more intrusive, something that would require more excavation, then we’d have to examine the area more closely.”
With the city plans in hand – designed to turn the worn, gray building into a glitzy, light-filled modern facility – the IAA dug in.
“We took a tractor and made some probes and pretty quickly came to the conclusion that there were antiquities directly below,” recalls Varga. “We made a grid, then started digging. We excavated 25 4-by-4-meter squares, each separated by a meter. Shortly after starting, we realized that what we’d found was the Beersheba underworld.”
Ultimately it took six archeologists and some 70 workers to uncover this find, he says. “What you see is the remains of what were probably two houses, living quarters for two big families. Of most interest were the underground rooms dug into the earth, underneath the houses.
You can see them easily there – they were filled with very soft earth, loess, very different from the extremely hard natural earth of the surrounding area.
“What were these underground rooms for? We don’t know for sure,” he continues.
“Storage, maybe, or perhaps for cooking. Some of these rooms were not completely below the surface, but were partly open. They may have been covered with some kind of organic material as protection from the sun or wind.”
One of the internal structures in the houses was a circular hole surrounded by rock. Was it a well? “No, not a well,” the excavation director says. “We didn’t find any wells here – we’ve found them, but not here.”
He speculates that “most likely that circular structure had something to do with grinding, perhaps grain. Over there is an entrance to another room that didn’t survive. There’s a doorway, then downstairs there’s a semi-underground room. In some places there are two full stories. There’s also a silo for storage that they chose to put down into the earth instead of building up. There’s an underground yard with stairs. You can see that in some places they have stone walls on the lower level, and then the mud bricks on top, maybe because they’re lighter.”
Artifacts were abundant.
“We found tools, jars, cooking pots,” he continues. “It says a lot about their culture – how they lived. Most of the some came from other places in the Mediterranean basin – Egypt and North Africa – so we know there were some exchanges going on. Another key find was 120 coins that dated from the Byzantine period. They haven’t been cleaned yet, so we’re not sure exactly where they were struck, but we do recognize them as Byzantine.”
THE ANCIENT city of Beersheba has been built, occupied and lost more than once. This underground city survived partly because the area had been abandoned for so many centuries. These homes dated from the Byzantine era – 313 to 636 CE – when the city served as the front line of defense against attacks from violent desert tribes. In the seventh century, when Arab tribes conquered the area, the city was simply abandoned. For over 1,000 years, it languished as little more than a barren stretch of land dotted with wells used by local Beduin. Not until the 1900s, when the Turkish Ottomans, who’d conquered the whole area in 1517, decided to consolidate their power and build an administrative center in Beersheba, was there any significant construction.
But why would the Byzantine residents leave, just walk away from their homes? “We don’t know,” Varga says. “Most of the rooms were either empty or with just a few tools left behind. There was no sign of violence or destruction. Why did they leave? Where did they go?... There was no sign of war. They appeared to have just packed up and moved. Bones? Yes, we found animal bones but no human bones – thank goodness we didn’t find human bones. If we had, then all construction would have stopped for a long period of time. We were lucky there.”
Was the city they found actually called “Beersheba”? “Yes, we believe so. We’ve found writing that mentions Beersheba, and we found the name in mosaics at the end of the Byzantine period and at the beginning of the early Islamic period in two different places. They show representations of two cities in the Holy Land, and one is Beersheba. One shows a city with houses – and it was a real city, probably with a few thousand residents. There were at least two churches, with their graveyards. The remains of one lies under the traffic circle near the Negev Mall and the other was by the municipal shuk.”
The lack of habitation during the long period between the demise of the Byzantine city and the Ottoman decision in the early 1900s to build a modern city accounts for the ancient remains lying so close to the surface.
“Without any construction for so many centuries, there was nothing to destroy it,” he notes. “The floor of the bus station was more or less at the same level as it was in the sixth century. After the Byzantine Empire collapsed and the city was abandoned, almost everything above ground simply disappeared. It wasn’t destroyed. Most likely it was just that when it was abandoned to the elements, it simply disintegrated. For archeological reasons, that was fortunate – it meant that the underground city was preserved.”
He adds, “Another lucky factor was that when the bus station was built in the 1970s, a large part of the area was covered over and used as driveways and bus parking areas. That protected everything underneath.”
FOR TAMAR Gresser, a third-year archeology student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the bus station dig was a chance to explore an area she’d known her whole life.
Although she’s been involved in several digs, she says, “this one was so much fun because we found so many interesting artifacts. Not that it started out that way. In the very beginning, we weren’t finding much at all – we kept saying they must have been awfully tidy, because they didn’t leave much lying around. But that’s what I like about archeology: It’s like being a child again. You just never know what’s going to happen... so everything is a surprise.”
This excavation was a particular surprise, she continues. “When you first start excavating the squares, you can’t really see what you have. So we found walls, stairs and still couldn’t see what it really was. But then came a moment when it just clicked, and we all saw the big picture. We could see that we were in a carved room, an underground room, beneath the regular house. It was about the same size as the house, but had been carved out of the land underneath. That was really exciting.”
Finding the coins was another exciting moment, she says.
“It started with eight coins we found in one of the squares. Wow, I thought, I’ve never seen so many coins! But then they just kept coming and coming, more and more – it was unbelievable! We found 50 coins in that one square, and about 120 altogether. We speculated that they might have been in a cloth or leather bag, something that disintegrated, apparently something lost or left behind. We found pottery, too, some made locally, some not. There was an oil lamp from Carthage that was interesting. We could see that the people who lived here passed things around or were engaged in trade.”
Of course, any activity in modern-day Beersheba tends to have its scary moments, and the excavation at the bus station was no exception.
“The first day of the excavation we had three ‘Code Red’ sirens – warnings of incoming missiles,” she notes. “Every time, we’d run for the bathrooms that are under the bus station itself. There’s a long and very steep stairway to get down there, and we’d all drop everything and run. It was okay – there was enough time, but those little breaks went a long way toward making that first day more memorable.”
THE BUS station dig is only the most recent of many excavations that have been carried out over the last several years. Look at a map of the city, and the completed digs make up a jigsaw puzzle: Even though lots of pieces are still missing, from what’s there, a picture of what life was like during Byzantine times emerges.
Summers must have been hot. The underground dwellings constructed during Byzantine times are unusual – more characteristic of the city’s Chalcolithic era than Byzantine – which has led some archeologists to suggest they may have been used to provide a cool shelter from the hot sun. But Byzantine Beersheba residents also had another way to cool down. Just a short distance from the bus station dig, another excavation reveals an elegant Byzantine spa, complete with hot- and cool-water bathing pools, warming ovens and everything else needed for an elaborate and comfortable bathing experience.
The city center included several churches in that strongly Christian-oriented period. There may have been as many as four in Beersheba, in addition to what may have been a monastery in a parcel of unexcavated land off Hebron Road. As was the custom at that time, the dead were buried in the land immediately surrounding the churches. When the Negev Mall was built – just across the street from the bus station – some 150 graves were found during excavation.
Before 2000, when construction on top of ancient graveyards was still permitted, ancient graves were found under what is now the Kiryat Hamemshala Shopping Center, the Rassco Center and several surrounding office buildings.
Along Hebron Road, underneath today’s Muslim cemetery, is another Byzantine burial ground – and possibly, although it’s not confirmed, a Jewish burial ground under that.
From previous digs, it appears that in Byzantine times, extended families lived together, eating mostly cereals like wheat, barley and pulses, peas and beans. Goats and sheep were raised.
During the summer months, the flocks were probably moved from place to place for grazing, then returned to the dwelling places for the winter.
Byzantine farm houses have been excavated in several outlying areas, including in an area near the new Ramot neighborhood, as well as in the area where the new hi-tech parks are being built, adjacent to BGU. Farm houses are distinguishable by their four-room structure, plus a guard fence, and by the fact that a regular supply of water would be nearby.
There might also be grapevines, olive trees or other indications of food production. Food produced in these outlying areas was probably brought into the inner city area to be sold.
Today, food is still sold in the bus station – shwarma, sandwiches, baked goods, and of course felafel and humous, which, being made of chickpeas, probably isn’t much different from what Beershebites ate 1,500 years ago.
Now that the excavation is complete, what happens to the remains of the ancient city? “When we leave, the conservation crew will come in,” Varga says. “They’ll remove a few of the interesting items we found here, a few of the structures, and store them until the new bus station is ready to open. Then they’ll be reconstructed just as we found them. They’ll be on display in the new bus station. As for the rest of it, it will be covered over again, preserved, and left like it was.”
For the excavation director, who made aliya from Uruguay in 1990, archeology offers a chance to be in touch with past cultures, a chance to study them, learn from them.
“For me, the most exciting thing is finding writings, epigraphic things, because basically, I’m really a historian,” he says. “We found two small written things here, in this dig, both of them written in Greek, the common language at the time. While it’s true that the Roman and Byzantine periods were dominated by Christians and Latin was the language of the government, what the people themselves spoke here was Greek. We found some writings in Hebrew and Aramaic, and a few in Latin, but Greek predominates, even in the churches. If they wanted people to be able to read it, they had to put it in Greek. Finding those writings was a high moment for me.”
Will they be sad to see it all covered over, repaved, with new structures on top? “No, not really,” he says. “It was good, we learned a lot. There will be a nice public display of some of the most interesting finds.”
“We couldn’t leave all the excavations open,” Gresser smiles. “If we did that here in Israel, there wouldn’t be anywhere we could build anything new.”