A modern building project led to the uncovering of ancient dwellings. The findings are exposing much about how people lived in the Byzantine period.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has uncovered in recent weeks a large and impressive compound dating to the Byzantine period. The complex includes an oil press, a wine press and mosaics.

The findings were discovered by chance during a building project in the Ramat Bet Shemesh area. Initially, only blocked cisterns, a cave opening and the tops of several walls were visible on the surface. These clues, pointing to an entire world hidden underground, resulted in an extensive archaeological excavation that exposed vibrant communities dating to the Byzantine period.

An unusually large oil press in a rare state of preservation was exposed in the industrial area of the site.  A large wine press revealed outside the built compound consisted of two treading floors from which the wine must have flowed into a large collecting vat. It seems that these two industries had served as a major source of livelihood.

Several of the residential rooms contain colorful mosaics, including a multicolored one that was adorned with a cluster of grapes surrounded by flowers and set within a geometric frame.Two entire ovens used for baking were also found in the compound.

‘Most Likely a Monastery’

Irene Zilberbod and Tehila Libman, excavation directors on behalf of the IAA, believe that this site was most likely a monastery from the Byzantine period. They stated:

“It is true we did not find a church at the site or an inscription 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. Thus, 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 dwelled in the rooms and carried out their religious activities.”

At some point, probably at the beginning of the Islamic period (7th century CE), during which the Muslims conquered large swaths of the Middle East and instated Islam as the official religion, the compound ceased to function and was subsequently occupied by new residents.

Author: Aryeh Savir
Staff Writer, United with Israel