In January 2011, a salvage excavation was conducted south of the Ashqelon National Park (Permit No. A-6120; map ref. 156845/618483; Fig. 1) after a sarcophagus was exposed by the rain in a modern streambed and was excavated by antiquity robbers. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by S. Ganor (field photography and drafting), Y. Israel and O. Hofesh, with the assistance of T. Gini and R. Bar-Nathan (pottery reading), J. Bukengolts (pottery restoration), C. Hersch (drawing), C. Amit (studio photography), N. Zak (plans), as well as Z. Levy, H. Levavi, A. Pencher, A. Gizayev, T. Cohen and L. Cohen of the Nature and Parks Authority.
The excavation was conducted in a modern streambed created as a result of diverting a drainage system westward when the Newe Yam neighborhood was built in Ashqelon (Fig. 2). The excavation area and its vicinity constitute part of an ancient necropolis of Ashqelon; most of it is covered with soil and sand dunes. The excavation unearthed the remains of a Late Roman mausoleum (Figs. 3, 4), which contained a sarcophagus and a cist grave. The remains were poorly preserved due to flooding in the streambed over the course of time.
Only the eastern and southern walls of the mausoleum, built of dressed limestone, were unearthed; the rest of the structure was not excavated. An entrance (width 0.65 m; Fig. 5) was fixed in the southern wall. Four stones placed on their narrow side (height 0.3 m) in the bottom part of the opening served as a raised threshold or step. The opening was blocked with carefully arranged stones (W3; size of stones c. 0.3 × 0.6 m). The southern wall, on either side of the entrance, was built of medium-sized ashlars (W2, W4; overall exposed length 2.15 m, preserved height 0.9 m); the full breadth of the wall was not excavated. The structure’s eastern wall (W1; length 4.05 m, width 0.6 m, preserved height 0.9 m) was completely exposed and built of headers and stretchers (Fig. 6). Engaged pillars (1.00 × 1.13 m; Fig. 7) protruding c. 0.5 m from the walls were revealed in both corners of the building.
A stone sarcophagus (0.72 × 2.20 m) was found inside the mausoleum, and just to the west of the sarcophagus was a cist tomb (0.8 × 1.2 m) covered with stone slabs; it was not excavated. The sarcophagus was aligned in a north–south direction, and its northeastern corner was next to the building’s northeastern pillar. The sarcophagus’ lid is gabled (height 0.15 m); the two sides of the gable are not of equal width (0.42 m and 0.46 m). The four corners of the lid are ornamented with rounded dressed horns (width 0.2 m, height 0.22 m). A groove was carved on the bottom part of the lid. The long front side of the sarcophagus (height 0.65 m; Fig. 8), which faced the center of the room, is decorated; the two short sides are dressed, but were left undecorated; and the long side facing the mausoleum’s eastern wall is unworked. On the front of the sarcophagus is a dressed, schematic relief of an amphora flanked by bull heads with large horns. The two bull heads are not identical, and their horns are of different sizes. These decorations are characteristic of the Late Roman period, although their artistic level is not particularly high when compared with the decorations of other sarcophagi that were discovered in the Ashqelon region.
The ceramic finds recovered in the excavation include fragments of a deep bowl (Fig. 9:1) and an early type of a Gaza jar (Fig. 9:2), both dating to the second–third centuries CE, as well as two complete clay lamps. One of the lamps has a discus lamp (Fig. 9:3) and is decorated with a goblet at its center, from which flora emanate, and a geometric design around the filling hole. Lamps of this type are typical of the Late Roman period (second–third centuries CE). The second lamp has a small filling hole (Fig. 9:4) surrounded by a geometric decoration. The wick hole is decorated, and a knob handle is affixed to the end of the lamp. To date, no exact parallel of this lamp with the same form and decoration has been published. Lamps of this type are a local imitation of Roman lamps, and like the latter they date to the second–third centuries CE.
The mausoleum is a type of tomb that is known along the southern coastal plain. The proximity of the mausoleum to Tel Ashqelon indicates that it belonged to the city’s southern necropolis during the Roman period. The date of the structure is based in part on the two lamps and the Gaza jar, which point to a date in the second–third centuries CE. The building’s magnificent construction style and the placement of a decorated sarcophagus in the structure indicate that this mausoleum belonged to members of the upper class in Ashqelon during the Roman period.