During May, July and August 2003, trial and salvage excavations were conducted at Khirbat el-Keikh (Permit No. A-3902; map ref. NIG 19953–54/62429–30; OIG 149453–54/12329–30), prior to construction. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by E. Kogan-Zehavi, with the assistance of A. Hajian (surveying), T. Sagiv (field photography), A. Pikovsky (drawing), G. Bijovsky (numismatics) and A. Nagorsky.
The excavation was carried out along the southern fringes of a hill where the ruin of Khirbat el-Keikh is situated. The northern fringes of the hill were excavated in 1994–1995 (ESI 17:114–116), revealing remains of buildings and installations, including winepresses, a burial cave, a cistern and a limekiln. Based on the ceramic finds, the buildings and some of the installations were dated to Iron II and some of the installations—to the Byzantine period.
Nine squares, aligned east–west, were opened in three areas. Two probe trenches were dug by backhoe north of Area 3 and another east–west probe trench was cut at the southern end of the area. The uncovered remains dated to three main periods: a terrace wall and meager building remains from Iron II-III and the Hellenistic period and terrace walls from the Byzantine period.
Area 1 (Fig. 1)
A wall (W11; length 5 m; Fig. 2), aligned northwest-southeast, was exposed at the top of the hill in the north of the excavation. It was built of large, coarsely dressed stones and preserved three courses high. Only the southern side of the wall was uncovered within collapse and it seems that W11 was used as a terrace wall that retained soil and prevented its sliding down from the top of the hill. The wall was abutted by brown soil (L202, L205) that had accumulated during the course of its use, until it collapsed. The soil contained fragments of pottery vessels from various periods, including jar rims from the Hasmonean period (Fig. 3:4, 5), a jug rim from the Roman period (Fig. 3:7), bowls from the end of the Roman–Byzantine period (Fig. 3:1, 2), a holemouth rim from the Byzantine period (Fig. 3:3) and a jar from the end of the Byzantine period (Fig. 3:6). It seems that W11 was not used prior to the Byzantine period and was erected after Wall 10, located to its south, was no longer in use.
Wall 10, oriented east–west, was on the slope of the hill, 4 m south of W11. It was built of coarsely dressed rocks, reinforced with small and large stones and was preserved two courses high (exposed length c. 10 m; Fig. 4). The wall was exposed in Areas 1 and 2 and extended beyond the limits of the excavation. It was founded on a thin layer of gray soil fill that had accumulated on soft chalk bedrock (L125, L203), which had been leveled prior to the construction of the walls (L209). The wall was covered with brown soil that also abutted W11 to the north. An inclined layer of fill that consisted of small and medium-sized stones abutted the northern side of W10 (L137). The destroyed western end of the wall was covered with a stone clearance heap (L206) that was gathered after the wall was no longer in use. The artifacts recovered from the stone clearance heap included jar rims (Fig. 3:9–15) and a lamp nozzle (Fig. 3:21) that dated to the Hasmonean period and a holemouth jar (Fig. 3:8), jars (Fig. 3:16, 17), a krater (Fig. 3:18), a jug (Fig. 3:19) and a juglet (Fig. 3:20) from the Early Roman period.
Wall 10 functioned as a terrace wall that delimited the southern slopes of the hill. The stone clearance heap at the western end of the wall indicates that the terrace ceased to be used probably in the Roman period.
South of the W10 collapse in the western part of the area, part of a building was discovered. Two of its walls (W2, W3), which formed a corner (Fig. 1: Section 2-2; Fig. 5), had survived. The northern end of W3 was inside the northern balk, below the stone collapse of W10 and the stone clearance heap above it (L206).
Wall 12 was mostly located in collapse. Its original line of construction, aligned east–west, was preserved in a cluster of stones to its south. The walls, preserved a single course high, were abutted by a leveled bedrock floor (L210), which was overlain with meager finds that included jar rims (Fig. 6:1–6) and the base of a spindle bottle (Fig. 6:7), dating to the Hellenistic period.
On the natural bedrock and south of the building remains was a cluster of small stones and red soil—probably the remains of construction (L122). The cluster contained potsherds from the Iron Age, including a krater (Fig. 6:8), cooking pots (Fig. 6:9, 10), a jar (Fig. 6:11) and a lamp (Fig. 6:12), and from the Hellenistic period, including a krater (Fig. 6:13) and a jar (Fig. 6:14).
Area 3 (Fig. 7)
A terrace wall, aligned east–west (W13; Fig. 8), was discovered in the area at the foot of the hill and at the southern end of the site. Its eastern end was destroyed and its western end extended beyond the limits of the excavation area. The western part of the wall was founded on bedrock and its eastern part rested on brown soil fill (L215). The wall, built of fieldstones and small stones in dry construction, was preserved two courses high.
Another wall (W14) was exposed north of W13; it was oriented north–south and only a very small section of it survived.
The fill that accumulated beneath the walls and above bedrock (Loci 148, 211, 213, 215) contained fragments of pottery vessels, including a jar (Fig. 9:4) from the Hasmonean period; a jar (Fig. 9:5) and a lamp fragment (Fig. 9:7) from the Early Roman period; and red-slipped bowls (Fig. 9:1, 2), a Late Roman C-type bowl (Fig. 9:3) and a jar (Fig. 9:6) from the Byzantine period. A bronze coin (IAA 80560), minted in Jerusalem and dating to the Herodian period, was also found.
The ceramic finds show that the terraces were probably constructed in the Byzantine period and the region was cultivated at this time. The building foundations on bedrock in Areas 1 and 2 were probably from the Iron Age and the Hellenistic period. The fragments of pottery vessels from the Early Roman period, found in the stone clearance heap in Area 2 and in the fill of the terraces in Area 3, may point to an ancient settlement in the region.