The city of Elusa was first identified in 1838 by E. Robinson (Robinson and Smith 1841; Fig. 1). The few surviving aboveground remains—a result of extensive spoliation—were subsequently described by various explorers, while excavations only began in the 1930s, when small-scale probing was undertaken by the Colt expedition (Baly 1938). More substantial excavations were directed by A. Negev in several campaigns between 1973 and 1990, at which time the city’s theatre and cathedral were uncovered, among other finds (Negev 1976; 1983; 1993). Another excavation by H. Goldfus from 1997 to 2000 reinvestigated both the cathedral and the theatre, and it also uncovered a pottery workshop on the southern edge of the city (Goldfus, Arubas and Bowes 2000; Goldfus and Fabian 2000). More recently, renewed excavations at the site were initiated by the University of Cologne (Heinzelmann and Erickson-Gini 2015; Pickartz, Tezkan and Heinzelmann 2015; Heinzelmann et al. 2018; Schöne et al. 2019; Di Segni 2020; Schöne et al. 2020), while the University of Haifa conducted investigations of waste mounds on the outskirts of the city in the Spring of 2015 (Bar-Oz, Weissbrod and Erickson-Gini 2016).
Although important public structures were previously unearthed at the site, much of the city’s layout and information concerning its development though time remained undocumented. The current project aims to understand the long-term transformation of Elusa from a Nabatean trading post to a large city in the Roman and Byzantine periods, as well as its eventual decline and final abandonment in the eighth century CE.
Between 2015 and 2018, the entire surface of the city was systematically surveyed by sequentially deploying grids of 30 × 30 m subdivided at 3 m intervals (Fig. 2). The visible architectural remains documented in the survey comprise c. 600 wall segments. The recording of surface finds of various categories allowed conclusions to be reached regarding the character and function of different buildings. These finds consisted of architectural elements (e.g., capitals, column drums, door jambs and lintels), marble fragments, stone and glass tesserae, wall tiles and roof tiles, grinding stones, scoria and ceramic wasters. It is known that in the Negev, marble and tesserae were mainly used in the construction of churches, the marble and stone tesserae in floors and the glass tesserae in vault decorations; wall tiles were associated with bathhouses or kilns; and roof tiles were exclusively used in churches. Recent and modern remains, e.g. burials, were also documented in the survey.
After evaluating the performance of several different methods of geophysical prospection—ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity tomography, electromagnetic induction, electrical resistivity and magnetometry—the latter technique proved to be the most suitable under local conditions (Fig. 3; see Pickartz, Tezkan and Heinzelmann 2015). The entire surface of the city (45 hectares) was measured by a four-sensor Caesium-magnetometer (Geometrics G-858), revealing the urban features of the site, including the network of wide streets, some with flanking porticoes, which could also be detected on the surface of the site by long narrow depressions, and numerous buildings, some of which were documented in sufficient detail to allow the recognition of individual rooms.
Twenty-one locations within the site were selected for excavation (Sondages 1–21; Fig. 4), based on the results of geophysical prospection. These areas were excavated between 2015 and 2019 to verify the results of preliminary prospection and obtain detailed stratigraphic and chronological information. Most of these excavations extended over a relatively limited area and were dug down to the bedrock or virgin sand, where circumstances permitted, by gradually reducing the excavation area and creating stepped sections. This was done in most excavation areas to obtain as complete a stratigraphy as possible. Of particular interest was the investigation of streets, revealing detailed and highly resolved stratigraphic sequences of regular renewals of the pavement and phases of neglect in their maintenance; these sequences were examined in conjunction with documentation of adjacent buildings. Other excavation areas were opened to expose particular buildings of interest, including a very large bath complex of the Roman period, a basilica, two dwellings of the tower-house type and a large peristyle building.
Sondage 1 (2015–2016; c. 7 × 12 m) encompassed a street intersection at the city center (Figs. 5, 6). After removal of the surface layer, two adjacent buildings and an excellently preserved street pavement made of well-cut stone slabs were exposed. Small probes were excavated under the street pavement and inside the two buildings. Underneath the street pavement, a total of 26 additional street horizons made of compressed limestone chippings could be discerned. The buildings revealed several construction phases dated between the second and the sixth centuries CE. The virgin soil was reached at a depth of about 4 m.
Sondage 2 (2015; 3.5 × 10.0 m), aligned orthogonally to a street revealed by magnetometry, exposed the street and an adjacent building. Remains of an Early Islamic-period settlement phase were discovered directly below the surface, atop buildings of the Roman–Byzantine periods that had previously collapsed. A probe into the street portico in front of the facade of the buildings revealed a well-preserved stone pavement and many street layers, allowing the retrieval of material for dating both the street and the buildings. Also uncovered in this area, under the slab pavement, were remains of what appeared to be a metal workshop, predating the construction of the street portico.
Sondage 3 (2015–2016; 4 × 10 m; Figs. 7, 8) exposed a street intersection and included the northwestern corner of the Roman-period bath (see also Sondage 17, 21, below) and another building with a front portico across the street. About 40 different street horizons (depth > 4.5 m) were uncovered in the excavation, covering a time span between the first/second and the seventh/eighth centuries CE. The adjacent buildings were dated to the second–fourth centuries CE. Deposits from below the earliest street horizon contained ceramic material dating from the first half of the second century BCE and yielded a radiocarbon date in the third century BCE, both dates attesting to occupation of this part of the settlement well before the construction of the street network.
An exceptionally large sewer of the mid-fifth century CE, which drained the Roman-period bathhouse and extended below the main road leading out of the city, was also exposed. It was free of accumulations and was traced over a length of 85 m.
Sondages 4 and 5 (2015), located in the city center, represent find spots of column drums visible on the surface within a rectangular depression surrounded by rubble mounds—the remains of a large courtyard building. The building was documented in the magnetometric survey as regular clusters of rooms arranged around a wide rectangular space. Sondage 4 (3 × 13 m) was located in the north wing of the building and encompassed a room, parts of a portico of the building’s peristyle courtyard and part of the courtyard. The excavation under the peristyle exposed an earlier building, of the second century CE, the orientation of which deviated from that of the courtyard building by c. 30 degrees; the walls of this earlier building were built of mud-bricks with a limestone foundation. This building was levelled and replaced by the courtyard building in the third–fourth centuries CE. Sondage 5 (3 × 10 m; Fig. 9), located in the southwestern corner of the building, exposed a portico in front of part of the building which faced the main street.
The courtyard building was damaged by an earthquake in the fifth century CE and was extensively reconstructed using the original foundation; the portico facing the main street was added at this time. Based on the construction style of the courtyard building and the exceptional number of amphorae uncovered within it, this building may have had a commercial function. The building appears to have been abandoned after the mid-sixth century CE and spoliated during the following century.
Sondages 6–8 comprised three small trenches, in which only the topsoil was removed to evaluate certain anomalies found in the magnetometric mapping.
Sondages 9 and 12 (2017) exposed a type of dwelling typical of the Negev settlements—the tower-house. Several of these massive structures were identified at the site during the archaeological survey, one of which was excavated in the southern part of the city. Sondage 9 (c. 6.0 × 9.5 m) contained a substantial part of the tower-house, including a very large staircase and the building’s foundation. Sondage 12 (2.0 × 6.5 m) was opened to investigate the courtyard surrounding the tower-house. The house was exceptionally well preserved with walls surviving up to 5.5 m and retaining the plaster coating. The structure was built of well-cut limestone blocks (length up to 1.77 m). Pottery from the fill of the foundation indicates that it was constructed in the second half of the fifth century CE. The building and its courtyard were in use until the late sixth or early seventh centuries CE, after which the structure gradually collapsed.
Sondage 10 (2017–2018; 5 × 11 m) was opened in a street in the eastern part of the city, where the magnetometry revealed a residential quarter surrounded by streets that deviated from the orientation of the rest of the city’s street network by 15 degrees. It exposed an intersection of streets and the exterior wall of an adjacent building (Fig. 10). A sequence of street horizons reaching 4.5 m down to bedrock was exposed. Its earliest phases of use date from the first or early second centuries CE and are associated with remains of mud-brick structures. Two stone buildings flanking the street were uncovered at an elevation 2 m above the mud-brick walls. These buildings were in use between the fourth century CE and the Early Islamic period, divulging several phases of reconstruction.
Sondage 11 (2017–2019; 4 × 13 m) was opened to examine a street (width 4.3 m) and two buildings flanking it on each of its sides, in the eastern side of the eastern residential quarter mentioned above. The excavation revealed 23 successive horizons of use of the street, dating between the fourth and the later part of the seventh centuries CE. In its last phases of use, a winepress was installed in the middle of the street. The two buildings were dated to between the fourth/fifth centuries CE and the early Umayyad period, revealing multiple phases of reconstruction. Such continuity in occupation of the settlement into the Early Islamic period, also documented in Sondage 3 (see above), appears to represent a gradual process of ruralisation. Agricultural activity began to take place within the city after the urban infrastructure, such as the street network, ceased to be used and maintained.
Sondages 13, 14, 19 and 20 exposed a large church (Basilica B) in the northern part of the city. The church was identified in the archaeological survey by high concentrations of mosaic tesserae made of stone and glass, marble fragments and column drums, and was also documented in the magnetometric survey. The main apse and the atrium were clearly visible as aboveground depressions. Sondage 13 (2018; 2 × 17 m) extended from a street outside the church through the main apse, revealing parts of the presbytery and the synthronon; Sondage 14 (2018; 3 × 4 m) revealed parts of the northwestern side-aisle; Sondage 19 (2019; 4.5 × 11.0 m) revealed a room north of the apse—probably a pastophorium—with a well-preserved floor made of stone slabs and a threshold in a large doorway connecting the room with the side-aisle; and Sondage 20 (2019; 3 × 4 m) revealed the northwestern corner of the church and parts of the side-aisle, the atrium and an adjacent room outside the church.
These sondages revealed several phases of use of the church during the fifth and sixth centuries CE, including the addition of elaborate marble lining and a chancel screen, of which only fragments have been preserved, extensive renovation of the floor and the decoration of the vault with mosaics. The church was probably abandoned at the end of the Byzantine period, after which it was systematically spoliated and eventually collapsed. Its ground plan can be reconstructed in detail based on the magnetometric survey and the excavations.
Sondage 15 (2018–2019; 4 × 12 m), located in the northwestern part of the city, revealed yet another street and parts of buildings flanking it on both sides. Following removal of the top deposits, deep soundings were dug into the street and the southernmost building, reaching down to sterile soil. The excavation of the street revealed 23 phases of renewal, dating from between the early Hellenistic period and the seventh century CE, and a sewer running along the course of the street. The southernmost of the adjacent buildings uncovered in the sounding was erected in the fourth century CE and remained in use until the Early Islamic period, undergoing numerous alterations in the intervening time span. Among the alterations was the addition of a massive retaining wall in the sixth century CE, which stabilized the facade, probably following earthquake damage.
Sondage 16 (2018; 2.5 × 2.5 m) was a small trench opened to explore the date of another tower-house that had been partially excavated by A. Negev in 1973 (unpublished). Given the surprisingly late fourth-century date of the tower-house uncovered in Sondages 9 and 12 (see above), the trench was positioned beside the exterior of the tower-house and dug down to the building’s foundation to determine its date (Fig. 11). The trench revealed an undisturbed stratigraphy under the backfill of Negev’s old excavation. Preliminary evaluation of the pottery showed that the building was erected during the fourth century CE and remained in use until the late sixth century CE, collapsing by the beginning of the following century. The interior of the tower-house was cleaned to document its plan.
Sondages 17 and 21 (2019) were opened to investigate a large Roman-period bath complex (50 × 70 m). The complex was initially identified during the archaeological survey on the basis of visible walls, a strongly undulating surface indicating a massive collapsed structure, the identification of high concentrations of fired bricks, marble fragments and ash, as well as geophysical evidence. This complex consisted of a series of large bathing halls flanked on the east by an elongated courtyard and on the west by service rooms. The complex also included what seems like a water tower on its northeastern side, which was partially excavated by A. Negev in 1973 (unpublished).
Sondage 17 (6 × 9 m) exposed one of the heated bathing halls and an associated service area with walls preserved up to a height of 5.5 m, consisting of well-cut ashlars with a caementicium core. The interior of the hall contained remains of a large water basin and related ducts. The walls and water basin were originally entirely covered with marble tiles. An intact hypocaust was found below the floor of the hall, connected through a stoking channel to a praefurnium, in which especially large quantities of charred wood and ashes were found. Sondage 21 (3 × 7 m) was opened to investigate a side entrance to the bath complex and an associated portico facing the street.
The finds from both Sondages 17 and 21 indicate that the bathing complex was built in the late second or early third century CE and remained in use until the late sixth century CE, while undergoing several renovation phases. The building was systematically spoliated in the succeeding century and finally collapsed before the end of that century. A special find in Sondage 21 was a limestone bearing a dedicatory inscription to Emperor Constantius I and Caesar Valerius Severus (see Di Segni 2020). The inscription is dated to 305/6 CE, making it the earliest to mention the name Elusa and its city status. It may have been part of a pedestal belonging to a group of statues honouring the tetrarchs of the time.
Sondage 18 (2019; 3 × 13 m) exposed another street and two adjacent buildings in the southernmost part of the city. The street revealed a 4 m deep stratigraphy with multiple renewal phases spanning between the second and the end of the sixth century CE, while the construction date of the two buildings was in the fourth–fifth centuries CE. It is noteworthy that from the latter half of the sixth century CE the street was used for dumping garbage, indicating the end of regulated and systematic disposal of municipal waste in the mounds surrounding the city and providing signs of a municipal crisis well before the Arab conquest of the region in the mid-seventh century (see also Bar-Oz et al. 2019:8241).
The investigations carried out at Haluza provide important insights into the settlement history of Elusa. Finds from the third–second centuries BCE, uncovered at the base of two of the sondages, reinforce previous claims that the settlement was founded at that time, probably as a trading post (Negev 1983:230; 2017). This early beginning of settlement activity may have been followed by a hiatus in the first century BCE, after which came a process of significant urbanization in the Roman period. At that time, the settlement expanded almost to its maximum size and attained the typical features of a Roman city, such as a theatre and a bath complex. The status of Elusa as the principal city in the Negev is clearly indicated by the fact that it had the only theatre and the largest bath known in that region during the Roman period. The dedicatory inscription found in this excavation demonstrates the status of the settlement as a polis from as early as 306 CE. Large-scale public and private building activities from the fourth century CE onward—such as the erection of several churches, at least two of which were large buildings, and of the extensive courtyard building uncovered in the city center, which may have had a mercantile function—attest to the city’s growing prosperity. Further urban development is dated to the mid-fifth century CE, when streets across the city were paved and porticos were built in front of private and public buildings. A high level of municipal organization is attested by the systematic street cleaning and the removal of refuse to large waste mounds along the outskirts of the city.
Clear signs of crisis, such as gradual abandonment, the provisional repair of buildings and the termination of organized waste disposal, began to appear during the second half of the sixth century CE. Urban disintegration intensified in the seventh century CE, as increasingly larger lots within the city became vacated, and activities such as wine production and garbage disposal took place in areas formerly occupied by the city’s main streets. By the end of the eighth century CE, Elusa was entirely abandoned.