Six excavation areas were opened (A–F; total area c. 500 × 800 m; Fig. 2) within and adjacent to the village of Beit Nattif, which dates from the Ottoman and British Mandate periods. An exhaustive excavation was conducted in Areas A–D and F, which extend along the outskirts of the village and on the hills to the north and west, while in the center of the village (Area E), a limited excavation took place in several sub-areas around its ruined buildings. Trial trenches dug mechanically prior to the excavation uncovered ancient remains. The excavation revealed remains of buildings, agricultural installations and burial caves from the Early Roman, Late Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
The village of Beit Nattif was documented by early European explorers who surveyed the country (Robinson and Smith 1856:15–20; Guérin 1868:374–377; Conder and Kitchener 1883:24) in the second half of the nineteenth century CE; they recorded the boundaries of the village, agricultural areas and burial sites. Excavations undertaken at the site on behalf of the British Mandate Department of Antiquities (Baramki 1936) uncovered remains from the Roman and Byzantine periods. These remains were consistent with descriptions by Josephus (Jewish War III:3, 55) and Pliny the Elder (Natural History V:XV), who recorded the existence of a capital city called Bet Letefa (Bethleptephene) in the Judaean toparchy. This city has been identified as Horbat Bet Natif (Schürer 1907:232–233; Avi-Yonah 1953:151; Tsafrir, Di Segni and Green 1994:84; Zissu and Klein 2011:211–212).
To a large extent, the current excavation areas overlap some of the sites covered by the detailed survey of Ramat Bet Shemesh (Dagan 2010: Sites 308.1–308.3, 317.3, 331, 370.2, 370.8, 389.2; Dagan 2011). A development survey focusing on Neighborhood E (License Nos. S-173/2010, S-183/2010) documented all the surface remains. A previous excavation was also conducted in an area that partially overlaps the current excavation area, in order to document the agricultural systems—field walls and terraces—that were visible on the surface and to uncover some of the buildings from the village and the immediate vicinity (Radashkovsky 2019).
Area A extends across the northern slope of a spur that stretches between the center of the village in the east and Khirbat Badd el-Banat in the west. During the Ottoman and British Mandate periods, this area was used as farmland, with terrace walls and agricultural plots. A few built tombs (not excavated) also belong to this period. The area was probably used mainly for burial and agriculture in earlier periods as well, since architectural remains were found only at its eastern end, near the village boundaries.
A monumental structure (Building SA1; Fig. 3) flanked by three installations (1–3) was uncovered in the eastern part of Area A, near the village. The building, dated to the Late Roman period (third–fourth centuries CE), contained several rooms characterized by wide walls that were carefully built with dressed ashlars, pilasters, an apse and fine plaster floors. The building lay beneath the Ottoman-period road that led to the village from the north, and this road probably preserves the route of an earlier road; the building was therefore located at the settlement’s northern entrance.
Three phases of use were identified in Installation 1: in the earliest phase, it was used as a miqveh (ritual bath), and in the subsequent phase it was converted into a columbarium; its function in the latest phase is unclear. The latest phase is probably contemporary with the adjacent building, i.e. the Late Roman period, while the first two phases predate this building.
Two phases of use were identified in Installation 2: a reservoir that was later used as a refuse pit. The installation contained a deliberate fill that yielded pottery sherds, glass fragments, animal bones and stone tools, some of which completely or partially restorable. The ceramic finds include a variety of imported vessels (Fig. 4) and dozens of fragments of Bet Natif oil lamps and figurines. There is a high frequency of pig jaws among the animal bones. Most of the finds date from the Late Roman period (third–fourth centuries CE), and only a few are from the Byzantine period.
Two phases of use were identified in Installation 3: a cistern that was later used as a refuse pit. Unlike the pit in Installation 2, the refuse in this installation yielded only simple, local pottery, dating from the second–third centuries CE. In the western part of Area A, a number of burial caves, quarries, cisterns, field walls and a well called Bir et-Tawil were documented (Dagan 2010:294–295, Site 370.2, Figs. 370.6–370.7).
Area B extends along the western slope of a hill that stretches northward from the center of the village. Several buildings belonging to the village were identified, more sparsely dispersed than were those in the center of the village; two of them were excavated. One of the buildings (SB1; Fig. 5) was used as a residence, and according to British Mandate aerial photographs it was the largest building in the area. The building had a large main unit (9 × 16 m) with three smaller units. The second structure (SB2; Fig. 6) was used for burial (a Sheikh’s tomb?) and had two units. Three small cist graves were found beside the structure. The antiquities, which predate the village, include a large industrial winepress (Fig. 7), a few agricultural installations, quarries and burial caves (not excavated). Most of the burial caves were reused as dwellings and storage facilities in the Ottoman and British Mandate periods.
Area C extends across the northeastern slope of a hill to the north of the village center. It yielded meager remains, including a rectangular dwelling (Building SC1) from the Ottoman–Mandate periods comprising two rooms; several quarries (Fig. 8); rudimentary agricultural installations, such as cisterns and a field tower; and burial caves (not excavated).
Area D, on the upper part of a slope, starches across several natural rock terraces that overlook Nahal Yarmut. The main find in the area was an Early Roman farmstead that included a main southern building and a smaller northern building (Fig. 9). Near the buildings were a silo, a miqveh and two bathtubs large enough to sit in. Additional installations related to the farmstead included cisterns, various pressing installations, basins and cupmarks. A large winepress, a kiln and a few field walls were also excavated.
Area E was opened within the boundaries of the village, as seem in aerial photographs and evinced in the remains in the area. Four sub-areas were opened (E1–E4; Fig. 10), three of them in courtyards identified beside buildings, and the fourth in a building, beneath which an earlier, rounded structure was detected. A layer of collapsed rubble was removed with mechanical equipment in these areas.
An excavation square (4 × 4 m) opened in E1, the southern of the sub-areas, revealed a subterranean complex that included a hewn cave and a built vault (Fig. 11). The complex’s original function is unknown—it may have served as a water reservoir—but at a later stage it was converted into a refuse pit. It was filled with pottery sherds, glass fragments and metal items dating from late in the Ottoman period (nineteenth–twentieth centuries CE), as well as with animal bones; the pit was not fully excavated.
In Area E2, a circular pottery kiln was partly hewn into the rock and partly built of ashlars (Fig. 12). A rock-cut passage led to the kiln from the north. A wall discovered in the center of the kiln, which probably supported a floor that separated the firebox from the ware chamber.
Six squares opened in Area E3 contained walls, mosaic floors, cisterns, tabuns and installations, in which several phases were discerned (Fig. 13). The density of the remains, as well as robbery from the walls and the digging of later pits, made it difficult to understand their layout and to separate them into dateable strata. Most of the finds date from the Late Roman period (third–fourth centuries CE) and some are from earlier in the Roman period (first century BCE–second century CE) and from the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries CE). It transpired that two of the excavated cisterns had already been excavated by the British Mandate Department of Antiquities Inspector, D. Baramki (1936; Fig. 14). His excavation yielded hundreds of fragments of oil lamps and figurines—as well as dozens of stone molds used to produce them—which became known as Bet Natif lamps and provide evidence of a pottery-production workshop in the immediate vicinity. The current excavation also yielded many similar finds (Fig. 15), mostly from fills in the pits that may well have been discarded there during Baramki’s excavation. Nevertheless, the excavation may shed light on the cisterns’ spatial context and thus, perhaps, allow for a more precise dating of the cisterns and a clearer association with other architectural remains.
Area E4, opened to the northeast of Area 3 (Fig. 16), revealed openings to subterranean cavities: one is a cistern, but the function of the others is unknown. Covering the bedrock in one of the sections was a surface of gray soil, which may be related to the operation of the cistern. The ceramic finds are mixed and include potsherds dating from the Roman–Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
Area F extends along an elongated spur that stretches eastward, from the center of the village toward Khirbat Badd el-Banat. Large bedrock surfaces are visible in the upper part of the spur, while its slopes comprises thick layers of soil formed by the construction of agricultural terraces. Aerial photographs from the British Mandate era show several residential buildings in this area, most of them on the eastern side, near the center of the village, and some on the more sparsely built western side. The photographs also show two tracks passing through the area: one at the top of the spur, and the other to its south, along the edge of the wadi. Surface remains of the higher track were visible prior to the development work.
In the center of Area F, a separate, enclosed built complex was excavated (Building SF1; Fig. 17) that probably dates from the Late Byzantine and early Umayyad periods (sixth–seventh centuries CE). To the west of the compound and adjacent to it, a large industrial winepress was excavated that included a main treading floor, secondary treading floors/work surfaces, two collecting vats and three settling vats; the excavation of the winepress was not completed. Four burial caves to the south of the winepress were converted into storage facilities and dwellings during the Ottoman period. Burial niches typical of late Second Temple-period Jewish funerary customs were identified in all the caves. A standing pit was identified beside the burial niches in one of the caves; shelves found on three of its sides are more typical of the First Temple period (Kloner and Zissu 2003:41–42).
A square building (SF2) was uncovered to the east of this compound. Its walls were built of large, dressed stones, with pilasters incorporated in the eastern and western walls. The building was built over a deep underground rock-hewn chamber (Fig. 18), in which two phases of use were identified. In the earlier phase, it served as a water reservoir, as attested to by traces of plaster on the rock walls. In the later phase, it was converted into a columbarium, as indicated by the small niches hewn in the plastered walls to the east, west and north. The building and the underground chamber were not excavated, and so far they have not yielded any sufficient diagnostic finds. Nevertheless, a water cistern converted into a refuse pit that was excavated on the east side of Building SF2 yielded Byzantine pottery and glass vessels that may conceivably have come from the nearby building (SF2). Winepresses, cisterns, various installations and quarries were also discovered in this area.
The excavation was conducted on the outskirts of the village of Beit Nattif, which dates from the Ottoman and British Mandate periods and was built on top of the remains of an ancient Roman–Byzantine settlement. The current report presents the preliminary excavation results, before their full analysis and pending completion of the excavation in several areas (two more seasons of excavation were conducted in 2020–2021). Nevertheless, three main conclusions are evident.
(1) The excavated remains in both the village and the areas around it date mainly from between the Early Roman period (first century BCE) and the Byzantine period (seventh century CE), as well as from the late Ottoman–British Mandate periods (nineteenth–twentieth centuries CE). However, there were also finds from the Hellenistic, Mamluk and early Ottoman periods, although these lacked a clear archaeological context; for the latter period there is historical documentation of a settlement at the site (Ηütteroth and Abdulfattah 1977:114).
(2) The settlement picture obtained from the excavation is largely consistent with current archaeological research into settlement patterns and demographics in the region between the Early Roman and the Byzantine periods. In the Early Roman period, many small settlements ranging from farmsteads to villages existed in the geographical region around Horbat Bet Natif. The aftermath of the Great Revolt in 70 CE, compounded by those of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 132–135 CE, severely affected the rural population in Judea; the farmstead excavated in Area D is a good example of this. It is important to emphasize that there was no direct evidence of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, such as the hiding complexes like those discovered at other sites in the region (Tal et al. 2019). However, the settlement was probably abandoned as a result—either direct or indirect—of the rebellion. In the Late Roman period, the area of Horbat Bet Natif was not completely deserted, but the demographic layout changed; there were fewer small settlements, but the settlement extended across a greater area. This conclusion emerges from the monumental building (SA1) that dates from this period. The building lies on the outskirts of the settlement, in a place where no residential buildings formerly existed, only installations—a water cistern, a columbarium and quarries. The farmstead in Area D completes the picture and attests to the abandonment of small villages in the countryside around Horbat Bet Natif. In the Byzantine period, the settlement again decreased in size, as is evident from the fact that no buildings from this period were discovered on top of the Late Roman remains in Area A. On the other hand, during this period there is a renewed spread of small settlements and isolated buildings in the surrounding countryside, as shown by Building SF1. Although this building is very close to the settlement, the fact that it was an enclosed, well-defined compound flanked by agricultural installations and burial caves shows that it was completely independent from the main settlement. The late Ottoman–British Mandate village is known both from the records of European explorers (above) and from mapping surveys and aerial photographs from the time of the British Mandate. Throughout this period, the settlement grew and buildings were erected on the slopes and spurs outside the village’s densely built center. The ruins of one of these buildings yielded a keystone with the year of its construction engraved upon it (1946)—evidence of the village’s expansion and continued development throughout the period.
(3) In the Late Roman period, a local social elite resided at the site and possibly throughout the entire rural region of Judea. The monumental structure excavated in Area A, along with the varied pottery and glass finds from the refuse pit in Installation 2, near the building, attest to the presence of this social elite. The dozens of amphorae and vessels imported from throughout the Mediterranean region found in a pit is usually more characteristic of urban and economic centers, such as Jerusalem, Caesarea and Bet Guvrin.