In March 2017, an educational excavation was conducted on the southern edge of Horbat Nehila (Nukheila; Permit No. A-7960; map ref. 261162/795625; Fig. 1), following damage at the site by heavy mechanical tools. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and funded by the Ministry of Defense, was directed by U. Berger, with the assistance of Y. Yaakobi (administration), R. Liran (surveying and drafting), A. Shapiro (GPS), D. Avshalom-Gorni (scientific consultation), H. Tahan-Rosen (plans and pottery drawing), C. Talsmith (field photography), Y. Gorin-Rosen (glass), Y. Nagar (physical anthropology) and R. Kool (numismatics). The excavation was part of the “backyard archaeology” project offered to tenth graders at the Har Va-Gai Regional School in Kibbutz Dafna.
Horbat Nehila extends over a hill, c. 700 m north of Tel Dan, in the heart of a basalt plain with numerous streams and springs. The ruined houses of the Syrian village of Nukheila, which was situated there until 1967, can be seen at the top of the hill. In Arabic, the village is called “the ruin of the little palm tree” (Conder 1882). This name apparently reflects its ancient landscape, because today there are no palm trees in the area north of Tel Dan.
The excavation (75 sq m; Fig. 2) took place on the southern foot of the hill, in an area adjacent to trenches and fortifications along the Israel–Syria border (Argaman 2008). The excavation uncovered remains belonging to a cemetery from the Mamluk or Ottoman periods. The cemetery was damaged by earthworks undertaken over the years and as a result of heavy armored vehicle traffic in the area, resulting in poorly preserved remains. During the second half of the twentieth century, natural and archaeological strata were removed from the site, as high heaps of soil were piled up nearby.
The ruin was first surveyed by the Palestine Exploration Fund (1880: Sheet II) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Its surroundings were surveyed during the visit of the British crown princes to the Levant in 1882, when a small field of dolmens was identified in the area (Berger and Goren 2018). The site was surveyed again in the late twentieth century during the Hula Valley survey of roads and settlements (Shaked 1999: 80) and again in the Dan Survey (Hartal 2017: Site 37).
Another survey at the site took place in 2016 (License No. S-713/2016; Berger and Goren 2018), shortly after noticing the damage to the site, for which the current excavation was undertaken. The various surveys of the site over the years identified ancient remains from the Hellenistic, Roman, Crusader, Fatimid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods. The current excavation is the first to be carried out at the site.
The excavation took place in the western part of a shallow accumulation of soil (L104, L105), covering the basalt bedrock, which contained small, worn pottery sherds dated to the range of periods identified in the surveys. These pottery finds included a Cypriot bowl from the Late Roman period (Fig. 3:1); part of a cooking pot lid from the Byzantine period (Fig. 3:2); a broken handle of a Golan Iturean pithos from the Late Roman and Byzantine periods (Fig. 3:3; Hartal 2006:176–183); a base of a green-glazed bowl (Fig. 3:4) and fragments of yellow-glazed vessels (Fig. 3:5, 6) from the Mamluk period (Avissar and Stern 2005:137–139); as well as pottery sherds from the southern Lebanon Rashaya el-Fukhar workshop (not illus.) and a rim fragment of a tobacco pipe (Fig. 3:7) from the late Ottoman period. Two limestone mosaic tesserae were also found in the accumulation (Fig. 4), indicating the presence of a paved floor in the vicinity; plaster remains were found on one of the tesserae. A small, worn Byzantine bronze coin, dated to 378–383 CE (IAA 172385; L100, B1005), was found on the surface. Although the coin does not greatly enrich our knowledge of the historical events in the area, its importance lies in the fact that it is the first and only coin found so far at this ruin.
A pit grave (L106) was uncovered in the eastern part of the excavation area. Some of the basalt slabs that had covered it were removed, apparently when the site was last damaged. Fragmentary human skeletal remains were found in the grave, including a skullcap, teeth and postcranial bones, belonging to a single individual. The teeth—an upper lateral incisor with an unclosed root, and the second upper and second lower molars, showing development of a crown and one third of a root—allow estimating the age of the deceased at 9–10 years (Hillson 1986). A multicolored and multilayered bracelet (Fig. 5) found in the grave dates it to the end of the Mamluk period or the Ottoman period. The bracelet is made of a glass hoop, light greenish in color, with bichrome, blue and yellow, trails wrapped and twisted together around it and covered by a slender trail of green, opaque glass. Such bracelets first appeared in the late Mamluk period and were in use throughout the Ottoman period. Bracelets with similar and even more complex decorations were found in the cemetery of Area B at Tel Dan, along with coins from the Mamluk period (Spaer 1992:57–59). Near the grave were basalt slabs (W101; Fig. 6), which first seemed to belong to an ancient wall, but later turned out to be coving slabs from additional graves. The excavation ceased when the grave was discovered.
The covering of graves with basalt slabs is known from cemeteries of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods in northern Israel, such as the cemetery at Zuq al-Fauqani, a few kilometers west of Horbat Nehila (Assis 2020). The modern cemetery of the Syrian village of Nukheila is located on the western side of the village (Permit No. S-713/2016: Site 56), but it includes gravestones, and its covering slabs are different from those discovered in the current excavation. The Golan/Iturean pottery uncovered at the site expands the known geographical range of this material culture (Hartal 2016) and adds a new site to this culture’s map of influence and distribution in the northern Golan.
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