During October–November 2004 a salvage excavation was conducted along the planned route of the separation fence, between Sheqef and Shomriya, at the foot of Tell Beit Mirsim (Permit No. A-4269; map ref. NIG 19142–319/5950–73; OIG 14142–319/0950–73) and at the sites of Khirbat en-Nusrani, Giv‘at Mirsham (North), Horbat Benaya, Tell Beit Mirsim and Khirbat Abu Mulassam. The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and Ben-Gurion University and financed by the Ministry of Defense, was directed by M. Ein Gedi, with the assistance of K. Golan and D. Eisenberg-Dagan (area supervision), H. Lavi and R. Abu Khalaf (administration), A. Hajian and T. Kornfeld (surveying and drafting), P. Kaminski and H. Soklovsky (drawing), A. Fogal (photography) and P. Fabian (data concerning church at Kh. Abu Khaff).
The route of the separation fence, which passes along the southern fringes of Tell Beit Mirsim, was the cause for the current excavation. The site was excavated by W.F.Albright during the 1920s and 30s and settlement layers from the Early, Middle and Late Canaanite periods and the Israelite period were exposed. Owing to the importance of the site it was necessary to carry out an excavation along the southern edge of the tell and on the saddle between the tell and the village of Beit Mirsim (Areas A and B). Other areas were opened along the hills east and west of the tell (D, E, H) and within the remains of an ancient church (Area C), due to the damage caused to it by the IDF.
The area is located on the southern and eastern slopes of the tell. Nine half squares (2.5 × 5.0 m), spread across a rather extensive area, were opened, some of them adjacent to the many robber pits on the tell. The pits and hollows in the ground were cleaned by a backhoe. No architectural remains were found, save a row of stones that appeared to be the covering of a tomb. While excavating the tomb (0.40 × 0.75 × 1.80 m) a few fragments of bones were discovered. Several potsherds, dating from the Iron Age to the Byzantine period, were collected. The paucity of finds was surprising given the area’s proximity to the tell.
The area is located on the southern slopes of the tell, west of Area A. Ten half squares (2.5 × 5.0 m), opened along the planned route, were excavated down to virgin soil or bedrock, which were overlaid with soft, light colored fill mixed with potsherds that apparently, were mostly swept down from the top of the tell. No buildings were exposed, except for a wall stump of undressed fieldstones, probably a fence or partition (length 3 m, width 0.5 m) that had no continuation. Numerous fragments of pottery vessels from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and a few Iron Age and Byzantine-period potsherds were found. It seems that the part of the tell above Area B was inhabited during these periods.
The area extends across the northern foot of the hill where the village of Beit Mirsim is situated. Prior to the excavation, two limestone columns protruded from a small soil mound. The excavation revealed a church that dated to the later part of the Byzantine period (sixth–seventh centuries CE), as well as remains of walls from later periods (Fig. 1). The eastern part of the church was destroyed, most likely a result of building a farming terrace; the church’s western part was damaged by work performed by the IDF.
The apse and the bema in the east of the church seem to have been completely destroyed. South of the presumed apse, short segments of plastered walls and mosaic pavements that were attributed to one of the church’s auxiliary rooms were exposed. West of the presumed eastern apse were three ashlar stones, in situ, with a hewn channel in their upper part and recesses for two colonnettes, which were part of the chancel screen.
The middle part of the church was survived by remains of the northern wall’s foundation and sections of the stylobates on which the columns that separated the nave from the northern and southern aisles stood. The two rows of stylobates (W34, W35) were built of dressed limestone slabs (0.55 × 0.60 m). A broken column and capital and two in situ columns were found on the southern stylobate.
Four courses of well-dressed ashlar-stone construction of the church’s outer southern wall (W38) were exposed. Next to the interior side of the wall in the southern aisle was a staircase with eight steps that descended to an underground chamber, which was the church’s crypt. It was accessed from the west and covered with a barrel vault (Fig. 2). The chamber was built of roughly hewn ashlar stones, some of them still bearing the remains of plaster. The rectangular chamber (1.7 × 3.5 m, height 2.4 m) was oriented longitudinally, north–south. Oil lamps from the Ottoman period and a coke can from the modern era were found inside the crypt, indicating that the chamber was in use until recently. Another unit with an apse that faced south was exposed above the crypt. This was probably the baptisterium, built of ashlar stones in a semicircle and paved with dressed flagstones that bore remains of plaster.
West of the church’s nave and aisles were the foundation remains of the eastern narthex wall (W45; c. 1.8 m), where scant mosaic remains were also found. A large stone that was notched at both ends and probably served as an entrance threshold was exposed in the western wall of the narthex (W40). The church had apparently three entries, a main entrance and two side ones. The atrium was apparently located west of the wall. Due to the massive destruction caused to the western part of the church, the western wall of the atrium and the church was not found. The foundations of another wall, oriented east–west, were exposed west of the stone threshold; its relation to the church remains unclear.
Along the northern closing wall (W37), the scant foundation remains of at least two walls, oriented north–south, abutted the outer face of the church wall. These were probably the remains of additional rooms.
Remains of columns, parts of a baptismal basin and several fragments of a chancel screen were discovered in and around the church. Most of the ceramic finds were from the end of the Byzantine period (sixth–seventh centuries CE) and the beginning of the Early Islamic period (seventh–eighth centuries CE). The mosaic remains consisted of two varieties in assorted patterns. One (size of the tesserae––1.0 × 1.7 × 1.7 cm) was used to decorate the floor of the two church aisles. These mosaic sections were in a poor state of preservation and it seems they were composed of geometric patterns; repairs that were probably carried out when the church was still in use were discerned. The tesserae of the second variety were smaller (0.5 × 1.0 × 1.0 cm) and decorated the nave of the church. Although it was poorly preserved, a frame of a ribbon pattern was discerned, as well as a section with depicted lotus flowers and a medallion in its center, composed of grape tendrils with a variety of animals and probably a depiction of an open storage vessel as well. The style indicates that the mosaic should be dated to the second half of the sixth century CE.
Despite the partial preservation of the church, a few construction phases were noticeable. The curved southern wall of the baptisterium (W39) severed the southern wall of the church and therefore, it was probably added after the church structure was standing. However, it seems that the crypt, located beneath the baptisterium, should be dated to the time when the church was built.
A section of a diagonal wall (W33), aligned east– west, was in the nave in the middle of the church. The wall was erected directly on top of the mosaic pavement and it was ascribed to a later phase of the building, after the church was no longer in use. A tomb built up against the wall, near its eastern end, was exposed. This tomb and two others in the northern part of the church postdated it. The tombs were not excavated. Another wall (W41), perhaps contemporary with the later wall that had cut through the nave, was found exposed in the eastern part of the church. It was oriented north–south and continued the curved wall of the baptisterium. It seems that many of the wall’s stones were in secondary use and originally belonged to the church structure. Two parts of a baptismal basin that was apparently situated in the southern part of the church, in the vicinity of the curved wall, were discovered inside the wall, close to each other. This unit apparently functioned as the church’s baptisterium. A section of a short wall (W43) exposed near the southern aisle was probably a partition, abutting the later eastern wall.
In addition to the later walls, a wall (W31) that traversed the northern wing and the northern wall of the church was exposed. It extended in a north–south direction and was built of one row of stones in its southern part and of two rows of large fieldstones in its northern part. This wall seems to be even later––in addition to the pottery vessel fragments from the Byzantine, Early Islamic Crusader and Mamluk periods, later potsherds that dated until the nineteenth century were also found.
The church structure was a basilica, composed of a nave and two aisles. Auxiliary rooms probably existed on either side of the eastern apse, as well as in the northern part of the church. The floor of the church was decorated with two varieties of mosaics. The church, wherein two constructions phases were discerned, is dated to the end of the Byzantine period. The church structure and the crypt are attributed to the first phase and the baptisterium is assigned to the second phase. The main apse in the east, which was the center of worship and ritual in the church, was not located, nor was the wall that enclosed the church on the west. At least two later periods are represented by walls discovered inside the church structure, which at this point, cannot be dated.
Three rock-cuttings, barren of finds, were examined on a hill east of the Beit Mirsim village and identified as natural.
Numerous installations and burial caves were discerned on a hill southeast of Tell Beit Mirsim; those located below the route of the separation fence were examined and cleaned, including a drainage pit for a water cistern, several natural rock-cuttings, a complex winepress, openings to shafts that were not completely excavated, the entrance area to a Roman burial cave, a well that was still in use by the residents of the region and a cave dwelling that is probably modern.
Prior to the excavation, numerous rock-cuttings, several installations and cave dwellings or burial caves were surveyed on a hill to the northeast of Tell Beit Mirsim. Those along the route of the separation fence were examined and cleaned, including a water cistern, two rock-hewn
The church with the crypt is the outstanding feature of the excavation. Its plan is similar to other churches excavated in the southern region of the country, although crypts inside church structures of this period are rare both in the Land of Israel and abroad. A nearby church with a similar crypt was exposed by D. Alon at Kh. Abu Khaff (Permit No. 962).