During February–March 2004, a trial excavation was conducted at Khirbat es-Suyyagh (Permit No. A-4121*; map ref. NIG 2001/6282; OIG 1501/1282). The excavation, carried out on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by the Ministry of Housing and Construction, was directed by E. Kogan-Zehavi, with the assistance of A. Eirikh-Rose (area supervision), A. Hajian and T. Kornfeld (surveying), T. Sagiv (field photography), H. Stark (GPS), Z. Greenhut (scientific consultation and metal detection), L. Kupershmidt (metallurgical laboratory), I. Lidski-Reznikov (pottery drawings), R. Kool (numismatics) and A. Nagorski and H. Moyal.
The site, east of the Water Tower neighborhood in Bet Shemesh and west of Moshav Mahseya, is close to the sites of Deiraban to the northeast, Khirbat ‘Illin to the west and the tomb of Sheikh Abu Hassan to the north. It had been surveyed by the British Department of Antiquities in 1939 and 1947; remains of a structure built of large ashlar stones and potsherds from the Byzantine period were discerned. The region was once more surveyed by the Antiquities Authority in 1998 and remains of buildings and an olive-press weight were found (HA-ESI 111:105*). An agricultural wall was excavated north of the site (HA-ESI 113:124*).
The excavation was located on a gentle hill, above which were the remains of a ruin, in whose center were scattered stones across surface. The western end of the site had been damaged in the past, when the area was leveled for the construction of hothouses in Moshav Mahseya.
Seven squares and six half squares were excavated in the middle of the site and along its fringes (Fig. 1). Probe trenches were dug with the aid of a backhoe along the four sides of the site. In those trenches where the tops of stones were exposed, half squares were opened or the sides of the trench were cleaned.
Three construction phases that denoted repairs made to the building during the course of the Byzantine period were revealed in the excavation. Based on the pottery vessels recovered from the building, the site is dated from the sixth to the middle of the eighth centuries CE. The squares were scattered throughout the area and therefore it is unclear if the architecture was that of one large structure or several buildings. The phases are described below from the earliest to the latest.
The early phase was discovered in Squares I (Fig. 2), III, VI (Fig. 3) and VII (North; Fig. 4). A small section of a wall (W16), which was built of rectangular ashlar stones set on leveled bedrock in a north–south direction, was exposed in Square I. A floor of neatly arranged fieldstones (L145) abutted the wall. A small section of a wall (W24), similar to W16, which was set on bedrock and oriented north–south, was uncovered in Square VI.
A north–south aligned wall (W31) was unearthed in Square VII. It was built of large dressed stones, mostly destroyed and preserved a single course high in the north. In the south, only the bedrock-hewn foundation trench could be discerned. Three rock-cut steps to the west of the wall were destroyed when a pit of the second phase (below) was hewn. Two sub-phases were discerned in Square III; below the early phase was a chalk floor in the southeastern corner of the square that predated the construction of the walls (L131). No potsherds or any other datable finds were discovered in this sub-phase. Two parallel walls (W11, W14), built of dressed stones and aligned north–south, were exposed in the second sub-phase. In the northwestern corner of the square, stones arranged in an arch, in whose interior was a burnt layer, possibly an oven (L155), were also ascribed to the second sub-phase.
The finds from the first phase were meager and consisted of a few glass fragments and potsherds that were recovered from the fill (L139) and on the stone floor (L145) in Square I, including two LRC-type bowls (Fig. 5:1, 2), dated to the beginning of the sixth century CE and two jugs (Fig. 5:3, 4).
Based on the ceramic finds, the first phase at the site is dated from the beginning to the second quarter of the sixth century CE.
The second phase, apparent in all the squares, was dated to the end of the Byzantine period. The remains of rooms were exposed in Square I. The southern (W17) and eastern (W18) walls of the northern room were built of partly dressed stones and the floor was paved with rectangular stones (Loci 134, 144). To the south, another room or flagstone-paved courtyard (L122), which was also used in the third phase, was discovered. The rims of a pot (Fig. 5:13) and a pithos (Fig. 5:16) that were dated to the sixth–eighth centuries CE were found on Floor 134.
The eastern part of a room whose floor consisted of tamped chalk (Loci 114, 118) was uncovered in Square III. It was delineated by Wall 2 in the north, Wall 1, in the east and Wall 9 in the south. Walls 11 and 14 of the previous phase were covered by a stone surface (L137) and Walls 1, 2 and 9 were built (below).
The pottery vessels on Floor 114 included three bowls (Fig. 5:6, 8, 9), a cooking pot (Fig. 5:14) and a jar (Fig. 5:15). Based on the LRC-type bowl (Fig. 5:8), the assemblage was dated to the period between the second quarter of the sixth century CE until its end.
The northeastern corner of an olive press, paved with tamped chalk (Loci 126, 140), was exposed in Square VI. A stone-screw weight stood on the floor. The walls enclosing the olive press (W4, W12) were built of roughly dressed stones with small fieldstones in between (thickness 0.8 m). On the floor was a LRC-type bowl (Fig. 5:7) dated to the second quarter of the sixth century CE, a krater (Fig. 5:10) and a lamp (Fig. 5:12).
The northern part of a room was exposed in Square XIII (Fig. 4), although the excavation was not completed. Pillars were set in its eastern and western walls and no floor was found. However, the fill (L161) contained fragments of pottery vessels, including a krater (Fig. 5:11), dating to the latter part of the Byzantine period.
At least two building phases were discerned in Square VII, in an area that was damaged by modern activity. Part of a square or rectangular pit, bedrock-hewn and coated with gray plaster (L149), was exposed. At the bottom of the pit was a LRC-type bowl (Fig. 5:5) that dated from the first quarter to the middle of the sixth century CE. South of the pit was an east–west oriented wall (W13), set on smoothed bedrock. The quarrying of the pit had cut part of the rock-hewn steps that led to W31 of the first phase; therefore, the pit was ascribed to the second phase. Nevertheless, the pit and the steps were probably hewn in the first phase.
Two walls that delimited sections of three rooms were exposed in the southeastern half Square X (Fig. 6). A wall (W6; max. length 3 m, width 0.8 m), aligned north–south and built of coarsely dressed stones with small stones in between, was perpendicular to a similar wall (W8; length 6 m, width 0.8 m) oriented east–west. Wall 8 was abutted on the north by a floor of smoothed flagstones (L160), which was also used in the third phase and may have been a courtyard.
The continuation of W8 (W13) was exposed in half Square XI (Fig. 6), east of Square X.
At the southern end of the area a half square (XIV) was excavated. It consisted of two sections of rooms (Loci 153, 155) that were delimited by walls (W19, W20, W21, thickness 0.5–0.6 m; Fig. 7), which survived by the foundations that were built of large coarsely dressed stones with small stones in between. The walls were built inside brown soil, devoid of any finds, but based on their construction they were attributed to the second phase.
Fragments of pottery vessels and roof tiles that dated from the first quarter of the sixth century to the beginning of the seventh century CE, including bowls (Fig. 5:5–8), a cup (Fig. 5:9), kraters (Fig. 5:10, 11), a cooking pot (Fig. 5:14), jars (Fig. 5:13, 15, 16) and a lamp fragment (Fig. 5:12), were found. Two bronze coins of Justinian the Great (IAA 108162, 108163), dated to the beginning of his reign (527–537 CE) and in the value of 40 nummi, were exposed on the chalk floor in Square III (L118). Other finds included glass fragments, animal bones and numerous tesserae in Squares I, VII, X, XI, XIII, which attest to mosaic pavements in the building.
The latest phase, discovered in close proximity to surface, was damaged by modern activity. It reflected changes made to the building of the second phase and was dated to the period between the seventh to the middle of the eighth century CE.
Wall 10 in Square I was built of fieldstones atop W17 of the second phase, for which it was apparently a repair. A krater rim (Fig. 8:14) of a type that was common to the sixth–eighth centuries CE was found between the stones of the wall. A stone floor from the second phase (L122) continued to be used in the south and a new stone pavement (L110), overlaid with ceramic finds that included two bowls, was laid down in the north. The first was a small fragment of an African Red Slip bowl, roughly dated to the fifth–seventh centuries CE (Fig. 8:9); the second was dated from the middle of the seventh century CE to the middle of the eighth century CE (Fig. 8:10). A lamp wick, characterized by a long channel that surrounded the opening and the filling hole (Fig. 8:19), is dated to the eighth–tenth centuries CE. Two LRC-type bowls were discovered in L121, above the stone floor of the second phase (L122), dating to the end of the sixth–beginning of the seventh centuries CE (Fig. 8:6, 8), as well as a bowl (Fig. 8:11) and a jar (Fig. 8:17), which were dominant in the sixth–eighth centuries CE.
A wall (W5) in Square III was built of fieldstones next to W2 of the second phase. Close to W9 of the second phase were three rectangular stones that could be a bench or part of a wall, which was built above Floor 114 of the second phase. A fieldstone surface (Loci 101, 113) was installed in the center of the room, overlaid with a cup (Fig. 8:1) and a bowl (Fig. 8:4).
A wall (W3) built in the north of Square VI supported the screw weight of the olive press and a fragmented surface of well-arrayed fieldstones throughout the room (L103) was exposed. Repairs were apparent in the corner formed by Walls 4 and 12. It was unclear if the olive press operated during this phase. Twelve fragments of pottery vessels were found in the fill above the floor (L136) south of the repair, including a LRC-type bowl (Fig. 8:5) dating to the end of the sixth–beginning of the seventh century CE, an almost intact krater (Fig. 8:13) and a jar (Fig. 8:18) that were common to the seventh–eighth centuries CE. In the fill that covered W4 to the east was a LRC-type bowl dating from the beginning to the middle of the seventh century CE (Fig. 8:3).
The rock-hewn pit in Square VII was made smaller by the construction of a curved wall to the north (W33), built of rectangular ashlar stones. Surfaces of small fieldstones in half Square X were meant to level the area in the southeastern part of the square (Loci 120, 124), delineated by Walls 6 and 8, and in the southwestern part (L107) of the square. These were overlain with numerous tesserae and the surfaces probably served as bedding for a mosaic floor on either side of Wall 6. At the northern end of the square a section of a stone pavement (L109) that consisted of various sized dressed stones (0.15–0.30 m) was exposed. The ceramics found on the stone bedding (Loci 107, 124) included two LRC-type bowls (Fig. 8:2, 7) that dated to the beginning–middle of the seventh century CE, a deep bowl (Fig. 8:12) that dated to the third–seventh centuries CE and a juglet (Fig. 8:16), which was common to the seventh–eighth centuries CE.
Square XIII of the second phase was also used in the third phase. The floor of the room was not preserved, but scattered fieldstones found in it probably served as bedding for a floor (Loci 156, 157), where a krater (Fig. 8:15) that dated to the eighth–tenth centuries CE was found.
A collapse of ashlar stones in half Square XV, at the northwestern end of the excavation, covered the entire examined area and was indicative of architectural remains. The excavation in the square was not completed and therefore the nature and date of these remains are unclear.
The finds from the third phase included fragments of numerous pottery vessels from the end of the sixth to the beginning of the eighth centuries CE, as well as glass fragments, animal bones, roof tiles, many tesserae and a variety of stone pounding tools (Fig. 8:20).
Based on the findings from all the squares, it is clear that this was a large stone building that extended across an area of c. 40 × 80 m. Its floors were composed of chalk, stone and mosaic and an olive press was built to its west. The pottery vessels and coins dated the building to the sixth–eighth centuries CE. The size and the nature of its construction indicate it was probably a monastery.