During 2005, an archaeological excavation was conducted in Subterranean Complex 90, located 220 m southeast of Tel Maresha (Permit No. A-4361; map ref. NIG 190680/611086; OIG 140680/111086). The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by funds of the Archaeological Seminars, was directed by I. Stern, M. Osband, B. Alpert and N. Sagiv. Assisting in the excavation were S. Shaharit and L.Yaborsky (pottery restoration, registration and organization), S. Neuman (drafting and drawing), R. Barkay (numismatics), A. Ehrlich (figurines) and G. Finkielsztejn (amphora handles). Engaged in the excavation were participants of the Archaeological Seminars from all around the globe and youth-group volunteers, with the cooperation of Z. Tsuk and the staff of the Bet Guvrin National Park.
Subterranean Complex 90 was first discovered in 1991 during a survey, which entailed a few probes conducted by A. Kloner, N. Sagiv and Y. Zoran (License No. 46/91; Fig. 1) and briefly described here. The complex contained a total of 18 rooms, including a large oval cistern (L101) with a winding staircase that descended to a second cistern that was not excavated and two small filtration rooms (width c. 1 m), off the staircase (L103). A large block of clay in Cistern 101 was partially removed from a rock-cut shelf, revealing an entrance into another room (L105). The most important area was the olive press (L107), where a small probe was cut under the cultic niche between the two pressing installations. A well-preserved bronze statute of Hercules, holding a club in one hand and a lion’s skin in the other, was discovered in the probe, as well as two pieces of a marble libation bowl and a hewn stone altar, carved into the corner of the olive press, which appears to have been deliberately defaced (Fig. 2). A carved qirton block in the shape of a lion's head, with a hole in its mouth, which presumably was a decorated fountain spout discarded into the subterranean complex in antiquity, was also found. A coin of Alexander II Zebinas, dated to 126 BCE, was discovered on surface, near the entrance to Cistern 101, as well as three Rhodian stamps, dated from 189–135 BCE. One of the stamps was endorsed by the fabricant Nysios with Caduceus, dated 169–135 BCE, the second one was endorsed by the fabricant Philainios, dated 189–184 BCE and the third had the eponym Philodamos, dated 183 BCE. A large quantity of complete bowls, many in perfect condition, was discovered on the surface of L101 and L103.
The current excavation in Subterranean Complex 90 focused primarily on the water cistern (L101), the small side rooms (L103), the intermediate room (L105) and the olive press (L107).
Cistern (L101). The rock-cut, oval-shaped cistern has a banister (diam. c. 6 m). Remains of plaster in portions of the upper section are still visible. Excavating the staircase of the cistern revealed many qirton stones that were probably remains from structures that had once stood on surface. Most of the brownish soil in the cistern (c. 0.4 m deep) was probably washed in from surface.
Filtration Rooms (L103). The rooms (c. 1 m wide) off the staircase, filled with soil (up to 0.4 m deep), are typical to water cisterns throughout lower Maresha.
Intermediate Room (L105). This somewhat circular room (3 × 4 m) was excavated to provide easier access to L107, yet some of the remains shed light on its function. The entrance into this room was above the rock-cut shelf and below the water line remains of Cistern 101, indicating that it was quarried after the cistern went out of use. A tunnel (L109) with a gabled ceiling ascends from a small hole in the room toward an entrance corridor (L108) farther to the south. Room 105 was looted right before the excavation and the anthropogenic soil spilled by the looters into L107 was excavated separately (L105A2).
Olive Press (L107). The olive press is one of the best preserved in Maresha, if not the entire Shephelah (Figs. 3, 4). The quality of workmanship is excellent, done with a clear eye for aesthetics. Apparently, its fine state of preservation is due to the fact that it was either never used or put out of use almost immediately after it was quarried. This supposition is predicated upon the sharp edges along most of the openings and niches within the olive press, which usually become worn and rounded with relative ease after minimal usage and due to the softness of the stone, as well as the black lines made by the stonemasons to outline the quarrying, which are still visible.
The large number of boulders in the room (L106, L107D) forced our excavation to concentrate on the northern side of the olive press, which still had to be emptied of large quantities of qirton stones that were placed in L106. The room (length 18 m, width 6 m) has two blocked openings on its eastern side that were not excavated and a third one that opens into a tunnel (L11), which seems to have been cut later. Two openings on the western side lead into the intermediate room (L105) and into the corridor (L108).
Different strata of soil levels, some possibly occupational levels were found.
A section cut across L107 revealed a white qirton level (L107A; depth 0.4–0.8 m) that sloped down toward the olive press and contained very few finds; a brownish soil level (L107F1–4) that near the altar, contained many finds, but may have been a backfill intended to level the floor. A crushed hard qirton level, between the white qirton and the brownish soil, exist throughout most of the area. This small probe was intended to determine the existence of a trench for weights, but it was not completed.
Near the top of Tunnel 11, part of a marble bowl was found and another part was right outside the tunnel. These parts complete the fragments of the libation bowl that had been found in 1991.
A tentative chronology for the olive press is hereby suggested.
Stage 1. The room was initially quarried out to be an olive press, but not completed, as evidenced by the form of the arches above the press where one part is indented and another part only outlined. The press includes a space for weights and a crushed qirton floor. It is possible that the stone altar was partially destroyed at this stage.
Stage 2. The area by the press was filled in with blackish brown anthropogenic soil to even out the floor.
Stage 3. A tunnel (L11) was quarried, at which time many qirton stones and backfill from the tunnel were dumped into L107, which accounts for most of the fill in L107A.