During May and October 2008, the third season of excavations was conducted at Horbat Bet Loya in the Lakhish region (License No. G-27/2008; map ref. NIG 19315–40/607975–8100; OIG 14315–40/107975–8100; ESI 6:3–6). The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and underwritten by the Beit Lehi Foundation, Utah, USA (A. Rudd, G. Rudd and G. Kimber), was directed by O. Gutfeld, with the assistance of Y. Kalman (excavation co-director), A. Ecker, P. Betzer, B. Gordon and M. Haber (area supervision), S. Freilich (administration), A. Yamim (surveying), N. Sneh (photography), Sky Balloon (aerial photography), M. Lavie (conservation) and B. Johnson (pottery). Participating in the excavation were volunteers from the United States, students from the Hebrew University and laborers from the village of Hares in Judea. Valuable assistance was rendered by the Israel Antiquity Authorities, particularly G. Avni (director, Excavations and Surveys Department), Y. Israel (Ashkelon district archaeologist), Y. Dagan (director, Surveys Branch), J. Negeur (Conservation Department) and A. Ganor and I. Klein (Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery).
Horbat Bet Loya is located in the eastern part of the Lakhish region, on a hill 400 m above sea level (Fig. 1). The site (c. 50 dunams) had first been surveyed by R.A.S. Macalister (PEFQSt 1901:226–230). In 1962, two Iron II burial caves were excavated by J. Naveh in the eastern part of the site (HA 2:4–5; Yediot 27:235–265 [Hebrew]). In 1972–1973, the site was surveyed by Y. Dagan (Map of Amazya [109, Vol. 1], Site 103). From 1979 to 1983, Y. Tepper and Y. Shahar investigated the caves at the site (Hiding Refuges in the Judean Shephelah, Tel Aviv 1987:131–136 [Hebrew]) and in 1983 and 1986 J. Patrich and Y. Tsafrir excavated a basilica church at the site, as well as an olive press, a winepress and a burial cave nearby (Ancient Churches Revealed 1993:265–272). The excavations at the site were renewed in 2005 under the direction of the author, on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
A survey conducted by the present expedition at the site revealed seven columbarium caves, five olive presses, two ritual baths, two stables, quarries, numerous cisterns and underground tunnels. The ruin in the center of the site has settlement remains dating to the Middle Ages, which are built on top of settlement remains from the Byzantine, Early Roman and Hellenistic periods.
Four excavation areas (B, C, M, P; Fig. 2) were opened.
On the eastern fringes of the site, east of the village remains from the Middle Ages, a subterranean olive press and a ritual bath (miqwe), well preserved and dating to the Early Roman period, were excavated (Fig. 3). Discovered as well were a series of underground tunnels, wall remains and domestic installations on ground level, whose date ranged from the Late Hellenistic until the Mamluk periods.
Olive press. The subterranean olive press was hewn in bedrock (Fig. 4). It was accessed from the south by way of a rock-cut staircase that descended to the north that was delimited by two massive walls (W009, W010). At the foot of the steps and in the vestibule preceding the entrance was a rock-hewn cistern (L004) that contained dressed stones, some of which were the voussoirs of an arch that was part of a vault, which had collapsed. The entrance to the olive press was preserved in its entirety. The doorjambs and the lintel were bedrock-hewn and adorned with a magnificent Attic decoration. Two seven-branched candelabra were carved on the western doorjamb and another candelabrum was in the center of the interior side of the lintel above the entrance. The olive-press complex consisted of a main room (5 × 8 m) in whose western wall another chamber (1.5 × 2.0 m) that housed a complete press installation was hewn. Two large rooms were hewn in the main room’s northern wall, opposite the entrance (see Fig. 4). The eastern room was found filled with stones up to its top and a complete press installation with a rock-hewn vat at its bottom was in the western room (1.50 × 2.25 m). The latter was filled with stone slabs that apparently collapsed from the ceiling and it is unclear when they were collected and placed in such an orderly manner. A hewn recess in the façade of the wall between the two rooms had the remains of a charcoal-drawn acanthus (see Fig. 4). Beneath the recess was an entrance to a rock-hewn tunnel that connected to a rear passageway. Two adjacent rooms were discovered along the main chamber’s eastern wall. The northern room had another press installation and in the southern room was an in situ crushing basin (yam) and to its north a crushing stone (memmel) was lying. A niche in the ceiling above the center of the crushing basin was apparently intended for a wooden beam. To the south of the crushing stone was an opening in the ceiling that led to a complex of subterranean tunnels, which extended between ground level and the cavity where the olive press was located.
The oil press is the original and first phase of usage of the installation.
The original floor of the olive press was removed when it turned into a quarry and the bottom was then hewn to a depth of c. 3 m. On the lowered bedrock floor were numerous rectangular building stones hewn of soft rock and several hard limestone weights that were used in the olive press. A hewn staircase descended to the later floor level. In the soil fill above the later floor was a coin from the time of Agrippa II (second half of the first century CE) and potsherds that dated from the end of the first and the beginning of the second centuries CE.
Ritual Bath. Another entrance that led to an underground rock-hewn miqwe (4.5 × 5.0 m; Fig. 5) was in the western part of the vestibule to the olive press. Seven broad, tall steps (0.30 × 0.45 m) coated with gray hydraulic plaster were discovered. At the bottom of the seventh step was a deep pool (c. 1 m) on whose floor was a ritual water bowl from the time of the Second Temple period. A hewn square window (0.63 × 0.63 m, depth 0.54 m) in the eastern wall of the miqwe opened into a channel, which was cut in bedrock along the western side of the staircase. The miqwe was found filled with soil fill and large stones, some of which were dressed building stones. An opening in the western corner of the ritual bath led to an underground tunnel that was ascribed to a later phase of the miqwe’s usage.
Remains on Surface. Above the olive press and the ritual bath, sections of walls and domestic installations were excavated, among them pools, a household installation for extracting oil and a tabun. It seems that this was the courtyard of a residential building where different household activities were performed. The architectural connection between the residential complex and the underground installations is not yet clear.
On the northwestern fringes of the site, northwest of Area P and northeast of the Byzantine church, a subterranean Byzantine chapel (5 × 8 m; Fig. 6) that dated to the fifth–eighth centuries CE was excavated. The entrance to the chapel on the west had a small rock-hewn entry chamber in which two rock-cut steps were found. The western wall was mostly rock-hewn and part of it was built of large stones. The chapel consisted of a central chamber with an apse in its eastern end that was separated from the hall by a rock-carved chancel screen.
On the northwestern side of Horbat Bet Loya, east of Area C and north of Area P, was a rock-hewn cave with remains of an olive press, from which a long underground passageway that led to a large columbarium emerged. In the southern part of the area was an underground stable that contained troughs and pits for collecting the dung.
The Columbarium (c. 15.5 × 17.5 m; Fig. 7) was large and hewn as a square cavern supported by four L-shaped pillars in its center. Hundreds of triangular-shaped niches were hewn in its walls. Three round shafts with hewn recesses that probably served as ladder rungs were located in the ceiling. The original entrance to the columbarium was by way of a cut opening in the ceiling of the cavern. After the quarrying of the columbarium was completed, the original opening was sealed with large stone slabs that were supported by a built half-arch. A secondary smaller opening was then hewn in the northern wall of the cavern. The southeastern corner of the columbarium was damaged by the quarrying of a bell-shaped cistern.
Underground Stable. The underground stable was found in Area M2 on an artificial terrace of the northwestern slope of the site, at a vantage point that directly overlooks Tel Maresha (Fig. 8). Above ground, the area contained wall complexes that probably belonged to the remains of the Mamluk settlement. The underground stable in the southern part of the area was reached via a passageway (width 0.9–1.1 m) where five steps were hewn (rise 30/50 cm, run 40/60 cm, alternating in size). The high, wide steps enable an easy passage for animals. The stable was a hewn square hall (5.8 × 6.0 m), divided by a wall with rock-cut mangers that was oriented north–south (length 4.75 m, width 1 m). The entrance to the stable accessed the western wing of the hall. Another entrance, east of the main one, led to the eastern wing of the hall. On the doorjambs of the entrance, holes that were apparently used for placing partitions to separate the animals were drilled. The wall that divided the hall had six mangers at the same elevation (span of manger c. 0.6 m, height above floor 0.6 m). Between the mangers were several perforations that were probably used to tie the animals. The floor of the hall was covered with a layer of soft, tamped chalk. This may have originated from the disintegration of the ceiling and the animals packing down the material or it may have been an intentional floor covering. Based on the height of the hall (c. 1.8 m) it seems that the stable was used for donkeys. Two pits (depth down to 0.4 m) were hewn in the western wing’s floor. One was rectangular (c. 0.4 × 0.5 m), the other—concave (diam. c. 0.4 m) and both were probably used for mixing feed for the animals. Niches for oil lamps were cut along the walls of the stable and in the eastern wall was a large arched recess (height 0.6 m, width 0.4 m). In the northeastern corner of the eastern wing was a hewn basin in the corner of the wall (height of corner from floor 0.5 m) that was probably used as a small trough for donkeys. In the floor of the stable’s western wing were two hewn bell-shaped pits (diam. 0.45–0.60 m, depth c. 2 m); the original capstone was found on top of the northern pit. Three similar pits were hewn in the eastern wing of the stable.
On the summit of Horbat Bet Loya, c. 200 m northeast of the Byzantine church and c. 50 m southwest of Area B, were numerous built remains, including residential buildings, installations and farming terraces that dated to the late Middle Ages.
The Middle Age Ruin (Fig. 9). In the high part of the site were the remains of buildings and the collapse of the ruin that dated to the Middle Ages. The excavation focused on the southern side of the ruin where two rooms of a building from the Mamluk period were exposed.
The Eastern Room (5.25 × 9.25 m) was delimited on the west by the partition wall that separated between the rooms and seems to be later than the other walls of the building. This was probably a room (or courtyard) that had been divided into two rooms. The walls were built of two rows of hard limestone, with fieldstones and soft limestone between the stones, which were coarsely hewn, usually on their outer face. The core of the wall was composed of small stones and soft gray bonding material.
A pillar with a voussoir on top of it was in the center of the room’s western wall. Running the length of the room’s southern wall were two other pillars and it seems that the ceiling of the room was supported by a central arch that was built along an east–west axis and two perpendicular arches that were oriented north–south. Three installations were located along the room’s northern wall. A decorated silver ring was found on the floor of the room. Below the floor, construction phases that predated the Mamluk period were exposed: a monumental wall built of one row of large dressed stones, one of which had drafted margins and a prominent boss and a doorway with a stone threshold. The wall probably belonged to a public structure of some sort that was located north of the excavation area. North and south of this wall, sections of a floor or a foundation, built of a thin crushed limestone layer, were uncovered. A trial square that was opened below the floor revealed three sealed floors and a burnt layer, which yielded potsherds dating to the Hellenistic period.
The archaeological excavations at Horbat Bet Loya exposed remains from three main settlement periods: the end of the Hellenistic–Early Roman period (Stratum III), the Byzantine–Early Islamic period (II) and the Mamluk period (Stratum I).