During December 2003, a salvage excavation was conducted on the eastern slopes of Bethphage, in the vicinity of the separation fence around Jerusalem (Permit No. A-4053; map ref. NIG 22410–28/63132–62; OIG 17410–28/13132–62; Fig. 1). The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and underwritten by the Ministry of Defense, was directed by Y. Mizrahi, with the assistance of V. Essman and V. Pirsky (surveying and drafting), T. Sagiv (field photography) and C. Hersch (pottery drawing).
The site is founded on easily quarried, soft chalk bedrock, c. 300 m east of ancient remains that had been surveyed and partly excavated by Father Saller (S.J. Saller, Excavation at Bethany, Jerusalem 1957).
The current excavation was carried out in two areas, c. 50 m apart (Fig. 2). The antiquities exposed in the northern area (A) included a rock-hewn chamber, a system of installation, in which at least two phases were identified, a rock-hewn cave, a quarry and a cistern. A burial cave from the Second Temple period was found, but not excavated. The southern area (B) consisted of columbarium remains and an adjacent rock-hewn cave. Other tombs and caves were documented to the north (Area C) and the south (Area D) of the excavation areas.
Area A (Fig. 3)
On the surface in the northern part of Area A, ashlar stones that included two threshold stones, a stone socket and part of a round trough (diam. c. 0.4 m, depth c. 0.15 m) were found.
A rock-hewn chamber and a system of installations, composed of a series of vats and channels, were discovered in the northeastern part of the area.
The Chamber (L110; Figs. 4, 5) was rock-hewn and rectangular. An arched-shaped niche (2.50 × 2.75 m) was cut in its northwestern corner and a rectangular rock-cut trough that sloped to the east (L105; length 2.4 m, width 1 m, depth 0.45 m; height of rim above floor 0.9–1.0 m) was located in its southern part. Three holes were perforated in the northern side of the trough, facing the chamber and slightly above its bottom. A carelessly hewn conduit conveyed liquid to the trough from the south.
Numerous roof tiles and a large quantity of mostly white coarse tesserae, as well as a few red and black ones, were found in the chamber and its vicinity. The chamber probably functioned as a cellar of a two-story building. The upper floor was residential while the house animals were kept in the cellar. The holes in the side of the trough were used to tie the animals or for drainage.
System of Installations. A hewn opening (width 0.8 m) and rock-cut negatives were noted in the lower eastern side of Chamber 110. At the eastern edge of the northern side was a rectangular rock-hewn negative, to which a plastered stone was affixed with plaster. A channel that gradually became wider (width 5–25 cm) and descended sharply eastward emerged adjacent to the plastered stone. The channel (L110A) led to a rectangular installation that was aligned east–west (L114; 1.00 × 1.50 × 1.15 m; Fig. 6) and became wider toward its bottom (width of opening 0.5 m, max. width 1.5 m). Signs of stone dressing around the edge of the opening indicate it was covered with stone slabs. A layer of soil inside the installation overlaid black fill, whose nature is unclear (L122; thickness c. 0.5 m).
A rock-hewn channel (L120; width 0.25 m) led to the southeastern corner of Installation 114. The channel’s opening became wider at the point where it met Installation 114. More traces of stone dressing were discovered along the edges of the channel where stone slabs had originally been placed. Channel 120 emerged from a square rock-hewn installation (L126; 0.40 × 0.75 × 0.75 m), which contained black soil and two fragments of a ceramic pipe that were discovered blocked with stones and soil and their narrow openings pointed toward Channel 120 (Fig. 7:1, 2). An oval installation (L121; Fig. 8), built of hydraulic plaster in a later phase and contained white lime, was constructed inside Installation 126 and blocked the opening of Channel 120.
A hewn, square installation (L123; 0.35 × 1.00 × 1.00 m), which was connected to a channel that extended to the east, beyond the excavation limits (exposed length c. 1 m), was discovered east of Installation 114. The opening of the channel was c. 0.15 m higher than the bottom of Installation 123 and it therefore seems that the channel conveyed liquid to the installation.
A conical vat (L124; diam. 0.55 m, depth c. 0.3 m) was situated south of Installation 123 and east of Channel 120.
Fragments of pottery vessels that dated to the Byzantine period, including bowls (Fig. 7:3, 4), were recovered from the installations and on the surface.
Based on the quarrying style it seems that Vat 124 and Installation 123 were contemporary with Installation 114, Channel 120 and Installation 121. Channel 120 was hewn differently than Channel 110A and therefore, it seems that the two channels were not hewn at the same time or were used for different purposes.
The rock-hewn installations, the channels that connected them and Conical Vat 124 should probably be regarded as industrial or agricultural installations, although their precise function remains unclear.
Burial Cave. The cave (L118) whose entrance faced east was discovered south of the installations. Rock-hewn negatives were noted in the cave’s courtyard, which terminated in a steep bedrock step. The central chamber of the cave had two kokhim in its western side. The cave, which had been plundered in the past and sealed by orthodox Jewish factions, could not be measured or documented, although its construction style point toward a date in the Second Temple period.
Rock-hewn Cave. The cave (L101; Fig. 9) was discovered east of the burial cave. Three rock-cut steps (length 0.3–0.5 m, height 5–10 cm) led to the entrance, which faced east (width 1.2 m, height 0.8 m). A fourth step was located inside the cave and near it was a niche that probably served as a door hinge. A wall (W1; height 0.5 m) extended from this corner into the cave whose shape was irregular (diam. c. 4.1 m, max. height 2 m).
The potsherds recovered from the cave mostly dated to the Byzantine period. The exposure of Wall 1 revealed a fragment of a Byzantine vessel and a stone fragment that may have belonged to an ossuary. The cave, probably used for burial during the Second Temple period, was converted into a dwelling or a storage facility at a later time, probably in the Byzantine period.
Quarry. Quarrying negatives (Loci 100, 102; c. 5 × 18 m; Fig. 10) were exposed in the area that descended eastward, south of Cave 101. These indicated that stones of various sizes (0.8 × 0.8 m; 0.60 × 0.85 m) had been detached from bedrock. The area above Caves 101 and 118 was not quarried, although traces of rock-cuttings were visible around the entrance to Cave 118 and next to Cave 101. It can thus be concluded that the quarrymen were aware of the caves’ presence and therefore, the caves predated the rock-cuttings.
Cistern. A rock-hewn cistern was discovered east of the quarry and south of Cave 101. The cistern’s opening was blocked with stones, including a fragment of a stone basin. The entrance shaft had a square cross-section (L108; 0.82 × 0.90 m; depth c. 0.8 m), which became round at the bottom (diam. c. 0.7 m) and a deep groove was cut in the shaft’s northwestern side. The shaft led into a bell-shaped cistern (L109; diam. 1.5–2.0 m, depth c. 1 m) that was hewn in the soft chalk bedrock.
The direction of the cistern differed from that of the rock-cuttings and it may postdate them. It seems that originally, it was hewn as a water cistern, but its quarrying was suspended before completion. It was apparently decided to adapt it for use as a storage pit. This assumption is based on its relatively wide diameter and the groove in the side of the entrance shaft that was probably used as a foothold for climbing in and out of the pit.
Area B (Fig. 11)
A rock that bore the remains of columbarium niches (L107) and a rock-hewn cave (L113) to its south were discovered. The western part of the cave was not excavated because the overlying terrace could collapse. Low rock-hewn steps in the northeastern part of the cave were possibly an entrance that accessed it from the east and two niches (c. 1 m apart) were found opposite them. A rectangular rock-cutting (0.15 × 0.70 × 2.60 m) was in the narrow center part of the cave. A layer of brown soil in the cave overlaid a white fill that was probably the remains of the collapsed ceiling (Loci 117, 119; thickness c. 0.2 m).
Fragments of pottery vessels from the Iron Age and the Second Temple and the Byzantine periods were discovered in the cave and in the vicinity of the columbarium.
A tomb and a burial cave were discovered northwest of Area A. The tomb, which had been plundered and was found filled with refuse, contained three hewn troughs, one next to the other. The rounded burial cave (3.75 × 4.50 m) was found filled with debris and damaged; the opening had been made wider, part of the ceiling had collapsed and several of its interior walls were destroyed.
The façade of a cave was documented southwest of Area B; it was discovered filled with soil and refuse and not excavated. The function of the cave is unclear, yet the signs of rock-cutting on its façade suggest it may have been used as a burial cave.