During July–September 1998 trial and salvage excavations were conducted in Site 88 at Ben Shemen (Permit No. A-2905; map ref. NIG 193548–608/650710–843; OIG 143548–608/150710–843). The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by the Cross-Israel Highway, was directed by E. Kogan-Zehavi, with the assistance of G. Parnos, I. Barash and U. Avner (area supervision), V. Essman and V. Pirsky (surveying), Y. Gorin-Rosen and R. Jackson (glass), M. Sadeh (archaeozoology), E. Kamaisky (pottery restoration), T. Sagiv (photography) and E. Altmark (metallurgical laboratory).
Sixty squares were excavated in an area of 30 × 110 m, particularly in the center. The western part of a large structure, wherein two phases were discerned, was uncovered. The first phase dated to the end of the Byzantine period or the Umayyad period and the second phase––to the Abbasid period. The structure was erected on an ancient quarry, which was partly exposed in the western and northern sides of the area. The building was poorly preserved, owing to the plundering of its stone walls in antiquity, as well as the intensive plowing of the fields in the modern era (Fig. 1). It was, however, possible to reconstruct most of the building, based on the wall foundations and the robber trenches. The rectangular building (min. 30 × 40 m) had a central courtyard, surrounded with rooms. A cistern (at least 4 m deep) in the middle of the courtyard stored water that was conveyed from the roof by a stone-built gutter and built conduit.
Six rooms were discovered on the eastern side of the building. Only their western part was revealed since their eastern side was destroyed by the construction of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway. Sections of mosaic floors were discovered in three of the rooms (Fig. 2). In the northeast of the building was an olive press, which included two limestone-built collecting vats (diam. 1.4 and 1.6 m; Fig. 1, marked by arrows) that were incorporated in rock-hewn cavities, adapted for them. Nearby, other hewn cavities that predated the olive press were discovered. A round surface (diam. 2 m) was discerned in the area between the two collecting vats. It was built of small compacted stones; larger broken stones were arranged along its perimeter and probably served as a foundation for a crushing installation that did not survive. On the northern side of the building was a square pit (1.8 × 2.0 m; depth 2.5 m) that probably used as a silo.
The bedrock on the western side of the building was vertically hewn, resulting in a straight wall. This rock-cutting was probably intended to create small partitions for special crops, such as spices. A built and plastered channel (width 0.2 m) that was oriented north–south ran the length of the building’s western wall for a distance of 12 m. The channel was built of uniform segments (length 2.65 m) and from each segment a pipe branched off to the west. It seems the ceramic pipes were meant to regulate the water distribution to the cultivated plots. The southern end of the channel discharged into a built and plastered pool (1.4 × 4.0 m).
Near the pool, in the southwestern corner of the building, was a built pit (1.0 × 1.8 m, depth 1.1 m), coated with plaster on the interior. Numerous fragments of pottery vessels, roof tiles, glass and metal, dating to the Abbasid period, were recovered from the pool.
Some 15 m south of the excavation area, a surface (10 × 30 m; Fig. 3) built of pebbles and bonded with plaster that contained potsherds, marble, lumps of mosaic, glass and metal fragments, was uncovered. The many finds in the plaster dated to the end of the Byzantine period and the beginning of the Early Islamic period.
A refuse dump was discovered at the northern end of the area. It contained fragments of pottery vessels, which were coated with a patina that was produced from the prolonged surface exposure, among them were many rims of Gaza jars and imported Late Roman C bowls. The large quantity of jars can be attributed to the oil-making industry.
In addition, twenty-seven coins, basalt vessels, bronze and iron objects, animal bones and carbonized seeds were discovered. A marble lid fragment (length 15 cm) with a hole in its center appears be the cover for a small coffin. A complete box, with a similar but larger lid, was found at Shoham where it was used as a reliquarium (U. ‘Ad, pers. comm.). This find may be indicative of the religious nature of the building.
Based on its size, it is conceivable that the building served as a large estate with ongoing agricultural activity.