During July 2006, an archaeological excavation was conducted in Subterranean Complex 89 (hereafter, SC89), located 150 m southeast of Tel Maresha and 55 m south of SC61(Permit No. A-4687; map ref. NIG 190680/611086; OIG 140680/111086). The excavation, carried out on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by funds of the Archaeological Seminars, was directed by I. Stern and B. Alpert, with the assistance of S. Shaharit and L.Yaborsky (registration, organization and pottery restoration) and S. Neuman (surveying, drafting photography and drawing). Participants from the Archaeological Seminars all around the globe took part in the excavation, as well as youth-group volunteers, with the cooperation of T. Tsuk and the staff of the Bet Guvrin National Park.
The necessity to excavate SC89 was prompted by repetitive robbing of this complex, the latest occurring a few weeks before the excavation began. Many of the connecting passages were cut by later secondary usage or, by robbers. The initial stage of the excavation was devoted to removing the fill, which the robbers’ trenching created and where evidence of their presence (food packaging and tins) was found, as well as graffiti on the walls.
The onset of the Second Lebanon War and the accompanying drastic decline of foreign volunteers resulted in a 2-week excavation, which was focused on identifying the cultic use of Rooms 26–29 and 31–33 during the second century BCE (Fig. 1). Architectural remains, including the large domed ceiling, a carved relief of a man, other embossed and carved decorations and what appears to be a large altar, make this complex unique in Maresha.
A survey of the complex prior to the excavation indicated that it included over fifty rooms, many of which were never used or destroyed before the complex was completed.
To facilitate the excavation of this complex, a wooden staircase was constructed in E1 over the ‘altar’ area. This area appears to have been first used as an access to the cluster of rooms, via a stone staircase that was no longer in use at a later time, when the altar was built. No indication of an arched roof or a covering was discerned, suggesting the area was open to the elements.
The lower part of the altar (width 0.75 m; Fig. 2) was hewn in qirton bedrock and its upper courses (1.7 m) were survived by four building stones. A ledge extended over the third step. The altar was half the width of the area, with three steps extending to the top of the platform. The stairs were in poor condition due to damage, exposure or heavy use. Drainage channels could be seen on the north and south sides of the staircase. The southern channel extended from surface and apparently flowed into Room 33, which was a water cistern. The northern channel flowed into the cistern between the stairs and a small quarried oblong niche in the northern wall (Fig. 3).
The floor at the bottom of the staircase led north into Room 32 or south into Room 31. Directly west of the staircase was a large portal blocked by four courses of building stones (Fig. 4). It was originally intended for the staircase that ran from the eastern wall of E1 to Room 33. Remnants of the stairway could be seen on the northern wall of Room 31. It appears that the staircase was removed, the eastern wall of E1 was sealed with large stones and the altar was then constructed. No sign of another entrance was discerned in this complex.
Room 32 was a small, oval-shaped chamber (2 × 3 m) that had cultic niches in both the southern and northern walls. The original entrance was from E1 and a second opening on the northern side led to Room 27.
Room 27 (5.0 × 8.6 m), the largest room in this cluster, was finely hewn and had a lightly arched ceiling. On the eastern wall, in the corner next to the primary entrance that led to Room 26, a figure of a man, carved in the qirton bedrock (width 0.4 m, height 1.1 m; Fig. 5), was somewhat damaged, perhaps from robbers. It could not be identified according to the representation and it also seemed to have never been completed. This was the only operating entrance when the area was in use. Another entry in the northern corner was not cut as such, but broken through at a later time (wall thickness 0.6 m). It was filled with piled building stones, probably by the robbers. Room 27 contained mainly robber’s backfill of large boulders and stones, as well as quarry chips and some pockets of anthropogenic soil. The inconsistency of the fill made it difficult to determine how it was deposited. Bedrock was not reached and it is assumed that at least 1 m of fill still remained. Several potsherds, all from the Hellenistic period, including oil lamps, bowls, plates and several profiles, were found.
Although the use of this room is undetermined, its proximity to Room 32 with its cultic niches and Room 26 with its unique domed ceiling, as well as the incised figure near the entrance to Room 26, makes it an integral part of this system.
Room 26 had a circular shape (diam. 5.3 m) and was probably the central core for the rooms that radiated from it. Its ceiling was constructed from qirton building blocks, arched in a north–south direction (Fig. 6). A break in the center of the arch showed the architectural skill required to create it, as well as the work technique, which seems to have been implemented by building the arch in an area that was previously exposed to surface and later covered over to be part of the subterranean complex. Dentils were placed on bedrock as a foundation for the ceiling. Two entrances on the eastern and southern sides of the room were visible when it was first entered; however, the excavation revealed three more openings that led to other rooms. Robbers dug a trench (depth c. 1.4 m) around the wall of the western half of this room and dumped the fill from the trench on top of the earlier fill in the middle of the room. At the end of this season, 0.8 m of primarily robbers’ residue fill, which comprised anthropogenic gray soil, was removed from the middle of this room.
Room 31 (2.4 × 3.0 m) could be entered via a small staircase of eight steps. A small corridor (1.3 × 2.3 m) led to Room 28. A bottle-shaped storage bin area was at the north end of Room 28 and a second one was c. 1 m above and 0.7 m to the north of the first. To the west was an unexcavated staircase that led to a large water cistern (Room 33), which appears to have been used extensively, as the lower level of its walls was entirely plastered.
Rooms 28 and 29, filled with collapsed walls and ceilings, were entered through a portal from Room 26. A small probe was excavated, revealing anthropogenic gray soil at 0.6 m below the present level. Continued excavation is necessary to gain more information about the uses and interrelationship of these rooms.