The excavations at Hippos/Sussita (also known as Antiochia Hippos of the Decapolis), located 2 km east of the Sea of Galilee, have been carried out since 2000 (Kowalewska and Eisenberg 2021Hippos-Sussita Website). In 2021, work was conducted in four areas (Fig. 1): the Saddle Necropolis (NSD; the area located south of the ditch; Fig. 1:17); the Forum (FRM; Fig. 1:5); the East City Gate (EGT; Fig. 1:1); and the Cathedral (CTD; Fig. 1:2).
The Saddle Necropolis (NSD)
The excavations were carried out in two areas of the Saddle Necropolis (Fig. 2): the sarcophagi field and Burial Cave A.
Sarcophagi field. The sarcophagi field, located between the ditch (Fig. 1:17) and the Flowers Mausoleum (Fig. 1:23), was excavated at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Eight sarcophagi were fully or partially excavated; several of the sarcophagi have been published (Eisenberg and Kowalewska 2021). The southernmost sarcophagus, located c. 30 m north of the Flowers Mausoleum, was free-standing and made of basalt. The other sarcophagi were made of limestone and were set in deep trenches, purposely hewn in the limestone bedrock to accommodate each sarcophagus and its lid, and were covered with stone slabs. A single decorated sarcophagus (S15385; Fig. 3) was carved with an empty tabula ansata, discs, columns, arches and a decorative ledge—a characteristic sarcophagus type known around the Sea of Galilee (Aviam 2016). A few small Roman-period pottery sherds and sporadic small bone fragments were retrieved from the soil in and around the sarcophagi.
Burial Cave A. This is the first burial cave excavated in the Hippos necropoleis. It is located on the eastern slope of the saddle, c. 20 m east of the Flowers Mausoleum. Since the cave’s ceiling had collapsed, the excavation concentrated mostly on breaking and removing a thick layer of the nari rock. The cave had a partly preserved stepped entrance, and a burial niche (kokh) in the northern wall (Fig. 4). Roman-period pottery dating up to the fourth century CE was retrieved, indicating that the burial cave was contemporary with the other burials in the Saddle Necropolis.
The Forum (FRM)
The 2021 excavations in the forum were carried out at two spots: W1813 on the northwestern side of the forum, and F1493, the area overlying the large reservoir under the southern part of the forum (Figs. 1:5 [reservoir marked in blue]; 5).
Probes next to W1813. Two small probes (c. 0.9 × 0.9 m) were excavated on the northern and southern sides of W1813 to investigate the construction details of the wall (Fig. 6), prior to its partial reconstruction and the re-erection of one of the granite columns of the forum’s northern portico. The two probes were dug down to the basalt bedrock, ascertaining that the wall dates to the Hellenistic period (second century BCE?). There was probably a Hellenistic-period building here (a stoa?) that was later covered over by the Roman stylobate of the forum portico. The accumulated soil layer on the basalt bedrock below the wall yielded pottery sherds and a couple of flint tools, probably from the Chalcolithic period.
Area overlying the reservoir. The excavation was located next to the reservoir due to the conservation work carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority to consolidate the reservoir’s vaulted ceiling. The conservation work, and the accompanying small-scale excavation, revealed a layer of small basalt stones bonded with lime-based binding material overlying the reservoir vault (F1493). This layer was probably originally covered by the basalt paving slabs of the forum plaza. A dark grey dusty soil layer (thickness 0.3–0.4 m) overlying Floor 1493 contained mixed finds, including many asbestos roof tile pieces of a large Israel Defense Forces shed that was demolished before the excavations began in 2000, visible in earlier photographs. Floor 1493 was cut by at least two channels (L10114, L10119) that probably directed water into the reservoir; the date of the channels was not ascertained.
The East City Gate (EGT)
The excavation was carried out in the gate passageway and partly under the gate plaza (Fig. 7), prior to the construction of an underground infrastructure. The gate and its plaza were paved with basalt paving slabs. The passageway (width 3.15 m; Fig. 8: yellow line) was flanked by two towers and had a basalt pressure pipe running through it.
The excavation led to two understandings:
1) The section of the gate passage drawn in the 1950s (see Eisenberg 2014: Fig. 139) was schematic, not showing the specific construction layers. In effect, the basalt pressure pipe was not set in a bedrock-cut trench or directly on the bedrock, as shown in the section; it was laid on a leveled layer of large basalt boulders and was encased with small basalt stones set in bonding material.
2) The gate passageway was not disturbed or rebuilt after the late first or early second century CE, the only non-modern disturbance being the robbing of the plaza pavement flagstones, without any extensive damage. Modern disturbances were observed in the northeastern part of the trench, near the modern mine field fence.
The Cathedral (CTD)
The cathedral and the adjacent baptistery were excavated by the Israel Department of Antiquities in the early 1950s (Epstein and Tzaferis 1991), and the western end of the southern aisle and the northern baptistery wall were partially excavated by the Hippos Excavation Project in 2003 (Segal 2003). The 2021 work focused on entirely uncovering the southern wall and the church aisle, as well as the eastern portico of the church’s atrium, thus fully exposing the church prior to opening it to the public (Fig. 9).
The atrium and the southern aisle floors were covered with collapsed building debris, composed mainly of basalt ashlars. Only the lowest ashlar courses of the building’s walls were extant, and in some places even the lowest course was tilted and pushed out of place. The eastern area of the opus sectile floor of the southern aisle was well preserved (F809; Fig. 10). The layer of accumulation overlying the southern aisle floor yielded modern finds, mainly bullet shells, indicating that at least parts of the aisle were exposed in the 1950s, and were since covered up. No other indicative finds were retrieved.
The division of the atrium portico into small compartments with simple walls built of unworked stones, and the many domestic-type finds—mainly basalt grinding implements—indicated that this area was reused in the Umayyad period and possibly also in the early Abbasid period. The southern part of the floor was made of plaster, while some patches of a mosaic floor were identified in the northern part; these were subsequently covered over by a packed-earth floor. The southern end of the eastern atrium portico stylobate was uncovered, exposing two pedestals, which join the four extant pedestals and bases discovered in the 1950s.
The excavation of the cathedral’s southern wall revealed that an additional row of rooms lay to the south of the main church area. Whilst only a very small part of the rooms was exposed (length 0.5 m), it was evident that a western room was paved with a well-preserved mosaic floor, and an eastern room had an opus sectile floor. Also uncovered was a curious additional construction—a red-painted cross-shaped plastered basin surrounded by marble screens—adjacent to the southern wall of the cathedral’s main building, possibly a second baptismal font; the first font was found in the 1950s in the main apse of the baptistery.
Four probes were opened beneath the cathedral floors. One probe, dug down to bedrock in the southern part of the eastern atrium portico, adjacent to the stylobate, revealed an earlier wall and a floor laid on a packed layer of soil (thickness 0.10–0.15 m) above the bedrock. Another probe was dug east of the cathedral’s main portal, and two probes were dug in the southern aisle, adjacent to the pedestals that supported the southern colonnade. The three probes dug inside the cathedral revealed two earlier construction phases: one probably of a church with the same plan as the later cathedral, and an earlier phase underneath the colonnade pedestals, with a threshold located in the same spot as the main portal of the cathedral.
The most important new information gleaned from the 2021 excavations was the existence of the early construction phases of the cathedral. The additional discoveries include the dating of the forum’s northern stylobate wall, the more detailed understanding of the construction of the water supply system next to the East City Gate, and the excavation of the sarcophagi in the Saddle Necropolis.