A small area (8 x 10 m; Fig. 2), excavated down to bedrock (depth 0.5–2.5 m), was opened along the eastern slope, with the aim of exposing exit portals of Hiding Complex H (‘Atiqot 58:39–43) that will serve as points of egress and safety along the tour route in the complex. The exit portals were identified below the surface and excavated from the surface down. Evidence of five main settlement strata (V–I), from the Hellenistic until the Ottoman periods, was discerned; the strata are described below from the earliest to the latest. In addition,two pits (diam. c. 2 m) that had been dug by antiquities robbers and damaged the archaeological stratigraphy, were noted.
Stratum V (Hellenistic period). A hewn opening (width 1 m) that led to an underground chamber (B1) and was blocked in a later phase (below, Stratum III), was discerned in the northeastern corner of the square. The bedrock near the opening was shaped and smoothed, and a cupmark (diam. 0.4 m, depth 0.3 m) was hewn in it. Based on the finds, Chamber B1 was first used in the Hellenistic period (third–second centuries BCE). The quarrying of the underground cistern system (A1, A2, B0; Fig. 3) and the staircases leading to them can also be attributed to this period (below).
Stratum IV (Early Roman period). A room enclosed by walls on the north (W2), east (W3) and south (W4), and the subterranean hiding complex are ascribed to this layer. Parts of the three walls were founded directly on the bedrock and partly in recesses that were hewn in the bedrock. The northern side of W2 was built of hewn ashlars set on the bedrock and the inside of the wall consisted of small fieldstones. The eastern continuation of the wall was dismantled; the ashlars were robbed and the fieldstones were left in place. The bedrock, which was smoothed and leveled, served as the room’s floor. Two entrances leading to an underground hiding complex were hewn in the bedrock floor (Fig. 4). The first entrance, located in the corner of the room on the southeastern side, to the north of W4, led to Chamber B5 (Fig. 5). Two openings in the bedrock floor led to this entrance; one (length 1 m, width 0.5 m) consisted of two steps (0.3 x 0.5 m, each 0.3 m high) and the other (length 1.1 m, width 0.5 m), to its west, comprised a single step. The second entrance was hewn in the center of the room. A step hewn inside a rectangular niche (0.5 x 0.6 m) led to the opening and in the northern side of the recess was a hewn circular shaft (diam. 0.8 m, depth 1.3 m). Narrow recesses (width 0.25 m) that were probably meant to facilitate climbing in and out of the chamber were hewn in both sides of the shaft. This shaft was probably used as a point of egress and ventilation opening for Chamber B1, which was integrated into the hiding complex. Based on the pottery finds and coins found above the bedrock floor and in its cracks, the stratum dated to the Early Roman period, until the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (first century CE–first half of the second century CE).
Stratum III (Late Roman period). The walls of the room from Stratum IV were used in this stratum, while the floors were raised and unnecessary spaces were blocked. Two construction phases were identified. A pillared structure was erected in Phase A; in Phase B, the spaces between the pillars were blocked and a room was formed.
Phase A. Three pillars were found in the northern part of the square. Built of roughly hewn ashlars, they were founded on the bedrock in a single row. Two pillars (length 1.5 m, width 0.8 m) were preserved two courses high and the third pillar (length 1.5 m, width 1 m) had cut the northern part of W3. The opening that led to the underground chamber (B1) was blocked with a large stone, covered with tamped earth fill. The beginning of this phase is dated to the second half of the second century CE, after the site was destroyed in the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.
Phase B. A room enclosed by walls on the north (W1), east (W3) and south (W4), which extended west beyond the limits of the excavation area, is ascribed to this phase. Wall 1, built of small fieldstones on the inside and ashlars on the outside, was located in the space between the two pillars of Phase A (see Fig. 2: Section 1–1); the ashlars were fitted to match the stones of the pillars. An opening (width 0.85 m) was discerned between W1 and the third pillar to its east. A tamped-earth floor, which was leveled just several centimeters above the bedrock and overlain with potsherds dating to the third century CE, abutted the walls.
Stratum II (Byzantine period). A section of an architectural complex, consisting of a room with a magnificent mosaic pavement and a courtyard to the northeast, was exposed.
The room (4.3 x 5.0 m) was delimited by four walls: on the east (presumed length 4.8 m) it was poorly preserved; on the west (min. length 2.8 m), it was built of roughly hewn fieldstones that survived a single course high and was probably where the threshold was set; on the south (min. length 1 m), it was partly exposed in the southeastern corner; and on the north (length 4.3 m, width 0.6 m), it was built of large fieldstones, with a core of small stones and an opening in its center (width 1 m).
A mosaic pavement abutted the walls; it was decorated with an inner circle, which contained a five-petal rosette composed of alternating rows of light and dark tesserae in shades of yellow, blue, black and white (Fig. 6). The mosaic was well-preserved, except for some damage to the edges and rosette. Traces of a hearth (diam. 0.7 m) were discerned on the mosaic floor, on the northwestern side of the rosette.
Part a courtyard was excavated north of the room. The exposed area (3 x 5 m), damaged by the antiquities robbery, was delimited between a wall in the south, the excavation balks in the north and west, and probably another wall in the east. The floor of the courtyard consisted of tamped yellow earth (thickness c. 0. 1 m), overlying a foundation of qirton slabs and soil fill that was incorporated in a kind of step, created in W1 (above, Stratum III) by dismantling one of its courses (Fig. 7). A rock-cutting in the northeast of the courtyard that led to an underground chamber (above, Stratum IV) was blocked and covered. The rock-cutting was covered with a vault of roughly hewn qirton that was partly damaged in the antiquities robbery. Pottery characteristic of the fourth–fifth centuries CE and coins were found on the floor of the courtyard. The floor bed contained a large quantity of potsherds typical of the second–third centuries CE, as well as coins. The room and courtyard adjacent to its north were used together; hence, the mosaic can be dated on the basis of the potsherds recovered from the courtyard.
Stratum I (Ottoman period). Wall stumps that did not connect to form a coherent plan were exposed; it is obvious they were used as fences. The stratum was characterized by dark black soil that contained large amounts of ash (thickness 0.7 m), overlying a layer of reddish soil. The ash level contained mostly finds characteristic of the Ottoman period, including fragments of clay pipes, Gaza ware and pottery vessels glazed with enamel in shades of green and brown.
Area A, Underground Chambers
To allow visitors a free and safe movement in the underground chambers, to and from Hiding Complex H, several chambers were partially excavated (‘Atiqot 58:39–44; see Fig. 5).
The Main Staircase. A hewn, straightened and smoothed bedrock level was exposed on the surface. Several cupmarks, a stone trough and a channel (width 0.2 m), which apparently conveyed water to cisterns, were hewn in it. A rectangular shaft (1.3 x 4.0 m) was cut in the hard nari of the bedrock level; it contained a staircase of eighteen steps (width 0.25–0.40, height 0.25 m; see Fig. 3: Section 1–1) hewn in qirton. The seven upper steps occupied the entire width of the shaft, followed by a triangular step that was damaged by the quarrying of a round shaft (diam. 1.2 m), which penetrated the ceiling of Chamber A2 below it; obviously, it did not belong to the first phase of the cisterns’ use because of the danger of falling from the staircase into the underground cavity. The quarrying of the round shaft damaged three steps, whose remains were only evident on its sides. Three narrower steps (length 0.6 m, width 0.25 m, height c. 0.25 m) were discovered further down and at their bottom was a rectangular landing (0.7 x 0.9 m) where the staircase splits: four steps descend eastward to Chamber A1 and seven steps descend southward to Chamber B0. A round aperture for drawing water (diam. 0.4 m) that led to Chamber A2 was exposed in the west, in the middle of a step that was raised above the landing (height c. 0.4 m; Fig. 8). A sloping drainage channel along the edge of the steps was intended to convey the run-off to the cisterns, while keeping the stairs dry. Metal stairs to be used by the visitors were installed above several of the ancient steps.
Chamber A1. A leveled surface across the entire width of the chamber was excavated; it enabled an upright posture in the room. A breach (width 0.5 m) was discerned in the southwestern side, through which one could enter Chamber B0. The passage from Chamber A1 to Chamber A2 was hewn 1 m deeper and more of the bottom part of the dressed entry (min. height 2.8 m) was revealed. Hewn triangular niches (width 0.15 m, height 0.2 m) were cut in the exposed doorjambs of the entry and the traces of soot above them indicate the niches were likely meant for oil lamps. The finds included numerous potsherds and coins dating from the third–second centuries BCE to the eighteenth–nineteenth centuries CE. To facilitate entry into the chamber, metal stairs were installed and the severely deteriorated ceiling was stabilized and reinforced by conservation work.
Chamber A2. Large quantities of soil were excavated; mostly, it had penetrated from the surface through the shaft that breached its ceiling, and some was from the rooms of the hiding complex that had been plundered by antiquities robbers in the past. The upper part of the soil contained potsherds ranging in date from the third–second centuries BCE until the eighteenth–nineteenth centuries CE, whereas in the lower parts of the soil fill, jar and bowl fragments from the third–second centuries BCE to the first century CE appeared in increasing numbers. It seems that the chamber was initially used as a cistern in the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods. Entrances leading into a wide network of hiding cavities were installed next to the ceiling in the first–second centuries CE, as part of the preparations to fight the Roman army. Following the Bar-Kochba revolt, the chamber was reverted to its original use as a cistern, and in the Byzantine period it was damaged by quarrying that resulted in the removal of parts of the hiding complex cavities (Fig. 9).
A metal ladder was installed in the chamber to enable climbing into the hiding complex and iron safety grilles were set.
Chamber B0 was excavated south of the main staircase. It was hewn in qirton and has an elliptical shape (diam. c. 4.5 m) and a rock-cut entrance that allows one to enter upright. Rock-cuttings, which created wide breaches in the chamber’s walls, particularly in the west, and probably dated to the Byzantine period, were visible in the chamber. Three rock-hewn steps that continue the main staircase were exposed; the third step was especially wide (width 0.45 m). A hewn staircase, which led to a chamber that was probably partially coated with plaster, perhaps a ritual bath, was discovered in the northwest. The exposure and identification of this facility was not possible due to safety constraints. The chamber contained large quantities of alluvium and stones in an even surface. Potsherds and coins ranging in date from the Hellenistic until the Ottoman periods were collected. Iron gratings for safety were installed in the chamber.
Hiding Complex H. A small-scale excavation was conducted for the purpose of connecting the two wings of the complex, A and B, and preparing a circular visitors path from the surface to the deep underground and back. A hewn shaft (diam. 0.6 m; Fig. 10), which connected to Chamber B1, was excavated in the ceiling of a channel (A7) that linked two chambers, A8 and A9. This shaft probably served as part of a trap that permitted to strike the enemy from above, while his movement inside a narrow tunnel was confined. The upper exit from the shaft was close to a massive wall built on the bedrock of Chamber B1. The wall (min. length 5.5 m, width 1.1 m), built of medium-sized fieldstones and rising to the ceiling, divided the chamber in two and created a room on its western side that separated Wings A and B. Large quantities of debris, which mostly originated from the illicit diggings in the complex, and potsherds that are characteristic of the first–second centuries CE, were removed from this room.
The conservation work included completing the construction of the southern part of the wall in Chamber B1. A metal ladder that facilitates climbing into the rest of the wing in Channel B2 was installed and an iron grating was set in an opening in the ceiling.
The eastern part of Chamber B1 was damaged by later quarrying, probably in the Byzantine period. It is obvious that this chamber was used as a cistern in the Hellenistic period (third–second centuries BCE); its plan is typical of rock-hewn complexes that were discovered at contemporary sites in the Shephelah region, such as Maresha, and potsherds from this period were collected from the debris of the illicit diggings. A vault built of roughly hewn qirton stones was exposed above a rectangular entrance (1.5 x 2.5 m) in the northwestern part of the chamber’s ceiling; it was stabilized and reinforced.
The Eastern Necropolis (B, C)
Two caves were prepared for visits by the public.
Cave B The cave was cleaned down to its floor. The southern column, which was defaced by antiquities robbers, was rehabilitated and reconstructed and a metal staircase was installed above the ancient staircase. The cave was evidently occupied in secondary use during the nineteenth century CE; the sides of the troughs at the front of the arcosolia were removed by rock-cutting to increase the space inside them, probably for storage or housing. Potsherds of the Ottoman period were discovered on the cave’s floor. (ESI 16:117–119).
Cave C The cave’s courtyard, which had been blocked in the past, was re-excavated. Conservation work included the treating of fissures in the bedrock, reinforcing the staircase and building a retaining wall on the northern side of the anteroom. A metal staircase was built above the ancient stairs/seating system. (‘Atiqot 58:18–24).
Preparation of an Observation Post
An observation post was prepared for visitors on the western hilltop, at the highest point of the site, where remains of the village’s houses from the nineteenth century CE stand. One of the end rooms on the southern side of a modern building was filled with soil and excavation debris to form a leveled surface, and a staircase leading to it was built of the ruin’s stones that were dispersed nearby. The robber pits in the vicinity were blocked with the aid of mechanical equipment for the sake of safety.
The excavation in Area A revealed the presence of five settlement periods in this area alone. The impressive remains and numerous finds at the site attest to its importance. The development of the site and preparation of visitors’ paths will allow the public the opportunity to enjoy a historic site that is both accessible and interesting. Hopefully, further excavation and development of the site will take place in the future.