In July and October 2012, a salvage excavation was conducted in a burial cave and another burial cave was documented east of Khirbat Deir Sallam, near Moshav Mesillat Ziyyon in the Judean Shephelah (Permit Nos. A-6577, A-6586; map ref. 2017–8/6346–8, Fig. 1). The caves were discovered during an antiquities inspection while overseeing the installation of a water pipeline by the Mekorot Company. The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by E. Klein (drafting and photography), with the assistance of A. Ganor, S. Bar-Tura, A. Klein, G. Fitoussi and A. Rothstein of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, P. Betzer (administration), M. Kunin (surveying and drafting), V. Eshed (physical anthropology), Y. Gorin-Rosen (glass), C. Hersch (drawing of finds) and C. Amit (studio photography).
Two Byzantine-period Arcosolia burial caves, located c. 180 m apart were examined: one (A) was excavated and the other (B) was only documented due to pressure exerted by ultra-Orthodox factions. The caves were hewn in limestone bedrock of the Gharab formation of the Mount Scopus group. The region is located at a geological interface between the Jerusalem Hills and the Judean Shephelah.
Cave A (map ref. 201773/634683; Fig. 2). The cave opening faced north; it was damaged and widened by mechanical equipment. It seems that a deep shaft (2–3 m) originally led to the cave opening. Three steps descended from the opening into a rectangular standing pit (L1001). Five poorly preserved arcosolia (L1002–L1006; Fig. 3) were hewn in the walls of the cave around the standing pit. Arcosolium 1005 was not excavated because of collapsed boulders and earth originating from the shaft that was hewn in the ceiling of the arcosolium.
Fragments of a sandal lamp from the Byzantine period (fifth–sixth centuries CE; Fig. 4:1) and part of a large, round stone (diam. 0.7 m), probably the roll-stone that sealed the original entrance to the cave, were discovered in Standing Pit 1001; the broken stone probably indicates that the cave was breached and plundered in antiquity. Almost no bones were discovered in the standing pit. Arcosolium 1002 contained the bones of a woman and child, along with two intact double-kohl glass bottles. The body of one of the bottles is decorated with delicate, dark-colored trails and has two handles attached to the rim (Fig. 4:2); this bottle dates to the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century CE. The other vessel has two side handles attached to the rim and a basket handle above them (Fig. 4:3); it dates to the fifth–sixth centuries CE. This bottle was found with copper hoops hanging from the side handle, from which a copper ring was hung. Kohl sticks (Fig. 4:4–6) were found along with the kohl bottles. Kohl bottles are very common in funerary assemblages, but bottles with copper hoops are rare. Arcosolium 1003 contained only a few bones, mainly of children. Arcosolium 1004 contained the bones of many individuals, representing adults, adolescents and children. Alongside them were two parts of an iron buckle (Fig. 4:7) that may have belonged to a belt of one of the deceased and a small copper bell (Fig. 4:8) that might have been a toy funerary offering for one of the children. The bones of several individuals and a fragment of a copper ring (Fig. 4:9) were discovered in Arcosolium 1006.
Cave B (map ref. 201832/634869; Fig. 5). The cave was entered as a result of damage caused to the northeastern Arcosolium (2). The cave was hewn along an east–west axis, its opening facing west. The cave’s interior was filled with alluvium that had penetrated from the surface through the opening. A recess for a roll-stone (length 0.6 m, width 02 m) was hewn in the opening’s northern doorjamb. The cave included a central, rectangular burial chamber (2.1 × 3.6 m, height above the alluvium 1.6 m) and four arcosolia (1–4; Fig. 6) set in two of its walls. A burial trough (0.8 × 1.8 m) was hewn at the bottom of each arcosolium. Each trough was separated from the burial chamber by a low bedrock wall (width 0.2 m). A narrow irregular-shaped tunnel that led to the surface was discerned in the eastern part of the ceiling of Arcosolium 2, possibly a natural fissure or an animal’s burrow. All of the burial troughs were covered with alluvium. Human bones discovered in Arcosolium 4 were left in place.
burial caves were most common in this region during the Byzantine period (Avni 1998
:37–44). Judging by the glass vessels and ceramic oil lamp found in Cave A, the burial there should be dated to the fifth–sixth centuries CE. On the basis of its plan, Cave B should also be dated to the Byzantine period. The two caves may have belonged to the cemetery of the Byzantine-period settlement at nearby Khirbat Deir Sallam.