Excavators carrying out an archaeological survey on the foothills south of Beit Shemesh recently stumbled upon an impressive finding which sheds light on a previously unknown, prosperous settlement in the region some 1,000 years ago.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) said it "uncovered a large and impressive compound dating to the Byzantine period in Ramat Bet Shemesh," which included near-perfectly preserved artifacts offering a rare glimpse into the daily lives of the ancient inhabitants.
During the survey blocked cisterns, a cave opening and the tops of several walls were fond visible on the surface. The subsequent excavations, funded by the Ministry of Construction and Housing revealed a vast compound surrounded by an outer wall and divided on the inside into two areas: an industrial area and an activity and residential area.
The industrial area demonstrated the primary source of income for residents was olive oil and wine production. An unusually large and well-preserved olive oil press was discovered inside the complex, while a large wine press was revealed outside. The latter consisted of two treading floors from which grape juice would have flowed to a large collecting vat.
According to the IAA, "The impressive size of the agricultural installations shows that these facilities were used for production on an industrial-scale rather than just for domestic use."
Two entire ovens used for baking were also exposed in the compound, although those likely were for local use.
The residential part of the compound consisted of several rooms, some of which contained beautifully-detailed mosaic flooring. One partially-preserved, colorful mosaic was exposed in a room which once contained a staircase to a now-nonexistent second floor. In the adjacent room another multicolored mosaic was found, which portrayed a cluster of grapes surrounded by flowers set within a geometric frame.
Execavation directors Irene Zilberbod and Tehila libman said the compound was most likely a monastery.
"We believe this is the site of a monastery from the Byzantine period," said Zilberbod. "It is true we did not find a church at the site or an inscription or any other unequivocal evidence of religious worship; nevertheless, the impressive construction, the dating to the Byzantine period, the magnificent mosaic floors, window and roof tile artifacts, as well as the agricultural-industrial installations inside the dwelling compound are all known to us from numerous other contemporary monasteries.
"Thus it is possible to reconstruct a scenario in which monks resided in a monastery that they established, made their living from the agricultural installations and dwelled in the rooms and carried out their religious activities."
Experts estimate that at some point towards the beginning of the Islamic period (seventh century CE), the compound ceased to function and was subsequently occupied by new residents, who changed the plan of the compound and adapted it for their needs. If the new residents were along the Muslim conquerers or accompanying Arab settlers it may suggest why no church was found during the excavations.
Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem Regional Archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the IAA and Housing Ministry had already taken measures to preserve the site, which would ultimately be situated in the center of the new neighborhood slated for construction.