In February 2017, an archaeological excavation was carried out at Nizzana National Park (License No. G-4/2017; map ref. 145233–830/531601–880). The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa and funded by the European Research Council, was conducted by Y. Tepper (field photography), T. Erickson-Gini (pottery), L. Weissbrod and G. Bar-Oz (bioarchaeology), with the assistance of S. Piltova, A. Sanchez-Stroh and D. Alexandrovsky (area supervision), A. Assad (data processing), R. Shafir (conservation planning and implementation), A. Blumenkrantz and N. Shirokov (surveying), J. Farhi (numismatics), Y. Gorin-Rosen (glassware), D. Fuks (archaeobotany), D. Langgut (palynology), R. Shahack-Gross, D. Butler and Z. Dunst (geoarchaeology), E. Boaretto and Y. Xin (radiocarbon dating), N. Marom (archaeozoology), A. Regev-Gissis (drafting), A. Gerstein (aerial photography), S. ‘Ad (finds drawing), T. Tsuk and O. Bortnik (Israel Nature and Parks Authority) and Y. Haimi and P. Betzer (Israel Antiquities Authority). The excavation was joined by students from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa and youths from the Har Ha-Negev and Sede Boqer field schools and from Nizzana Youth Village. Nizzana Youth Village hosted and provided accommodation for the participants.
The excavation was part of a project investigating the reasons for the collapse of Byzantine settlements in the Negev (project site
Nizzana (Nessana) is situated in Pithat Nizzana, in the western Negev, 52 km southwest of Be’er Sheva‘. The site lies on both banks of Nahal ‘Ezuz and on a ridge with two peaks (270 m asl). The most comprehensive surveying of the site was accomplished by Musil (1907) and Woolley and Lawrence (1914–1915), before the First World War and the establishment of the small town of ‘Auja el-Hafir. Excavations by the Colt Archaeological Expedition (1935–1937) dated the first settlement at the site to the Hellenistic period (Colt 1962:70–75). The settlement continued to be occupied throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods, until its abandonment in the Early Islamic period (Shereshevski 1991:49–52; Magness 2003:90–92, 180–185; Avni 2014:261–267). Colt’s expedition unearthed a monumental flight of steps linking the lower part of the site to the buildings on its summit, where a military fortress and two churches—Church of the Saints and Church of Mary—were uncovered. A papyrus archive from the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods (sixth–seventh centuries CE) was also discovered (Kraemer 1958; Negev 1993). Between 1987 and 1995, a third church was located at the site, to the east of Nahal ‘Ezuz, and a monastery was discovered on a spur to the north of the Church of the Saints. Several residential buildings were also excavated on the site’s southeastern and southern slopes, and trial excavations were conducted in the fortress and the in the Church of the Saints, located in the upper part of the site (Urman 2004:1–9; 2007).
The current excavation focused on the site’s southwest fringes, near the Nahal ‘Ezuz streambed. Six areas were excavated: four (A, D–F) in middens and two (B, C) in buildings at the edge of the site. Two strata were recorded: from the Byzantine period (fifth–seventh centuries CE) and from the Early Islamic period (seventh–eighth centuries CE).
Area A. A trench (4 × 10 m) was excavated in the west part of a large midden (30 × 40 m; height c. 5 m in south) on the fringes of the settlement. The trench was dug toward the top of the midden, in the moderate west slope opposite the site, and it was divided into an upper and a lower section (Fig. 1). In the upper part, a series of superimposed gray-brown sediments were excavated to a depth of c. 1.2 m below the surface, on a slope corresponding to the profile of the midden. These layers yielded botanical finds, such as dates, olives, peaches, wheat, barley, and scant remains of vines; rich archaeozoological finds, including the bones of goat/sheep and of a variety of species of game; and fragments of Early Islamic pottery. Two large round blackened hearths were recorded (diam. c. 3 m; depth in center 0.7 m). Preliminary sedimentological analysis seems to indicate that the main substance burnt in them was animal dung. At a lower level, with no distinctive stratigraphic separation, sediments varying in hue from light gray to dark brown were excavated; they contained botanical finds—mainly olives, dates, wheat and barley—and rich archaeozoological finds, including pig and goat/sheep bones. These layers were dated to the Byzantine period. The excavation reached a maximum depth of 3.1 m below the surface, with no further chronological changes in the stratigraphy. Similar sediments were excavated at the base of the section, although they were thinner (0.7 m thick), with no hearths. At this depth, a light, slightly sandier layer of soil was unearthed. It sloped in a different direction than the midden’s present-day surface, and it yielded relatively few finds compared with the top of the midden. This was probably the level of the ancient surface; the deposits excavated beneath it were typical of the margins of a site but were not necessarily composed of refuse, unlike the upper levels of the midden.
Area B. Approximately 10 m to the east of Area A, a building was excavated (at least 15 × 20 m, excavated area 2.5 × 5.0 m); its wall tops were visible on the surface prior to the excavation. The corner of a room with two phases was uncovered, attesting to the building’s reuse. A later, poorly built partition wall was built inside of the building, beside its east wall. Two habitation levels—one beneath collapsed stones outside the building (Fig. 2), and the other inside the room that was partially excavated, on top of a poorly-made stone floor—yielded scant finds from the Early Islamic period. From the early phase, a corner of a building built of dressed limestone was unearthed. The pottery found on the earthen floor and in the building’s foundations dates from the Byzantine period.
Area C. On the bank of Nahal ‘Ezuz, c. 100 m to the northeast of Area A, part of a building was excavated (2 × 5 m, building dimensions at least 20 × 30 m); it was covered by refuse (10 × 15 m). A wall covered by a midden was unearthed, beneath which were three habitation levels: the latter two levels dated from the same time as the building; the earlier one was founded on bedrock beneath the wall’s foundation, and thus predated it. Gray sediments (max. depth 0.3–0.4 m) that covered the building and were stratified on the slope at its base were dated to the Early Islamic period. Beneath them, a loess layer was excavated together with two floors made of clay and a chalky paste that abutted the outer wall. The underlying and overlying finds date from the Byzantine period. Beneath the second floor were two rounded installations filled with ash that contained botanical finds and charcoal. The northern one (diam. c. 0.95 m) was hewn in the bedrock and partially lined with stones bearing traces of soot; the southern one—an oven with a similar diameter—was built on the bedrock beneath the wall foundation, and it probably belongs to another building. The finds from both installations were dated to the Byzantine period (Fig. 3).
Area D. Both sides of a wall were excavated (width 0.7 m, at least 10 m long, excavated area 2 × 3 m, depth 0.2 m) in the northwest part of the large midden in Area A and c. 5 m east of the trench dug in this area. Gray levels that probably originated from the midden were unearthed and dated to the Early Islamic period. On the north side of the wall, the excavation exposed six courses of the wall (0.85 m high). Uniform gray sediments, identified as refuse, were found accumulated beside the wall (max. depth 0.4 m). A floor discovered beneath these accumulations (0.6 m below surface level) was composed of a chalky paste; a few Byzantine-period potsherds were found on the floor and in the shallow fill beneath it (Fig. 4).
Area E. Two sides of a wall were excavated. The wall (width 1.3 m, at least 30 m long, excavated area 2 × 5 m), which delineated the north boundary of a large midden (at least 20 × 30 m, height c. 1.5 m), extended southward, c. 100 m to the west of Area A. To the north of the wall were levels of loess covering a stone collapse (max. depth c. 0.4 m), which yielded scant finds from the Byzantine period. To the south of the wall were brownish gray sediments, identified as refuse, which yielded rich botanical finds—olive and date pits, wheat and barley—and bones of goat and sheep. The wall was built of large blocks of hard limestone (0.55 × 0.65 m average dimensions, preserved to a height of four courses) on a sandy sediment. Traces of fire on the stones provide evidence of refuse burning in this location (Fig. 5). Beneath the wall foundation, further bedding levels were excavated, some including copious amounts of ash (max. depth below surface 1.8 m) that was dated to the Byzantine period.
Area F. An area (1.0 × 1.5 m) was excavated c. 20 m northeast of Area A after a few ashlars were uncovered on the east slope of the large midden. The excavation unearthed a stone-built cell (0.2 ´ 0.7 m), probably a tomb. The cell had no floor, and its walls were built of a single course of ashlars in secondary use and local fieldstones. Inside the cell were a few potsherds from the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods (Fig. 6).
The excavation results allowed mapping with greater accuracy the boundaries of the settlement during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. The wall unearthed in Area E was dozens of meters long; neither its width nor its method of construction on a sandy foundation are typical features of residential buildings. These features and its location support its identification as the site’s outer perimeter wall. This wall was first documented by Musil (1907:86) and by Woolley and Lawrence (1914–1915:118). Intensive secondary use of the stones from the buildings at Nizzana undertaken when the town of ‘Auja el-Hafir was built and during other development work evidently obliterated the wall from the landscape. Since no layers of refuse were found to the north of the wall, it probably served in this part of the site as a boundary for refuse dumping from nearby houses after the Byzantine period.
In this part of the site, the settlement appears to have shrunk inward from the perimeter wall during the transition from the Byzantine period to the Early Islamic period. Although in Area A refuse continued to be dumped beyond the boundary of the settlement during this transition period, the refuse was apparently treated in a different manner, mainly by burning it in the middens, using animal dung (Areas A, E); this indicates a change in social and cultural behavior patterns at Nizzana, which resembles the change found at Shivta (Tepper et al. 2018). Furthermore, the dumping of refuse in abandoned houses within the boundary set by the Byzantine wall (Area C) and beside the wall and on top of it (Areas D, E) attests to the extent of change that took place at the site during this time and indicates a different approach both to the interior of the settlement and to the perimeter wall. The dumping of refuse beside the wall during the Early Islamic period made the site more vulnerable and weakened any benefits provided by a defensive perimeter wall. It is therefore evident that the wall was no longer deemed necessary after the mid-seventh century CE. Examination of the finds collected in the excavation, particularly the botanical and archaeozoological finds, will provide a better understanding of the Byzantine–Early Islamic transition and the socio-cultural changes that occurred at Nizzana at the time.
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