The Beit Lehi Regional Project is a long-term, multidisciplinary project combining advanced technological documentation, field surveying, aerial surveying with multi-spectral and thermal imaging drones, surface mapping, LiDAR three-dimensional ground-penetrating radar scanning, and the limited excavation of a few key sites. The research area (c. 22 sq km) extends across the Judean Shephelah, and is bounded by Tel Maresha in the north, Tel Amazya and Horbat Qazra in the south, Nahal Maresha in the west and the separation fence in the east.
A large building (57 × 75 m; Figs. 1, 2) that was identified in the survey by a drone, was excavated at Horbat ‘Ammuda. Partial excavation of the building exposed three construction phases (Phases I–III), dated to the Hellenistic Ptolemaic period, the late fourth and early third centuries BCE, and the building was destroyed in the first half of the second century BCE. It was probably a Ptolemaic–Edomite administrative building, containing ceremonial cultic areas for the region’s population and controlling the main road that ran along Nahal Maresha.
Phase I (late fourth–early third century BCE). A rectangular building exposed in the northwest part of the excavation area (the ‘small temple’; W132, W141, W200, W201; c. 7 × 14 m), is attributed to the earliest phase. It is aligned northwest–southeast, and built of narrow, well-dressed ashlars arranged as headers and stretchers (Fig. 3). The walls are preserved for two courses and the lower foundation course is built directly on the bedrock. Some of the headers and stretchers bear marginal dressing with a roughly worked boss. The floor is not preserved. Two headers adjoin the southern end of W132; two similar stones may also adjoin the southern end of W200 (not yet excavated). These headers are probably antae post stones, characteristic of temple portals in the Hellenistic period. The building’s impressive, distinctive architecture attests to its cultic function, possibly a temple. It yielded meager Hellenistic pottery finds, including a fragment of an imported West Slope vessel.
Phase II (third–first half of second century BCE). A large square compound built in this phase (the ‘main compound’; c. 45 × 50 m) includes a spacious open-air courtyard surrounded by rooms. In the northern part of the compound, bordered along its entire length by a wall (W123), lie a row of small rooms with a long corridor to its south that probably opened onto the courtyard. Wall 123 is built along the outer face of the small temple’s northern wall (W141). There are probably also rows of small rooms on the courtyard’s western and eastern sides.
A wide staircase (W218; length c. 15 m) in the southern part of the building, leads southeast to a row of three halls bounded by a wall (W100) with small rooms built beside them, to the south, east and west (Fig. 4). The staircase is built on a wide foundation wall (W642) and three of its steps are preserved; the upper step may have borne a stylobate. Wall 100 is built of headers and stretchers, although its construction differs from that of the small temple. The wall contains a single row of small cells enclosed by stone slabs (see Fig. 4) that contain a small fieldstone fill. Some of the cells’ northern slabs were probably robbed or incorporated in the small temple in secondary use. A few of the small rooms have simple plaster floors. One room contained sherds of at least five amphorae dated to the third or early second centuries BCE; this was a surprising discovery in view of the meager small finds from the entire compound. Another room in the southeastern corner of the building, yielded the remains of two plastered installations (L737, L748) whose function has not yet been identified.
The plan of the southern part of the building resembles a typical vestibule (pronaos), main chamber (naos) and rear room (opisthodomos) of a Hellenistic temple. The courtyard and adjacent southern building are oriented approximately north–south, as is the small temple, but the association between them has not yet been clarified.
Phase III (late third century BCE [?] to pre-Maccabean Revolt). After the construction of the main compound, a row of rooms (W124, W146, W202) was added east of the eastern wall of the Phase II compound. Another row of rooms (W620, W707) may also now have been built west of the compound’s western wall, but further excavation is required to determine the nature of the construction and the chronological sequence in the western part of the building. While in some places, it is clear that the walls of the rooms to the east and west abut the outer face of the Phase II compound walls (W147, W732, and the western and eastern ends of W123), at this stage it cannot be established whether these rooms were already added to the main compound in Phase II, or at a later date.
Two stone-built podia are attributed to this phase, one (W143; Fig. 5) in the building’s northeastern corner and the other (W733; Fig. 6) in the building’s southeastern corner. A fill layer overlying the bedrock next to the base of Podium 143 yielded an assemblage of vessels including jugs, unguentaria and two stone incense burners, one decorated with the figure of a bull standing at the front of a temple; the assemblage dates from the late third or early second century BCE. About one meter east of Podium 733, an entrance built of two narrow stones with a narrow opening between them leads into the podium. A fill against the podium’s southern side contained a fragment of an undecorated stone altar. The two podia may have had a cultic function.
In this phase, the small temple was no longer functioning, and it was almost entirely dismantled and partially covered with a layer of leveled packed earth and rubble. A similar layer was observed in the other parts of the compound, without rendering the walls obsolete.
The building’s dimensions and impressive architectural elements, and the remains of cultic significance indicate that it was a cultic-administrative center that served the regional rural population. Alongside the cultic podia and the accompanying cultic vessels, there is a striking absence of domestic pottery such as cooking and serving ware. Built late in the Ptolemaic era, the compound continued to be used by the Edomite population under Seleucid rule, and probably fell out of use when the Maccabean Revolt broke out (163 BCE). The limited small finds suggest that the compound was intentionally abandoned by the local officials prior to the arrival of the Hasmoneans, who probably destroyed it during the revolt. A similar picture has emerged at nearby Horbat Bet Loya, where the site was abandoned during the Maccabean Revolt, rather than decades later under John Hyrcanus, as was once widely assumed.