In October 2015, a small community excavation accompanied by conservation work was carried out on a previously excavated, pillared building at Yesud Ha-Maʽala in Upper Galilee (Permit Nos. A-7530; map ref. 257660/773875; Fig. 1), as part of the Galilean Synagogues Rescue Project. The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and funded by the Prime Minister's Office Heritage Department, was conducted by U. Berger, Y. Alef (conservation planning) and J. Peterson (conservation), with the assistance of Y. Yaakobi (administration), R. Liran and A. Kleiner (surveying and drafting), M. Peleg (aerial photography), A. Shapiro (GPS), D. Gazit (studio photography), D.T. Ariel (numismatics), Y. Gorin-Rosen (glass), H. Tahan-Rosen (finds drawing and plans), L. Porat (pottery restoration), M. Krakovsky (flints) and E.J. Stern (scientific consultation). The excavation was conducted with the participation of pupils of the Nahshonei Ha-Hula Elementary School in Yesud Ha-Maʽala.
The site lies in the eastern part of the Yesud Ha-Maʽala settlement, a moshava colony founded in 1883 at the southern edge of the Lake Hula swamps that were drained in the 1950s. When the settlement was established, a dedicatory inscription in ancient Aramaic was found in its boundaries (Garden 1883; Goldsmidt 1883). In the 1970s, the remains of a large building with two rows of column bases and some medieval pottery sherds were unearthed (Biran and Urman 1974; Tfilinski 1974). Based on the architectural remains and the inscription, the building was identified as an ancient synagogue (Naveh 1978; Ilan 1982:34–40; Lubowski 1982; Ilan 1991:38). Further excavations conducted at the site in the 1980s uncovered a building, built of basalt and limestone, that was identified as a sugarcane mill dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE (Biran and Shoham 1987). These remains were interpreted as a sugar mill built on top of an ancient synagogue, the latter dated by its plan and architectural features to the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. Due to the absence of Roman and Byzantine pottery, the identification of the building as a synagogue remained controversial (Shaked 1999).
The excavation and conservation work were part of a project that developed into a three-year program at Nahshonei Ha-Hula Elementary School (for more on the program, see Levy, Shafriri and Alef 2019). In addition to the excavation, the research activities carried out with the children included surveying ancient elements in the courtyards of the historic houses in the village using an online mobile telephone application and producing an online map of the remains.
The excavation focused on the areas adjacent to the pillared building walls (W30, W32, W61, W62; Figs. 2, 3). These areas, excavated in the early 1980s, had since filled up with alluvium and soil accumulations (L501–L503) from the collapsed earthen balks. Soil accumulations were also excavated in an unexcavated area (L506, L512), exposing the northern part of W61.
The excavation exposed remains and finds from two main strata. Stratum II yielded finds, mostly pottery, from the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods (thirteenth century CE), associated with the sugarcane industry. Stratum I, the surface level, yielded remains and finds dated to the Ottoman and early British Mandate periods, from the pioneer Jewish settlement of Yesud Ha-Maʽala.
The soil accumulations (L501–L503, L506, L512) near the stone walls of the building contained glazed bowl sherds (Fig. 4:1, 2), dated to the twelfth–thirteenth centuries CE, wheel-made jugs (Fig. 4:3) dated to the thirteenth–fifteenth centuries CE, handmade geometric painted jugs (Fig. 4:4), cooking pots (Fig. 4:5, 6) and large handmade jars (Fig. 4:7, 8). There were many sherds of vessels used in sugar production, including conical molds (Fig. 5:1–3) and molasses jars (Fig. 5:4); these sugar vessels are known from previous excavations at the site (Biran and Shoham 1987), as well as from sugar mill complexes elsewhere in the country (Stern et al. 2015; Taha 2015; for more on the sugar industry, see Stern 1999; 2001). The soil accumulation L503, west of W62, yielded two intact pottery vessels, a flat-based small bowl with a pinched rim (Fig. 6:1) and an unglazed oil lamp (Fig. 6:2), both dating from the mid-twelfth–thirteenth centuries CE (Avissar and Stern 2005:124–126). A basalt pillar fragment (L507; diam. 0.6 m) was uncovered in the soil accumulation (L506) east of W62. Additional Mamluk-period finds from Stratum II include an iron arrowhead with a square section found near the corner of Walls 30 and 62 (L502, B5010; Fig. 7; Khamis 2008:181), and a small conical, mold-blown glass bottle with deep ribs forming a flower-shaped section (L502, B5007; Fig. 8; Gorin-Rosen 2006: Fig. 12:1). A worn early thirteenth-century CE coin identified as an Ayyubid fals of al-Adel I minted in Damascus (possibly in 1213/4 CE; IAA 165700), was found on the surface.
The surface layer (L500) and the recent soil accumulations (L503) that penetrated and filled in the excavation pits yielded pottery sherds dating from the late Ottoman and British Mandate periods, including Black Gaza Ware, possibly a water jar rim (Fig. 9:1), handmade storage vessels (Fig. 9:2), many small Rashaya el-Fukhar ware sherds, including ibriq jugs (Fig. 9:3), characteristic of Ottoman-period Upper Galilee (Berger 2015; Stern 2016), and some small porcelain fragments. Local veteran settlers participating in the excavation, recalled that Rashaya el-Fukhar vessels were sold in the colony by horseback itinerant traders from Lebanon until the late 1940s. Additional surface finds included a tobacco pipe fragment with a disc-shaped base dating from the latter nineteenth century CE (Fig. 9:4; Rauchberger 2017: Fig. 14.7.84), roof tile fragments produced by the Motza factory between 1925 and 1948, and Guichard Carvin tiles featuring a distinctive bee insignia (Fig. 9:5), these tiles imported from Marseilles from the late Ottoman period onwards (Gordon 2006; Yergün and Çiftçi 2008), and still extant on the roofs of the colony’s first houses, as well as in the nearby colonies of Metulla and Rosh Pinna. The stratum also yielded two one-mil coins, one issued in 1943 (L500; B5045; Fig. 10:1) and one in 1927 (L500; B5046; Fig. 10:2).
Finds from other periods, mainly from the site’s surface level, include a few flint tools from the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages (Krakovsky, below); a tiny Golan Ware pottery sherd from the Chalcolithic period (Fig. 11:1); an EB I holemouth jar sherd (Fig. 11:2; Golani 2003:132–133); and a few Roman and Byzantine sherds, including an imported LRRW bowl rim (Fig. 11:3; Leibner and Ben David 2014) and ribbed body sherds, some partially coated with a layer of bonding material (Fig. 11:4).
The excavation yielded 23 flint tools and one burnt primary flake. All the items are worn with smoothed edges, and they bear various degrees of patina. The flint items were not found in situ and based on their poorly preserved state, they were exposed on the surface for different lengths of time. Four tools date from the Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Ages; the others are ad hoc tools that are difficult to date. A bladelet retouched on both edges (Fig. 12:1) and a coarsely made drill (Fig. 12:2) date to the Chalcolithic period. Two blades, broken at one end and truncated at the other, have a trapezoidal cross-section and two dorsal ridges (Fig. 12:3, 4), and are probably products of a characteristic EBA Canaanite technology (Rosen 1997:46–50). The latter blade (Fig. 12:4) is thick and wide and bears rough retouching on both its lateral edges, these features supporting a date at the end of the Early Bronze Age or even in the Intermediate Bronze Age (Rosen 1997:111).
No conservation work had ever been carried out on the much neglected building (Alef and Rosenblum 2015). The current excavation re-exposed parts of walls and other remains that were covered up with soil over the years, and the conservation process involved treating the walls, column bases and installations, as well as filling in pits and improve the drainage in the area.
The building’s walls (width 1.5 m) are built of basalt and nari fieldstones and limestone pebbles, bonded with mortar of local soil probably mixed with lime. The walls were poorly preserved, and it was necessary to stabilize them by the addition of new stones and bonding material based on local soil and hydraulic lime (ratio 5:1). The work was done using the original construction technology and by inserting masonry pegs to strengthen the rubble walls. Missing sections of the walls and foundations were also reconstructed to a height of one course, which was marked with stainless steel conservation tags. Altogether, c. 45 sq m of wall tops were sealed, c. 20 sq m of joints were filled in and c. 16 sq m were rebuilt, using c. 8 sq m of basalt and nari stones.
The building contains two rows of four rubble-built plinths for pillars. Some were composed of large nari blocks with marginal dressing and three had upstanding basalt pedestals. The plinth foundations were exposed and stabilized with new bonding material, and stones were added with cast debesh and leveled with masonry pegs to form a stable support for the pedestals. The foundations were then reburied beneath the soil when the excavation pits were filled in.
The building contained pools and channels that were evidently used in the sugar-production process. Three pools (c. 1 × 1 m) were made of large dressed nari stones bonded with lime and ash mortar and set on a bedding of undressed fieldstones. The pools were coated with a layer of strong plaster (thickness 5 cm) made of pure lime and crushed pottery. The conservation of the pools involved several processes: stabilizing the foundations and the pools by the addition of stone and bonding materials; reinforcing the original plaster by strengthening the margins; injecting into spaces that had become detached; and filling in cracks and stabilizing with pure lime bonding material (composed of a 1 mm thin aggregate and 1 mm crushed pottery). The northern side of the eastern pool was rebuilt since its stones had collapsed into the excavation pit. The channels inside the building were built of nari and basalt stones and some of the channel courses had collapsed. The conservation of the channels involved reconstructing the collapsed parts, stabilizing the foundations with masonry pegs and bonding material, and inserting pebbles and bonding material between the building stones.
The previous excavation at the site had left unexcavated balks and earth piles that blocked the drainage, as well as open pits that were dug beneath the foundations, destabilizing them. The conservation work regulated the slope’s natural drainage and filled in pits with local soil to provide a more uniform surface, thus highlighting the ancient remains on the surface.
The Chalcolithic flints and pottery sherd retrieved in the excavation add to recently revealed finds and evidence from the Yesud Ha-Maʽala site, associated with ancient settlements on the shores of Lake Hula (Berger 2017). Although a few Roman and Byzantine pottery sherds were discovered on the surface in the past, this was the first excavation yielding some pottery from these periods, providing some support for the understanding that the site contains a Roman and Byzantine stratum (Biran and Shoham 1987). However, the limited excavation was not able to determine if the pillared structure was originally a synagogue, centuries before functioning as a medieval sugar mill. The iron arrowhead and the intact vessels not related to sugar production retrieved, may indicate that the Stratum II, building was abandoned as a result of some violent event.
The community excavation at Yesud Ha-Ma‘ala was carried out with the aims of turning the site into a significant community landmark and encouraging the local residents to adopt it and ensure its preservation over time. This approach, focusing on a local community’s heritage as the central value in the concept of archaeological heritage management, stems from the power of heritage to strengthen a community’s sense of belonging to a place.
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