The two subterranean complexes—SC 89, located 150 m southeast of Tel Maresha and 55 m south of SC 61; and SC 169, located 105 m southeast of the tell—have been extensively exposed and excavated since 2000, subsequent to repetitive robbing activities (Alpert and Stern 2008; Stern and Alpert 2014). The final report on the 2000–2016 excavations in SC 169 has recently been published (Stern 2019). The 2018 and 2019 excavations in SC 89 and SC 169 supplement the earlier excavations, focusing on specific rooms and areas in the complexes.
All the material excavated in both the subterranean complexes contained unstratified debris and alluvium that had either collapsed or was deliberately dumped after the main period of use; the terminus ante quem date for the abandonment of Maresha has been established as c. 107/6 BCE.
Subterranean Complex 89 (Fig. 1)
The 2018 and 2019 excavations in SC 89 focused on three areas: Room 17; a cluster of rooms in the southern part of the complex (Rooms 50, 52, 53, 62, 63); and a cluster of rooms in the northern part of the complex (Rooms 59–61, 64–72).
Room 17. This room appears to be the center of a cluster of rooms. The room has five openings: two on the west, leading to narrow passages; one blocked entrance in the south, which was the main entrance from the surface; one in the southeast corner; and one in the northeast corner. On the western side of the southern entrance is a small inscription in cursive Greek that reads “Hermes, who is in charge of succor/aid and …”. Below the southern entrance, a staircase that turns sharply to the east was partially revealed. The bedrock floor as well as the remainder of this staircase were uncovered on the northwestern side of the room.
Southern Room Cluster. Room 50 (Fig. 2) is a rectangular room with a stepped niche on its southern side. The entrance into the room is on the eastern side, via a dromos with an arched ceiling of finely laid chalk blocks (Fig. 3). Depictions of three warships (length of largest ship 1.9 m), as well as a profile of a face and what appears to be an inscription, were found on the western wall of the room, north of the entrance into Room 52 (Fig. 4; Haddad, Stern, and Artzy 2018). The inscription is enigmatic, consisting of a series of marks that we have not yet been able to decipher. The sections of the wall that exhibited the graffiti were deliberately smoothed over before the etchings were added. On the western side of Room 50, graffiti were discovered on the northern door jamb of a large opening that leads into Room 52. The graffiti consist of several merchant ships etched into the wall, the ships appearing to be supported by an image of a woman or goddess (Fig. 5). A bronze pendant of Tanit (Fig. 6) was found in Room 50, next to the entrance leading into Room 52.
The architectural features of Room 52 clearly indicate that it was originally quarried as a loculi tomb (Figs. 7–9). There may have been a connection between the interred in the tomb and the etchings of ships, in which case the orientation of the tomb facing west towards the sea may not be coincidental. The room contains loculi with clearly smoothed walls and gabled ceilings, typical of Maresha, and a thin decorative red line drawn across the room just above the loculi. Only a few of the original loculi are extant (width of niches c. 0.7 × 2.35 m, niches set c. 0.33 m from each other), but enough evidence has survived to enable a reconstruction of the original room. From the architectural remains we can discern that the room contained three loculi in the western wall and probably five in both the northern and the southern walls. Most of the loculi appear to have been destroyed when the tomb went out of use. They were broken or chiseled through, some in the shape of arches, while others appear to have collapsed or were deliberately destroyed.
The location of the tomb within the occupied area of the Hellenistic city suggests that it was hewn in the third century BCE at the latest, prior to the second-century BCE expansion of the city. Its location on the southeastern slope of the lower city suggests that it was originally part of that cemetery, as does its proximity to the painted tombs in the southeastern necropolis. While the quarrying of the tomb may be tentatively dated to the third century BCE, most of the ceramic finds from the unstratified fills in the room date from the third–second centuries BCE. Stamped amphora handles discovered in the fill date from the first half of the second century BCE, c. 180–160 BCE (G. Finkielsztejn, pers. comm.). The Phoenician connection to Maresha, including the Tanit pendant, has been discussed in a previous publication (Wolff, Stern and Erlich 2018).
An opening in the southwestern wall of Room 52 (see Fig. 1) leads into a narrow burrow hewn through the chalk wall that revealed seven more rooms, including an olive press; these rooms are difficult to access and were not excavated. North of Room 50, Room 53 leads to an opening and a bedrock staircase that ascends to the surface, along which are two small baths. To the east of Room 50 is Room 62, which has an opening in its southern wall that leads to a cistern (Room 63; see Fig. 1) with an intact staircase and banister.
Northern Room Cluster (see Fig. 1). A rock-cut staircase leads via a dromos into Rooms 59 and 60. Room 59 contains an alcove on its northern side that was used as a quarry. To the west of Room 59, a large square opening leads into a much larger room, Room 61. In the western part of Room 60, which lies south of the dromus, is a narrow, blocked shaft that leads to the surface.
An opening uncovered in the eastern wall of Room 60 leads to nine other rooms. Upon crawling into Room 64, the first of these rooms, a small opening was discerned in the ceiling. Climbing through this opening leads to the floor of a small ritual bath (Room 65), with a narrow water channel running along its wall; this design of a ritual bath is well known in many of the subterranean complexes in Maresha. The channel was fed via an opening in the floor of the bath which connects it with a room to its southeast (Room 66). Several stairs on the western side of this room lead to a doorway that was deliberately blocked by chalk blocks; a Roman-period pottery casserole was discovered on the steps.
In the northeastern wall of Room 66 is a small square opening, whose frame still exhibits remnants of plaster. Numerous stone blocks and rocks found in front of the opening had apparently collapsed from a deliberate blockage set up in the entrance. The opening leads into a small oval room (Room 67; c. 2.0 × 3.5 m, height c. 1.5 m) which contained the remains of four large broken storage jars and 1027 unfired clay sealings scattered across the floor (see below).
It appears that although we entered rooms that had been untouched for millennia, these nine rooms had been entered after the Hellenistic period/107 BCE. The presence of Roman pottery on the surface, as well as two ‘robber trenches’, suggest that these rooms were vandalized, possibly during the Bar Kochba Revolt; future excavation is required to verify these issues.
The sealings. The assemblage of 1027 sealings found in Room 67—still in initial stages of study—is the largest private archive to have been discovered in Israel (Stern and Ariel 2020). The size of the seals as well as other attributes support the private nature of the archive and suggest that most of the seal owners were individuals of modest means (D.T. Ariel, pers. comm.).
Some of the sealings are completely covered in encrustation, some are friable and crumbling, requiring consolidation, while others are in better condition. The initial analysis has shown that almost all the sealings bear impressions of vertically oval seals, and that all bear evidence of the string that was impressed into the clay lump (Figs 10, 11). The size of the impressions (preserved length 8–14 mm) are somewhat smaller than those in the Kedesh (Tel Qedesh) archive (studied by D.T. Ariel).
For the most part, the symbolic repertoire of the sealings resembles that found in other Hellenistic sealing assemblages in the East. Despite the various Semitic motifs known to have been used during this period in the region, the symbols overwhelmingly derive from the Greek mythological world: gods, goddesses, heroes and their attributes (e.g., a centaur [Fig. 10] and a bust of Tyche [Fig. 11]). In addition, there is an unusually large number of sealings bearing specific Greek symbols, such as the rather numerous depictions of a single cornucopia. It is significant that there are very few obvious official sealings, and no images characteristic of Ptolemaic or Seleucid cultural, religious or political influence.
A few sealings bear a Seleucid-era date in the third quarter of the second century BCE. a five-letter inscription on three sealings that may belong to the same individual should possibly be read as ‘chreophylax’—a registry or finance official (A. Ecker, pers. comm.). This office is found on numerous sealings from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, but, as with many other titles, is completely unknown in the Southern Levant.
It thus seems at this stage of the research that the overwhelming majority of the sealings were not owned by public officials such as notaries, but rather by individual parties to economic documents, deeds, marriage agreements and other documents usually deposited in an archive of this size. The sealings in our assemblage attest that the newly discovered wing in SC 89 at Maresha was a private archive whose documents reflect the generally low socio-economic class of the parties endorsing the documents deposited there.
Subterranean Complex 169 (Fig. 12)
During the 2018 and 2019 excavations, the thirteen rooms in SC 169 were excavated down to bedrock, apart from a few specific areas and balks that have been reserved for possible future investigation. The finds in this subterranean complex, as highlighted in the final report, which included materials discovered through 2016 (Stern 2019), contain an enormous amount of cultic material, including many Aramaic divination texts, figurines, altars, kernos lamps, votive stamps, stone phalli, seals and sealings, game boards, astragals. The find spots do not reflect the original function of the respective rooms, but rather the repository/dump within which this valuable assemblage was discarded (Stern and Alpert 2014). The original use of most of these rooms appears to have been for storage.
The excavation in Room 1 revealed a plastered cistern (depth c. 7.8 m) with a small opening in its ceiling and a rock-cut staircase with a banister bearing rope marks. An opening (c. 0.55 × 0.55 m) leading to a small alcove (c. 1.5 × 1.5 m) was uncovered in the southeastern corner of the room. In Room 6, the bedrock floor, with clear evidence of quarrying, was exposed throughout the room, clearly revealing the negative of a silo in the center of the room. The bedrock floor in Room 7, which has remains of three hewn silos, was similarly reached throughout the room. The three silos were left unexcavated, except for the western part of the northwestern silo, which was excavated down to bedrock; its eastern portion was retained as a balk to allow access to Room 6.
In Room 9, more of the bedrock floor was exposed, and a beautiful small, chalk incense altar with a Greek inscription was discovered. The inscription designates the altar as “A votive to Artemis” (Fig. 13). The bedrock is also visible on the eastern side of the room, and in its center there is a strange, jagged area of nari that encircles parts of the western side of the room; more work will be needed to understand this area better. Room 10 contains three large negatives of silos (Fig. 14).