Between December 2019–February 2020, a trial excavation was conducted in the northwestern outskirts of Be’er Sheva‘, prior to development of the area (Permit Nos. A-8622, A-8646; map ref. 17550–750/57645–770; Fig. 1). The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was funded by the Ministry of Construction and Housing, and directed by Y. Tchekhanovets, with the assistance of A. Lehavi and S. Shaked (area supervision), Y. Al-‘Amor (administration), E. Aladjem and A. Peretz (field and aerial photography), M. Kahan (surveying and drafting), I. Peretz, T. Abulafia and A. Fraiberg (archaeological trenching), G. Sery (metal detection) and D. Eisenberg-Degen (digitalization). Thanks are due to S. Talis, A. Golani, D. Varga, I. Milevski, Y. Abadi-Reiss and M. Pasternak of the IAA Southern Region for their valuable advice.
The systematic survey and sample trenching carried out prior to the excavation, revealed archaeological remains, and pottery sherds dating from the Chalcolithic to the Ottoman periods, most of the finds dating from the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. Previous excavations in adjacent areas in the Naḥal ‘Ashan area exposed remains of Byzantine and Early Islamic farmhouses (Eisenberg-Degen and Kobrin 2016; Eisenberg-Degen and Levi-Hevroni 2020).
The trial excavation comprised four excavation areas (A–D; altogether 79 squares; Fig. 2) spread over a wide area of Nahal ‘Ashan, focusing on areas where architectural remains, including the tops of walls, were visible on the surface. Ancient remains were exposed in all the excavated areas, dating from the Chalcolithic (4,500 BCE) to the Abbasid (ninth century CE) periods.
Area A. The remains of three separate buildings and an agricultural terrace, all dated to the late Byzantine period, were uncovered (Fig. 3). The three buildings (Buildings 154, 156, 206; Figs. 4–6) were built on moderate loess-soil hillocks (207–209 m asl), and had a similar, almost square plan, and walls constructed of fieldstones and mudbricks. The architectural remains included well-built foundations and walls, beaten earth floors, and installations inside and outside the buildings. Building 206 is the best preserved, with unusually deep and well-preserved stone foundation walls and remains of a stone staircase, possibly leading down to the garden (Fig. 6). The three buildings yielded similar finds, including ceramic vessels, some complete, a few glass items and two coins, all dated to the late Byzantine period. Based on the finds, the three structures were contemporary, and they should be understood as seasonal dwellings in the agricultural hinterland of Be’er Sheva‘, similar to complexes discovered in the area in previous excavations (Eisenberg-Degen and Levi-Hevroni 2020).
Area B. The largest excavated area revealed various remains, dating from the Chalcolithic to the Ottoman periods. Remains of a Chalcolithic settlement, located on the steep river embankment, were discovered (Fig. 7). Two stratigraphic layers were identified, including living surfaces, fieldstone and mudbrick walls, rubbish pits, hewn installations and a tabun with a few ash layers, evidence of a seasonal occupation of the site (Fig. 8). Entrances into two underground cavities dug into the loess soil were discovered (Fig. 9) but were not fully excavated due to weather conditions. Pottery, stone objects and flint tools, all characteristic of the late Chalcolithic period Ghassulian culture, were retrieved. These remains are similar to the finds discovered in the excavations at Tel Sheva (Abadi-Reiss 2008; Paz et al. 2014).
Remains of Byzantine-period activity were uncovered around a large built well, traditionally known as Bir al-Malikha (Fig. 10). The well itself was not excavated due to safety restrictions, but some fencing walls, built of small to medium-sized fieldstones, and one wall built of ashlars, were exposed around it (Eisenberg-Degen 2018: Activity Area C2). Several stone-built installations were built in a row against one wall, facing a partially preserved stone pavement. A channel connected to the well and continuing down the slope may have led water downhill, possibly to the nearby fields. The numerous pottery sherds retrieved here dated to the Byzantine period; there were no recent sherds.
A small farmhouse, dated by the pottery to the Early Islamic period, was discovered c. 50 m east of the well (Fig. 11). The fairly small structure consisted of a row of four rooms and an adjacent open courtyard. The walls were built of small to medium-sized fieldstones, the floors were made of beaten earth, and a few tabuns and other installations were set in the floors. The doorjambs of the main entrance into the complex were built of finely dressed hard limestone ashlars that were clearly in secondary use. A few decorated architectural elements were incorporated in the walls and installations (Fig. 12), including a complete marble paving slab, a column fragment and a lintel with an encircled cross in relief, characteristic of Byzantine monastic institutions (Fig. 13). The complex had a single occupational phase and was probably abandoned; only a few pottery sherds were retrieved on the floors beneath the collapsed debris layers.
The remains of a large farmhouse complex dating to the Abbasid period, were excavated almost 100 m south of the well (Fig. 14). The complex was partially excavated, but not completed. By the end of the excavation season, nearly twenty rooms arranged around a central courtyard, were exposed. The building materials mostly consisted of local fieldstones, but a few architectural fragments from an earlier monumental structure were incorporated in secondary use, including a large lintel stone and several threshold stones, a stone columbarium window (Fig. 15) and a few marble fragments. All the remains are attributed generally to the Abbasid period, reflecting a relatively long occupation, with only a few minor changes, such as the addition of new installations and partition walls, similar to additions to other contemporary farmhouses exposed in the region (Eisenberg-Degen and Kobrin 2016). A rubbish pit was discovered under the floor in one of the rooms (Fig. 16). The building yielded much pottery and a few glass finds. Ash layers discovered on its floors, under the collapsed debris layers, indicate that the complex witnessed a fiery and violent end.
In the course of the excavations in Area B, archaeological probes were dug in a freestanding, two-room building with a large stone fenced courtyard, built on an adjacent hillock that overlooked the region (Fig. 17). The probes aimed to establish the date of the structure and to provide information on any earlier constructional phase. The structure was a typical late Ottoman farmhouse, and no remains predating the Ottoman period were discovered.
Area C. The only remains here were of an agricultural terrace, dated by the sparse pottery finds to the Late Byzantine period.
Area D. The remains of one or two large buildings were exposed, with two distinct occupation phases. In the earlier stage, a large complex of north–south oriented walls was built (Fig. 18). The walls were built of small to medium-sized fieldstones and the floors were carefully paved with irregularly shaped slabs. Based on the ceramic finds, the earlier phase may be dated to the Late Byzantine period. In the later phase, dated to the Early Islamic period, the pavements were partly removed or covered over by beaten-earth floors with various installations and tabuns (Fig. 19). Numerous ashlar stones, clearly in secondary use, were incorporated in the walls and installations of the later phase, including a few elaborate architectural décor elements, characteristic of Byzantine monumental buildings (Fig. 20; Golan 2018). The later phase floors were covered with thick layers of ash and collapsed debris, indicating that the building came to a violent end. The original large structure of the earlier phase seems to have been a monumental building, which possibly served as the source of the high-quality building materials incorporated in the later occupation phase.
The excavations revealed the wealth of archaeological remains in the Naḥal ‘Ashan region. The Chalcolithic-period remains, and the farmstead buildings dating from the Byzantine to the Abbasid periods are opening up a broad field of research related to the material culture, settlement patterns, building and agricultural techniques, and social changes of the rural hinterland of Be’er Sheva‘ in Late Antiquity.
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