The site of Horbat Lavnin extends over a tell on the western bank of Nahal Hahlil and is surrounded by fertile valleys. The upper part of the tell is surrounded by a fortification wall built of large fieldstones. The Survey of Western Palestine team visited the site, noting its Arabic name Khirbet Tell el-Beida, and documenting caves, cisterns, architectural remains and a columbarium cave (Conder and Kitchener 1883:369). From the 1990s onward, following illicit digging by antiquity looters, three late Second Temple-period burial caves were documented at the site (Zissu 2001a:153–154). Hiding complexes characteristic of the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt were also reported, but no plans were prepared. Surface finds from the site included pottery dating from the Iron Age, the Early Roman period, the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the Byzantine period, and coins (Zissu 2001b:164–165). Four burial caves documented recently on the western and southern slopes of the tell yielded finds from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age IIA, indicating that the tell was probably settled in these periods (Klein and Shai 2016).
In the present survey, four underground hiding complexes dating between the Second Temple and the Bar Kokhba periods were documented (Fig. 1:1–4).
Hiding Complex 1 (map ref. 195534/616687; Fig. 2). The complex was hewn into the upper part of the tell, about eight meters north of its highest point, where remains of a rectangular building were visible. The present access into the hiding complex is via a vertical rectangular shaft that descends into a rock-hewn pit (A; Fig. 3). The upper part of the shaft (height 5 m) was dug through the tell soil layers and lined with ashlars and large and medium-sized fieldstones, and the lower part (height c. 1.5 m) was hewn in the nari bedrock. Bell-shaped Pit A was hewn into the soft chalk bedrock (base diam. c. 9 m, height c. 7 m). No plaster traces were extant on the sides, and it was therefore not possible to ascertain if it was originally a water cistern or if it had another function. A short passage (a1; opening c. 0.6 × 1.0 m, length c. 1.7 m) was hewn into the pit’s northeastern wall, about six meters above the floor (Fig. 3). A small opening cut in the floor of the southern side of the passage led into a narrow passage (a-c; length c. 5.5 m) with sharp bends and niches for oil lamps, that was only accessible by crawling. A small alcove (B; 1.0 × 1.5 m, height c. 1 m) hewn in the middle of its southern wall yielded two pottery sherds dated to the period designated “Between the Revolts” (after the First Jewish Revolt and up to and during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 70–136 CE). Passage a-c led to an irregularly shaped cavity (C; max. length c. 3 m, width c. 2.2 m) with a rock-cut inset entrance for a closing stone slab. A broken rectangular stone slab (c. 0.5 × 0.7 m) on the floor in the eastern part of Cavity C, probably served to seal the entrance to Passage a-c. An opening in the southwestern side of Cavity C led to a rock-cut stairway that ascended gradually southward to a passage (c-d; length c. 6 m). A stone lintel, whose two ends were fixed in grooves cut in the nari bedrock, was set in the roof of the upper part of the stairway. Since Passage c-d lay at the level of the tell soil layers, it was dug through these layers and lined with ashlars and large and medium-sized fieldstones, and it was roofed with stone slabs (each measuring c. 0.5 × 0.7 m). The join between the top of the stairway hewn in the nari bedrock, and the stone lining of Passage c-d dug into the soil layers, was coated with brown clay mortar that was probably intended to reinforce the join. A niche cut in the western wall of Passage c-d contained a broken stone slab, which probably served to block off the passage when necessary. The passage turned sharply eastward at its southern end to reach a dug and stone-lined shaft (D); the shaft was blocked with collapsed rubble, but it evidently led up to the surface. An examination at ground level revealed that Shaft D was dug down from inside the rectangular building that was visible on the summit of the tell, indicating that the underground complex provided the occupants with a means of escape.
Hiding Complex 2 (map ref. 195579/616648; Fig. 4). The complex was hewn on its southeastern side of the tell, near the top. The present access is via a circular vertical shaft (diam. 1.0–1.5 m, height 7.5 m) that descends into a large cavity (A). The upper part of the shaft (height 6 m) was dug into the tell soil layers and lined with medium-sized fieldstones, and its lower part (height c. 1.5 m) was hewn into the nari and chalk bedrock. A low, narrow passage (a-c; width 0.5–1.0 m, average height c. 0.6 m) dug into the shaft’s eastern side, c. 3 m above its bottom, was lined with large and medium-sized fieldstones and roofed with large stone slabs. The passage turned northeastward (length c. 3 m) and then bent sharply northward (length c. 2 m), where it was blocked by collapsed soil and stones. This passage was sloped upward and probably originally led up to the surface, provided easy access into the underground complex. Cavity A was hewn in the bedrock (c. 3 × 4 m, height c. 1.5 m), and a passage (a-b; length c. 3.5 m) that was cut into its southern corner had niches for oil lamps, and steps leading down to another hewn cavity (B; Fig. 5). Cavity B was bell-shaped (c. 2.0 × 2.5 m; Fig. 5) and had a square vertical shaft hewn in the roof that once led up to the surface but was since blocked. The bottom of Cavity B was filled with a soil accumulation layer containing many pottery sherds characteristic of the period “Between the Revolts” including the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (70–136 CE). A deeply incised arch cut in the western wall of Cavity B may have marked a planned entrance into another passage that was not hewn. Potsherds found throughout the complex were characteristic of assemblages dating from the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Hiding Complex 3 (map ref. 195480/616719; total length 120 m; Fig. 6). The present access into the hiding complex is via a cave entrance on the northwestern slope of the tell, just outside the walled settlement. The complex was mostly rock-hewn and it comprised long passages with niches for oil lamps cut in the walls, connecting various ancient cavities and hideouts. The cave entrance led to an elongated cavity (A; 1.5–2.0 × 10.0 m) with a blocked shaft in its roof; the cavity probably originally served as an underground storeroom, and it was enlarged when it was incorporated in the hiding complex. An opening hewn in the eastern wall of Cavity A led to a small square cavity (B; c. 2.5 × 2.5 m, height c. 1 m) with a raised platform in its southwestern part, another cavity (B1) on its northeastern side, and a blocked shaft on its southern side that probably led up to the surface; these cavities were probably also originally storerooms. An entrance into a rectangular cavity (C; 1.0 × 2.5 m) was hewn in the western wall of Cavity A. A long passage (c-d; length c. 16 m) that could only be crawled through, led from Cavity A southward to an irregularly shaped cavity (D), and a narrow passage (d-e; length 10 m) also passable by crawling, led from Cavity D to a large square-shaped cavity (E; c. 4 × 4 m, height c. 1.5 m) Cavity E had a blocked shaft at the eastern end of its roof that probably led to the surface, and the lower part of the shaft contained steps cut down to the bottom of the cavity. A low, narrow passage (e-g; length c. 1 m) led eastward from the northeastern corner of Cavity E, and a shaft hewn at its eastern end probably once led to the surface but was now blocked. A small circular cavity (G; diam. 1.0 –1.5 m) hewn just south of this shaft, and a short tunnel (length c. 1.5 m) led to a dead end. The blocked entrance shaft and Cavity G were probably part of a single underground storeroom incorporated in the hiding complex. Part of the southern wall of Passage e-g was removed to create an elongated window (c. 1 × 3 m) overlooking the upper part of a wide oval pit (F; c. 4.5 × 6.5 m, height down to the accumulated soil on bottom c. 4 m). Two adjacent shafts hewn in the roof of Pit F led up to the surface (height c. 5.5 m); their upper parts were dug into the layers of tell soil and lined with large and medium-sized fieldstones and ashlars. The shaft openings were located on the surface in the western part of the tell, within the walled summit, and consequently enabled escape from the walled settlement to the area outside it. Another passage (f-h; length c. 7 m) cut into the northern wall of Passage e-g, led northeastward and had hewn steps at its end that led down to the bottom of an oval cavity (H; c. 4.0 × 5.5 m, height c. 3.5 m). A shaft (height 6.5 m) hewn in the cavity ceiling led to the ground surface at the top of the tell; its surface opening is now blocked. The upper part of the shaft (height 5 m) was dug into layers of tell soil and lined with fieldstones and large and medium-sized ashlars. A passage (h-i; length c. 4 m) hewn in the western wall of Cavity H, c. 1.5 m above its floor, led westward to a small, irregularly shaped alcove (I; 1.5 × 3.0 m, height c. 1 m). A rectangular stone found in the passage, near the entrance to the small alcove, was used to seal the alcove (Fig. 7). Near the entrance into the alcove, the passage turned southward (i-o; c. 3 m), where it was found blocked by collapsed soil. A long winding passage with several sharp bends (h-j; length c. 20 m), hewn in the northern wall of Passage h-i, led northeastward. Grooves, probably for insert stone slabs or other blocking devices, were cut at every bend in the passage. The passage ended in a cavity (J; c. 3 × 3 m) with a blocked shaft in the roof. A passage (j-k; length c. 22 m) was hewn on the northwestern side of Cavity J, at the bottom of which two small bottle-shaped storage installations were hewn (M1, M2); stone covering slabs found at the bottom of one of these were used to seal the top of the installation. Passage j-k led to the upper part of a circular cavity (K; diam. c. 3 m) with a blocked shaft in its roof. A passage leading to a low elongated cavity (L; c. 1.5 × 3.0 m) was hewn on the southwestern side of Cavity K, and another passage (L1; length c. 2 m) was hewn in the southern wall of this cavity. This hiding complex yielded potsherds characteristic of assemblages dating from the period Between the Revolts (70–132 CE) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–136 CE).
Hiding Complex 4 (map ref. 195447/616673; Fig. 8). The present access into the hiding complex is via an opening (c. 1.5 × 4.5 m) formed by the collapsed roof of a large cave on the southwestern slope, outside the walled settlement on the top of the tell. The complex was mostly rock-hewn, and the entrance led into a large, elongated cavity aligned east–west (A; c. 4 × 16 m, height c. 2 m). The roof had an opening at its eastern end, but it was not clear whether this was an original entrance into the complex, or a collapsed roof. A rectangular opening (c. 1.0 × 1.4 m) hewn in the center of Cavity A’s southern wall had a step descending into a square cavity (B; 2.8 × 2.8 m, height c. 1.8 m). The western wall of this cavity was built of stones coated with gray plaster. Two passages (a-c: length c. 3.5 m, width c. 0.7 m, height c. 0.7 m; a-d: length c. 2 m, width c. 0.5 m) hewn in the northern wall of Cavity A led northward and joined together; they had cut niches for oil lamps and could only be accessed by crawling. Another passage (c-d; length c. 3 m) led eastward from Passage a-c into a rectangular cavity (C; c. 2.0 × 2.7 m, height c. 1 m) with a small depression hewn in its northwestern corner. Cavity C may have been used to store jars containing liquids and the hewn depression may have collected liquid spilt from broken jars. Passages a-c and a-d led to a large, wide bell-shaped cavity (D; diam. c. 4 m) with a shaft hewn in its roof and narrow spiral steps cut on its northern side leading to the bottom. On its northeastern side, a narrow opening led to a small cavity (E; c. 1.5 × 1.5 m, height c. 1 m) with a narrow passage cut through its northern wall to a bell-shaped cavity (F; c. 2.5 × 3.0 m, height c. 2.5 m). A shaft hewn in the roof on the eastern side of Cavity F is now blocked. In the western part of Cavity F, a flight of rock-hewn steps ascended to a flat bedrock surface in which two bottle-shaped storage installations (G, H) were hewn together with another circular depression. In the northwestern part of Cavity F, an opening was cut into Cavity H (c. 1 × 2 m, height c. 1.5 m) near the lower part of the flight of steps. A narrow opening leading to the adjacent bell-shaped cavity (G; diam. c. 1.7 m) was hewn in the southern wall of Cavity H, and a short tunnel cut in the southern wall of Cavity G led back to Cavity D. A narrow passage (h-i; length c. 2.5 m) hewn from the northern wall of Cavity H ascended northward into a circular cavity (I; diam. 2.8 m), which was filled with alluvial soil that had penetrated through a shaft in its roof. Additional passages may have been hewn to nearby cavities from Cavity I, but they are covered with the alluvial soil. A spiral stairway descended from the shaft in Cavity I. This shaft was probably the original entrance to Cavity I but is now blocked; the shaft opening was discovered on the surface c. 1 m southwest of and outside the wall surrounding the summit of the tell.
The four underground complexes documented at the site exhibited characteristics of hiding complexes of the type common in Judaea in the Early Roman period (Kloner and Tepper 1987). These features included narrow passages that could only be crawled through, rock-cut oil-lamp niches, sharp bends, various levels, vertical shafts, stones for blocking off the cavities, and the incorporation of earlier underground installations. Most of the complexes yielded finds dating from the period “Between the Revolts”, and especially from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The complexes were uncovered in different parts of the tell and their locations show that a walled Jewish settlement existed on top of the tell during the Second Temple period and until the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The passages in Hiding Complex 3 also provided a means of escape from inside the settlement to beyond its walls.
The hiding complexes join others previously discovered in the Judean Shephelah, such as those at Horbat Midras (Kloner 1987:137–147) and Horbat ‘Etri (Zissu and Ganor 2001), and they attest to densely populated Jewish settlement in the region in the period between the two Jewish revolts against the Romans.