In recent years, surveys (Lifshitz 2016) and excavations were conducted near Rahat, revealing remains from the Iron Age and the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Early Islamic, Ottoman and British Mandate periods (Paran 2009 [Fig. 1:1]; Peretz 2015 [Fig. 1:2]; Kobrin 2016 [Fig. 1:3]; Haddad 2019 [Fig. 1:4]; Seligman and Zur 2021 [Fig. 1:6]; Michael et al. 2022 [Fig. 1:5]). The exposed remains include, among others, farmhouses, monasteries, a mosque, burials and various installations.
In the present excavation, conducted in Section 13, four areas were opened (A–D; Fig. 1) and some 100 squares were excavated, revealing the remains of a settlement from the Byzantine, Umayyad and Abbasid periods and from the late Ottoman–British Mandate periods.
Area A
The area extends over the summit of a round hill overlooking its surroundings, with Nahal Pehar below. The settlement remains (c. 5 dunams; Fig. 2) cover the summit and the eastern slope. The remains were only partly excavated; therefore, the settlement character and its full extent are unknown. The area yielded remains from five strata (Fig. 3): Stratum V from the Byzantine period (sixth–early seventh centuries), Stratum IV from the late Byzantine–early Umayyad periods (seventh century CE), Stratum III from the Umayyad period (eighth century CE), Stratum II from the Abbasid period (eight–ninth centuries CE) and Stratum I from the Ottoman–British Mandate periods (sixteenth–twentieth centuries CE).
The Byzantine Period. The excavation yielded a built winepress, comprising a square treading floor and a collecting vat south of it (Fig. 4). The treading floor was probably paved with stone pavers, but only its bedding of small fieldstones survived. The collecting vat was rock cut (diam. 1.3 m, depth 1.5 m) and covered with thick gray plaster, painted red. A similar winepress was found in the monastery exposed in the nearby settlement of Giv‘ot Bar (Paran 2009). Numerous architectural elements found in Area A—including marble columns and column drums and bases—were incorporated in secondary use in Early Islamic structures (Fig. 5). Potsherds were found scattered all over the site.
The Late Byzantine–Early Umayyad Period. At this stage, the winepress went out of use: the collecting vat was blocked with stones (Fig. 6) and the treading floor was dismantled, leaving only the stone bedding. A large rectangular stone structure (20 × 23 m) was erected in the center of the hill; it was only partially excavated, and its full plan is unclear. The walls of the structure were constructed of coarsely dressed limestone blocks and well-dressed stones in secondary use, and survived to an average height of 0.5 m. The structure comprised three wings—northern, western and southern—and apparently included a courtyard in its center. The structure was adapted to the local topography: some of its walls were constructed over terraces on the surface. On its northern and southern sides, three oval tabuns were found. The principal finds within the structure comprised jar fragments.
The Umayyad Period. The structure built in Stratum IV was enlarged and new rooms were built around it; several tabuns were found in the rooms. During this period, the settlement was expanded; exposed walls indicate that at least one more structure stood in the southern part of the hill.
The Abbasid Period. The structures underwent minor repairs, including the division of rooms with partition walls and the laying of new floors. Activity in the settlement ceased during this period, with no evidence of destruction. Finds were meager and included pottery, a few glass fragments, animal bones, stone vessels and several coins. It seems that the settlement was abandoned, and its residents took their belongings with them.
The Ottoman–British Mandate Periods. The site was resettled after nearly one thousand years. The excavation of this stratum yielded meager remains of walls, living surfaces and tabuns. Potsherds, predominantly of Black Gaza Ware, were found on the surface, mainly in the southern part of the area.
Area B
The area (c. 40 sq m; Fig. 7) is situated on a small hill near a tributary of Nahal Pehar. Its remains include structures, installations and a water cistern from the late Byzantine and Umayyad periods. West of the cistern, in the center of the area and 2 m below the surface, were cover stones of two cist graves; the graves were not excavated, and their date is unknown.
The Late Byzantine Period. Two construction phases were discerned. The early phase comprised part of a rectangular installation (L835) in the center of the area; most of the installation lay beyond the excavation area. Part of a floor and an east–west wall (height 0.65 m) were exposed; the floor and the northern face of the wall were covered with hydraulic plaster. The proximity to the cistern and the use of hydraulic plaster suggest that the installation may have been a pool.
In the late phase, a stone structure built south of the cistern canceled the plastered installation. The massive walls of the structure (W804, W805, W870) were covered with gray plaster. Parts of two rooms with packed-earth floors were exposed (Fig. 8). Inside the structure, a tabun (L827) was found, along with potsherds that date the structure to the end of the Byzantine period. Although most of the structure lies beyond the excavation area, it is possible that the cistern documented north of the structure, which served until recent times, was originally located within the structure. About 35 m northwest of the large structure were segments of stone walls (W889, W890, W891) and packed-earth floors that apparently belong to another structure.
The Umayyad Period. The stone structure in the center of the area continued to function during this period, but some modifications were observed. Wall 805 was widened by the construction of an adjacent wall (W812), new partition walls (W850, W869) were constructed and new floors were laid, one of which (L833) is made of smoothed stone slabs in secondary use (Fig. 8). An oval tabun was constructed next to the eastern wall of the structure (L827; Fig. 9). Finds were meager and included pottery, comprising mainly jars, as well as animal bones, stone vessels, glass sherds and a few coins.
Area C
The area is situated in a small creek east of Nahal Pehar. Two excavation squares exposed part of a stone structure (W431, W465), comprising two rooms (1, 2; Fig. 10) with plaster floors. A threshold in Wall 431 connected the rooms. A subterranean space (L461), dug in the loess soil at a lower elevation, was discovered in the southeastern part of the structure. Only a small part of it was exposed; therefore, its shape or character is unclear. Finds from the structure comprise glass sherds and potsherds, including fragments of a complete jar, dating the structure to the late Byzantine period.
Area D
The area is situated on a low hill, about 200 m north of Nahal Pehar. Two structures were exposed, northern and southern, dating from the Early Islamic period. The northern structure is an extensive luxurious building with two construction phases. The southern structure is located 12 m south of the luxurious building. Only the northern edge of this structure was exposed, and most of it apparently extends beyond the excavation area.
The structures were dated by pottery. The earliest vessels were found in the southern structure and date from the seventh century CE, while the northern structure yielded vessels dating from the eighth–ninth centuries CE; it therefore seems that the southern structure is earlier. Other finds from the two structures include decorated glass vessels dating from the seventh to the early ninth centuries, animal bones, a bone comb, a cosmetic vessel and a Nine Men’s Morris (Mills) board game carved on a stone slab.
The Northern Structure (Figs. 11, 12). In the early phase, a large courtyard house was built on the summit of the hill. Its construction was dated to the Umayyad period (eighth century CE); it was only partly excavated. Within the structure was a central courtyard, surrounded by four wings comprising 22 rooms in two rows. The walls were constructed of coarsely dressed limestone blocks and ashlars. The building stones were robbed following the abandonment of the structure, and the remains survived only one course high (0.5 m). The central courtyard is large and rectangular (12 × 16 m), and every wing served a different purpose. A limekiln was built in the courtyard, supplying plaster to cover the floors and walls of the structure. The kiln was blocked up during modifications carried out in the later phase of the structure, when a room (R15) was built over it.
The western wing revealed parts of seven rooms (R1–R7), floored with crushed chalk. A tabun was incorporated into the floor of Room 5, suggesting that this wing served the daily activities of the structure. A pool in Room 1 was plastered with hydraulic plaster; a channel connected it to a well to the south, outside of the structure.
The northern wing yielded remains of five large rooms (R8–R11, R24). The walls of the rooms were plastered white and decorated in red, black, light blue and yellowish colors, and their floors were plastered with high-quality plaster. The high quality of construction and the elegant rooms in this wing may suggest that they served as guest rooms.
In the southern wing, parts of three rooms (R20–R22) were excavated. Two rectangular, plastered cells were constructed in the southern part of Room 20, and a doorway in the western wall of the room led to Room 21. Room 21 yielded a surface covered with hydraulic plaster. To the south of the surface was a water reservoir (at least 1.8 × 2.3 m, depth c. 1.2 m) dug in the loess soil. The walls and floor of the reservoir were plastered with hydraulic plaster. A channel connected the reservoir to a well situated to the south and outside of the structure. Room 22, the largest of all rooms, was floored with stone pavers. The southern wing seems to have supplied water to the structure.
The eastern wing comprised seven rooms (R12–R15, R17–R19), as well as a subterranean space under the northern part of the wing (Fig. 13). This wing may have been the industrial area of the structure. The subterranean space was dug in the hard loess soil and may have served for storage; Rooms 12 and 13 built above it partly collapsed. Similar subterranean spaces are known in the south of Israel, dating from the Byzantine period (Eisenberg-Degen 2021; Eisenberg-Degen and Varga 2022); this is the first time that such a space is discovered in an Early Islamic context. A tabun was exposed in Room 18, and a large, pear-shaped ceramic oven (diam. 1.4 m, depth 0.6 m) with a feeding channel on its west was exposed in Room 19. A wide ledge was molded in the upper part of the oven, probably intended for placing vessels for warming. The size of the oven suggests that it was an industrial installation and not used for the preparation of food (Kogan-Zehavi 2021). West of the oven, a shallow, rectangular installation dug into the loess was found full of lime. A low wall bounding Room 19 on the south may have been a bench, allowing access to Room 20.
In the late phase, repairs were carried out in the structure. A room (R16) was constructed within the courtyard, reducing its size. A plastered channel at the foot of the southern wall of Room 16 drained into the courtyard. Most repairs were carried out in the eastern wing (Fig. 14). Room 14 was divided into two by a partition wall. In Room 18, a new floor was laid, the tabun was canceled and a column fragment was incorporated, serving as the base of an installation; the column was surrounded by narrow walls that created a square cell. The ceramic oven in Room 19 was canceled and a round stone structure (diam. 1.5 m, height 0.5 m) was erected above it. In the southeastern corner of the room, a domed tabun was built; the tabun was surrounded by stones and had a side opening for the insertion of fuel. In Room 20, a new floor was laid. In the northwestern corner of the room was a new oven (diam. c. 1 m), with a firing box on its southern side. The western wing featured new partition walls that bounded Room 5, as well as a newly laid floor, into which a tabun was incorporated. Two intact ceramic lamps found on the floor of Room 17 date the late phase of the structure to the Abbasid period (eighth–early ninth centuries CE).
The Southern Structure. Only two rooms of the structure were exposed; most of the structure extends beyond the excavation area, and its plan is unclear. The two excavated rooms yielded a few potsherds dating from the seventh–eight centuries, as well as decorated marble architectural elements in secondary use, originally serving as chancel-screen posts in a church (Fig. 15).
The excavation indicates that during the late Byzantine period structures were built in Areas A, B and C. These structures possibly served as farmsteads, similar to other farmsteads found in the region (Kogan-Zehavi 2021). The structures in Areas A and B were built in the late Byzantine period and continued in use during the Umayyad period, whereas the structure in Area C was abandoned in the seventh century CE. In the Umayyad period, the structure in Area A was enlarged and new rooms were added, while the structure in Area B was repaired and continued in use. Area D featured a new luxurious structure, apparently indicative of an initiative on the part of the new authorities to reorganize the land. The excavation areas are close to a road that connected Be’er Sheva‘ to the coastal cities of Gaza and Ashqelon, and it is possible that the initiative for land reorganization was particularly prominent near important roads (Hamarneh 2013:65). The structure in Area D may have served one of the ruling families in the area; a similar structure was exposed at Umm el-Walid in Jordan (Cytryn-Silverman 2008:1881–1882). The excavation results contribute to the study of the transitional phase between the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods in the region, showing that the arrival of Muslims had an effect on rural areas. This transitional phase was characterized by inconsistency, resulting in the abandonment of several farmsteads, the reorganization of others, and even the construction of a new luxurious structure, retaining the rural character of the Early Islamic period.