During 2017–2019, three excavation seasons were conducted in Horbat Bet Natif near Ramat Bet Shemesh (Permit Nos. A-8028/2017, A-8203/2018, A-8530/2019; map ref. 198435–199500/622428–912), prior to the construction of Neighborhood E (ה'). The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and underwritten by CPM Incorporated, was directed by B. Storchan, with the assistance of N. Nehama (administration), J. Tiano, T. Goloubinoff and H. Shliker (area supervision), E. Gerber (finds registration), M. Kunin, M. Kahan and Y. Shmidov (surveying and drafting), A. Wiegmann and E. Marko (aerial photography), A. Peretz (field photography), C. Amit (studio photography), L. Kupershmidt (metallurgical laboratory), A. Ganor and Y. Gorin-Rosen (glass finds), D.T. Ariel and R. Kool (numismatics), N. Zak (plans), L. Habas (liturgical furniture), R. Talgam (mosaics), S. Freireich (site conservation), R. Albag (digital reconstruction), H. Neugeborn, K. Peterman Lipschutz and H. Shalev (education department), as well as Y. Baruch, Y. Zelinger and A. Shadman, S. Gendler (IAA Jerusalem Region).
The excavations were located south of Ramat Bet Shemesh and north of the Ela Valley and Kibbutz Netiv Ha-Lamed He (Fig. 1), following several surveys and excavations conducted in the region (Dagan 2010; 2011). Prior to the excavation, areas slated for construction were surveyed on foot, and all visible remains were documented. In areas with substantial soil cover, such as the slopes between agricultural terraces, the survey was supplemented by mechanical trenching.
The excavation was divided into three areas (Areas A–C; Fig. 2), based on the nature of the remains. Area A, excavated in the first season, spread over two hills, and was subdivided into small areas in which several rock-hewn installations and building remains from the Roman–Byzantine and Ottoman periods were uncovered. Area B was excavated in the first and second seasons, following the discovery of a Late Bronze to Iron Age settlement. In Area C, excavated in all three seasons, the extensive remains of a church complex dated to the Byzantine period, were uncovered.
Area A spread over two hills connected by a saddle in the north and separated by a deep valley in the south (Fig. 2). The western hill was more sparsely settled than the eastern one, as it was bordered by steep slopes and had little soil coverage.
Western Hill. The western hill, known in the British Mandate period as Qa’at Fadda, was documented in the Ramat Bet Shemesh Regional Project (Dagan 2010:291, Site 368). The most extensive ancient remains were a system of terrace walls built on the summit and extending to the northern and eastern upper slopes. There were no terrace walls on the steep lower slopes, whose limited soil coverage was not suitable for agriculture. The preliminary surveys documented several additional features on the hill and the slopes—stone clearance heaps, limekilns and a winepress—and identified ceramic sherds from the Iron II, Byzantine and Ottoman periods (Dagan 2010:292). The excavation, however, was not able to date most of the features.
The excavation uncovered a winepress, consisting of a simple rock-hewn treading platform and a small vat (Fig. 3), but no datable pottery sherds were retrieved. Also uncovered were the remains of a watchtower built of a single circular wall to the southeast of the winepress; three large stone clearance heaps, comprising a circular retaining wall that enclosed a fill of small stones and pebbles (Fig. 4); and three limekilns, composed of a round rock-hewn firing chamber and a conduit. At least several of these features were probably those surveyed in the past.
Eastern Hill. The archaeological remains excavated on the eastern hill included terrace walls, hewn agricultural installations and parts of several buildings (Fig. 5). The remains of a large building dated to the Late Hellenistic–Early Roman periods (Fig. 6) were uncovered on the summit of the hill. Poor preservation of the architecture prevented a complete reconstruction of the building’s plan. Other remains uncovered on the summit date from the Ottoman period: a rural road, agricultural terrace walls and two buildings, which continued to be in use until the mid-twentieth century. The road, running west–east, connected the buildings with the main village of Beit Nattif, located to the east. Both buildings exhibited similar architectural features, such as arch bases and thick plaster floors (Fig. 7).
On the northern slope, expansive stone quarries were uncovered, evident by rectilinear negative carvings extant in the bedrock after the removal of the stone blocks (Fig. 8). Although the quarries cannot be dated with certainty, significant quantities of Byzantine-period pottery sherds retrieved from soil fills may relate the quarrying activity to the construction of the church complex uncovered in Area C (see below). A large concentration of rock-hewn tombs was partially documented west of Area A, but they were not excavated following the contractor’s request.
Area B was located on two terraces along southern bank of Nahal Nativ. The lower terrace was excavated in the first season, and the upper terrace in the second season. The excavations uncovered the remains of a multi-tiered settlement (Fig. 9; c. 2.5 dunams), dated to the transitional LB III–Iron IA period. The ancient settlement remains were preserved only in small areas adjacent to the Ottoman-period terrace walls.
Lower Terrace. An Ottoman-period terrace wall that was built over the ancient settlement’s curving outer, northern all, which delineated the settlement’s periphery. The wall (exposed length over 36 m, width 1.5 m) was built of two rows of large, flat stone boulders, set as upstanding panels. Many of the wall’s outer stones were missing or had collapsed on the bedrock. Several short walls, built of single rows of stone boulders laid directly on the bedrock, abutted the inner face of the wall, forming a row of four rectangular units (Units 1–4; Figs. 9, 10). The bedrock served as the floor in the southern part of the units, while beaten-earth or packed-pebble floors were extant on the northern side of the units, where the bedrock sloped down. Unit 4 was unique, as it was furnished with stone benches built along the room’s periphery. Furthermore, a large assemblage of grinding stones and restorable ceramic vessels were uncovered on its floor.
Upper Terrace. The upper terrace was located just below the hilltop, 20 m south of the lower terrace, and here too, the excavation was opened along an Ottoman-period agricultural terrace wall. Two large, multi-roomed structures (1, 2; each 9 × 11 m; Figs. 9, 11), separated by a narrow alley blocked in the north, were uncovered. As on the lower terrace, the structures shared a common wall, here preserved by the later overlying terrace wall. The walls of the structures were built of a single row of boulders set on the bedrock. In the south, the architectural remains of both structures abutted a bedrock ledge that functioned as the foundation of the southern wall. No building remains were found on the bedrock that rose steeply south of the terrace wall, indicating that the settlement did not extend further south. East of Structure 1, a small circular stone installation—possibly a hearth—and a small concentration of grinding stones were uncovered.
Area C was opened in the valley north of the Be’er Nativ well (Bir el-Haj Khalil; Dagan 2010:295, Site 370.4) and east of the Area A eastern hill (see Fig. 2). A massive church complex—the Church of the Glorious Martyr—and the nearby well were excavated (Storchan 2021).
The Church of the Glorious Martyr. The excavations uncovered a large Byzantine church complex comprising a basilical church, a narthex, a courtyard and a side chapel (Figs. 12, 13). The church complex was built on the northern side of the Nahal Nativ streambed, along a natural and partly hewn bedrock cliff. The original construction date of the church complex is not certain, but, based on small probes dug below the church’s floors, it seems that in the late fifth century CE a modest chapel was constructed inside a hewn cave that was later converted into a crypt. In the second phase, in the mid-sixth century CE, the church underwent a major expansion, when the main basilica and courtyard were constructed. At the end of the sixth century CE, the southern wall of the complex was completely rebuilt, and an annexed chapel was added. The church complex continued to function until it was abandoned during the Abbasid period (ninth–tenth centuries CE).
The complex featured two main entrances, one west of the courtyard and the other south of the narthex. The courtyard (13.0 × 15.5 m) was entirely paved with a white mosaic floor featuring a central Greek inscription, comprising ten lines of text within a rectangular border line of red and black colored tesserae (Fig. 14). The inscription details construction activities done at the church in honor of an unspecified “Glorious Martyr”.
Five rooms of different sizes were built north of the courtyard. A round installation was uncovered in the northwestern room; a bronze bowl and restorable ceramic vessels lay on its bedrock floor. A layer of stone collapse containing complete ceramic vessels and chunks of mosaic tesserae excavated in the middle rooms indicates that this area was overlain by an upper floor. To the east of the courtyard, the narthex (3.5 × 18.5 m) exhibited the remains of three stone-built benches built between the doors of the western facade of the basilica.
The basilical church (15 × 20 m) had a raised bema set over a vaulted crypt (see below). The church consisted of two aisles (each 3.0 × 14.5 m) and a nave (5.5 × 14.5 m) delineated by two rows of six pillars. In addition, there were two rectangular side rooms to the north and south of the bema. The eastern pillars of the basilica, some found collapsed on the nave floor, were made of marble, while the western pillars were made of limestone drums. The bema of the basilica was accessed by two pairs of stairs. The stairs of the first pair, located within the nave, were narrow, while the second pair flanked the northern and southern sides of the bema and were accessed from the aisles. The mosaic pavements in the basilica were poorly preserved. The aisle mosaics were decorated with a continuous red and black scale-pattern, each scale encompassing a single floret. The eastern part of the nave was decorated with a geometric design consisting of interlocking rhombi forming round and octagonal medallions.
The crypt, exposed below the bema, was a rectangular shaped barrel-vaulted hall (2.4 × 5.1 m, 2.85 m high) and was accessed from the nave via two vaulted staircases, on the north and south (Fig. 15); the two staircases apparently served as separate entry and exit ways to facilitate crowd movement into and out of the crypt. The vaults of the crypt’s main hall and the northern stairway were entirely preserved, while the vault of the southern stairway had partly collapsed. The walls and vaults of the crypt’s main hall and stairways were dotted with bands of small holes for the attachment of marble revetment. In the eastern part of the crypt, remains of a partly built and partly rock-hewn platform were discovered. The platform was designed to house the relics, and originally it was probably separated from the sanctuary by a marble screen. Above the platform, within the base of the apse wall, the remains of a stone masonry frame for a window were blocked in the later phase, when the church complex was expanded (Storchan and Albag 2019).
An elaborate annexed chapel, comprising a rectangular sanctuary (4.5 × 9.0 m) and a bema (4.0 × 4.5 m), was situated to the south of the basilica. The chapel was decorated with an elaborate mosaic floor with a palmette patterned border and a central composition dominated by asymmetrical leaves (Fig. 16). At the eastern section of the chapel mosaic, just in front of the step to the bema, was a Greek inscription set within a tabula ansata. The inscription records that modifications to the chapel—possibly paving the mosaic floor—were carried out under the imperial patronage of Emperor Flavius Tiberius II, who ruled from 578 CE until his death on August 14, 582 CE, but the undertaking was completed only in April 583 CE, after his death. The chapel bema was decorated with a colorful mosaic set in a rectangular frame, featuring a large central eagle wearing a crescent-shaped pendant.
In the late sixth-century CE expansion of the church complex, the eastern wall of the basilica was partly removed and replaced by a new wall built further to the east, creating an elongated room behind the apse. The room was vaulted with two arches and decorated with a mosaic floor. A monolithic baptismal font made of calcite flowstone (Fig. 17), a mineral formed in karstic caves, was uncovered here, indicating that the room served as a baptismal chapel. The baptismal font was moved from its original position in the Abbasid period.
The well of Be’er Nativ (Bir el-Haj Khalil; Dagan 2010: Site 370.4), located to the south of the church complex, was excavated (Fig. 18). The upper part of the well’s shaft is built of nine ashlar stone courses, and its lower part is rock hewn. Excavation around the well exposed the several architectural phases of the well’s use, beginning in the Byzantine period. The earliest remains include a deep plastered pool, which ceased to function in the Abbasid period, with the construction of a large oven inside it. The well continued to be used for a long time, and during the Ottoman period, a plaster-lined shallow rectangular reservoir was built to its north. Today, the uppermost course of the well shaft comprises four large ashlar stones bearing rope marks, perhaps not coincidentally forming a cross shape.
The three-season of excavations uncovered remains from the Late Bronze III to the Ottoman period.
The excavation in Area A documented the landscape and hinterland of the Ottoman village of Beit Nattif, as well as some Roman- and Byzantine-period remains, which can now be added to the growing corpus of sites in the vicinity.
The Late Bronze–Early Iron Age Nahal Nativ settlement exposed in Area B joins the few known contemporary rural villages in the Judean Shephelah. The semi-circular or circular enclosed layout, comprising at least four broad-room units on the lower terrace and two multi-room structures on the upper terrace, has parallels at several Late Bronze and Early Iron Age sites, such as ʻIzbet Zarta (Finkelstein 1986), located on the fringe of the Samarian highlands east of the central coastal plain. Interestingly, a contemporary village, also built with a semi-circular layout, was uncovered at Badd el-Banat, in a valley just across from Nahal Nativ (Tal et al. 2018). The recent discoveries at Nahal Nativ indicate that in the Shephelah, the circular layout was not limited to fortified sites but was also a rural settlement pattern adapted to the local topographical features.
Churches, which like the Byzantine-period Church of the “Glorious Martyr” uncovered in Area C have a vaulted crypt below the bema with two staircases, have been found at Rehovot-in-the-Negev (Northern Church; Tsafrir 1988), at Horbat Berakhot, south of Bethlehem (Tsafrir and Hirschfeld 1979; 1993), and in Madaba, Jordan (Crypt of Elianus; Sejourne 1897)—all churches that became major pilgrimage attractions in the Byzantine Holy Land (Patrich 2003:484). It is evident that the Church of the “Glorious Martyr” was a very important pilgrimage center located near the ancient Jerusalem–Eleutheropolis (Bet Guvrin) road that passed through the Ela Valley. The church developed and expanded in multiple phases during the Byzantine period, eventually receiving imperial support, and was abandoned in the Abbasid period.
Dagan Y. 2010. The Ramat Bet Shemesh Regional Project: The Gazetteer (IAA Reports 46). Jerusalem.
Dagan Y. 2011. The Ramat Bet Shemesh Regional Project: Landscapes of Settlement: From Paleolithic to the Ottoman Periods (IAA Reports 47). Jerusalem.
Finkelstein I. 1986. ‘Izbet Ṣarṭah: An Early Iron Age Site near Rosh Haʻayin, Israel (BAR Int. S. 299). Oxford.
Patrich J. 2003. Early Christian Churches in Israel. In S. Richard ed. Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. Winona Lake, Indiana. Pp. 479–486.
Sejourne P.M. 1897. L’Elianée de Madaba. RB 6:648–657.
Storchan B. and Albag R. 2019. Illuminating the Mysterious: Digitally Reconstructing Natural Light in Byzantine Pilgrimage Crypts of the Holy Land. In J. Uziel, Y. Gadot, Y. Zelinger, O. Peleg-Barkat and O. Gutfeld eds. New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region: Collected Papers XIII. Jerusalem. Pp 57*–74*.
Storchan B. 2021. A Glorious Church for a Mysterious Martyr. BAR 47/3:30–39.
Tal S., Storchan B., Kisilevit S. and Kleiman S. 2018. Closing the Gap: New Light on the Rural Settlement in the Shephelah during the Transition between the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In J. Uziel, Y. Gadot, Y. Zelinger, O. Peleg-Barkat and O. Gutfeld eds. New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region: Collected Papers XII. Jerusalem. Pp. 22*–42*.
Tsafrir Y. 1988. Excavations at Rehovot-in-the-Negev 1: The Northern Church (Qedem 25). Jerusalem.
Tsafrir Y. and Hirschfeld Y. 1979. The Church and Mosaics at Ḥorvat Berachot, Israel. DOP 33:292–326.
Tsafrir Y. and Hirschfeld Y. 1993. The Byzantine Church at Ḥorvat Berachot. In Y. Tsafrir ed. Ancient Churches Revealed. Jerusalem. Pp. 207–218.