Khirbat el-Malta‘a (c. 450 dunams) extends about 4 km east of Nahal Besor in the western Negev, an area characterized by plains of loess soil mixed with clay. The area was surveyed as part of the Archaeological Survey of Israel covered by the maps of Urim (Gazit 2013) and Pattish (Gat 2014). Remains of buildings from the Early Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic periods were discovered to the east of the current excavation area (Talis 2011; Fig. 1: A-5444) and remains of a Byzantine settlement (Permit No. A-7405) were excavated to its west.
Two excavation areas—southern and northern—opened c. 40 m apart on the outskirts of the ruins revealed three cist graves and an abundance of pottery sherds dating from the Byzantine period.
Southern Area
An excavation square was opened at a depth of 0.75 m below the surface exposed a layer of ash mixed with loess soil (L100; Fig. 2), which contained a large amount of non-diagnostic, possibly Byzantine pottery sherds. This layer is apparently the result of refuse brought deliberately from the nearby ancient settlement.
Northern Area
Three cist graves (L101, L103, L104; Fig. 3) dug into the ground on a northwest–southeast alignment were exposed; they were lined with dressed chalk stones placed on their narrow side and were covered with chalk stone slabs.
Grave 101 (outer dimensions 1.3 × 1.7 m; Fig. 4) was lined with five chalk stones. The grave’s covering slabs sank in and broke. No finds whatsoever were found inside the grave.
Grave 103 (outer dimensions 1 × 2 m; Fig. 5) was lined and paved with chalk stones. The covering slabs, which had been placed on the upper sides of the grave, were found broken inside the grave. The grave contained a skull and anatomically articulated postcranial bones, indicating primary burial. A skull and a few fragments of long bones that were also discovered at the northwestern end of the grave are indicative of a secondary burial.
The individual interred in primary burial was placed slanting slightly to the right, with the head at the northwestern end, facing south. The epiphyseal fusion at the knee joint is characteristic of an individual aged over 16 years (Johnston and Zimmer 1989). Most of the bones had disintegrated, but the skull has a medium-sized supraorbital ridge and a pronounced mastoid crest. Signs of well-developed muscles were also discerned around the gonial angle of the lower mandible, a typically male morphological trait (Bass 2005:82). All the dental crowns had disintegrated, but all the root formation was complete, consistent with an adult individual.
Most of the bones of the individual in secondary burial had disintegrated; however, part of a long bone shows epiphyseal fusion characteristic of an adult individual (Johnston and Zimmer 1989).
The bones in the grave therefore represent two interred individuals: one was a male aged over 16 years placed in a primary burial; the other was also an adult, of indeterminate gender, whose bones had been moved aside.
Grave 104 (outer dimensions 1 × 2 m; Fig. 6) was lined with six chalk slabs and was well-preserved. The grave contained a skull and anatomically articulated postcranial bones, indicating primary burial. The deceased was laid in a supine position with the head to the northwest. Most of the bones had disintegrated, but the skull exhibited a well-developed supraorbital ridge, a morphology consistent with an adult male (Bass 2005:82).
The graves discovered in the excavation are typical of the Byzantine period (fifth–seventh centuries CE) and are well known from other excavations in the area (Nikolsky 2004; Paran 2007; Israel 2009; Lifshits 2014; Peretz 2014; Shmueli and Balila 2017; Rasiuk 2018). The excavation was conducted on the outskirts of Khirbat el-Malta‘a and part of the ruined settlement’s ancient cemetery was uncovered in the north of the excavation area. The margins of the settlement were also used for dumping refuse, as reflected in the southern excavation area. The excavation gives a broad picture of the outskirts of Khirbat el-Malta‘a during the Negev’s Byzantine period.