In July–October 2020, an excavation was initiated in a private house in Mi‘ilya (License No. G-53/2020; map ref. 224573–770093/24589–770100). The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa and funded by the excavator’s research budget with assistance from the homeowners, was directed by R.G. Khamisy, with the assistance of S. Khamisy and A. Layyus (surveying and drafting), A. Lermolin (metal cleaning and conservation) and M. Peleg (photogrammetry).
The excavation took place c. 150 m to the northwest of the ancient nucleus of the village, which contains a Crusader fortress, Castellum Regis (the King’s Castle; Fig. 1). The surrounding land surface is flat, with extensive plots that the villagers farmed for centuries. The region is well-known for its antiquities and, especially, for its deep cisterns. The excavation was conducted in a plot where a house was built in 1875, one of the first houses in Mi‘ilya built outside the ancient village nucleus. In 1936, another house was built c. 10 m to the south of the first house. In 1952, the owners built a third house between the two houses, and while digging the foundations, they encountered colored mosaics that were subsequently covered and sealed with concrete floors. In 1988, an excavation was conducted in the western part of the plot, c. 25 m west of the current excavation; it revealed a colored mosaic floor with traces of a medallion containing an inscription in Greek dated to the fifth or sixth century CE. The excavators interpreted the mosaic pavement as part of a Byzantine church (Tzaferis and Abu-‘Uqsa 1990).
Three squares were opened in the current excavation, two inside two of the house’s rooms (Areas A and B) and one in the garden to the east of the house (Area C). The excavation uncovered remains of a Byzantine church (Stratum III; fifth or possibly even fourth century CE) as well as many walls and finds from the Crusader period (Stratum II), which indicate intensive use of the ruined church complex throughout the twelfth–thirteenth centuries CE. These remains were overlain by a modern layer (Stratum I).
Areas A and B architectural remains from the western part of the church’s southern aisle were uncovered. Area C, where it was expected that the church’s apse would be found, contained remains of walls that could not be attributed with any certainty to the church. Due to engineering and safety considerations, it was impossible to deepen the excavation. However, in Area B, where the excavation reached a depth of 2.2 m beneath the house’s floor, there were signs indicating proximity to the natural bedrock.
Stratum III—Byzantine period. A colored mosaic was discovered containing geometric patterns and crosses executed in five colors. Two column bases were also found in situ, aligned in an east–west direction (Fig. 2). Signs of a fire were found on the mosaic pavement (Fig. 2: to right of scale bar). Based on the alignment of the columns and the mosaic’s easterly facing patterns, this is probably part of the western wing of the church’s southern aisle. The mosaic was set on a layer of lime placed over a leveled bedding of solidly packed stone. The pottery from beneath the mosaic’s bedding includes sherds dating from the Early Roman period until the early second century CE. Some of the mosaic patterns resemble those found in Roman mosaic art (Fig. 2: especially the motifs on the left), suggesting that there was still a considerable Roman cultural influence when the church was built. The motifs in the mosaic and the pottery from under the mosaic bedding suggest that the church was built at the beginning of the Byzantine period, possibly at the end of the fourth century CE. The absence of Byzantine finds beneath the bedding confirms this dating. It is worth noting that the mosaic uncovered in 1988 was dated to the Byzantine period based purely on the ornamental motifs in the mosaic pavement. The small finds from the layers above the mosaic include pottery and coins from the early seventh century CE. Based on these finds and the marks of fire on the mosaic and signs of further damage in the area, it would appear that the site was completely destroyed, possibly during the Persian conquest in 614 CE or during the Muslim conquest in 640 CE, or by the earthquake in the same year. No Early Islamic pottery or coins were found among the finds unearthed in the excavation.
Stratum II—Crusader period. Above the church’s floor, a soil layer (thickness c. 0.45 m) containing ceramic finds and coins mainly dating from the Crusader period (twelfth–thirteenth centuries CE) was uncovered. Crusader finds were also recovered from the entire area where the mosaic had not been preserved, to a depth of 0.2 m below the level of the floor bedding. During this period, several walls were built on top of the church’s southern aisle (Fig. 3) that apparently surrounded rectangular rooms, although this interpretation requires further investigation. The archaeological finds provide no evidence that the ruined church was used in the Crusader period; however, the Crusader walls in the compound probably belonged to living quarters and may even have been part of a Crusader church that made use of the Byzantine remains, as was common in this period.
Stratum I—Modern period. A thick layer of brown soil fill (thickness 0.75 m) containing modern finds was uncovered. Modern finds were discovered down to the mosaic floor beneath the foundations of three walls of the house that was built in 1952. Area C, located outside the house, contained agricultural soil devoid of architectural remains.
The excavation uncovered remains of a Byzantine church that probably dates from the fifth or even as early as the fourth century CE. The church was destroyed in the first half of the seventh century CE, and the site was abandoned until the Crusader period, at the beginning of the twelfth century CE. During the Crusader period, alterations were made to the church structure, which evidently continued to be used throughout the entire Crusader period until Baybars’ conquest in 1266 (Khamisy 2013:16). The Crusader building was abandoned at the end of the period, unlike the Crusader fortress in the center of the village (Castellum Regis) and the area was used as agricultural land before being built on in 1875. The discovery of a church together with the colored mosaic found in a previous excavation c. 25 m to its west suggests that this was a monastery complex rather than a simple parish church.
Khamisy R.G. 2013. The History and Architectural Design of Castellum Regis and Some Other Finds in the Village of Mi‘ilya. Crusades 12:13–51.
Tzaferis V. and Abu-‘Uqsa H. 1990. Mi‘ilya, Mosaic Floor. ESI 7–8:9–10.