While a “tell” (Arabic; although sometimes “tall” as in neighboring Jordan) is an artificial mound consisting of layers of human occupation, a “khirbet” (Arabic) is a low ruin. Our site, covering about 10 acres, is a series of low ruin piles sitting directly above bedrock.
This year’s focus was three different time periods in three different parts of the site.
1.) The 4th-6th century AD Byzantine monastery on the rise to the northwest
2.) The 2nd century BC through 2nd century AD Hellenistic/Roman settlement on the low rise to the northeast
3.) Our major focus and the reason for choosing Khirbet el-Maqatir in the first place, the 15th century BC fortress of Ai from Joshua’s time in the saddle between these other two sets of ruins
To our disappointment, three squares which we hoped would identify remains of city walls or interior structures from Joshua’s time went to bedrock without finding any architecture of significance. But in the other nine squares, we found interesting material related to our other two focus periods.
Excavated eastern wall of the basilica style church of the Khirbet el-Maqatir monastery.
Unfortunately, for the first time since we began excavating at Khirbet el-Maqatir, Dr. Bryant Wood was not in the field with us. He was home recouping from a recent stem cell transplant procedure and chemotherapy. His health continues to improve and his spirits are good. (Please continue to lift him up in prayer). But this year he is getting his information from square supervisor reports and analysis, back home, of the objects and pottery we found.
This writer was with Dr. Wood when he first stepped on the site in 1994, and has participated with him in every dig season since. Consequently, it was my responsibility to lead the team in his absence. Every digger understood the situation and did their part to make things run smoothly. Of course, without Dr. Wood, it didn’t (!), but excavation results were still quite meaningful – no doubt empowered by the prayer support of folks back home.
Our major interest in Khirbet el-Maqatir is the fortress of Ai from Joshua’s time. That period is also my special area of interest, so no one was any more disappointed than I when we did not find any architecture associated with Joshua’s Ai. I have been known to suggest that the Hasmonean, Roman and Byzantine periods are just modern history and not that interesting! But this year’s finds from these periods actually turned out to be pretty interesting, even to me.
After returning home, I pulled out The Palestinian Dwelling in the Roman-Byzantine Period by Yizhar Hirschfeld (1995). Hirschfeld (1950-2006) was an Israeli archeologist who specialized in Greco-Roman and Byzantine archaeology and I have frequently used this book in my study of ancient houses and daily life in the Biblical world. Consequently, in this article – what I am calling a practical overview of our finds from this season – I regularly reference this book. I also had the opportunity to discuss our finds with archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer who has drawn all the plans for our site.
The Khirbet el-Maqatir monastery church, looking south. The central apse is at the bottom of the photo with the southern apse to the south. Note also the spring of an arch at the west side of the central apse.
The 4th-6th century AD Byzantine monastery
Our monastery has been well documented to include a basilica-style single-apse Byzantine church (Bolen 1999). Early churches (4th to mid-5th century AD) were built with a single apse while later Byzantine churches (mid-5th AD and later) were built with three, all typically constructed in the church’s east wall (Tsafrir 1993:12).
This season, Dr. Scott Stripling excavated our monastery’s eastern wall, which included clearing the foundation of the church’s apse to bedrock. In the process, he also uncovered the foundation of another apse on bedrock in the south. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to excavate the area where a matching northern apse would also be located. There is no doubt that one once existed there and next year’s excavation should also reveal its foundation on bedrock.
Watch Scott explain some of the work at the monastery in this short video clip.
This southern apse was completely new information, never mentioned by any of the 19th century explorers who visited the site. The triple apses suggest construction in the later Byzantine period (5th-7th centuries AD), at the height of monastic activity in the Judean desert region (Hirschfeld 1993:149). While our site sits at the Judean desert’s northern fringe, Hirschfeld (1993: 154) notes that monasteries with basilica-style churches were quite rare in the region and only late in the period.
Fired ceramic roof tiles seem to have been introduced to Palestine around the end of the 1st century BC, possibly by the Roman legion (Hirschfeld 1995: 222).They were the standard roofing material for basilica-style churches and we found many of them in the ruins of our monastery.They remind me of the New Testament reference to the tiled roof that 4 men broke up to get their sick friend to Jesus (Lu 5:19). Typical homes in the Roman period did not have tiled roofs, so this passage suggests a pretty nice roof and the owner probably had to deal with his attitude over such an expensive roof needing to be repaired.
Small mosaic paving stones (tesserae) were first used in this country in the second century BC, but the art reached its peak in the Byzantine period (Hirschfeld 1995:270-1). Obviously, only the wealthy could afford such floors in their homes, generally in connection with washing installations (Hirschfeld 1995: 270). But mosaic paving was the floor of choice in Byzantine churches and explains the approximately 18,000 tesserae Scott found in the ruins. You might wonder how he found time to count them all. He collected one bucket-full of terrerae and counted how many were in it, then just kept track of how many bucketfuls were found.
Among other interesting finds from the monastery were nine coins. It will take a few months to properly clean and analyze them, but they seemed to span from the 1st century AD (New Testament period) through 13th century AD (Ottoman Empire). Such an extended period of activity at the monastery site is interesting, since the church architecture seems to indicate a 5th-7th century AD construction date. It may be that pilgrims visited this site for centuries after it was constructed.
Previously, our coins were limited to the intertestamental period, the latest being a coin of Herod the Great dated to his third year, 37 BC. Two of this season’s coins were actually from the New Testament period, the first we have found at the site. The first was minted by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great. Ruling from AD 37-44, he was the Herod of Acts 12 who was eaten by worms and died in the Herodian palace at Caesarea. Inscribed with “King Agrippa” on the obverse, the reverse is dated LS (year 6 = AD 42/43). The most common of Agrippa’s coins, it was the only one which did not depict a portrait of the emperor or Agrippa, himself, (“graven images”) – apparently because it was for circulation in the Jewish territories. Agrippa I has the dubious distinction of being the first ruler to persecute the early church:
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also (Acts 12:1–3a).
Although not as famous as his brother, James was one of Jesus’ disciples (Mt 4:21–22). He was part of Jesus’ “inner circle” and the first disciple to be martyred. Through the prayers of the church, Peter was rescued from prison by an angel. The next morning when Peter could not be found, Agrippa had the prison guards executed (Acts 12:3b–19a). Luke tells us how Agrippa met his end in Caesarea in AD 44, at the age of only 34. After he had given a speech, “because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23). The Jewish historian Josephus recorded the same event, testifying to the reliability of our New Testament record.
A coin minted by Herod Agrippa 1 found in the excavation of the Khirbet el-Maqatir monastery.
The second New Testament coin was found in the first-century house. It is a coin of Porcius Festus, procurator (governor) of Judea from AD 59 to 62. The coin is dated to the fifth year of Nero, AD 59, the first year of Festus’ rule in Judea. When Festus arrived in Judea in AD 59, his first order of business was to take action in the case of Paul, who had been languishing in prison in Caesarea for two years. He was accused of bringing gentiles into the Temple precincts (Acts 21:28). Festus went to Jerusalem to hear the charges, then convened a trial in Caesarea, at which time Paul appealed to Caesar (= Nero; Acts 25:1–12). Subsequently, Paul had the opportunity to give his testimony to both Festus and the king, Herod Agrippa II. When Paul mentioned the resurrection, Festus shouted, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane” (Acts 26:24). Festus should have paid closer attention to Paul’s message, for just a few years later in AD 62 Festus died unexpectedly. Following his audience with Agrippa, Paul was sent to Rome to appear before Nero (Acts 27–28).
A limekiln has been identified on the site, near the monastery, but it may be from a later period. Presumably there was also one in the Byzantine period. A lime admixture was made as the base for plastering walls and ceilings in typical houses of the Roman and Byzantine periods (Hirschfeld 1995: 218; 223-4). We found plaster still clinging to interior stone walls of the monastery, as well as a below ground plastered installation at the spring of an arch, near the monastery’s central apse. This is another unexpected find within the church and we are very interested in finding out more about it next season.
The 2nd century BC through 2nd century AD Hellenistic/Roman settlement
In the area of the Hasmonean settlement at Khirbet el-Maqatir, Titus Kenney and Joel Kramer excavated two cisterns cut into bedrock. The first, with a typical square Roman opening, was already known but found to be situated in the floor of a room – presumably of a Roman period house. The second cistern had been buried for hundreds of years and, appears to be much older than the Roman one. In fact, our Palestinian host who grew up in the village and explored every known cistern at the site, said he had never seen this one before. Archaeologists love to excavate cisterns because ancient people frequently dropped or threw interesting things into them! We can’t wait to see all that is in this newly discovered one.
Drs. Gene Merrill and Brian Peterson excavated a structure which appeared to be a house, used in both the Roman and Byzantine periods. In adjoining rooms with walls standing over 3 feet high, they apparently reached floor level. While floors in typical Roman houses were of beaten earth, the unroofed courtyard was often paved (Hirschfeld 1995: 270). Our larger room had a number of paving stones across its north end, apparently the latest floor level. Its size may indicate an open courtyard, which may help explain the very nice “threshold” stone outside (east of) the room’s doorway.
Throughout the millennia, houses in the region’s valleys were regularly built with mudbrick superstructures, while house walls in the hill country were constructed with available local stone. Such was our house. Constructed with one-man size stones (stones as large as one man could reasonably carry), they were minimally hammered and semi-dressed – a feature typical of Roman period houses (Hirschfeld 1995: 219). Since there was no evidence of mortar, we presume a clay mortar was used. Roman lime mortar was of much higher quality than clayey soil and water (with or without straw) and such a mix can rightly be called cement. Such cement allowed the average house wall to be built to full height without dressed stones, using just hammered and field stones.
An interior wall on the south side of the large room may be a Byzantine renovation. Built with three interior openings, it is a feature known from numerous Roman and Byzantine houses. Fenestrated (or “window walls”), they were often associated with domestic stables – where animals were kept in part of the house (Hirschfeld 1995: 27, 29). We believe we also reached the beaten earth floor in this smaller room, at a similar level to the paving stones in the bigger room to the north.
The 1st century AD house excavated in 2011 at Khirbet el-Maqatir. The large room (center) is probably an unroofed courtyard. The smaller room to the rear (south) with the "window and door look" was probably a domestic stable, connected to the house.
I actually think that such a space was the location of Jesus’ birth in Joseph’s ancestral home of the house of David at Bethlehem (about 15 miles south of our site). You can read my take on the idea in this article: Away in a Manger but not in a Barn. This interior wall seems to illustrate the “complete separation between the human occupants and the livestock” in ancient Palestinian homes from the Roman and Byzantine periods, as mentioned in ancient texts (Hirschfeld 1995: 259-260; 267-8; 293). Interestingly, at nearby et-Tell, during the time of the Judges (12th century BC) four houses seemed to have animal pens with short doorways also connecting to the house (Callaway 1993: 45).
Thinking about Roman period construction also reminds me of the reference to Jesus being a teckton (Mk 6:3). While regularly translated “carpenter,” I think the better translation and understanding of his vocational training is “builder” (see Hirschfeld 1995: 226-7). In Roman Palestine, that would mean Jesus worked with stone, mudbricks and mortar and he would have built structures like we were excavating. All that adds special meaning, for me, to His frequent references to architecture (Mt 7:13-14; 24:1-2) and construction (see Mt 7:24-27; 21:42-44; Lk 14:28).
The domestic stable, looking directly through the “window wall” openings – a typical feature of domestic stables from Roman times.
The 15th century BC fortress of Ai from Joshua’s time
Unfortunately, while we found pottery from the time of Joshua (15th century BC) in almost every square – even one beneath the foundation of the monastery – this season we did not reach architecture from the fortress in any of the squares we excavated. As in previous seasons, some of the 15th century BC pottery was “refired.” That means, subsequent to its manufacture, it had been subjected to a second very intense heating which baked it to a metallic hardness. This is powerful evidence for the burning of Ai as described in Joshua 8:28.
Although we came to find the fortress which was captured, destroyed and burned by Joshua, as archaeologists doing good science, we simply must deal with what we find under the ground. We did, and it was both interesting and meaningful. We will take many of those squares deeper next season and hope to get down to Joshua’s Ai.
Over and over again, archaeology shows us that we can trust the Bible for the past (history). Since that is true, we can also trust it for the future (eternity). I want to suggest that we should also trust it for the present (today) – living one day at a time. Archaeology helps make that whole process work for me and that’s why I enjoy digging – our finds this season offer a better understanding of God’s Word. We will keep you updated on additional developments as Dr. Bryant Wood begins his analysis of our results.
1999 The Byzantine Church of Khirbet el-Maqatir. Bible and Spade 12.3:91-96. Updated in the Winter 2011 issue of Bible and Spade.
Byers, Gary A.
1999 Those Indefatigable Byzantines. Bible and Spade 12.3: 81-85.
2009 Away in a Manger, but Not in a Barn (Offsite link).
1993 Ai. New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land I:39-45.
1993 Monasteries and Churches in the Judean Desert in the Byzantine Period. Pp. 149-154 in Ancient Churches Revealed, ed. Yoram Tsafrir. Washington DC: Biblical Archaeological Society.
1995 The Palestinian Dwelling in the Roman-Byzantine Period. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
1993 Churches in Palestine: From Constantine to the Crusaders Pp. 1-16 in Ancient Churches Revealed, ed. Yoram Tsafrir. Washington DC: Biblical Archaeological Society.
Wood, Bryant G.
2008 The Search for Joshua's Ai. Pp. 205–40 in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, eds. Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil and Paul J. Ray Jr. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.
2009 The ABR Excavation at Khirbet el-Maqatir: Review of Past Work and Report on the 2009 Season