THE EL-ARAJ EXCAVATION PROJECT


(From left to right) Archaeologist Eli Shukron;
Professor Steven Notley, Nyack College; Marc
Turnage; Professor Robert Stallman, Northwest
University; and Professor Buzz Brookman, North
Central University with the discovered basalt capital.

     

 

Summary

One of the challenging tasks for archaeologists and biblical historians alike is the identification of sites mentioned in the Bible—many of which were destroyed and disappeared in time without a trace.  Such seems to have been the fate of one town mentioned in the Gospels.  Bethsaida was lost for centuries and its location the subject of speculation by pilgrims and mapmakers.  With the advent of geographical exploration of the Holy Land in the nineteenth century, the search intensified in the northern regions of the Sea of Galilee.  Two theories advanced at that time still dominate the debate today.  Edward Robinson followed Richard Pococke’s suggestion that et-Tell - the location of the present day Bethsaida Excavations Project - was the site of ancient Bethsaida-Julias.  Later, the German explorer, Gottlieb Schumacher, noting the problem of et-Tell’s distance from the lake, proposed an alternative site for Bethsaida at el-Araj.   

A critical comparison of the ancient eyewitnesses and the archaeological results of the Bethsaida Excavations Project reveal many incongruities.  The evidence of over twenty years of excavations is far from conclusive in demonstrating their claim that et-Tell was first century Bethsaida.  The site’s elevation and remoteness from the lake, together with its unexplained decline in material culture at the beginning of the early Roman period, challenge the identification of et-Tell as the lost city of Bethsaida.

While in popular imagination the debate seems a foregone conclusion, nagging questions remain and they served as part of the impetus for the 2014 shovel survey at el-Araj conducted by our project collaborators Dr. Mordechai Aviam and Dr. Dina Shalem. The resulting archaeological profile of the site is exactly what one would expect to find for Bethsaida. The survey brought to light several significant artifacts with specific architectural features that support the suggestion that  the site of el-Araj is a potential location for the first-century city of Bethsaida:  fragments of building columns, ornamental basalt ashlar bases, round and heart shaped limestone fragments (some featuring egg and dart designs), and building thresholds.  These recovered artifacts are indicative of architectural features found on Roman buildings during the first and second centuries, and can potentially confirm the identification and dating of the village of Bethsaida.  This initial evidence is significant in supporting the need to move forward with an archaeological excavation at el-Araj.  Further excavation will continue the search for additional fragments, coins, animal remains (used in sacrificial offerings), and physical features on ground to support a broader topographical study of the site.  

Personnel

Collaborators on the AIA project include CSAJCO, The Center for Holy Land Studies, Nyack College, and North Central University.  CSAJCO will receive grants for the AIA project, provide oversight to ensure that grant funds are used in accordance with grant agreements and provide reports as required by the grantor.

Staff

Mordechai Aviam will serve as Project Director. Aviam will be responsible for managing field and laboratory efforts.  Aviam is an archaeologist and founder of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology in Israel.  He served as the Western Galilee District Archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority in which capacity he participated in a large number of surveys, excavations and research projects. He has directed many excavations, including at Yodfat, Arabel and Kirbat A-Shura. He established the Institute for Galilean Archaeology which is currently part of the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee.  In addition to his work at el-Araj other significant archaeological excavations to his credit include Yodefat, the ancient synagogues at Baram, the fortress of Qeren Naftali, and 7 churches in Western Galilee.  He is a senior lecturer in archeology of the classical eras in the Galilee at Kenneret College. 

Dina Shalem will serve as assistant Director.  She will assist with on ground coordination of the field supervisors as well as off-season laboratory and database management of archival findings.  Dina was part of the key personnel who participated in the field survey at el-Araj and has led over two dozen field surveys in her work as a Regional Archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority.  She is a research associate at the Institute for Galilean Archaeology with a Ph.D. in archeology from the University of Haifa, on the subject of The Iconography of Ossuaries and Burial Pots from the Late Chalcolithic Era in the Land of Israel in the Context of the Ancient East.  Her principal areas of research are the Chalcolithic Era, burial customs and artistic aspects during the Chalcolithic Era and Neolithic Era, and surveys.  

R. Steven Notley will assist in the research and field school coordination efforts for this project , Notley will also assist in the research and field school coordination efforts for this project.  Notley is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins on the New York City campus of Nyack College (2001-present) and director of the graduate programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins.  He has been directing groups of students and laypeople to Israel and the eastern Mediterranean region for over 25 years.  He is the author of many books and articles.  He continues collaborative research and publication with Israeli scholars in the fields of historical geography, ancient Judaism and Christian origins.  

Marc Turnage serves as a guest lecturer and administrative assistant for the excavation. He participated in the early field-survey shovel test and first excavation season at el-Araj. Marc is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Bar Ilan under the supervision of Professor Esther Eshel. During his tenure in Israel, Marc guided study tours of university students and professors, and cross-denominational Christian groups from around the world.

Jeffrey P. Garcia is an Assistant Professor at Nyack College’s Manhattan Campus. He earned his BA from Nyack College and an MA, MPhil, and PhD in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University. Jeff’s research interests include, the historical Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels, Second Temple Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabbinic literature, early Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation, and the archaeology and geography of the Land of Israel. He has written encyclopedia notices and articles on the Gospels’ use of the Old Testament and Jesus’ view of the Jewish Law, as well as on various archaeological sites in Jerusalem. Jeff has been traveling to Israel for over a decade in the capacity of student and leader and contributed to the 2016 excavation season. Jeff will contribute to the historic and socio-cultural research efforts that will be used to analyze material finds. 

The remaining staff includes technical and administrative staff that will support on-ground and laboratory research, coordination of our field school, administration, and project management.  Throughout each excavation phase there will be a rotation of students from our collaborating institutions, not to exceed 20 students per season.  A full list of our staff and their respective disciplines is listed on our participants list. 

2016 SEASON ONE EXCAVATION FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS 

Mordechai Aviam
Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology

The site of el-Araj sits on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the Jordan estuary to the Sea of Galilee. Since the late 19th century, el-Araj, along with et-Tel which sits two kilometers from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, has been identified as one of the main candidates for the ancient site of Bethsaida, the home of several of Jesus' disciples.

Over the last thirty years, Dr. Rami Arav has conducted large-scale excavations at et-Tel, where he discovered a layer of dwellings from the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods leading him to identify et-Tel as Bethsaida. He also did a small archeological sounding at el-Araj and suggested no settlement existed there prior to the Byzantine period.

In the summer of 2014, the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and the Center for Holy Lands Studies conducted a "shovel testing" survey at el-Araj directed by Dr. Dina Shalem and Dr. Mordechai Aviam. Around the site, six squares were opened digging down 0.3 meters. The assemblage of pottery uncovered included a few potsherds from the late Hellenistic period, a dozen from the early Roman period, as well as remains from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

In the summer of 2016, the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, in the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee led by Dr. Aviam, assisted by Dr. Shalem, and Ayelet Tacher, together with the Center for Holy Lands Studies directed by Marc Turnage, and Nyack College and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins under Dr. R. Steven Notley conducted the first season of excavations at el Araj.

The excavations opened two areas. The western area was located west of the remains of the Ottoman palace, which stood on the site of el-Araj until it was destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a military operation in 1955. According to an eyewitness report from 1927, a colorful mosaic floor was seen under the building; and therefore, we decided to open an excavation area close to the remains. The first layer dated to the Crusader period, 13th century, by a lead token discovered on the floor. This building was most likely part of a sugar factory due to the typical clay vessels, sugar bowls and molasses jars that were uncovered.

Underneath the Crusader level we discovered remains of a dwelling dated to the late Byzantine-early Islamic period. An unusual large bronze jar was uncovered, which has been sent to the laboratory for conservation. Coins and pottery dating from the 6th-8th centuries were uncovered on the floors. The most surprising find was a group of gilded glass tesserae, which are used in the construction of wall mosaics. These type of tesserae are typical to large and important churches. Which means, even before finding the church itself, it is possible to suggest that in the Byzantine period, el-Araj was identified as a holy place, most likely Bethsaida. One of the walls contains a large, reused, monolithic, limestone pillar, and nearby, outside of the excavation area, there is another limestone double “heart-shaped” pillar, which are both typical to late Roman Jewish synagogues in Galilee.

The second excavation area was opened to the east of the destroyed Ottoman building. There we uncovered walls dating to the Byzantine-Early Islamic period.

Both areas yielded a large number of typical early Roman pottery. As of yet, structures from the early Roman period have not been uncovered.

After this initial season of excavation, our primary conclusions are: 1) the site of el-Araj was most likely identified as Bethsaida during the Byzantine period, and a church, probably a pilgrim monastery was erected at the site. 2) The site of el-Araj was inhabited during the early Roman period; therefore, it remains a good candidate for the identification of Bethsaida. 3) We will continue to excavate el-Araj in the coming years.

Note: The excavation workers were students from the department of the Land of Israel Studies in the Kinneret College and American and Chinese students who came through the Center for Holy Lands Studies and Nyack College. The excavation was supported by donations from the Center for Holy Lands Studies, the Biblical Archaeology Society, and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins.

    

Pictures courtesy of Dr. Mordechai Aviam.

 

 

 

 

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  • "This was a wonderful pilgrimage. You were so right in saying "you have read the Bible in black and white. Now you will have it in technicolor". That is exactly what has happened. It is a gift that will be with me forever for my personal spiritual growth as well as my intellectual (and emotional) growth. Thank you for all your time and effort."
    N.B., Israel Trip