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 archaeology 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 archaeology 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 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.  

 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 in 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.

 2017 SEASON TWO EXCAVATION FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS 

The following is a casual report offerred by Dr. Jeffrey P. García and Dr. R. Steven Notley (https://www.csajco.org/el-araj-excavation-project-eaep). A more formal report of the 2017 excavation season will be forthcomoing. 

The 2017 season of excavations has concluded at El Araj (Beit Habek). Under the direction of archaeologist, Dr. Mordechai Aviam from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and staff, American and Hong Kong participants have completed season two of archaeological investigations that have brought to light discoveries that will likely change the history of the lake of Galilee and shed new light on the location of Bethsaida-Julias (cf. Ant. 18:26-28). This season was made possible by generous donations from the Assembly of God’s Center for the Holy Lands Studies (CHLS), The Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins (CSAJCO), Nyack College, and HaDavar Yeshiva (Hong Kong). 

Week 2 started after the Sabbath on Sunday, July 9th and concluded on Thursday, July 13th. Work in the new square started during this season continued to uncover Crusader period (12th century CE) remains of a sugar factory and began to make way into the Byzantine period (4th – 7th century CE) layer with the discovery of pottery and a single coin. Work in Area B, which had remained untouched from season one, commenced once again.

The last five days of the dig focused more closely on several loci that had reached beneath the Byzantine layer and where 30 coins were discovered in the previous week. Beneath this layer, the discovery of coins ceased, and continued digging began to uncover Roman period pottery (1st-3rd century CE). The absence of any Byzantine related finds indicates that we were now clearly in the Roman period. In square 2 (the middle, eastern square) of these loci, a layer of collapsed stones was discovered under which the first Roman coin was uncovered along with continued layers of non-eroded, sharped-edged pottery dating between the Roman and Early Bronze (3rd millennium BCE) periods continued to surface. This layer of Roman pottery included the complete rim of a jug, handles, and chunks of white plaster. Significantly, within these layers—in both squares—were portions of Roman period bricks from a public structure.

This complemented what were perhaps the most impressive find. From the first (westernmost) square an intact Roman brick was uncovered. Evidence for Roman opulence was punctuated by over 20 tesserae still joined together by plaster. The white mosaic seems to be part of a collapsed layer that landed on large ashlars. Shortly after the mosaic was removed another large portion of mosaic was discovered. After the cleaning of the mosaic by restoration specialist Yeshu Dray, it was clear that the mosaics have a black and white meander pattern. This style of mosaic is already attested in the first-century synagogue discovered at Magdala. The additional discovery of a broken clay tubules confirm that we have uncovered the area of a Roman period bathhouse. The tubules were used in a caladarium where a hypocaust system would send heat up the walls and under floor tiles creating a sauna-like affect when water was poured on the tiles. This is a sign in the Roman world of both wealth and luxury. It is rare to have such a discovery in a Galilean village that sits on the shores of the lake and is dated to the Roman period (See Franciscan Magdala). This discovery brings to an end the suggestion that pre-Byzantine archeological remains at El Araj washed down from the northern site of Et Tell. A Roman period bathhouse not only indicates the appearance of a structure but, more importantly, the investment of a considerable amount of wealth on the site.  This may well be the initial evidence of the remains of Bethsaida—Julias, the Greco-Roman polis that Herod Philipp founded at Bethsaida in 30/31 CE.

The discovery of Roman pottery that was not eroded by water at a level of more than 211 m (almost 700 ft) below sea level has challenged what scholars previously thought was the level of the lake in Roman period. Recent discoveries of mooring stones at Magdala had previously set the level at 208 m (645 ft.) below sea level. Our discovery of Roman period mosaics at -211 m (654 ft._ below sea level have completely reset our understanding of the level of the lake in the Roman period by a depth of more than 3 m (a little over 9 feet). Quite literally, our geographical understanding of the Sea of Galilee in the first century CE must now be rewritten in light of this season’s results.

Our mornings were followed by afternoon lectures. Dr. Danny Syon’s lecture on coins suggested the importance of coinage distribution as an ethnic marker in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Dr. Uzi Leibner’s excavations of a Byzantine synagogue, near modern day Migdal and Mt. Nitai consisted of elaborate fresco and mosaic decorations and led to some discussion whether a Roman synagogue is beneath it. Field trips to Sepphoris and the remains of the lower and upper city allowed the participants to view a first-century village in the western lower Galilee that was distinguished by both Jewish (e.g. ritual immersion baths) and Greek (e.g. theater) elements. Sepphoris was the capital of the Galilee during time of Jesus’ youth and was close enough to Nazareth that Joseph, an artisan (Matt 13:55), could have found work there. Pottery washing and reading uncovered some unique finds including more Crusader period sugar vessels, a figurine of a horse with a snake as a mane, and several Roman period handles, bases, and rims. Furthermore, scientific cleaning of the coin after the dig will provide additional details and dates to the structures already discovered.

Several things continue to distinguish El Araj’s excavations from others occurring in Israel. One, outside of Jerusalem, these are the only excavations that are directly connected with Jesus and his apostles. While the excavations at Magdala are important, and Jesus would have likely visited the fishing village (cf. Matt 4:23), Bethsaida is explicitly mentioned in the Gospels as part of Jesus’ ministry and is home to at least two of his disciples, Peter and Andrew (John 1:44). Second, our excavations are resetting the level of the lake in the Roman period and lowering it by more than 9 ft. This has implications for our understanding of the Sea of Galilee as a setting for Jesus’ life and ministry.  Finally, the discovery of a Roman bathhouse indicates that we are not simply within the confines of a first-century fishing village, but brings to the light the identification of Julias, given to the city of Bethsaida in honor of Livia, the mother of Augustus Tiberias, when it became a polis.

 

 

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