THE EL-ARAJ EXCAVATION PROJECT
2018 staff and volunteers
Most scholars and many laypersons consider the search for biblical Bethsaida to be over and identify the archaeological remains of et-Tell just north of the Sea of Galilee as the locale of Bethsaida mentioned in the gospel accounts. Archaeological excavations have taken place at et-Tell for twenty years under the direction of Dr. Rami Arav. So popular is this identification that the State of Israel recognizes et-Tell as Bethsaida, as does the Vatican committee on holy sites and many atlases also portray et-Tell as the location of Bethsaida. However, there are a number of archaeologists and biblical scholars who reflect a growing skepticism about the claims of et-Tell being the location of Bethsaida. Mendel Nun (1919-2010), an authority on the Sea of Galilee and its environs, believed Bethsaida was located at el-Araj, a site on the Sea of Galilee’s northeastern shore near the Jordan River. This site better reflects the fact that the lake’s ancient fishing villages were always located on its shores, not 2 kilometers inland as is the site of et-Tell. Nun rejected outright Arav’s conclusion that he found the ancient site of Bethsaida. Nun was of the opinion that the et-Tell excavation results do not support Arav’s claims for identification, but, in fact, disprove the claim that et-Tell is Bethsaida. Nun desired a thorough excavation at the el-Araj site, where surface remains are visible and especially impressive. Unfortunately, he died before any survey or excavation at el-Araj became a reality. However, others have taken up the cause and have begun to officially survey and excavate el-Araj in the hope of establishing this antiquity site as the more likely location of biblical Bethsaida.
In May 2014 a team of professors and 85 students from North Central University, along with Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, the Institute for Galilean Archaeology, and the Center for Holy Lands Studies, began an archaeological survey of el-Araj. During the initial shovel testing and land survey the students found pottery, architectural fragments from public buildings (possibly a synagogue) and pieces of mosaic tiles – all of which encourages additional research. At the conclusion of the five-day shovel survey, Dr. Mordechi Aviam, founder of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology and senior lecturer at Kinneret College, noted, "The results are very clear that we have pottery from the late Hellenistic period (the second century B.C.), Early Roman pottery from the first century, and even Byzantine pottery from the fifth and sixth centuries. We also found architectural fragments that were made of both limestone and basalt, which are typical of large public buildings like a synagogue."
Marc Turnage says, "We now know that el-Araj was an ancient site that began at least during the late Hellenistic period with settlement in the Early Roman period (time of Jesus), and continued to the Byzantine period. El-Araj is indeed a possible site for New Testament Bethsaida, but we will only know with a full excavation."
|2016||EXCAVATION SEASON 1|
In July 2016 another consortium of colleges and international students set foot on el-Araj and began a formal excavation of the site. Nyack College was the sponsoring institution of the excavation and Dr. Steven Notley was the leader of a group of Nyack students, laypersons and international participants to Israel for two weeks of excavation work at el-Araj. Marc Turnage represented a team of students associated with the Center for Holy Land Studies. A review of the 2016 excavation results can be found in the The El-Araj Excavation Project link.
|2017||EXCAVATION SEASON 2|
In July 2017 a group of 25 USA and Hong Kong participants conducted a two-week excavation at el-Araj. The 2017 finds continue to support el-Araj as a likely candidate for Bethsaida-Julias. Notable finds this season included fragments from a Roman mosaic and fire bricks located near a wall. This is suggestive of a Roman bath house and is perhaps to be associated with the rebuilding efforts of Herod Phillip when he upgraded Bethsaida from a fishing village to a polis.
|2018||EXCAVATION SEASON 3|
The pottery findings, mosaic fragments and architectural structures revealed in the 2016 and 2017 seasons prompted an even more ambitious excavation season for 2018. Students, professors, and laypersons from the USA, Hong Kong, and Brazil attended the excavation. In addition, 30 Israeli archaeology students participated for one week at the end of the season. Most work continued to uncover the Byzantine level, but several squares went deeper into a Roman level. Coins, pottery, and artifacts continue to reveal a substantial Byzantine presence. Architectural elements (columns, a column base, a chancel rail post, and hundreds of mosaic tesserae) provide contributing evidence suggestive of an early church. Coinage, pottery and mosaic floor fragments continue to support a Roman urban center, including the presence of a Roman bath house.
|2019||EXCAVATION SEASON 4|
The 2019 season proved to be very fruitful. Area A continued to produce Crusader, Byzantine and Roman remains. It was especially exciting to discover mosaic floors in a larger structure we can identify as a Byzantine era church. Marble remains of the church's chancel screen were found nearby in secondary use. A new section (Area C) was opened about 100 yards to the north of Area A. Just under the surface were found Roman coins, pottery, and structural remains that support the theory that el-Araj was occupied during the Roman/New Testament time. Other architectural fragments of public buildings continue to be recovered throughout our excavated areas.
|2020||EXCAVATION SEASON 5|
The excavation schedule is represented by two 2-week sessions. See the Calendar and Itinerary links for details. The time spent at the excavation will be supplemented by guest lectures and local field trips. The 2020 season will reach additional Roman occupation as the earlier Crusader and Byzantine structures are removed. We hope to expose the entire mosaic floor discovered in 2019 and locate an inscription that might help us date and properly identify this church. New squares in Area A will be opened in an effort to completely reveal the size of the Byzantine church. A new area (Area D) will be opened to reveal more of the Roman structures just under the surface. Students and non-students are welcome to join us for this unique excavation opportunity.