One of the difficulties in Israel is how to preserve the past while providing for the future. Because of the extensive archaeological record in Israel, new building must first undergo an archaeological survey and obtain permission from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Finds may arrest the advancement of a project, or even cause the project to be re-engineered to accommodate study and preservation of any findings.
Such was the case last Spring in Beer Sheva. The capital city of the Negev is expanding as available land, growth of high-tech industries in the area and a relocation of some army bases to the south have drawn residents to the city. Construction on a new neighborhood was temporarily halted when the archaeologists found the buried remains of an ancient town. A quick salvage dig was ordered to study the area and give recommendations for development.
Digging for a few months in the Winter-Spring of 2019 brought to light a Jewish town from the end of the Second Temple and the Late Roman periods. This was the first ever archaeological evidence of a Jewish settlement in the vicinity of modern Beer Sheva from that time period.
How did the archaeologists determine that it was a Jewish town? The evidence of a possible ritual bath/mikveh was the first clue. Ritual baths exist in Jewish towns starting from the Second Temple period and continue to be one of the common features of Jewish towns from that time forward.
The second clue was discovered not in great architecture but in a simple household item. An oil lamp dated to the Second Temple Period, before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, included a relief of a 9-branched candelabra, the earliest appearance of a menorah as an artistic element. The menorah is the ancient Jewish symbol, predating the use of the Star of David by hundreds of years.
The Menorah symbology comes from the Temple, which had a 7-branched candelabra. According to the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of laws and stories which illuminate and expand on the biblical text, menorahs used as art should not replicate the one in the Temple. This menorah is the earliest appearance of the menorah as art; one could say that it is the earliest expression of Jewish Art.
Many questions continue to surround the history of the town. The site is first settled, according to archeologists during the 1st century CE. During this time the buildings, including the mikveh and the tower, were built. There are subsequent signs of destruction by fire. Could have this been during the Roman response to the Great Revolt in 70 CE?
According to observations during the quick salvage dig, archaeologists put the ultimate destruction of the settlement closer to 135 CE and found openings which could have been hiding places and escape routes during the Bar Cochva rebellion. Maybe Jews moved back into the town and took advantage of the outpost during this final revolt against the Romans, but were summarily routed and the settlement destroyed by the Romans. The town was abandoned to the sands of time.
Many questions remain from this ancient Jewish settlement outside of Beer Sheva. Modern Jewish settlement continues, however, and the finds will once again, this time intentionally, be buried under the sand. Suggestions are being weighed for how to incorporate something of the old in the new, perhaps by making the tower and adjacent mikveh part of an enlarged traffic circle. We will have to wait and see.
Today, one thing that characterizes the city of Beer Sheva is its commitment to the arts. Somehow, this city of immigrants, far from the cultural center of Tel Aviv, has a vivid arts culture. So it’s fitting that one of earliest expressions of Jewish art should be found just outside of Beer Sheva.