Two cultic incense altars found in one of the rooms of the structure (Image: Michal Haber, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Drone Footage Helps Detect Rare 2,200-year-old Ruins in Military Zone

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A unique Hellenistic period building, dating to the 3 rd century BC, built by the Idumeans has been unearthed in Israel’s Shephelah region.

The impressive 2200-year-old structure, possibly an Idumean palace or temple, was uncovered during archaeological excavations at the site of Horvat ‘Amuda, situated at Israel’s fertile Shepelah region (a region of low hills between Israel’s central mountain range and the coastal plains).

Area of the large structure, possibly a temple or palace, uncovered in the dig – aerial photograph (photo: Dane Christensen)

Area of the large structure, possibly a temple or palace, uncovered in the dig – aerial photograph (photo: Dane Christensen)

Inside the building, two stone incense altars were discovered in one of the rooms. One of them, bearing the carved image of a bull, is depicted as standing in what is apparently the façade of a temple adorned with magnificent columns. The excavators believe that the bull symbolized a deity worshipped by the Idumeans. Surrounding the incense altar, delicate pottery vessels were also uncovered by the archaeologists, including painted bowls, juglets and oil lamps.

Examples of cultic vessels uncovered in one of the structure’s rooms (Image: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Examples of cultic vessels uncovered in one of the structure’s rooms (Image: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“If this was indeed an Idumean palace or temple, it is a rare and exciting find – similar structures in this country can be counted on the fingers of one hand. It seems that the building was intentionally dismantled, possibly during the Hasmonean conquest of the region,” excavation directors, Dr. Oren Gutfeld of the Hebrew University, and Pablo Betzer and Michal Haber of the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a joint statement in the IAA press release.

Incense altar bearing the carved image of a bull as found at the Horvat ‘Amuda site (Image: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Incense altar bearing the carved image of a bull as found at the Horvat ‘Amuda site (Image: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

From Tents to Palaces

The Idumeans, as the Greek word implies, were descendants of the biblical Edomites, a group of desert nomads that settled the mountainous region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of ‘Aqaba (southern Israel and Jordan). However, in Maccabean and Roman times the geographic boundaries of Idumea changed to not include the heartland of ancient Edom, East of the Arabah region, but embraced parts of what had formerly been Simeonite and Judean territory. 

During this time Horvat ‘Amuda was apparently one of the agricultural satellite settlements of Maresha, which had by now become the Idumean district capital (today it is part of Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park).

It is reported that the Idumeans suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Judas Maccabaeus. (1 Maccabees 5:3) Later, Historian Josephus related that, when John Hyrcanus I conquered the Idumeans, which was in about 125 BC, he told the people that they could stay in their country only if they submitted to circumcision, thus forcing them to become proselytes. Rather than leave the country, the Idumeans complied with this condition and subsequently blended into the Judean population

 (Jewish Antiquities,  XIII, 257, 258 [ix, 1].

The Herods, the famous family of political rulers over the Jews, were Idumeans.

Remains of the structure indicate that it was intentionally dismantled, possibly by the Hasmoneans (Image: Dane Christensen)

Remains of the structure indicate that it was intentionally dismantled, possibly by the Hasmoneans (Image: Dane Christensen)

Ritual Baths and Secret Tunnels

Later, in 40 BC, the Hasmonean leader Antigonus Mattathias with the help of Rome´s enemies, the Parthians destroyed Maresha and forced Herod out of Judea. During the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome in AD 132–135, residents of nearby Beit Guvrin cut low narrow passages and square rooms at Maresha to serve as hiding and storage places,” Kloner told Times of Israel.

Around the area of Horvat ‘Amuda the excavators also found numerous underground spaces, used as quarries or to house ritual baths ( miqvaot), oil presses and dovecotes. Hiding tunnels from the time of the Jewish revolts against the Romans; one of these contained an intact cooking pot from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (AD 132–135).

Uncovering the structure. (Image: Michal Haber, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Uncovering the structure. (Image: Michal Haber, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Drone Survey

The new discoveries came to light with the help of camera-equipped drones – technology that has become part of the archaeologists’ tool box in recent years. As part of an extensive archaeological research project of the area between Bet Guvrin and Maresha in the north and Moshav Amatzia in the south, the drone cameras photographed the archaeological remains from high above, subsequently revealing hints of the structure now under excavation.

The excavation at Horvat ‘Amuda, which was funded by the Beit Lehi Foundation and the Israel Antiquities Authority, was carried out with the participation of archaeology students from the Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University, as well as a group of volunteers from the United States.

Top image: Two cultic incense altars found in one of the rooms of the structure (Image: Michal Haber, Israel Antiquities Authority)

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