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The winepress discovered at the Byzantine-era farmstead found under the modern suburb of Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, Israel. Source: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Large Byzantine-Era Farmstead Found Beneath Suburban Tel Aviv

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In anticipation of an upcoming residential construction project in suburban Tel Aviv, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have been carrying out excavations to make sure the construction activity won’t be damaging any historical treasures. Even though preliminary surveys suggested something interesting might be buried below the building site, they weren’t necessarily expecting to find much. But contrary to those expectations, the archaeologists unearthed the remains of a large Byzantine-era farmstead.

“The excavation unearthed evidence of agricultural-industrial activity at the site during the Byzantine period about 1,500 years ago,” said Dr. Yoav Arbel, the IAA’s director of excavation for the current dig. “Among other finds, we discovered a large winepress paved with a mosaic, as well as plastered installations and the foundations of a large structure that may have been used as a warehouse or even a farmstead.”

Aerial view of the archeological excavation site that recently produced the Byzantine-era farmstead, in a northern Tel Aviv suburb. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Aerial view of the archeological excavation site that recently produced the Byzantine-era farmstead, in a northern Tel Aviv suburb. (Assaf Peretz /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

The Unknown Completely Unexpected Byzantine-Era Farmstead

It seems the modern suburb of Ramat Hasharon was built on a site that was occupied for several centuries during ancient times, by people involved in farming and other productive activities.

“Inside the buildings and installations, we found many fragments of  storage jars and cooking pots  that were evidently used by laborers working in the fields here,” Dr. Arbel explained. “We also recovered stone mortars and millstones that were used to grind wheat and barley and probably also to crush herbs and  medicinal plants .”

It is clear that at one time the  Byzantine-era farmstead was a large and prosperous farm, or complex of farms. This is revealed by the quantity and quality of the artifacts, the size of the ancient buildings, and the long period of time during which the site was apparently occupied (from at least the sixth through the 11 th centuries AD, according to dating analysis).

The site for the new housing in Ramat Hasharon is treeless and desert-like now, but apparently was capable of producing an abundance of crops in the first millennium AD.

The Byzantine Site Contained Many Fascinating Artifacts

Many of the artifacts the archaeologists have uncovered don’t relate directly to farming activity. One of the more unusual items they found during the dig was a bronze chain that would have been used to support a  chandelier. Ancient chandeliers were lit with glass oil lamps and were frequently hung from the ceilings of churches.

A bronze chain that was used to suspend a chandelier found at the Byzantine-era farmstead under modern Tel Aviv, Israel. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

A bronze chain that was used to suspend a chandelier found at the Byzantine-era farmstead under modern Tel Aviv, Israel. (Yoli Schwartz /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

This doesn’t necessarily mean the farming settlement had its own church, however. “Some might say they only existed in churches, but in my opinion the same type of chandelier was used in other public buildings – including Jewish ones – and in upscale homes,” Arbel proclaimed. “We found no signs of a church there [in Ramat Hasharon].”

Ancient oil lamps and vessels found at the northern Tel Aviv excavation site. (Assaf Perez / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Ancient oil lamps and vessels found at the northern Tel Aviv excavation site. (Assaf Perez /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

One of the more intriguing discoveries was a single  gold coin , minted in either 638 or 639 AD, when ancient Palestine was part of the Byzantine empire ruled by Emperor  Heraclius. This coin dates to just two or three years before Byzantine forces in that part of the world were defeated by  invading armies from Arab lands , who brought the  new religion of Islam  to the region.

The gold coin unearthed in the excavation was minted in either 638 or 639 AD, when ancient Palestine was part of the Byzantine empire ruled by Emperor Heraclius. (Amir Gorzalczany / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The gold coin unearthed in the excavation was minted in either 638 or 639 AD, when ancient Palestine was part of the Byzantine empire ruled by Emperor  Heraclius. (Amir Gorzalczany /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

This coin featured the image of the emperor and his two sons on one side, and the hill where Jesus was crucified (called  Golgotha) on the other. There was an inscription scratched into the surface of the coin, in a language that could have been either Greek (the official language in Byzantine-era Palestine) or Arabic (the language of the post-641 AD occupiers of Palestine).

“The coin encapsulates fascinating data on the decline of Byzantine rule in the country and contemporary historical events, such as the Persian invasion and the emergence of Islam and provides information on Christian and pagan symbolism and the local population who lived here,” said Dr. Robert Kool, who leads the Antiquities Authority’s numismatics department.

Some of the artifacts and facilities discovered did link to the Islamic period, which covered the last 400 years or so of the site’s active history. These discoveries included a  workshop used to prepare glass , a large warehouse, a few oil lamps, and various utensils. Inside the warehouse were four deep sunken vessels, which would have been used to store grain and different types of fruits and vegetables.

The archaeologists also unearthed the remains of several houses and two large baking ovens that also dated to this period. This finding showed that people were not just working the farmstead during the Islamic Period, but also living onsite.

When Speculative Digs Reveal Hidden Historical Truths

Archaeologists and historians were surprised to discover that a bustling and productive farmstead existed 1,500 years ago in the region north of Tel Aviv. There is no mention anywhere in the historical record of such a settlement or large-scale farm, and there are no above-ground ruins anywhere close by that might reveal the area was occupied long ago. Yet the recent excavations have produced a bounty of valuable and revealing artifacts.

Digging continues at the Byzantine-era farmstead site in Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, in the hope of finding more artifacts and buildings. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Digging continues at the Byzantine-era farmstead site in Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, in the hope of finding more artifacts and buildings. (Yoli Schwartz /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

In archaeology, speculative or precautionary digs often turn up signs of human activity that are more extensive and more ancient than expected. That is certainly what happened in Ramat Hasharon. The scope of the new discoveries makes clear that this modern suburb was built on land that had once been used for many productive activities, which included crop growing, winemaking, glassmaking, and much, much more.

Ramat Hasharon was founded in 1923 by Jewish immigrants from Poland. Preparations to celebrate the community’s 100th anniversary are already being made, and Mayor Avi Gruber confirmed that the area’s fascinating history will be highlighted during these festivities.

“I want all our residents to enjoy learning about life here in antiquity and in the Middle Ages,” Gruber said in the statement acknowledging the IAA’s work. “As we plan heritage-related events for the upcoming centenary, this opens up a whole new perspective on how people once lived in this part of the country.”

Top image: The winepress discovered at the Byzantine-era farmstead found under the modern suburb of Ramat Hasharon, Tel Aviv, Israel.  Source: Yoli Schwartz /  Israel Antiquities Authority

By Nathan Falde

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