By December 21, 2015 Read More →

Boaz Zissu. “Village Razed, Revel Beheaded.” Biblical Archaeology Review 33, 5 (2007).

Horvat ‘EthriThe second–third-century Roman historian Cassius Dio claimed that the Romans destroyed 985 Jewish villages while suppressing the so-called Bar-Kokhba Revolt, the Second Jewish Revolt. I believe we have excavated one of those villages at a site now known as Horvat ‘Ethri, just 15 miles southwest of the rebel capital at Bethar.1

At the end of the revolt, the village of ‘Ethri was violently destroyed and burned. Men, women and children were buried in a mass grave. Examination of the bones reveals that one of the victims was beheaded; the sword left cut marks on the vertebrae of his neck.

Perhaps most significantly, our excavation of Horvat ‘Ethri has lifted from obscurity a typical Jewish village that experienced Roman military might in both the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.), in which the Temple was destroyed, and the Second Jewish Revolt, led by Bar Kokhba (132–135 C.E.).

Before our excavations, even the ancient name of the village was unknown. References to the site in the last few hundred years call it many things—Horvat Shu‘a, Khirbet Umm es-Suweid, Horvat H.oah. and, on our excavation permit from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Khirbet el-Hih, which is probably a typo. In any event, all these names are wrong. We discovered what might be the ancient name of the site on an ostracon, a potsherd with writing on it. The potsherd was in a cistern filled with hundreds of broken jars and cooking pots, probably thrown here by the Jews who were trying to rebuild the village after it had been destroyed in the First Jewish Revolt. Among these potsherds, we found 28 with writing on them, in the familiar square Hebrew letters that are still used today. Most of these ostraca contain only a single letter or number, probably to record some administrative classification or filing system. But one of them had the name ‘Ethri on it. Horvat ‘Ethri means simply the “ruins of ‘Ethri.” As the result of our excavation, that is now the official name of the site, approved by the Israel Official Names Commission.

The name is probably referred to by the Jewish historian Josephus, who left us a long and detailed account of the First Jewish Revolt. He speaks of a village matching our site geographically that was burned by the Romans. We found ash in an area that was apparently the point of the Roman attack in the First Jewish Revolt, seemingly in confirmation of Josephus’s description. The name Josephus gives for the site is Caphetra—that is, Kfar ‘Ethra, the village of ‘Ethra, whose name has now been restored. The authoritative English translation of Josephus inserts a footnote at the mention of Caphetra stating that the site has not been identified. In the next edition, this footnote should be changed.

Abundant archaeological evidence informs us about how ‘Ethri villagers earned their livelihood before it was destroyed in the First Jewish Revolt—and no doubt later as well. Rock-cut winepresses with treading floors, filtration vats and collecting vats are evidence of viticulture. Olive presses indicate an additional kind of agriculture. An ostracon contains an abbreviation for dried figs, suggesting still another agricultural product. A rock-cut columbarium, or dovecote, implies that the villagers raised pigeons. Loom weights and spindle whorls provide evidence of spinning and weaving textiles.

The houses were modest structures—nothing fancy. A central courtyard was surrounded by rows of square rooms constructed of roughly hewn fieldstones. Only corners and door and window frames are more carefully crafted. Architectural ornamentation, however, is entirely absent—not even painted walls. Only one of the rooms was even covered with white plaster. The rest of the stone walls were probably covered with clay. The floors were made of compressed earth laid on limestone chips or on dressed bedrock. A tabun (cooking oven) in the corner of a room was made of thick, rough clay and coated with pottery sherds and earth. Rainwater from roofs and ground-level channels, in addition to water from wells, filled cisterns, both public and private.

The houses had one peculiarity, however, both during the time of the First Jewish Revolt and the Second Revolt. Many of them had underground compounds hewn from the rock. The underground system in each of these homes was entered through a shaft or stairs, followed by a twisting tunnel through which one or two chambers was entered. Several of these tunnel systems were more sophisticated and quite extensive, with sections connected by underground burrows. In peacetime these underground units could be used for storage. During the revolts, however, they functioned as refuge caves to which the villagers could flee during a Roman attack. But they were also more than this. They were secret places where Jewish fighters could hide and then quickly ambush Roman forces. Cassius Dio vividly describes the situation:

They [the Jews] did not dare try conclusions with the Romans in the open field, but they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light.2

You may wonder how we know that ‘Ethri was a Jewish village. Well, it’s partly geography. It is in an area—the Judean Shephelah—in which Jews are known to have lived. But there is considerably more archaeological evidence than this. First, of course, were the numerous ritual baths, or mikva’ot. They were coated with waterproof plaster to prevent seepage. Each of them meets religious requirements. The water must be conveyed to it naturally, not from stored sources. And each contains at least 40 seahs of water, enough to provide sufficient depth for complete immersion.

Another indication of the ethnic makeup of the villagers is the many fragments of stone cups and other stone vessels. These vessels are made of white chalk and were either lathe-turned or hand-carved, sometimes both. These stone vessels are common in Jewish areas because, unlike fired clay pottery, stone vessels were not subject to impurity, according to Jewish law (Mishnah Kelim 10:1; Mishnah Betzah 2:9; Mishnah Parah 3:1).

The burial customs of the inhabitants also demonstrate that they were Jewish. As was true of Jerusalemites in the period just before the First Jewish Revolt, the villagers of ‘Ethri were buried in special rock-cut caves. The burial caves were located on slopes outside the village. The caves have square openings originally closed with a blocking stone. Inside is a square chamber in the center of which is a lowered standing pit. On the sides and back are waist-high burial benches. Sometimes perpendicular niches (loculi or, in Hebrew, kochim) are hewn into the wall; into each a body was lain. Again as in Jerusalem, after a year or so, when the flesh had desiccated, the bones were placed in limestone bone boxes or ossuaries. Although the ‘Ethri tombs had been looted, we recovered fragments of a broken ossuary.

Another indication of Jewishness is more subtle: the complete absence of any imported vessels, including the common stamped amphora handles from Rhodes and other places in the Greek world. These widespread stamped handles come from amphorae containing wine. The absence of these vessels at ‘Ethri suggests that the inhabitants of this village did not want wine made by non-Jews. According to strict Jewish law, Jews are permitted to drink wine made only by Jews. (Incidentally, the same absence of Rhodian wine vessels has been noted in Jerusalem.)

After the First Jewish Revolt, the site was abandoned for a short period. Then the villagers (or perhaps other Jews) came to rebuild the site. The new settlement, however, was about half the size of the old settlement—about 1.5 acres instead of 3 acres. When the village was rebuilt, however, a new building, a public building, was constructed in an open space that we call simply M1. I believe it was the village public building or synagogue.

M1 is a plain rectangular structure with a single entrance on one long wall. It is what archaeologists call a broad room, as opposed to a long room. In our reconstruction, the roof was supported by three columns consisting of drums and topped by Doric-like capitals. We found one column drum and a capital in secondary use in another room. Two of the square pedestals and the foundation of the third were in situ. Fragments of a molded stone cornice were found outside the building, so in our reconstruction we have placed a cornice at the top of the wall just below the ceiling. Otherwise, there does not appear to have been any internal decoration.

Outside the building was a long, narrow narthex, or vestibule. At either end were entrances by which the narthex was entered. In front of one part of the narthex was a long, narrow courtyard or atrium. On one side of this courtyard, steps led down to a large mikveh; perhaps it was a public mikveh. A second, smaller mikveh was located off one of the entrances to the narthex. We found a stone sundial in this mikveh.

Beneath the building were three earlier hideouts, each consisting of an entrance shaft, a burrow and a small chamber. These were joined by two longer burrows that also led to two large subterranean water reservoirs.
Often peoples’ first reaction to the suggestion that this building is a synagogue is, “Where is the Torah niche?” referring to the aedicule where the Holy Scriptures are kept.

While there is no question that the synagogue was an established institution even before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Torah shrine came much later. Archaeological evidence, an important ancient inscription, as well as ancient texts testify to the existence of these early synagogues. Josephus, rabbinic texts and the New Testament all refer to them. The New Testament mentions synagogues in Nazareth (Mark 6:2; Luke 4:16–30), Capernaum (Mark 1:21–29; Luke 4:31–38; 7:5; John 6:59), other Galilean locations (Mark 1:39; 3:1; Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Luke 4:15; 13:10–21; John 18:20) and in Jerusalem (Acts 6:8–9; 22:19; 24:12; 26:11). A famous inscription, known as the Theodotus Inscription, recovered in a Jerusalem excavation in the early part of the 20th century, is inscribed on a plaque from a synagogue built at least a hundred years before the destruction of the Temple. And examples of actual pre-Destruction synagogues have been found at Masada and Herodium in the Judean Desert, at Gamla on the Golan Heights and at Hasmonean Jericho. None of these synagogues has a Torah shrine or niche. At this time the Torah shrine was portable and was brought into the synagogue as needed. So the absence of a Torah niche or shrine in the ‘Ethri structure should not be surprising.

Why do I think it was a synagogue? First of all, the size of the hall—42 by 23 feet—makes it the largest building in the village. The nearby mikveh is another indication. Still another is the orientation of the building: Someone entering the building would be facing Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that “Those who stand and pray outside the Land of Israel turn to face the Land of Israel [to pray] … Those who stand and pray in the Land of Israel turn to face Jerusalem … Those who stand and pray in Jerusalem, turn to the Temple Mount” (Berakhot 4:6).

By the time this was written, prayer was the central focus of the synagogue, but most scholars doubt that the synagogue was a place of prayer in the period before the destruction of the Temple. The Theodotos Inscription mentions the many uses of the synagogue—as a place of study of the Holy Scriptures and even as a hostel for visitors to the city—but it makes no mention of prayer. In the pre-Destruction period, the synagogue functioned as a kind of community center, especially for study and the collection of charity. In the period between the two Jewish revolts, when the ‘Ethri structure was built, the rabbis had already transferred numerous religious and liturgical functions that were customary in the Temple to the synagogue: important prayers, psalms, the priestly benedictions and the blast of the shofar (ram’s horn) on the Sabbath of the New Year.

M1 is clearly a public building in a Jewish village at a time when every such Jewish community had a synagogue. I am confirmed in my thinking that M1 was a synagogue by the results of excavations in other Jewish villages of this period. Similar simple structures like this have been recently found in the contemporaneous Judean villages of Qiryat Sefer and Khirbet Umm el ‘Umdan.3 After thorough excavations, the archaeologists directing these digs concluded that they were synagogues.

At the end of the Second Jewish Revolt, ‘Ethri was violently destroyed. An ash layer covered the floors of a building in the center of the site. On the floor of one of the rooms, we discovered a Bar-Kokhba denarius (restruck over a Roman coin) with a burn stain on it. Two coins of silver found elsewhere at the site were bonded together by the flames. Glass fragments were deformed by the heat of the fire.

The large mikveh outside the synagogue was reused for a mass burial. The skulls and bones of at least 12 individuals were thrown into it—men, women and children. One of the women was apparently pregnant; the bones of the fetus were found.

Dr. Yossi Nagar, an osteologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, examined the bones. He concluded that they had been left exposed for some time and only later collected and buried in the mikveh.

He also observed cut marks on the neck vertebrae of one of the men. The man had been beheaded.

Overall, our excavation lends a certain credibility to Dio’s description. Dio may have exaggerated but at its core, it appears he was correct:

50 of [the Jews’] most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. 585,000 men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus, nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate.4

‘Ethri was never again settled by Jews.

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