The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Thursday that over the last several weeks, Israeli archaeologists uncovered a compound dating back to the Byzantine period in Ramat Beit Shemesh, southwest of Jerusalem, which they believe once served as a monastery.
The excavations, which were carried out by the Ministry of Construction and Housing as part of an expansion of Beit Shemesh, revealed an oil press, wine press and mosaics.
During the survey of the hills located in the area under construction, archaeologists found blocked cisterns, a cave opening and the tops of several walls visible just above the surface of the ground. This led archaeologists to dig further.
“These clues to the world hidden underground resulted in an extensive archaeological excavation there that exposed prosperous life dating to the Byzantine period with was previously unknown,” the IAA said in a statement.
The entire compound is surrounded by an outer wall and is divided into two areas: an industrial region and a residential and activity region. An “unusually large press in a rare state of preservation” used to make olive oil was uncovered in the industrial area.
Outside of the compound, a large winepress with two treading floors connected to a large collecting vat was unearthed.
“The finds revealed in the excavation indicate the local residents were engaged in wine and olive oil production for their livelihood. The impressive size of the agricultural installations shows that these facilities were used for production on an industrial-scale rather than just for domestic use,” the IAA said.
Two large, complete ovens used for baking were also found inside the compound.
Inside the residential area of the compound, several rooms with beautifully preserved inlaid mosaic was uncovered. Parts of the colorful mosaic in one room led archaeologists to deduce that there was a staircase leading to an upper level.
In an adjacent room, a multi-colored mosaic adorned with grape clusters surrounded by flowers with a geometric frame surprised archaeologists.
According to Irene Zilberbod and Tehila libman, excavation directors on behalf of the IAA, “We believe this is the site of a monastery from the Byzantine period. It is true we did not find a church at the site or an inscription or any other unequivocal evidence of religious worship; nevertheless, the impressive construction, the dating to the Byzantine period, the magnificent mosaic floors, window and roof tile artifacts, as well as the agricultural-industrial installations inside the dwelling compound are all known to us from numerous other contemporary monasteries. Thus it is possible to reconstruct a scenario in which monks resided in a monastery that they established, made their living from the agricultural installations and dwelled in the rooms and carried out their religious activities.”
“At some point, which we date to the beginning of the Islamic period (seventh century CE), the compound ceased to function and was subsequently occupied by new residents. These people changed the plan of the compound and adapted it for their needs,” Zilberbod and Iibman explained.
The newly uncovered compound will be preserved and developed as an archaeological landmark by the IAA.