Continuity and Change in Rural Judaea in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods: The Case of Horvat Midras


Horvat Midras Excavations

 State of Research


Horvat Midras, situated c. 15 km southwest of Beit Shemesh in the Judaean Foothills, is a key site for the reconstruction of the history of the rural Jewish settlement during the Roman period in Judaea. Although it has never been extensively excavated, a survey of its subterranean installations, several incidental discoveries, and small-scale digs along its boundaries show that the site was significantly larger and richer than any other rural site in the Roman Judaean foothills. This corresponds well with the proposal promoted by several scholars that the site was re-founded by King Herod, whose family originates from this region (Idumaea), and perhaps even from Horvat Midras itself.


In October 2015, Dr. Orit Peleg-Barkat of the Hebrew University launched a four-year research project funded by the Israel Science Foundation called Continuity and Change in Roman Rural Judaea, which is aimed at filling the gap in our knowledge concerning key matters relating to the material culture and settlement patterns, and especially with regard to the socio-economic and ethnic characteristics of the local elites in late Hellenistic and Roman Judaea. The study includes a comprehensive survey of the remains at Horvat Midras, dating largely from the Hellenistic to the Mameluke period, and an excavation of selected features. The results of the excavations and accompanying comparative study are meant to shed light on the nature of the Idumaean rural settlements prior to the Hasmonaean conquest and thereafter, as well as on continuity and change before and after the two Jewish Revolts. They may also clarify the origin of the region’s inhabitants in the Late Roman period.


Archaeological survey in autumn 2015 and 2016, and the first excavation season in September 2016 have brought to light significant new findings. The boundaries of the settlement in each of its main phases of occupation were defined, based on the distribution of indicative pottery sherds, as well as on characteristic cut installations, such as hide-out complexes from the First and Second Revolts, loculi burial caves typical of the late Second Temple period, burial caves with arcosolia and painted tombs from the Byzantine period, etc. The analysis of the data also assisted in identifying the different functional areas at the site and the distribution of private dwellings, public buildings, agricultural installations and tombs and enabled for the first time the creation of a general map of the site.


The excavation in September 2016 focused on two areas. The main area, situated in the western part of the site, is overlooking road 38, which follows the ancient route of the Roman imperial road leading from Jerusalem to Beit Guvrin. The excavations centered around a well-built ashlar structure that was partly visible on the surface before the start of excavation and was identified by various researchers as a Late Roman or Byzantine synagogue of the Jewish settlement at Horvat Midras. The excavation exposed a large podium (18.24 m wide) built of massive ashlar walls based on the bedrock with a monumental staircase ascending from the west. The pottery and coins floor bedding are dated from the first and second century CE, and hence the building was constructed at the earliest in the second century. The architectural elements discovered inside and at the vicinity of the building indicate that it was decorated in accordance with the Roman tradition typical of our region in second and third centuries CE. In view of the archaeological evidence, the building was no longer used in the Byzantine period .The architectural character of the building with its raised podium is characteristic of pagan temples or mausolea in the Roman period. We hope to find clearer evidence for the function of the building in the next seasons. The second area excavated on the northern slope of the site uncovered the remains of a series of successive occupation levels from the Early Roman, the Late Byzantine and the Mameluke periods. The early Roman dwelling was totally dismantled by the later builders, and only the underground installations, including a ritual baths and an elaborate hideout complex.


The second season of excavations will start on July 24, 2017 and will continue until August 18, 2017. The excavation will resume the exposure of the ashlar structure on the western part of the site. The expedition will also excavate a stepped pyramidal funerary memorial (10 by 10 m) to the southeast of the ashlar building. This monument is situated on the highest point of the hill, close to a burial cave. The third area is situated at the northwestern part of the site, where a significant amount of Hellenistic period pottery was collected during the survey. We expect to find here remains from the Hellenistic phase of occupation at the site and hopefully some clues pertaining to the ethnic origin of the inhabitants and the fate of their settlement under Hasmonaean rule.

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