An archaeological excavation carried out ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood near the northern entrance to Beer Sheba has revealed the remains of a Jewish settlement from the Second Temple period.
The excavation discovered for the first time evidence of Jewish daily life in the ancient city, including part of an oil lamp decorated with a nine-branch menorah, limestone vessels used by Jews for ritual purity, and a watchtower. The site, dated from the early first century CE to the Bar-Kochva rebellion of 135, contains hidden underground passageways that were used by the Jewish rebels.
According to Dr. Peter Fabian of the Ben-Gurion University in the Negev and Dr. Daniel Varga of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Remains of the settlement cover an area of half an acre and include several structures and installations, such as the foundations of a large watchtower, baking facilities, ancient trash pits and an underground system that was probably used as a Jewish ritual bath. Signs of a conflagration discovered in some of the structures suggest a crisis experienced by the settlement, probably related to the first Jewish revolt of the year.”
The site is located along the southern border of the ancient kingdom of Judah, next to a road that led from Tel Beer Sheba to the southern coastal plain. The site’s strategic value along the road was probably the reason for the construction of a 10 x 10 m. watchtower, the foundations of which were uncovered in the excavation. In the tower’s vicinity are the remains of a staircase that may have led to second floor. The tower’s stones were cannibalized in the late Roman period to construct other buildings nearby.
There was great excitement among the archaeological team members when a sherd of a ‘darom’ or ‘southern’ lamp had been cleaned and its decoration revealed: a menorah with nine-branches. According to Dr. Fabian and Dr. Varga, “this is probably one of the earliest artistic depictions of a nine-branched menorah yet discovered.”
It is interesting to note that of the few lamps found depicting a menorah, these are never seven-branched, heeding a decree of the Babylonian Talmud that only the menorah in the Temple could have seven branches, which is why lamps for domestic use commonly displayed eight to eleven branches.
Dozens of bronze coins from the period of Roman provincial rule were discovered at the site. Some were minted in Ashkelon, others in cities throughout the Roman Empire.