Photo Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority.
Some 15,000 rank and file Israelis have participated in the Usha excavations at over the past year.

About 8,500 people participated over the Sukkot holiday in the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeological excavations and activities, but nobody expected to discover the items most closely associated with building the Sukkah–the hammer and the nails– from the Byzantine period, about 1400 years ago. Such was the luck of a family from Tur’an in Lower Galilee, who took part in the dig at Usha.

Aerial view of the winepresses and the adjacent mikveh in Ancient Usha. / Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority.

According to Yair Amitzur and Eyad Bisharat, directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “About 20 iron hammers are registered in the Israel Antiquities Authority records, only six of them from the Byzantine period.”

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“We already knew that the Usha settlers extensively manufactured glass vessels, since we found many wine glasses and glass lamps together with glass lumps that were the raw material; the discovery of the hammer, the nails and the adjacent iron slag teaches us that they also produced iron tools at the site,” they said.

Pottery lamp decorated with a Menorah and a palm branch. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Alongside these industries, complex pressing installations for the production of olive oil and wine indicate that the primary occupation and source of income of the Usha inhabitants was the large-scale processing of the agricultural produce of the olive trees and the vines that they cultivated on the surrounding gentle hill slopes.

Iron hammer and nails excavated in Usha. / Eyad Bisharat, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Two rock-hewn ritual baths with plastered walls and steps, dating to the Roman and Byzantine periods, about 1800 years ago, were unearthed next to the oil and wine presses. The discovery of the ritual baths indicates that the Jewish press workers took care to purify themselves in the ritual baths in order to manufacture ritually-pure oil and wine.

This ancient wine glass is evidence of widespread glass manufacturing in Usha. / Yaniv Berman, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

The main workforce excavating the site are school children, youth and volunteers, who participate in the excavations thanks to the Israel Antiquities Authority’s policy of bringing the community closer to its own cultural heritage. Over the past year, more than 15,000 youth and families have taken part in the educational venture at Usha, digging and exposing the fascinating past of the site.

A young excavator holds the iron hammer that was retrieved in the Usha excavation. / Eyad Bisharat, Israel Antiquities Authority.

According to Yair Amitzur, director of the Usha excavation and of the Sanhedrin Trail for the Israel Antiquities Authority, “the settlement of Usha is mentioned in the Jewish sources many times in the Roman and Byzantine periods, as the village where the institution of the Sanhedrin was revived, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and after the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE.”

The Sanhedrin was the central Jewish Council and Law Court, and it was headed by the President, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel the Second, who both presided in Usha, and then his son Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi. Here in Usha the Rabbis of the Sanhedrin made decrees to enable the Jewish people to recover after the war against the Romans, and to reconstruct Jewish life in the Galilee.

Enthusiastic amateurs participating in the Usha excavations. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Jewish sources mention that Rabbi Yitzhak Nafha was an inhabitant of Usha, and his name, Nafha—”the blower,” indicates that he probably worked as a glass manufacturer. The many delicate wine glasses, glass lamps and glass lumps indicate that Usha inhabitants were proficient in the art of glass blowing. The ritual baths adjacent to the presses indicate that the Sanhedrin Sages paid particular attention to issues of ritual purity.

The excavations at Usha are part of the Sanhedrin Trail Project that was initiated by the IAA, crossing the Galilee from Bet Shearim to Tiberias, following the movement of the Sanhedrin sages who finally convened in Tiberias. The excavation is underway, continuing throughout the year with the participation of thousands of school children, youth and volunteers. Also planned are special activity days open to the general public.

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