Weapons, burnt wooden beams, dozens of coins, and a Hellenistic fortified structure—tangible evidence of a battle between the Hasmoneans and the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire some 2,100 years ago—are currently being unearthed in Israel Antiquities Authority excavations in Lachish Forest, some 50 miles southeast of Tel Aviv.
The excavations are part of the Kings of Judah Road project, in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund and the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, assisted by high school students majoring in the Education Ministry’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology program, and students from the Asher Ruach Bo pre-military program for youths at risk in Mitzpe Ramon.
According to Saar Ganor, Vladik Lifshits, and Ahinoam Montagu, excavation directors on behalf of the IAA, “the excavation site provides tangible evidence of the Chanukah stories. It appears that we have discovered a building that was part of a fortified line erected by the Hellenistic army commanders to protect the large Hellenistic city of Maresha from a Hasmonean offensive. However, the finds from the site show that the Seleucid defenses failed and the building was devastated by the Hasmonean attack.”
The excavation revealed a 15 × 15 meter building that was planned as a well-fortified unit. The external walls, no less than 3 meters wide, were built of large stones and had a sloping outer glacis to prevent the wall from being scaled. The inside of the structure was divided into seven rooms, preserved to an exceptional height of roughly 2 meters. The excavation uncovered a stairwell leading to a second floor, which was not preserved. The building is estimated to have been about 5 meter high.
The site lies on the summit of a high hill commanding a view of the ancient main road, which ran along the Nahal Lachish streambed and connected the coastal plain to the central highland ridge. The building overlooks Maresha, the largest Hellenistic city in the area and the capital of Edom during the Hellenistic period.
The students assisted in the excavation as part of an IAA program aimed at nurturing community awareness of the country’s heritage, learning about history in hands-on experience. The work is part of their matriculation studies, thus turning the archaeological excavation into an educational lab.
Thousands of large stones that had collapsed from the upper part of the building were removed in the excavation. A massive destruction layer, about half a meter thick, was discovered beneath the stones. The layer yielded hundreds of finds, including pottery, slingshots, iron weapons, burnt wooden beams, and dozens of coins dated to the late second century BCE.
“Based on the finds, the building’s destruction can be attributed to the Hasmonean leader Yochanan Horkenus’s conquest of Edom around 112 BCE,” say the archaeologists.
The Hasmoneans, whose rebellion against the Hellenistic rule of the Seleucid dynasty followed the anti-Jewish decrees of King Antiochus IV. Yochanan Horkenus’s conquests, described in the Books of the Maccabees and the accounts of historian Josephus Flavius, led to the Hasmonean state’s expansion to the south.
According to the IAA’s general director, Eli Eskozido, “the stories of the Maccabees are coming to life before our eyes, and this is the most fascinating part of the IAA’s work when dedicated, hardworking archaeologists breathe life into the historical annals of the people who passed through this land. In a few days, we will be celebrating Chanukah, whose central theme is the Hasmoneans’ defeat of the Hellenists, leading to the establishment of the first independent sovereign Jewish state (after the destruction of the Temple – DI). The Hasmoneans had no idea that 2,000 years later, students living in the State of Israel would be tracing their footsteps. It is extremely exciting.”
Minister of Construction and Housing, Jerusalem and Heritage, Zeev Elkin said: “The impressive discoveries from the excavations in the Lachish region demonstrate the history of our great land and the story of Chanukah. The Landmarks program led by the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, for which I am responsible, continues to develop national and historical heritage sites daily. Over the upcoming Chanukah holiday, we will be marking Heritage Week throughout the country and I invite the general public to visit, discover, and experience our national heritage sites.”
Minister of Culture and Sports Hili Tropper said: “The Israel Antiquities Authority’s fascinating discovery is a classic example of how traditional, well-known, and well-loved stories become part of the historical and archaeological record. The building’s excavation reflects the glorious roots of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and brings the Chanukah stories to life. Added impetus was given to the event by the participation of dozens of youths, who were given a rare opportunity to encounter the history of the Jewish people face to face. The Ministry of Culture and Sports will continue to support this important enterprise, which combines heritage, history, and culture.”
After the excavations, the building will undergo conservation and will be opened to the general public in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund’s Southern District as one of the sites along the Kings of Judah Road, which is currently under development.