El-Araj Excavation Update and Photo Gallery

Dr. R. Steven Notley, director and professor of Nyack College’s Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins(AJCO) graduate degree program and Dr. Jeffrey P. García, AJCO professor submitted their first weekly update (below) on the progress with the El-Araj Excavation in Israel led by head archaeologist, Dr. Mordechai Aviam from the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology. Ms. Constance Diggs, AJCO program manager, shared the report from the professors. (See photo gallery here.)

Participants from the United States and Hong Kong have joined to continue the archaeological investigations of a site that is considered by many to be the first-century CE Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida (cf. Luke 9:10). Generous donations from the Assembly of God’s Center for the Holy Lands Studies, The Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins (CSAJCO), Nyack College, and HaDavar Yeshiva (Hong Kong) have made this season possible.

Day One. We opened our season on July 1, 2017 with a four-hour jeep trek through the Bethsaida Valley to give the participants an understanding of the broader geographical setting for El Araj’s location. The day ended with an overlook of the Galilee region and a short swim in the Zakki Stream, one of two major tributaries (with the Jordan River) that feed into the Lake of Galilee. The site of our excavation is located between these two important sources to the lake.

Day Two. Preparations for the site began with the staging of three 5×5 meter squares that had been excavated last season, and the opening of a new fourth square. Last year’s efforts reached the level of a Byzantine period floor (4th-7th century CE) and demonstrated that large public buildings existed at El Araj in this period.

Day Three. Excavating began. Five full days of excavation have resulted in a number of important finds. The new fourth square quickly uncovered a wall, two limestone columns in secondary use, and sugar pots from a Crusader period (12th CE) sugar factory. Gilded gold and stone tesserae from what was perhaps a mosaic wall decoration were discovered and Byzantine period coins were also found in another square. As the work continued, the Byzantine floor composed of large ashlar stones in two squares were removed, along with two limestone columns and other cut stone.

Numerous exciting finds under and near the floor include a metal hook that Dr. Aviam suggests was used to hold a candle steady within the chandelier of a Byzantine period structure. As a result of the sifting of dirt from these squares, an unprecedented number of coins, 30 in total, were found in a single morning in two spaces that are no larger than a meter and half squared. The archaeologists were surprised to have such a concentration of coins in a small locus and suggest that it is indicative of the importance of where we are currently excavating. Along with the coins, participants have uncovered pottery dating from the Byzantine period to the Early Bronze period, that is between the 4th century CE and 3rd millennium BCE (before the time of the patriarch Abraham).

Five limestone columns and a basalt column were discovered in secondary usage. These finds complement many of the architectural features, e.g., basalt column capital and a heart-shaped corner column, and indicates that we are digging in the area of public buildings. The presence of Roman glass, as well as early Roman pottery (1st century BCE) suggests that we are approaching Roman period public structures. The public building of a first century Jewish village was the synagogue! Although we have not yet identified the first-century public structure, we hope the second week will bring us closer in terms of first century remains.

Our morning excavations are followed by afternoons of washing and reading pottery, field trips and lectures. These activities underscore the wider cultural, geographical and historical importance of this dig. On our free day, a visit to the Herodian temples at Omrit and Caesarea Philippi and a hike from Caesaera Philippi to the Banias waterfall provided some sense of how ancient people lived and practiced religion at the foothills of Mount Hermon. Lectures by Dr. Aviam and Dr. Notley have further deepened our understanding of the differences between the area of the Golan Heights and the Jewish Galilee in the first century. Our search continues!

We look forward to the beginning of Week Two and what lies ahead. 

Leadership and Participants: Dr. Mordechai Aviam (Kinneret College), Shoshi Lotan, Ayelet Tatcher, Dr. R. Steven Notley (Nyack College), Dr. Wink Thompson (Emmaus Educational Services), Marc Turnage, Dr. Jeffrey P. García (Nyack College), Sunya Notley, Kathryn Notley, Juan Arias, Sandra Arias, Steve Bailey, Tom Blackwell, Andy Chung, Laurette Harper, Yuen Wa Ho, Deborah Jackson, Erik Lui, Jesse Martone, Erin Martone, Eric Tomlin, Chris Tomlin, Natalie Vredevoogd, Zachary Wong


PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Chung, Zachary Wong