This project, directed by Ken Dark, and funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund, Late Antiquity Research Group (LARG), and the University of Reading, was established in 2004 to investigate Roman-period and Byzantine (that is, C5-7) Nazareth and its hinterland (as reported in BBBS 31-35). Previous seasons (in 2004-8) involved an intensive field-walking and surface survey of the landscape between Nazareth and the Roman-period and Byzantine town of Sepphoris (Zippori) to its north, and archaeological recording at the Sisters of Nazareth convent, immediately next to the Church of the Annunciation in the centre of Nazareth. With the survey in the countryside completed, the 2009 season was focussed on the Sisters of Nazareth convent, where our previous work had shown a long sequence of use1.
As previously published, the sequence at the Sisters of Nazareth site begins with a domestic structure dating probably to the early part of the C1 (Phase 1), followed by two Roman-period Jewish kokhim tombs (Phase 2) – one probably later C1 in date – and then both Byzantine (Phase 3) and Crusader-period (Phase 4) churches . The earliest surface-built church was probably constructed in the C5-6, but its plan is first partially evidenced by three ashlar apses and walls of a large, probably four-apsed, church, perhaps dating from the C6. This building was decorated with polychrome mosaics on its walls and floors, and contained imported white marble architectural elements (column capitals etc.) and liturgical fittings. At least one, probably Byzantine-period, granite sarcophagus was found inside it. Immediately to the north there was a detached, but probably associated, basilica (itself c.17m long) into which water was channelled. To the south-east of the main church there was a later, but Byzantine, chapel adjacent to a well. The Byzantine church, and probably at least its south-eastern chapel, were refurbished and re-used in the Crusader period, before destruction (on the basis of the latest dateable stratified material) in the late C12 or C13. This church may have been the famous, but ‘lost’, Church of the Nutrition, described in the late seventh-century Insular Latin text De Locis Sanctis2.
The most striking characteristic of this church is its size compared to the nearby Byzantine Church of the Annunciation. The latter has been estimated to have been c.15m wide and c.18m long, with walls 70cm-90cm thick. Even the known walls recorded at the Sisters of Nazareth site show that, although its length is unknown, the church there was over 24m wide (excluding the small chapel on its south-east) with walls 60cm thick. If it was symmetrical around the axis of its largest apse, then (excluding the chapel) it may have been c.28.4m wide - almost twice as wide as the Byzantine Church of the Annunciation. That is, the surface-level church at the Sisters of Nazareth site (probably the Byzantine Church of the Nutrition) may have been considerably larger than the Byzantine Church of the Annunciation, and so one must assume, it was the largest church (and probably the largest building) in Byzantine Nazareth3.
Today, the surface-level church is largely beneath C19 buildings, but the Byzantine-period cave-church below it is exceptionally well-preserved considering its city-centre location. This structure comprises a c.15m long x c.5m wide apsidally-ended cave, at least mostly artificially cut into the soft limestone. The walls of the cave were once thickly plastered and covered with polychrome mosaics. Like the surface-level church, the cave-church once had white marble liturgical fittings, including a gilded white marble colonette (probably from an altar or a liturgical table) paralleled only in Israel at the Byzantine cave-church of Khirbet Kana (probably the location believed in the Byzantine period to be the Biblical Cana). On its north (the cave-church is aligned broadly north-south) are two broad steps leading to a raised area, along the west of which is a series of four rock-cut basins at approximately waist-height. Additional, masonry-built, basins were recorded in the C19 to the south – continuing the line – but were destroyed before detailed records of them were made. Water was led into these basins from the south-west, and flowed between them through small holes in the lower parts of their sides before passing into a narrow rock-cut channel leading to a cistern cut in the rock ‘behind’ the apse to the north-east.
In 2009, we recorded further evidence relating to the Byzantine church. Light cleaning for drawing showed a hitherto unreported green glass spout set in mortar at the junction between the northernmost basin and the channel leading to its cistern in the apse of the cave-church. This spout opened into the interior of the church rather than feeding the channel directly, and may be the very spot where pilgrims, priests or both took water from this system. On the other (east) side of the cave-church, section-drawing revealed that a block of undisturbed soil survives inside the structure. This clearly shows a stratigraphical sequence in which the floor of the cave-church is overlaid by a deep deposit of rubble - probably an accumulation of ‘roof-fall’ from the cave over decades or even centuries of disuse - followed by the alluvial and burning deposits reported by the few earlier published descriptions of the site. This both confirms those descriptions and strongly suggests that the Crusaders re-used the Byzantine cave-church after a (long?) phase of disuse.
In addition, we recorded much ‘new’ evidence relating to the Early Roman-period occupation of the site (Phase 1). Prior to 2009, the principal structural evidence for Phase 1 consisted of a broad freestanding wall, cut into the limestone hill-slope which rises to the west and north. The rock-cut wall runs approximately north-south, and both of its sides are faced with distinctive vertical striations. A narrow stairway, leading to the wall-top, is cut into the rock along its south-west side, and at its southern end there are traces of another similar, shorter, rock-cut wall projecting to the east. To its north, the longer wall turns both to the west and to the east, on the latter side being cut in its centre by a doorway leading north to a smaller rectilinear space. The north and west walls of this smaller space are cut into the natural rock, while its east side is at present open. An unpublished C20 excavation found Early Roman-period domestic material in the earliest soil layer immediately to the east of the longest wall, and - allowing for the later removal of built walls - the plan of these features resembles that typical of Early Roman-period domestic structures in the Galilee.
In analogous excavated structures, the stairway is usually external, and located within a courtyard area. This may be additionally evidenced here by a short length of rock-cut wall continuing to the north-west of the main structure. If we provisionally accept the interpretation that a rectilinear open courtyard lay to the west of the longest rock-cut wall, extending out of the area encompassed by the present cellar, then this would imply both that more of the structure continued west under the north side of the convent courtyard and that both the courtyard and any adjacent buildings on its north and west were constructed on a terrace formed by cutting back the hillside. Analogous terracing has been found at other Early Roman-period settlements in the Galilee, notably at nearby Khirbet Kana4.
Several other associated features were identified in 2009. Inspection of the uppermost part of a seemingly Crusader-period (Phase 4) ‘squint’ revealed the mouth of an, otherwise destroyed, small rock-cut ‘negative feature’, probably a small cistern. This is located adjacent to the hypothesised line of the eastern wall of the Early Roman-period (Phase 1) structure described above, exactly the position that small cisterns (situated to catch run-off water from roofs) are often found in Early Roman-period houses in the region. To the south of the rock-cut structure, where the natural surface of the ground falls sharply away to the south, another length of rock-cut wall continues the line of the long western wall of the Phase 1 structure. This was probably truncated by the construction of the courtyard of the (Phase 2), probably C1, kokhim tomb cut into the hill-slope below and (in addition to supporting a C1 date) suggests that the structure extended to the edge of the hill-slope to it south. A pile of eroded rubble located immediately east of this rock-cut wall may be ‘wall-tumble’ from a built wall on its upper surface, supporting the interpretation that the Phase 1 structure comprised both rock-cut and built components. To the east of this are fragmentary remains of other rectilinear rock-cut features truncated by the same Phase 2 tomb courtyard, but these are extremely hard to interpret.
A surprise was to realise that the apparent floor-level inside the C1 structure is a late C20 surface (laid between 1945 and 1953), so that earlier C20 records of its floor at a much lower depth are probably correct. This makes no difference to the existing interpretation or dating, but it does suggest that more of the rock-cut walls of the Phase 1 remain concealed below the C20 floor deposit and that the Crusader-period (Phase 4) cobbled surface at its south end was a raised platform rather than a courtyard surface. Similar raised floors are found in the central part of the site, representing other areas in which the ground level was modified in the mid-C20.
When examined in the light of this much lower floor-level, the retention of a rock overhang in the north-west corner of the structure becomes easier to understand. It had seemed puzzling in earlier seasons that the uppermost surface of this overhang had been apparently deliberately smoothed. The lower floor-level allows that this overhang might have been above head-height within the Phase 1 structure, and so perhaps may have been retained to provide support for a flat roof. Re-investigating this overhang and the distribution of rock-cut surfaces showing the distinctive vertical striations of Phase 1 drew fresh attention to the extent to which the structure is, in fact, a modified natural cave, the original outline of which can be approximately reconstructed. To create a dwelling, this had been cut back from the east and west, and a small chamber carved into its north side.
An Israel Antiquities Authority (hereafter, ‘IAA’) rescue excavation (directed by Yardenna Alexandre) at the ‘International Marian Centre of Nazareth’, just across the present street from our site to its north-east, has further confirmed that the Phase 1 occupation - although probably near the edge of the settlement, as in Phase 2 burial later encroached on its site - was far from being isolated from other C1 domestic activity. As reported on the IAA website, the excavated site contains the roughly-built stone walls of two or more C1 structures built around a courtyard containing a rock-cut silo and what may be a refuge tunnel. These were associated with similar artefacts to those found at the Sisters of Nazareth site (first published in 2006) and the courtyard plan and presence of a rock-cut silo are shared by both sites. The probable ‘wall-tumble’ recorded by us in 2009 may well represent the last traces of roughly-built stone walls such as those found by the IAA. Furthermore, all of the apparent dissimilarities between the evidence at the IAA site and the Sisters of Nazareth are easily explicable as resulting from the need to build against the hill-slope at the Sisters of Nazareth site, but on relatively flat ground at the International Marian Centre site5.
Thus, both our work this year and the 2009 IAA work in Nazareth offer strong support for the domestic interpretation and dating of Phase 1 first published in 2006 (and reported in BBBS 33 for that year). Furthermore, work in 2009 clarified details of how the Phase 3 cave-church functioned and the relationship between its Byzantine and Crusader churches. It is intended to complete work at the Sisters of Nazareth site in 2010.