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Byzantine-era artefacts discovered in Israel

A set of hammer and nails dating back 1,400 years ago was discovered in northwestern Israel last month, during an archaeological dig of a Byzantine-era Jewish settlement.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority announced the discovery, which done at the village of Usha, near Haifa. Archaeologists and volunteers have been digging at the site of an impressive Jewish settlement with ritual baths, and oil and winepresses in which olive oil and wine were processed in a state of ritual purity.

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

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 hillslopes. Adjacent to the oil and winepresses were exposed two rock-hewn ritual baths with plastered walls and steps, dating to the Roman and Byzantine periods, about 1800 years ago. 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.

Ancient wine glasses found at the site provide evidence of widespread glass manufacture at Usha. Photo: Yaniv Berman, courtesy IAA.

“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 renewed, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and after the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE,” added Yair Amitzur. “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.

“The Jewish sources mention that Rabbi Yitzhak Nafha was an inhabitant of Usha, and his name ‘Nafha’, meaning ‘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 glassblowing. The ritual baths adjacent to the presses indicate that the Sanhedrin Sages paid particular attention to issues of ritual purity.

Top Image: The 1,400 year-old iron hammer and nails. Photo by Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority.

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