Yizhar Hirschfeld

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The third season of excavations at Ein Gedi was dedicated to trying to date and understand an enigmatic site within the oasis of Ein Gedi. The site, which runs along the natural terrace on the slope north of Nahal 'Arugot, 200 m. above the Dead Sea (i.e., 200 m. below sea level) was discovered by Yohanan Aharoni during a survey of the oasis in the late 1950s (Aharoni 1958: 35-37). He identified it as a settlement containing about thirty cells (or "rooms," as he called them) built in a very simple, irregular fashion, using large boulders found scattered on the surface. Aharoni also discovered near the cells the remains of a pool, and nearby a spring hidden by vegetation and cane. The few pottery sherds collected by Aharoni were insufficient for dating the site, and he consequently dated it to the Roman-Byzantine period, mentioning that he was unable to date the beginning of the settlement and its phases of occupation. No other comparable site has been found within the confines of the oasis.

During our five-week excavation, under the supervision of Yoav Arbel, we found and cleared twenty cells and two pools. The remains at the site spread over the natural shelf, covering an area of about 200 x 10 m. (ca. 20 dunams; 2 hectares). Each cell was measured and the ancient terraces and footpath were surveyed. Most of the cells were built in close proximity to one another, on the western side of the main trail; some of them share the same walls. Each cell, the average size of which is 2 x 3 m., was built for one individual only . The preservation of the walls differs from one cell to the next. Some still stand 1.6 m. above the floor, others are preserved to a height of one course of the stone wall (0.4 m.). According to Aharoni, the cells are irregular in shape and built with fieldstones, using only the local boulders for construction. The floors in all cells were made of beaten earth. We may assume that the roofs were made of a perishable material, such as palm fronds. In the corner of many cells was a stone-made stove, probably used for cooking and heating the cells in the cold desert nights. Layers of ash have been identified in most of the cells.

Three buildings at the site may have been public structures. They are larger than the cells (averaging 4 x 5 m.), have a regular shape, and are built close to one another (5 m. apart) on the eastern side of the trail. One of them was probably a kitchen, since three stoves and a thick layer of ash were found on its floor.

The two pools were built one above the other. The lower pool is the one mentioned by Aharoni. It is rectangular (interior dimensions 6 x 7 m.), built of hewn stones and white cement, and plastered with a thick layer of hydraulic plaster. At the southeastern corner of the pool, close to the floor, a round opening was found leading into a channel, through which water was conveyed to the fields.

The upper pool was identified by staff member Gideon Hadas. This pool, measuring 5 x 3 m., has an irregular shape and was cut in the bedrock. The stonecutters who built the pool constructed a staircase-like structure (3 x 1 m.), but without the stairs, as a means of easy access to the pool. This arrangement is well known in the ritual baths (miqvažot) that were constructed in Judea in the late Hellenistic and early Roman period. The upper pool is built just below the spring mentioned by Aharoni. (In fact, while uncovering this pool the seemingly dormant natural water emerged from the earth, creating an active spring.) We may assume that the spring itself was the source for drinking water, the upper pool was a miqveh for ritual immersion, and the lower pool was part of the estatežs irrigation system.

The small finds of the excavation include several intaact pottery vessels, a few potsherds, glass, and 6-7 coins. No animal bones whatsoever were found. The stratigraphy recurrent in several cells exhibits two phases of occupation: (a) the early Roman period (first(early second centuries), and (b) the late Roman-Byzantine period (fourth-sixth centuries). Between these two periods there was a gap of about 100-150 years, which is characterized mainly by the absence of artifacts from the late second-early third centuries A.D. Who lived at this unique site and what can we learn about their way of life? We may assume that the inhabitants of these cells were Jews, since the site was part of the Ein Gedi oasis, which was situated nearby a Jewish village (mentioned by Josephus Flavius in the first century and by Eusebius in the early fourth century). The installations and small artifacts found inside the cells indicate that the inhabitants lived in these as permanent dwellings for a relatively long period. They were not seasonal workers, for ifthey were we would most probably find similar sites in other parts of the oasis as well. All features of the siteãits location above Ein Gedi, simplicity, and unique natureãconform to Pliny the Elderžs (d. 79 A.D.) famous passage on the Essenes, which he describes as a celibate group of men, living on the western shore of the Dead Sea, who have no money only palm trees for company. He concludes by saying that below them lies Ein Gedi, which in his times was "a heap of ashes" (Pliny, Natural History, V, xv.73; trans. by H. Rackham; Cambridge, MA and London 1942, p. 277).

Each cell found at the site was used by a single individual and reflects the simplicity of the Essenes' ascetic approach to life. The terraces and irrigation system indicate that these people were engaged in agriculture and that they lived among the palm trees. The cell structures indicate a homogeneous society having some sort of organization. The fact that no animal bones were found indicates that the inhabitants may have been vegetarians. We do not know who resettled the site in the second phase (i.e., the fourth century). Nevertheless, no matter who they were, their way of life appears to have been similar to that of the inhabitants of the sitežs first phase.

The dig at the "Essene Village" (as we called it) will be resumed next season, in January, 1999.

Y. Hirschfeld

This season took place in January 1998. The Ein Gedi expedition is directed by Yizhar Hirschfeld, under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and funded by the Rothschild Foundation in Israel. The pottery and glass reading was carried out by Prof. Dan Barag and Mrs. Malka Hershkovitz from the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University.

Y. Aharoni, "Archaeological Survey of 'Ein Gedi," Bulletin of the Israel Exploration Society 22 (1958), 27(45 (Hebrew).

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