Alex Ramos, University of Pennsylvania, Platt Fellowship Recipient
This summer, I was able to join the Samford University-led excavations of Shikhin, thanks in no small part to the ASOR fellowship that helped fund my stay. I was invited to come on as an area supervisor, in charge of the excavation and meticulous recording of two 5 x 5 meter squares. An excellent field experience for a budding scholar interested in engaging with archaeology in addition to the literary source I have been trained in.
This was only the second season of excavation at Shikhin, so at the start of the season there were still many questions to be answered. The site, located on a ridge of three hilltops not far from ancient Sepphoris, was first positively identified by a survey in the 1980s. Our literary references to the site come from the Jewish historian Josephus, who claimed the village’s support during his time as a commander in Galilee, and from rabbinic texts that identify the village as a producer of durable ceramic vessels.
I was drawn to the site because of its importance for answering questions of economic production and relations in village life in Roman Galilee. This season, like the season before, we collected a large number of pottery waste materials that indicate local production of ceramics. We potsherds from vessels over-fired in the kiln “clinkers”. They are easily spotted by their green hue and lighter weight. Vessels that formed bubbles or blew out from air trapped in the clay, or that slumped in the kiln and became deformed, are designated “wasters.” The abundance of these seems to confirm the presence of a significant pottery manufacturing industry. Even though the site was apparently known in antiquity for its storage vessels, and indeed jar and jug rims were by far the most abundant diagnostic sherds to come across the “pottery reading” table, we also found a great many clinkers and wasters from bowls, cooking pots, and other such vessels. We also found several lamp molds this season, and a few fragments of lamps that had never been lit, indicating that lamps were being produced on-site as well. These findings demonstrate a much more diverse range of products made at Shikhin than previously thought, and may have important ramifications for our understanding of competition and copying on the Galilean pottery market in the Roman period.
Although the squares I excavated didn’t yield any architectural features, they nonetheless contributed important information about the occupation history of Shikhin. The vast majority of potsherds at the site date from somewhere in the Roman period, the time period in which Shikhin seemed to flourish. All of the structures thus far excavated seem to come from this period as well. However, several potsherds from the early Islamic period (seventh century CE) emerged in my first square at levels approximately a meter below the surface. We also found a number of late Byzantine or early Islamic lamp fragments, and perhaps most impressively, a nearly intact lamp! These were found buried beneath large boulders that had come from an earlier building, apparently deposited with fill soil to level out the field for agricultural activity. These finds provided us with our most secure indication of some sort of occupation of the site beyond the Roman period. Though there has not, to date, been any associated structure from this period found. If they were not living at the site, they may have been using this site for agriculture, as a source of building stones, or perhaps even as a work site for producing their own lamps.
One of the most important finds on the site this season occurred in the last week of excavation: the remains of what we believe to have been a synagogue. We uncovered a large, heart-shaped column drum, tipped off-kilter on a line of low, cut stones. Heart-shaped columns are well-known as an architectural marker of synagogues in this part of the Galilee, typically between the third and fourth centuries CE. The row of low stones is most likely the stylobate, on which the three internal colonnades of the structure rested. Located just to the north of the column drum, we found another large architectural fragment off-kilter in the ground: half of a very large threshold. The possibility still remains that the remaining structure is a later building that re-used stones from an earlier synagogue, but either way, this points to the presence of a synagogue at Shikhin in the Roman period. This finding suggests that synagogues in the mid to late Roman periods may have been much more widespread than previously thought.
The 2013 excavations at Shikhin have raised many new questions about the role of Shikhin in the Roman period and beyond. I plan to return for the 2014 season to continue the important work conducted this season.
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