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The 23rd campaign of excavations at Capernaum (2003)
click on images to enlarge

The 23rd campaign of archaeological excavations sponsored by the Custody of the Holy Land under the direction of Stanislao Loffreda ofm (SBF, Jerusalem) and with permission of Israel Antiquities Authority took place at Capharnaum from May 6—Aug. 16, 2003. Stefano De Luca (PAA, Rome), Marian Bernard Arndt ofm (Seminarium, Wroclaw), Joannes Sweetser ofm, Abram Sobkowski ofm and Luana Spadano, participated in the excavations assisted by a group of trained labourers from the village of Rameh.

(1) Elias, (2) Fr. Stanislaus Loffreda, (3) Fr. Marian B. Arndt , (4) Fr. Stefano De Luca, (5) Butros, (6) Fr. Joannes Sweetser, (7) Jusef, (8) Kamil, (9) Fr. Abram Sobkowski, (10) Adam. (Photo by Jerzy Kraj).

These excavations examined the two adjoining eastern sectors of Byzantine Capernaum: The Area 3, to the east of the traditional home of St. Peter, and the Area 4, to the east of the monumental synagogue.

Work proceeded in area 3 by removing the structure of the Arabic era, which has been identified just below the surface and documented during the preceding campaign (2000, 2001, 2002), in order to bring to light the late Roman and Byzantine layers.

a) Arabic strata
A more precise chronological succession of constructions of this late phase will be proved by the study of the recovered ceramic and numismatic material of the strata. It may be seen that the Area 3 occupied elaborate and overcrowded constructions (green and red in the plan) during the Umayyad-Abbasid (VII-IX centuries), and the Mameluk (XIII century) periods.

Plan of Capernaum at the close of excavation campaign 2003: In black late Roman and Byzantine strata; in red and green Arabic strata (Relief and visualization by S. De Luca)

(click to enlarge)

Some of the stone-pavements, paved with reused material (generally blocks of basalt stones cut in parallelepiped form), together with walls preserved in an elevation, and at times with some repetitions, belong to this period. Although these finds are not sufficient to delineate a complete stage, nonetheless, they are enough to offer a general idea of it. In a majority of cases, the masons retrace the borders of the previous period, which structure they reused as a substructure to build on. On the contrary, at this period, the Roman-Byzantine road axis is not maintained. They are blocked by ruins and are thus revealed in new surroundings. This is evident in the case of the street, which borders area 3 in the north and north-east, where, among others, the Abbasid surroundings L911 is situated. We have discovered an element of historical dating for L911, viz., an oil lamp in full which may be dated not before late VIII century.

An Abbasid oil lamp from L911 (photo by S. Loffreda).

Having considered the gates to these brick-works, some of which are with threshold in sight as in the surroundings L911, L88a, L86, the traces of a fireplace evident in L 908, L375, L87a, and the ceramic material in the form of a table discovered there, it should be predominantly private houses. The houses of Mameluk period (XIII century) witness to the last phase of habitation of Capernaum. The sporadic finds belonging to pre-crusaders’ and crusaders’ periods (X-XII centuries), at the moment, cannot be attributed archaeologically to any of the identified structures.

b) Late Roman-Byzantine Strata
The main result of 23rd excavation-campaign is to have been able to define better the urban settlement of entire area 3 in the late Roman-Byzantine period (IV to VII centuries). The quarter known to be delimited by main road L39 in the west, which proceeds from the north to the lake, skirting the synagogue and the enclosure of ‘domus ecclesia’ appears well demarcated on the northern side by the metal path L 207 which leads to a olive press (L270). The perimeter in the west (L 270a) and in the south (L270b) follows it, and in the east it joins the preceding path at the metal route L 89-297.

The metal-path L 207, perpendicular to the axis of the main road in Capernaum, which delimits area 3 and 4 skirting the olive press. Direction: North-East (photo S. De Luca).

Simplifying the phase, one observes that area 3 is constituted by four distinct structural units, two of which consist of mutually related domestic surroundings. In addition to it exploration of a new quarter was conducted at the eastern side of area 3.

Assonometric reconstruction of area 3, of area 3a and of a big olive press of area 4 with its installations. Direction: North-East (Design S. De Luca).

1) From the gate which opens in L 280 to the path L 89, one enters a large courtyard with fireplace and steps (281) which leads to metal-paved rooms L 296 and L 290. The last room has a beautiful beaten threshold at the entrance. To the same opening of the entrance L 280 are added on the western side five metal-paved rooms, interconnected by means of doors (L 282, L 283, L 289, L 293 and L 284 with a threshold).

Partial view of the Area 3, during excavations in Area 3a Direction: South-East (photo: S. Loffreda).

Crossing a sixth room provided with stairs (L 86), probably half-covered, one reaches the main city-road axis passing through corridor L 83. A long wall starts at the southern border of L 83, which passes through the whole of Area 3 from east to west forming its straight southern border.

A panoramic view of area 3 at the close of excavations in 2003. Seen towards the right are the stairs of L 86, and the corridor L 83 which opens into the main road-axis. Direction-East (photo: S. De Luca).

2) Although this long wall has seen restorations, it is preserved from the Roman period through the Middle Ages. A series of rooms (L 82, L 80, L 79, L 78, L 76 and L 74) is laid on its southern front. Among them L 78-L 76 which form the head of L 75, an area closed in by a big gate could be understood as back-shop. It will not be easy to extend excavation in this direction, because the zone is actually used as a passageway for vehicles. Moreover, the huge trees planted there in the last century help compromise its stratigraphy.

The long wall which passes through area 3 in the south, delimiting a house (to the left) probably by commercial surroundings (to the right). Direction - East (photo S. De Luca)

3) Two gates with basalt-rock paved threshold open to the stone-paved path L207a. These gates give access to the surroundings with columns L294, and probably to an open-air court L241. Both these are connected by means of niche L291 and L292. In the surviving wall below to the West in L291, one recognizes traces of a gate, which gives access to room L288 with a beautiful stone-pavement without gaps towards the main road axis (L39). Through the same niche L291, one enters two adjoining courts, L285 and L286. The first one, endowed with benches for work, was reduced in size after the late Byzantine period (beginning of VII century), and had a central pillar to hold the roof. The second one was enlarged and was without gaps on the floor. During successive Arab occupation, various mural restructuring were done to the partitions on the southern and eastern sides of L291. Three metal pavements on the foundation - one over the other - were identified as a consequence. Again the pavement of the court with fireplace L241 was raised up in order to bring it up to the level of the road L207a, but it was brought two steps down in L240. A door from here led to room L208a which was stone-paved, and later on isolated with a blockage of its door. Thanks to a second exit, L208a continued to have a direct connection to the path L207. Only the foundations of the western end of L208a are seen with a well preserved dividing wall, which proceeds from the north to the south.

4) The above mentioned dividing wall marks the boundaries of the unit described above separating it from a line of rooms (L208, L210, L211 and L85) connected by the main road axis. They are probably not meant for habitation. During the Byzantine period room L210a remained isolated and apparently without entrance. Roman artefacts were found in the surroundings furnished with two niches in the wall.

Archaeological investigation conducted in an area of some hundreds of sq. meters towards the east of the stretch of L89-L297 has brought to light a group of surroundings which should be the beginning of a new quarter named Area 3a.

Area 3a at the close of the Archaeological campaign. A wall and pavement, late foundations belonging to Byzantine surroundings (o the left) are identified in the 1st story (to the right). Direction -West (photo S. De Luca)

This demonstrates a stratigraphic situation similar to the rest of the eastern sector. A trimmed wall, probably of the Roman period, appears as part of a stone pavement in the Byzantine surroundings L373, connected to L372 by means of two doors, and with a further opening on the artificial eastern wall to another room which is not yet excavated. Passing through the door to the road L89 in L370, two others are added, viz., L374 and L371, of which only the last one is excavated fully. During the Arab period (VIII-IX century) a wall was erected upon the ruins of the surroundings, its face being covered by a Mameluk stone-pavement (XIII century), reaching a wall above, which crossed in West-East direction (L375). Three basalt-stone vases were recovered intact in L372 signalling the Byzantine period. A fourth one is a lime-stone plate found in L373. In the northern area, the stretch of L89-L297 bends at an angle to accommodate the external obstacle of niche L364 which comes from the path L207b. It will be verified in the next archaeological campaign whether there is access from here to the adjoining premises already identified in the ground-plan (L365). Prospects for extending excavations towards the south will be difficult due to the same reasons indicated in 2) above.

Stone vases of the Byzantine period from Area 3a (photo M. Arndt)

Thanks to the excavations conducted by V. Corbo and S. Loffreda in the seventies, area 4 is excavated covering an area of ca. 500 sq. meters. Recent archaeological campaigns (2000-2002) added to it nearly 400 sq. meters and the campaign of 2003 brought to light another 300 sq. meters. Such figures give an idea of the vast size of this quarter. Archaeological finds are limited to the west and north. Its boundary in the south is distinguished at present with area 3 (consisting of paths L207-L207a-L207b). What remains to be identified is that of the east. Next archaeological campaign has prospects for the same.

Area 4 extends to the east of the main road which boarders the synagogue in the east (at the left in the photo). Direction - North (photo S. De Luca).

a) Arab Strata
The stratigraphic situation here with reference to later levels is still less coherent compared to area 3. It may be ascribed to two groups of surroundings which are paved with cobble stones: one with slanting walls in north-south direction in the area of the olive press (L250), and the other, mainly in the north, with re-used masonry of preceding periods (L354-L355) similar to other constructions on ruins (e. g., L300e).

Late wall-structures of area 4. The surroundings of L354 and L355. Direction - North-East (photo S. De Luca)

b) Late Roman - Byzantine Strata
1) The dig of the large olive-press of L270 and its investigation, which required four archaeological campaigns, is complete (see axonometry). It is a public building, as it appears from its productive capacity, and the fact that it imposes a deviation on the city road. It was for the last time in use by the end of VI century. This period witnessed rising of the level of the street (with large paving stones in L207a) and reinforcement of the stone-paved walls with lime. The Byzantine surroundings L219, which originally belonged to constructions of L215-L216, went out of use in this period. The last Byzantine period (VI-VII centuries) refers to an allotment of jars decorated with pictures, found near the eastern wall in the area, which were probably used to store oil.

A sample of the jars found at the olive press (restoration and photo by M. Arndt).

The olive press has a stone pavement at the entrance where a huge mill-stone, cut out of a single stone, was installed with grinding wheel and two press-foundations with stone basins in order to collect oil. The remaining area has a beaten mud pavement, occupied by 12 sections formed by dry wall to store olive brought to be pressed. Pillars on the walls bearing on the west and the east, and columns in the middle, probably supported two lines of three arches, none of which, however, survives. Girders of the roof were alternatively inserted into the pillars and were resting on the columns.

View of the olive press complex L270 at the close of excavations Direction - East (photo S. De Luca)

2) The olive press is related to public utility surroundings L224 in the north, and probably by means of this, to an elaborate system of 12 surroundings, partly meant for domestic use (the house L218, L220, L223, L222, L225, L226, L227 and L333) and partly for work (L200 with a canal, L201 and L202). The presence of a ramp with seven steps (in L222), major portion of the preserved walls to a height of about two meters, and the quantity of stones of ruins lead us to conclude reasonably that this house earlier contained a second storey.

Partial view of the big house in area 4 Direction: North-East (photo S. De Luca).

3) Still other rooms were added to the first phase as one understands from the two doors and the blocks in the partition east of L200. Digging in that partition has brought to light nine surroundings. L361 from which late Roman pottery originated probably belonged o this first phase, but remained closed on all the sides afterwards and went out of use.

Hypothetical reconstruction of the big house of area 4 Direction: South-West (assonometry S. De Luca).

An atrium (L358-L359) provided with stairs, pillars, and columns gives access to a corridor (L360) which is also provided with upper stairs, and from here to a new surrounding of which only three entrances are identified. In line with the landing of the staircase the corridor is blocked up by a wall which permits raising the level of trampling by means of a slit and the creation of rooms L 362 and L363. From the atrium towards the north one enters rooms L339, L357 and L356. Among the last two there are two “windows,” besides the doors, window-sills or door-posts of which remain at site. One may discuss their function, whether they are common openings for lighting a room or with some other aim, e. g., mangers for stable, as in the case of a similar structure in area 2.

View of the house in area 4 Direction: South-West (photo S. Loffreda).

4) The situation is quite similar to our findings in 2001, viz., a door and two windows of room L335-L338 immediately adjacent to the northern side. That inclines us to accept the first hypothesis. Here in the first surroundings with a threshold, door-panes, and steps one finds remains of a fireplace, this is unusual to be found at a stable. One the other hand, one enters a court furnished with double stairs (L333) also at the other house, to which eight surroundings are added (L332, L334, L331, L337, L336, L328, L330 and L329). L328 among them, preserved on the southern and eastern sides as much as two meters merits mention. The western and northern walls show signs of ruin. Especially the last wall, buried in late surroundings, preserves ruins of the door as well as of three window-sills with lintels in full. The pavement of these surroundings could not be excavated for reasons of security. Once the masonry is restored, they could furnish a time reference with a view to explaining some layers of habitation in Byzantine Capernaum.

Stefano De Luca ofm
(Pontificium Athenaeum Antonianum - Rome)

Transl. by Frederick Eluvathingal

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