"Sixteen miles all around Sepphoris is a land flowing with milk and honey" – Jerusalem Talmud.
I don't know all about the radius, but last night it rained mud here in Sepphoris. I'm not kidding. The weather had been quite cool with some rain and a few days ago we actually had hail for a few minutes. But for a couple of days it has been overcast and on Monday night I was awakened by a heavy storm passing by. It sounded as if it was pouring rain, and I did not really know for how long. But when I woke up in the morning and went outside, the terrain was generally dry but all of the cars had mud splashed ALL over them and it was very clear that there had been so much dirt and dust in the air that when the rain came down it absorbed the dirt and literally rained mud all over the place. The windows are so muddy they will all need to be cleaned before I can drive.
Today's pottery reading left all of the excavators jubilant (see photo above of jubilant people watching Eric Meyers read the pottery shards). Pottery was examined from key areas and diagnostic shards were plentiful and from quite early date….including late Iron Age, Persian Period, and Early Roman…also later Roman and Byzantine in some areas. All of this information helps to confirm and clarify dating for most of the areas in which we have been excavating…..in other words, we have found a great deal of the information that was being sought, and that's good news for the final excavation reports that are being prepared. (There are no known Iron Age [ending 586 BCE] or Persian Period [586-3rd cen. BCE] sites here at Sepphoris. But the large amount of significant pottery fragments from these periods suggests that there was a genuine occupation during these "Biblical" periods and one can predict that some time in the future another generation of archaeologists will locate them.)
I don't think I have previously talked about the overall excavation site here and specifically the area on the western slope where we are digging. So here is a general overview of the western acropolis at Sepphoris a fascinating, flourishing, and largely Jewish city from the Hellenistic Period through its devastation by a massive earthquake in 363 CE.
The western slope of the city contained around 5 or 6 homes (see photo above of the site taken from atop the Citadel on the top of the mound). These were generally fairly large (contrary to what I wrote about "small homes" a few days ago) Roman style homes that surrounded a central courtyard. It is a bit difficult to ascertain the exact nature of each dwelling, but they appear to have belonged to prosperous families. Each of the homes seems to have several stages of building, in which initial structures were modified and expanded as time passed. There are MANY underground storage areas and water cisterns that honeycomb the entire area under this portion of Sepphoris. Many of them have clear hard basalt well-heads (see photo below) that made it convenient for people to raise and lower water jugs to be lowered into them to draw water.
Jewish ritual baths, called "mikvahs" (mikvahot in Hebrew) literally dot the entire area, and often homes have 3 or even four mikvahs in a single house. It seems that they were not necessarily used simultaneously, and when one became filled with silt or otherwise unusable, another would be built. The Jewish mikvah has certain ritual requirements, one of which is a source of fresh, running water into it. The mikvahs here in Sephoris are neatly made plastered installations, sometimes carved out of the bedrock, and at other times built independently. Their very presence in this city gives a very Jewish identity to the city. (see photo of Eric Meyers below pointing out mikvah, a plastered pool with steps, alongside a water storage pool on left).
While we have found only around eight coins here during our brief (2 week) excavation (see photo of me below using metal detector and NOT finding coins….), the coins struck in Sepphoris very much help tell a part of the story of the city. For reasons we do not fully understand, the people of Sepphoris decided not to participate in the Jewish War against Rome which began in 66 CE and mainly ended in 70 CE when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. (Actually the war continued until 73 CE when Masada fell to the Roman legions.) In deciding not to participate in this war, the people of Sepphoris were not necessarily being traitorous to the Jewish cause. In Jerusalem there were both "pro peace" and "pro war" parties. Prominent members of the "pro peace" parties were King Agrippa II, great grandson of Herod the Great, who pleaded with his fellow Jews not to enter into war against Rome, since they would surely be defeated. Another "peacenick" of the time was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who is best known as the founder of the Academy of Jewish learning established at Yavne, in the north, after the Temple was destroyed. This academy at Yavne was the origination point of Rabbinic Judaism in which the daily Temple sacrifice was replaced by daily prayer, and the earthly Jerusalem was replaced by the heavenly Jerusalem. Rabbinic Judaism was adoptive in nature, and many argue it was a central force in allowing Judaism to survive and thrive until today.
At any rate, Nero (54-58 CE) rewarded the people of Sepphoris, by allowing them to mint coins (possibly under the direction of Agrippa II who had not yet become king, but was a governor in the area)—and these coins named Sepphoris as "Irenopolis" or "City of Peace." Later, under the emperor Trajan (98-117 CE), coins were minted in Sepphoris with one side showing the portrait of the emperor and the other side carrying the name of the city. These coins were also unique in that they did not show the usual mythological characters or pagen gods presented on the local coinage of other cities. Instead the wreath, palm tree, ears of grain, and other symbols not offensive to the Jewish population were depicted.
Later Sepphoris was named "Diocaesarea" (City of Zeus) on its coins and a Temple to Zeus was shown on coins of Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE).
Within the next century, remarkable coins struck under Caracalla (197-218 CE) and Elagabalus (218-222 CE) talk of a special treaty between the sacred council of Sepphoris and the sacred Senate of Rome. These coins seem to reflect a notation in the Talmud that refers to a special relationship between a Roman Emperor named Antoninus (part of Caracalla's Latin name) and the senate of Rome.
In case any of you think this stuff is boring, check out the photo below of our colleague Emanuel, a Duke graduate student in religion. As you can see, he has become demonstrably excited by the Sepphoris excavations. Among the reasons for his jubilant mood may well be Elizabeth Baltes, a Duke grad student in art history, and Jessica Vahl, a Duke grad student in classical studies shown hard at work in one of the areas they excavated.
TUNE IN tomorrow……..for the amazing Sepphoris water reservoir and the only one of the many synagogues of Sepphoris that has been discovered so far….and more of the inside stories on the excavators of Sepphoris 2011...what will Sean wear?