Shikhin Excavation Project director James Riley Strange discusses the archaeological importance of the site of Shikhin, an ancient village in Jewish Galilee. Referred to as Asochis by the historian Josephus, Shikhin was an important Roman pottery production center closely tied to its larger neighbor, Sepphoris.
Between our 2012 and 2013 dig seasons, bike trails sprung up all over Israel, some of them on Shikhin’s hilltops. Every Erev Shabbat, we host brief visits from groups of men and women who are out for a ride and stop to ask about what we’re doing. Their trail takes them mere meters from our squares, and their curiosity impels them to stop. I tell these and other visitors that Shikhin is important for at least three reasons, all of them working together to tell us something about the economy, emigration north from Judea, and religious and cultural identity in Jewish Galilee from Late Hellenistic to Late Roman times (second century B.C.E. through fourth century C.E.). This, in turn, helps to teach us about the beginnings of two of the great world religions: the Judaism that became Christianity and the Judaism of the Talmuds.
The first reason for Shikhin’s importance is the synagogue, or beth ha-knesset, that we began uncovering last year. We can’t yet date its construction, but we know it was destroyed along with the rest of the village, never to be rebuilt, in the middle of the fourth century C.E. The final building was made partially from spoils from an earlier structure, probably also a public building. The whole thing is made of local, soft limestone, except for one impressive threshold carved in two pieces from very hard limestone that was brought from someplace else, maybe nearby Sepphoris. We find virtually no pottery later than the fourth century, but we do find oil lamps dating to the Early Islamic period. This allows us to imagine that pious Jews, perhaps from Sepphoris, remembered the place of prayer at Shikhin and came here to light their lamps.
Another reason Shikhin is important is the evidence of pottery production discovered at the site. We knew we would find it because some of it is still visible on the hilltop, but the sheer volume of production waste, as well as cast-offs of most of the common Galilean forms, surprised us. We continue to look for the kilns, but already we are forming new ideas about pottery production and distribution in Galilee. A new atomic emission spectroscopy machine at Samford University will allow us to identify what elements are present, and at what amounts, in clays from pots that we know were made at Shikhin. When we test pottery found at other sites, we ought to be able to determine what percentage came from our site (the reader can find many articles and a book by David Adan-Bayewitz and his team members, who made a similar study in the 1990s). This information will be added to Adan-Bayewitz’s work to help complete our understanding of the Galilean economy.
A third reason I say Shikhin is important is because we now know that its kilns were producing oil lamps. This was the real surprise to Motti Aviam, the dig’s associate director, and me. In three dig seasons and 18 open squares, we have recovered fragments of 15 oil lamp molds and an astounding number of lamp fragments from lamps of all kinds. One of the most astonishing discoveries is a piece from the upper part of a mold for a “winged” “darom” (i.e. southern) style lamp that we found this season. Here it is, being made in the north. We will be looking for more evidence of oil lamp production in the coming seasons.
Readers who are in Israel during our dig season (or who are riding their bikes on Shikhin’s trails) are welcome to visit. Or you can dig with us! The Shikhin Excavation Project is an archaeological field school, so in addition to working hard, we will teach you how to be an archaeologist. Come join the crews of students and non-student volunteers from the USA, Israel and other countries for a special experience.
The Shikhin Excavation Project is sponsored by Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama) and Kinneret Academic College (Israel), as well as by generous donations from foundations and private donors. James Riley Strange of Samford University serves as the dig’s director. Motti Aviam of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee is the associate director.
James Riley Strange is an associate professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He has served as field supervisor and codirector of the University of South Florida Excavations at Sepphoris, Israel, and is the author of The Emergence of the Christian Basilica in the Fourth Century (2000).