Discoveries at Ein Hanniya and their Iron Age palatial context
Following a tumultuous end to the Bronze Age that saw the abandonment of urban centers and mass migrations of populations, the advent of the Iron Age witnessed the emergence of a newly settled landscape. Massive fortified cities were renovated, villages and hamlets flourished throughout the countryside, and lavish palatial estates bespeckled the coastal plains and highlands of the Southern Levant as a new class of elites developed in the First Temple period kingdoms.
At places like Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer, and Qeiyafa to name a few, luxurious palaces adorned in decorative frescoes and stocked with sumptuous goods for feasting were homes to the royalty and elite orders of the Iron Age kingdoms. At Samaria, capital of the Northern Kingdom, for example, a palace embellished with beautifully carved ivories dates to the 9th century B.C.E. rule of King Ahab.
The function of these palatial estates in the dynamic landscapes and local economies of the Iron Age remains the subject of considerable scholarship by archaeologists, historians, epigraphers, and anthropologists. Analogs from across the Mediterranean include Greek oikoi (traditional homes) and Etruscan villas, which served not only important roles in public administration, but were also places of entertainment, gathering, craft and ceramic production, and storage and redistribution of goods. The roles of palaces in antiquity were far greater than administrative buildings and royal residences; palaces were often local centers of manufacturing and food processing as well as extravagant reception spaces where elites and rulers would entertain guests and conduct diplomacy.
By the seventh century B.C.E., Jerusalem was a bustling capital city of the Kingdom of Judah. Just outside of the city limits in the Valley of Rephaim National Park, archaeologists have discovered the location of a rural estate occupied for more than a thousand years, from the seventh century B.C.E., the First Temple period, to the early Byzantine period, around 500 C.E. After six years of excavation and restoration, Ein Hanniya Park was dedicated with a festive tree-planting ceremony last week and attended by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Director General Israel Hasson, and others.
Among the finds at Ein Hanniya was a fragment of a Proto-Ionic order capital, the top piece of a decorated column or pillar. Baruch says that this style of capital is common for large palatial estates during the First Temple period. This style of pillar has also been found at sites like Megiddo, Hazor, Samaria, and Ramat Rahel—also near Jerusalem—and at contemporary sites in Moab, Ammon, and Phoenicia in present-day Syria and Jordan. Today, the Proto-Ionic capital appears on the Israeli 5-shekel coin.
In an IAA press release, the archaeologists suggested that the presence of the capital means the site could have been a First Temple period royal estate for the kings of Judah in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. However, until further exploration at the site can be conducted, it’s premature to assume the site was home to royalty. Instead, it is possible that Ein Hanniya was one of many such lavish rural estates that sprang up during the Iron Age I in response to new bureaucratic hierarchies after the founding of the supposed Israelite dynasties.
Located in the foothills around Jerusalem, Ein Hanniya was likely the site of a moderate rural estate on the roads to Jerusalem and the coastal plains. Archaeological investigations into first millennium highland settlements suppose that in addition to the head of the household and immediate family, the estate would have been inhabited by landed workers, servants, perhaps slaves, and all sorts of domestic animals. Pastoralists may have shepherded herds in the nearby hills and craft centers at the estate would have produced utilitarian or luxury goods including wine, glass, iron, or textiles.
At sites like Hazor and Megiddo, craft productions of textiles and ceramics are often closely associated with palatial estates. To glean functions of the Iron Age settlement at Ein Hanniya, much more work is yet to be done. Discovery of such rural estates is often rare in comparison to more obvious, large, urban tells, but often reveal a lot about how ancients organized themselves and their economy.
Palatial estates can tell us a lot about the political and economic landscape. As craft centers, archaeological remains at palaces often determine the types of resources populations used and processed and can elucidate how ancients manufactured and utilized goods and tools. Further, it can begin to accentuate the complex political organization of the Iron Age. Debates about whether there was a United Monarchy in the 10th century B.C.E., or a low vs. high chronological timeline for the rulers of the Israelite kingdoms, or questions about the historicity of Biblical figures such as David and Solomon, often forego complicated discussions about what was more than likely an extremely diverse, stratified, and sophisticated political landscape.
Other finds at the new park at Ein Hanniya include a silver coin called a drachma, minted in the city of Ashdod by Greek rulers between 420 and 390 B.C.E.
The IAA further reports that a number of finds date to the Byzantine period from the fourth through sixth centuries C.E. They include Byzantine-era coins, glass, roof tiles, and mosaic tesserae (the pieces that make-up a tile mosaic) and most notably “a large and impressive pool from the Byzantine period,” according to Zilberbod. A large outdoor complex stood at the site during this period and included a church and a series of roofed colonnades that led to residential spaces with the pool at the center.
“It’s difficult to know what the pool was used for,” Zilberbod explained in a press release, “whether for irrigation, washing, landscaping or perhaps as part of baptismal ceremonies at the site.” The pool drained through channels into a nymphaeon, or an elaborate fountain.
For more than a thousand years, the site of Ein Hanniya remained an important oasis in the hills around Jerusalem, first as a likely elite palatial estate and centuries later as a Byzantine Christian church.
Restoration of the site over the past few years was carried out by the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The team that restored the intricate water systems was led by conservator Fuad Abu Ta’a, with architectural planning conducted by Avi Mashiah and Yehonatan Tzahor. The group used historical photographs and paintings to return the facade of the nymphaeon to its original beauty.
Samuel Pfister is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at The George Washington University.
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