Blog Post #12: Diversity and Migration in a Hellenistic-Roman Rural Village: The Excavation of Horvat Midras, Israel

Peopling the Past brings you an ongoing blog series, “Unknown Peoples”, featuring researchers who investigate understudied and/or marginalized peoples in the past.

Judea during the Hellenistic and early Roman period – the so-called late Second Temple era (c. 323 BCE to 70 CE) – featured a significant degree of ethnic and religious diversity. Literary sources such as the first-century CE Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mention the presence of Jews, Idumeans, Samaritans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Arabian tribes, Greek colonists, Nabataeans, and Ituraeans. Together they made the region culturally diverse, offering a potentially valuable window into social, religious, and ethnic dynamics in the ancient world. Scholars, however, have tended to locate this diversity in urban centers, especially those on the Mediterranean coast such as the bustling port city of Caesarea Maritima. By contrast, rural sites are often depicted as ethnically monolithic – villages will tend to be characterized as either entirely Jewish or entirely polytheistic.

Our knowledge of ancient rural societies, moreover, has suffered from a relative lack of excavation, as archaeologists have traditionally been drawn to large cities and monumental architecture, often leaving rural villages somewhat overlooked. It is against this background that we have been excavating the site of Horvat Midras in Israel, which is poised to help enrich our understanding of rural life in the ancient world. In collaboration with Dr. Orit Peleg-Barkat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her graduate and undergraduate students from the Institute of Archaeology, students from the University of British Columbia have been participating in the first large-scale excavation of the site.

The research question guiding the project is: How can archaeological finds, interpreted in light of comparative material and literary sources, as well as new methodological approaches towards material culture, help us understand social, religious, and cultural dynamics at a rural site during the Hellenistic and early Roman age? The site is located on the informal boundary between ancient Judea and Idumea, the land of the Idumeans, whose name derives from the Semitic name “Edom,” a region in present-day southern Jordan and known from the Hebrew Bible. Given what we already know about the site and its Idumean and Jewish inhabitants, the excavations are likely to shed light on a number of issues, including ethnic-religious diversity and patterns of migration during a key epoch in the history of Judaism, early Christianity, and the early Roman empire.

Map showing the location of Horvat Midras
Fig. 1. Horvat Midras is located southwest of Jerusalem and just northeast of Beit Guvrin.

Horvat Midras is situated in the center of the Judean foothills (Fig. 1), about 40 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem and 6 kilometers northeast of Beit Guvrin (known as Eleutheropolis during the Roman era). The site lies 600 meters east of modern Highway 38, which generally follows an ancient route that connected Jerusalem with Beit Guvrin and continued further west to cities on the coast such as Ashkelon and Gaza. Horvat Midras overlooks fertile agricultural land including several wells. The site is significantly larger (30 acres) than most contemporary rural sites in the Judaean foothills, as it included dwellings (Fig. 2), ritual baths (“mikvaot”), extensive underground hiding complexes (Fig. 3), columbaria, and agricultural installations.

Remains of a dwelling from the early Roman period.
Fig. 2. Remains of a dwelling, early Roman period.
Entrance to underground hiding complexes, early Roman period.
Fig. 3. Entrance to underground hiding complexes, early Roman period.

Horvat Midras was founded in the Persian period (539-331 BCE), later settled by Idumeans (who had moved in from southern Jordan), conquered by the Hasmoneans (second century BCE), and re-founded under Herodian rule (first century BCE). Its inhabitants participated in the Second Jewish Revolt (132–135 CE; also known as the “Bar Kochva Revolt”). Following the revolt, as with other sites in Judea, the residents left the area. Some migrated to destinations south and southeast (such as the Negev and Hebron Hills), though many likely migrated north to join and integrate with the Jewish communities in the Galilee. Indeed, scholars of classical rabbinic literature (Jewish legal and exegetical texts from the third through seventh centuries CE, such as the Mishnah, Jerusalem Talmud, and Midrashim) have suggested the presence and integration of “southern” traditions interwoven into compositions that otherwise took shape in the Galilee.

Following the Second Revolt, Horvat Midras was re-settled by Roman polytheists, and later by Byzantine Christians and Muslims during the Mamluk era. The excavations have focused on excavating a pyramid marking a monumental burial (first century CE; Fig. 4), a residential dwelling (Fig. 2) with a ritual bath (“mikveh”; first century BCE/CE), a series of underground hiding complexes used by Jewish rebels against Rome during the Second Jewish Revolt (Fig. 3), and a large public structure that was rebuilt by the Romans in the aftermath of the Second Revolt. The site exhibits a degree of affluence during the early Roman period, as suggested by the monumental tombs. In addition to the pyramidal funerary marker, there are a number of other monumental burials, including one of the few known examples of a rolling-stone enclosure.

Pyramid funerary marker, first century CE.
Fig. 4. Pyramid funerary marker, first century CE.

In contrast to the multi-cultural fabric of the cities of Judea in late Hellenistic and Roman periods that were inhabited by Jews and various non-Jewish ethnic groups, scholars generally define rural settlements in absolute terms as either Jewish or polytheistic. Recent excavations elsewhere in the region, however, have challenged the monolithic conception of rural settlements (e.g., Jews, Samaritans, and polytheists at Kefar Othnay). Likewise, Horvat Midras has revealed indicators of adherence to Judaism (ritual baths, stone vessels that adhere to Jewish purity laws) and polytheistic religions (in funerary inscriptions). Some finds suggest coexistence and cohabitation between different ethno-religious groups, while other remains suggest diversity and fluidity within a single group – raising important questions about the definition and rigidity of religious-ethnic identity during the Second Temple period.

Furthermore, there is clear evidence that numerous Idumeans abandoned the village in the late second century BCE in advance of the oncoming Hasmoneans (the dynasty of the “Maccabees,” known from the festival of Hannukah marking the re-capture the Jerusalem Temple from Seleucid rule), helping us understand migration patterns in the region. Indeed, the Idumeans themselves had immigrated into the area a few centuries earlier, migrating across the Jordan River from a region in present-day southern Jordan known as “Edom”. At the same time, there is also evidence that many Idumeans remained, as there are indications of continuity and absorption of some tenets of Judaism – while still clinging to certain aspects of Idumean identity. That is, this excavation will shed light on external diversity (between Jews and non-Jews), internal diversity (among Idumeans), and an array of other social, cultural, and religious dynamics.

UBC student Christine Lee using a total station.
Fig. 5. UBC student Christine Lee

UBC and Hebrew University students and staff at the Horvat Midras excavations in 2018.
Fig. 6. UBC and Hebrew University students and staff at the Horvat Midras excavations in 2018.

The excavation of Horvat Midras is supported by the Israel Sciences Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Diamond Foundation, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. I thank Prof. Orit Peleg-Barkat and Prof. Megan Daniels for their feedback on this piece.

Photo of Dr. Gregg Gardner
Dr. Gregg Gardner

Gregg E. Gardner

Dr. Gregg E. Gardner is Associate Professor and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and has held fellowships at Harvard, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on Judaism in late antiquity and classical rabbinic literature, with a special interest in material culture. Gardner is the author of The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and co-editor of Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World (Mohr Siebeck, 2008). For more, please visit here.

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