By Gideon Avni, Uzi Dahari, and Amos Kloner (Israel Antiquities Authority Report 36). Pp. 232, figs. 143, pls. 3, tables 19, plans 89, maps 4. Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem 2008. $37. ISBN 978-965-406-214-5 (paper).
The Israel Antiquities Authority oversees the excavation, analysis, and publication of an enormous number of archaeological sites, and this book is a welcome addition to their series of site reports. Focused on the graves of Roman and Byzantine Bet Guvrin, a site located in the hills south of Jerusalem, this book adds to our small corpus of information about the towns and villages of the Roman world and, further, to our understanding of social relations between the Jewish, Christian, and pagan populations of Palestine from the first to eighth centuries C.E. This book by Avni, Dahari, and Kloner (with chapter contributions from Magness, Winter, and Michaeli) reports the results of the survey and limited excavation of the burial caves around Bet Guvrin carried out during the 1970s and 1980s. The report further provides an integrated corpus of information collected by researchers about graves in the area of Bet Guvrin from the 19th century onward. The result is a comprehensive overview of the funerary architecture, oil lamps, glass fragments, and wall paintings from the graves of ancient Eleutheropolis (the name of Bet Guvrin in the Roman and Byzantine periods). The results are relevant for researchers interested in the specific aforementioned categories of evidence and in the relationship between the Jewish, Christian, and pagan populations of Bet Guvrin. Unfortunately, because of the state of preservation of the tombs, there were no substantial human remains to include in the analysis of the funerary materials, so researchers interested in examining skeletal remains will be disappointed. Despite this, the book will be of interest to major research libraries and to those interested in Roman Palestine, Roman graves, and Jewish-pagan interactions.
The book is straightforward to understand and use, since it is organized like most site reports, beginning with an overview of what is known about Bet Guvrin/Eleutheropolis, followed by a detailed description of the finds and reports on specific categories of evidence. The bulk of material is contained in chapter 2, a grave-by-grave catalogue of the six grave groups identified at Bet Guvrin. This is followed by specialized reports on the funerary architecture, tomb typology, oil lamps, glass, and wall paintings. Each chapter represents a unique perspective on the remains and will interest researchers focused on them. Chapter 3, on the architecture and typology of the graves, is a useful analysis of the features and morphology of the tombs at Bet Guvrin and contains a comprehensive list of comparative sites for readers. There is a great deal of useful information here, including the first typology of Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic graves from Palestine. This highlights Bet Guvrin’s relationship to the rest of the classical world as well as the features innovated by local builders. Chapter 5, an overview of the oil lamp fragments by Magness, will interest ceramicists, since the lamps have a known archaeological provenance. Magness’ catalogue includes a great deal of useful comparative information and dates for the Bet Guvrin graves (129–32, 147–76). The lamps also provide some insight into the possible religious affiliations of the tombs’ inhabitants (132–34). Winter provides additional chronological information in her chapter on the glass finds (182–33), while Michaeli further illuminates the ethnic and religious (Christian) background of Bet Guvrin through her analysis of the wall paintings from Tomb II.37 (197).
The authors bring all the foregoing material together in the final chapters of the book and draw some small conclusions regarding the materials that they have presented up to this point. Chapters 8 and 9 compare the necropoleis at Bet Guvrin with those at other sites in Palestine and sum up the relationship between Jewish, Christian, and pagan populations at Bet Guvrin based on the evidence of the burials. Along with an investigation of the general characteristics of necropoleis, the spatial organization of cemeteries (division of individual/family plots, relationship to population areas), comparative sites for Bet Guvrin’s cemeteries, and the relationship between cities and burial grounds in Palestine and around the Mediterranean world, the chapters also present conclusions about the religious makeup of the ancient population of Bet Guvrin and how it changed over time.
The book contributes to scholarship through its catalogue of graves, its grave typology, its comprehensive listing of comparative sites, and its insights into the social dynamics of Roman and Byzantine Palestine. The catalogue of graves presented in chapter 2 provides the reader with a thorough understanding of each surviving grave recorded in the survey, while the typology of graves presented in the following chapter provides a structure for comparing graves located at Bet Guvrin and around the Mediterranean region. The typology is thus a critical element in the analysis of the social significance of the burial patterns recovered here, allowing the authors to highlight elements common between Bet Guvrin and the larger pagan and Jewish Mediterranean world, as well as elements unique to Bet Guvrin. The dates of the various graves, derived from analysis of the oil lamps and glass vessel fragments, is of considerable interest, since they indicate the growing influence of Christianity at the site from the fifth century onward. The additional information concerning the emergence of Christian populations in the Near East provided by Bet Guvrin is most welcome, though it should be studied further.
The major weakness of the book, if it can be called such, derives from the limitations imposed on the presentation and analysis of materials by its format as a site report. The detailed information from the research project is, of course, appreciated. However, a better understanding of the major issue identified by the authors—the interactions of the ethnoreligious populations of ancient Bet Guvrin—would be best pursued through targeted research published in articles or a monograph. This observation should not, however, lessen the importance of this book as a resource for those interested in funerary architecture, oil lamps, glass, funerary art, or the social dynamics of towns and large villages in Roman and Byzantine Palestine. Rather, it should highlight an interesting new corpus of information for further investigation.
Danielle Steen Fatkin
Department of History
Galesburg, Illinois 61401