Last month I had the opportunity to visit several archaeological excavation sites in Israel. One of the most memorable was that of Shikhin. My traveling companions and I awoke before sunrise in order to reach Shikhin from Tiberias at sunrise. We may have gotten lost once or twice navigating the back roads, but eventually we made it without too much trouble. When we arrived, the group of hard-working volunteers were well on their way, kicking up dust, moving loads of dirt, sifting the soil, collecting any important artifacts that surfaced, and documenting each step of the process. One of the artifacts that we witnessed coming straight out of the earth was an oil lamp--an item which is significant to understanding Shikhin as will be explained in this interview.
The excavation at Shikhin is directed by Prof. James R. Strange of Samford University. In addition to Prof. Strange, Drs. Mordecai Aviam (the Associate Director), David Fiensy, Dennis E. Groh, and Prof. Strange’s father, the legendary James F. Strange, provided valuable oversight and insight into the work. Each of these individuals were informative, telling us anything we wanted to know about Shikhin, its significance, and how this site relates to nearby Sepphoris, the site that James F. Strange supervised for many years. When the editors of Ancient Jew Review asked me if I’d be willing to give a report on a couple of the sites I visited, Shikhin was one of the first to come to mind. I contacted Prof. Strange asking him if he’d be willing to answer some interview questions and he was happy to oblige. The following content is our exchange:
Brian LePort (BL): Prof. Strange, you and your team have been excavating the site of Shikhin. Can you tell us about the geography of the area and what is near to this location to help readers understand where you are “on the map”?
James R. Strange (JRS): The hilltop of Shikhin lies at the southwestern limit of the Beit Netofa Valley in Lower Galilee. This is the first east-west interruption of the Galilee’s hill country that one encounters after climbing north to the Nazareth Ridge from the Jezreel Plain. The ancient Jewish village—a contemporary of Nazareth until Shikhin was abandoned—sat a little over a mile north and slightly west of the acropolis of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee during Jesus’s lifetime. Ancient Nazareth lay only about six miles to the southeast. People can find the hilltop by flying to 32° 46.087'N / 35° 16.419'E on Google Earth.
BL: What led your team to excavate Shikhin?
JRS: I decided to begin excavating at Shikhin after the University of South Florida Excavations at Sepphoris, for which I was a staff member, closed down in 2010. The USF team had surveyed Shikhin in 1988 and had made a very strong case that it was the location of the ancient village. I was looking for a village site near Sepphoris that would have been under the city’s jurisdiction, and that would help us to understand both village and city in relation to one another.
BL: What was the site's occupation history?
JRS: Pottery finds show a presence on the hill as old as the Iron II period. As in many Jewish settlements of the Galilee, we see a population increase in the late second century BCE. The amount of pottery found during surveys and excavations dramatically increases in the early Roman Period (ca. first century BCE–first century CE), and half of our pottery dates to those centuries. That increase may be explained in part by a larger population, but Shikhin also starts producing large amounts of pottery during that period. The village is abandoned before the end of the late Roman period (363 CE).
BL: What do you theorize the relationship between Sepphoris and Shikhin was?
JRS: David Adan-Beyewitz has shown that a significant number of storage jars found at Sepphoris were made at Shikhin. They were also found at other villages of the Galilee, and in at least one in the Golan Heights. So Sepphoris probably served as a major market for Shikhin’s wares and produce, but Shikhin also likely traded directly with other Jewish villages in the region. Like Nazareth, Shikhin was under the jurisdiction of Sepphoris, so any legal transactions between Shikhin’s residents required a trip to Sepphoris. Shikhin also probably distributed its oil lamps through markets at Sepphoris. One story in the Tosefta suggests that Roman soldiers stationed at Sepphoris were responsible for the safety of Shikhin’s residents, or at least for the safety of a government official named Joseph ben Simai who lived at Shikhin. I am just guessing that Joseph’s office was in Sepphoris, which means that he commuted between the two towns regularly. This was entirely feasible, since it took only 20 minutes to walk from one to the other. We know that the Romans did not destroy Sepphoris in 66 CE because Sepphoris surrendered to Vespasian before he set one caliga in the Galilee. We have found no first century destruction layer at Shikhin, and we find some other indications that at Shikhin the early Roman period might extend beyond the years of the Great Revolt. So Shikhin might have joined in the surrender of Sepphoris. We will have to perform some petrographic and chemical analysis in order to test earlier work showing the distribution of Shikhin wares around the Galilee and in the Golan.
BL: What are some of the important discoveries that have been made?
Shikhin’s Roman period synagogue has garnered the most notice in the press. This public building was built some time after the first century on the same spot as an earlier building, perhaps also a public building or a fine home. The earlier building had a painted plaster interior, and the synagogue might have had one as well. We think that the synagogue’s builders reused stones from this first building. For the main entrance to their new building, they imported two halves of very large threshold stones made of hard, dolomitic limestone, using them to form a single threshold. The fragments of columns, including heart-shaped columns for interior corners, are also quite large. Either Shikhin had a modest synagogue with oversized architectural pieces, or it was a modest village with an oversized synagogue, similar to the building at Huqoq. After the building was abandoned in the third or early fourth century, nearly all of its stones were removed. Some of them are still on site, but I suspect that most made their way to Sepphoris.
Pottery and lamp production are our most important discoveries. Our current evidence shows that Shikhin’s potters began manufacturing pots in large numbers in the first century CE, and that they made most of the common forms, including jars, jugs, cooking pots, and tablewares. They also experimented with new forms. The discovery that they also made ceramic oil lamps was our biggest surprise. We now know that Shikhin was a manufacturing center for two well-known types of mold-made lamps, one originating in the north (perhaps at Shikhin) and one originally made in the south. We may be looking at evidence of Jewish migration from Jerusalem and Judea north after 70 CE (the end of the Great Revolt), and perhaps again after 135 (the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt).
BL: How does what you have learned at Shikhin contribute to our understanding of formative Judaism and Christianity?
JRS: The Excavations at Shikhin are filling out our picture of Galilee in the Roman period. Contrary to older views, in which people thought of the Galileans as peasants who barely escaped starvation year-by-year, who were landlocked, rarely traveling outside of their own villages, and who would never set foot in a city, we now know that Galilee under Roman occupation had a fairly robust economy in which people did indeed travel both to the city and from village to village, whether to engage in commerce or to find work. This does not mean that the Romans were not iron-fisted overlords, or that taxes were not onerous. It also does not mean that everyone was in wonderful health. Remember, in the first century, if you became seriously ill, you had a very little recourse other than your body’s own immune system, whether you were poor or rich. So, mortality and morbidity rates were probably high. We also know that, so far as we can tell, the Jewish population was concerned with the same sorts of things that concerned the Jews in the south: maintaining purity on a daily basis, eating kosher meats and other foods prepared according to a kosher manner, and traveling to Jerusalem when they could for the pilgrimage festivals. By and large, Jewish people tended to live together in villages and pagan people tended to live in their villages (not many villages in the Galilee were pagan), while some pagans also lived in the cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias. If any pagans lived in Jewish villages, they did not announce their presence in material culture that we have found. Archaeology can’t reveal to us the subtle distinctions that people groups made between themselves, or about their prejudices, but it can show us that the northern Jewish Galileans shared a material culture, a concern for purity, and a devotion to the Jerusalem temple with their southern Judean counterparts.
This information, in turn, helps us understand Jesus and his ministry, as well as the development of what became Christianity, and of formative Judaism in the Galilee. For example, if Jesus fits very well into his setting, then he too was probably concerned with purity issues and other ways of following God’s Torah on a daily basis. That helps us understand many of his discussions with Pharisees and scribes in particular as disputes between Jews rather than as fights between natural enemies. Some of those discussions resemble the types of Torah disputes between rabbis that we see in the Mishnah, which was completed in around 200 CE at Sepphoris, very close to Shikhin. Accordingly, the enmity between Jesus and some of his contemporaries becomes harder to categorize in a simple way.
BL: How is Shikhin portrayed in the sources, and how is this reflected in the archaeological remains?
JRS: Josephus tells us that Ptolemy Lathyrus took Shikhin (which he calls Asochis) by force on a Sabbath day. We can date that event to the year 103 or 102 BCE. Josephus tells us that Ptolemy captured many people and much plunder from Asochis. Josephus himself lived at Asochis for a while, and he calls the Beit Netofa Valley the Plain of Asochis. This information suggests that Asochis was already well established and fairly wealthy by the year 103. That Josephus would name the valley to the north after this town (or maybe he simply did what everyone else was doing) suggests that Asochis rebounded well from this earlier destruction. We have not found at Shikhin any evidence that people were poor by the day’s standards. The least impressive construction we have found is associated with lamp production, and so was probably for a workshop. Rather, much of what we have is well built according to the best practices of the day. The synagogue had rather impressive architectural members, including its monumental threshold and interior columns. Money for such an impressive public building has to come from somewhere, either pooled from the pocketbooks of many residents, or donated by one or a few families.
Passages in the Tosefta and Talmud recall that potters at Kefar Shikhin (along with those at Kefar Hananya) made high quality pots and sold high quality clay. There is also one hint that ceramic oil lamps were made there. We certainly find evidence of this in our excavations.
BL: If someone wanted to participate in this excavation as a volunteer how would they go about enlisting and do you have a general idea as regards to how long this excavation will be active?
JRS: I don’t see the excavation ending anytime soon. There is much to keep us occupied. People who are interested in volunteering should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our website (www.samford.edu/shikhin) will answer most of their questions. People can also join our Facebook group and can follow us on Twitter. No previous experience is necessary, and we accept people from many different backgrounds in many different countries.
BL: Thank you for taking the time to inform us about Shikhin, Prof. Strange, and I wish you and your team much success in the coming years.
Brian Leport is a PhD Candidate in Religion and Theology at Trinity College Bristol, University of Bristol.