Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Palace Mosaics on the Sea of Galilee Shore

A mosaic from Khirbat al-Minya.

Geomagnetic surface survey provides accurate information for productive future excavations and aids discovery of an ancient settlement close to Khirbat al-Minya. (Image: © via Hans-Peter Kuhnen)

New insights into the area where the caliph’s palace of Khirbat al-Minya was built on the shores of the Sea of Galilee have been revealed with the help of geomagnetic surface surveys and subsequent hands-on digging, an excavation team from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

According to these findings, Christian or Jewish inhabitants had already occupied a settlement in the immediate vicinity long before the palace was built.

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The site director and archaeologist Professor Hans-Peter Kuhnen said regarding the outcome of the most recent undertakings in the area around the early Islamic caliph’s palace Khirbat al-Minya in Israel:

“This time we have really hit the jackpot with our excavations.”

Based on the findings, the team of archaeologists from Mainz made this significant discovery using geomagnetic methods and digging test pits. They discovered that in the early 8th century, the caliph had commissioned the building of his palace, with its incorporated mosque and a 15-meter-high (49 ft) gateway tower, not — as hitherto suspected — on greenfield land on the unoccupied shore of the Sea of Galilee, but adjacent to and respectfully co-existing with a prior settlement.

Khirbat al-Minya: The excavation site (brown) with its sunshade canopies located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee — here viewed from the elevation of Tel Kinneret.
Khirbat al-Minya: The excavation site (brown) with its sunshade canopies is located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee — viewed from the elevation of Tel Kinneret. (Image: © via Hans-Peter Kuhnen)

The research project was initially conceived as a means of training students in archeological fieldwork. It was undertaken with the support of the Israel Antiquities Authority and financed by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the Axel Springer Foundation, the Santander Foundation, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The team was accommodated in the Tabgha Pilgerhaus guesthouse run by the German Association of the Holy Land (DVHL), which has owned the site of the excavations on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee since 1895.

During their dig, the Mainz archaeological team found stone structures of basalt dating to various periods, with plastered walls, colorful mosaic floors, and a water cistern. The plants in one of the mosaics are particularly remarkable as they have the long, curved stems typical of those also depicted in so-called Nile-scene mosaics created in the 5th to 6th centuries.

The mosaic’s images of flora and fauna native to the Nile valley symbolized the life-giving power of the mighty river, with its annual floods guaranteeing Egypt’s agricultural fertility. That explains why both late-antique churches, such as that in the nearby Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, and luxurious dwellings in cities of late antiquity were decorated with Nile-scene mosaics.

The Sea of Galilee settlement was there long before the caliph’s palace was planned

The recently discovered mosaic, together with related ceramic finds dating to the 5th to 7th centuries, show that the settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee was already thriving centuries before the work on the caliph’s palace had commenced. Its original inhabitants were either Christians or Jews. They were subsequently joined by a small Islamic community, for whom the caliph had a side entrance constructed in the early 8th century to access his palace mosque. The unearthed ceramics revealed that the site remained occupied under the control of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates from the 7th to the 11th centuries.

JGU students recording the outlines of the mosaic — with a tall waterside plant with blossoms and small green leaves on three stems in the exposed portion and the stern and rudder of a boat on the lower left.
JGU students recorded the outlines of the mosaic — with a tall waterside plant with blossoms and tiny green leaves on three stems in the exposed portion and the stern and rudder of a boat on the lower left. (Image: © via Hans-Peter Kuhnen)

New construction projects were initiated in this period, during which parts of the mosaics fell victim to pickaxes wielded by religiously inspired iconoclasts, sections of old walls were demolished, and the stones were transported away for reuse elsewhere. The remains finally became the location of a graveyard where the dead were buried, by Muslim custom, lying on their side with their faces directed toward Mecca.

Nearby, the Mainz team also exposed a stone-built furnace used to process sugar cane. Although sugar cane represented one of the top agricultural exports of the Holy Land from the period of the early Middle Ages and brought considerable wealth for the landowners, vast volumes of water were needed to cultivate it. At the same time, large amounts of wood were required to operate boiling furnaces.

Close-up of the mosaic showing a flowering plant: In the foreground are traces of the marks made by a pickaxe when the mosaic was deliberately destroyed.
Close-up of the mosaic showing a flowering plant: In the foreground are traces of the marks made by a pickaxe when the mosaic was deliberately destroyed. (Image: © via Hans-Peter Kuhnen)

The result was extensive soil erosion and an environmental disaster that the area around the Sea of Galilee had not fully recovered from even by the 20th century. The immense scale of sugarcane cultivation in the Middle Ages was demonstrated by both the findings of the excavations at the Caliph’s Palace — those from 1936 to 1939 and those in 2016 — and by the 2019 Mainz geomagnetic surveys, which all revealed evidence of dozens of such furnaces in operation between the 12th and 13th/14th centuries. Kuhnen said:

“Our most recent excavations show that Caliph Walid had his palace built on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in an already carefully structured landscape that had long been inhabited. It was here that considerable money was subsequently made through the cultivation of sugar cane, sadly causing lasting damage to the ecosystem.

“Our research has brought this settlement adjacent to the caliph’s palace to light again, putting it in its rightful context among the history of human settlement of the Holy Land. Over the centuries, it experienced alternating periods of innovation and decline, but there was no real disruption to its existence during its lifetime.”

Geomagnetic surface surveys showed where to dig

The Mainz-based team could locate this historic hotspot so accurately with its test pits due to the results of a pilot project’s geomagnetic surface surveys conducted on-site in 2019. The technology employs magnetic sensors to detect and map tiny variations in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by soil disturbances, for example, those caused by construction work. This allows archaeologists to confidently predict the course of walls and flooring and identify the site of hearths and ovens hidden under the soil without recourse to a spade.

Drawings to record the appearance of the firing chamber of a medieval sugar-cane boiling vat.
Drawings to record the appearance of the firing chamber of a medieval sugarcane boiling vat. (Image: © via Hans-Peter Kuhnen)

However, to verify whether magnetometry results indicate something interesting and to date the potential structures, archaeologists need to dig targeted test pits — as did the team from JGU’s Department of Ancient Studies at Khirbat al-Minya. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kuhnen and his team had to wait three long years before they could get back to the site to see what was waiting for them. However, they were rewarded for their efforts toiling away under the scorching August sun. Professor Hans-Peter Kuhnen concluded in light of the current excavations on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which will continue next year:

“It was our prior geomagnetic scans that provided us with unusually accurate indications of what we were likely to find below the surface. The outcome of our excavations has been exactly what we hoped for. Combining these two methods of investigation requires less exertion, helps preserve the archaeological heritage, and is thus the future of our discipline,”

Provided by Universitaet Mainz [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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