Large Columbarium


The Columbarium as seen prior to excavation.
The Columbarium as seen prior to excavation.
The Columbarium as seen prior to excavation.
Beginning excavation of the Columbarium.
The original entrance to the columbarium. An archway once supported a staircase.
As seen following excavation.
The triangular niches that once housed the doves.
The niches.
Light streaming through the original entrance.

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Video Transcript

The Large Columbarium is one of nine columbarium we have uncovered the site of Beit Lehi so far. A columbarium is a dove coat, a place where they used to grow pigeons or turtle doves more correctly. The large columbarium has 1100 niches where a couple of birds use to nest. This is one of the biggest columbarium if not the biggest columbarium ever found in the land of Israel which makes it the largest in the world. It was founded in the 3rd century BCE and used until the late Byzantine period in the sixth century CE until an earthquake damaged it which means that for almost more than 800 years it was in use.


The largest columbarium thus far discovered at the site was discovered by accident. While exploring the site, we came across a tunnel opening (another hiding tunnel from the Bar Kokhba Revolt)0 that twisted its way narrowly for quite a while in pitch darkness, and subsequently led into the columbarium. This huge complex was hewn entirely out of the soft limestone, and comprises a central chamber separated from the surrounding chambers by arched openings. All but the western chamber feature hundreds of triangular niches that housed the doves.

Four deep circular hewn shafts were installed to let in light and air, as well as to allow the doves to come and go as they pleased. The shafts also featured small niches that enabled workers to climb up and down. When the columbarium went out of use, the shafts were sealed by massive stone slabs.

At some undetermined date, after the columbarium was no longer in use, a bell-shaped water cistern was carved in its southeastern corner. The builders must not have known of the columbarium’s existence, since they inadvertently broke through its northeastern wall, rendering the cistern useless. Another hiding tunnel, though blocked, is seen in the cistern's southwestern wall.

The main entrance comprised a shallow, finely hewn rectangular shaft. A number of well-worn hewn steps descended from the shaft to a massive square pier with dove niches on every side. The steps appeared to have continued their descent by means of an arch that had long been dismantled, but whose traces can be seen on the pier's eastern face. The dismantled arch apparently carried the steps eastward to another pier, preserved to a height of 7.2 feet, and from there the steps turned north, reaching the original columbarium floor. The arch was installed upon the columbarium's completion supporting the stone slabs above it that sealed the entrance, preventing a massive exodus of doves. From then on, the above-mentioned shafts were used as entrances, since at any point they could be blocked with metal grills.

At some later time, perhaps when the columbarium was still in use, the floor was significantly lowered by about 6.5 feet, leaving a crude block of stone featuring five hewn steps that descended to the floor. The hewn bedrock floor of this central chamber was lowered in several different spots, creating several "steps" of various heights, perhaps a small quarry of sorts. A few "incisions" into the rock are also seen, preparation for the removal of a stone slab.

Our work revealed that originally the entrance was physically separate from the columbarium itself, and served as an oil press. The oil press, dating to the Hellenistic or Early Roman period, was entirely rock-hewn and features one crushing basin and a few settling pits. The above-mentioned hiding tunnel broke through its southern wall. At some point, the floor of this entrance room collapsed. This erroneously led us to believe that the oil press and the columbarium comprised one unit.

The Spring 2009 excavation was the first in which we utilized a portable conveyer belt system to excavate the columbarium. Until this point, all work was carried out via bucket chains. This was a difficult and inefficient process given the distance between the heart of the columbarium and the entrance. Found among the large amount of pottery carried out by the conveyer were a Mamluk oil lamp and an Islamic bronze bell.

In Spring 2007 we succeeded in locating from aboveground the original entrance of the columbarium, which had been completely hidden by several feet of soil, and subsequently expanded an excavation area around it. We exposed an impressive Byzantine-period wall built of well-hewn stones to the north of the entrance, comprising part of a massive structure whose function is as yet unknown.

The earthen fills corresponding to the wall yielded large amounts of Byzantine pottery. We also discovered a Late Islamic stone-built construction that resembles a well and whose southern end stands directly over the original Hellenistic stone slabs that sealed the entrance.

Finds of particular note from this area include a Hellenistic arrowhead that is possibly a remnant of the Hasmonean conquest of the region in the second century BC. Attesting to the Christian nature of the site several centuries later is a sherd inscribed with the Greek letters Alpha (Α) and Omega (Ω) flanking a cross, signifying the verse "I am the Beginning and the End” from the Book of Revelation (1:8, 21:6, 22:13).