The Oil Press and Jewish Ritual Bath Complex

Photographs

Entrance to the ritual bath as seen from inside. Note the large water stain beneath the “window” through which water would have streamed inside.
A narrow channel hewn along the staircase that would have carried water into the ritual bath.
Hiding tunnel uncovered in the ritual bath, carved after the bath was no longer in use.
The oil press prior to excavation.
A seven-branched candelabra, or menorah, seen inscribed above the entrance to the oil press.
The massive stone basin used for grinding the olives, comprising the first step in the oil production.
A number of crude stone weights with pierced openings used to press the olives.
Tunnel that led to the “accidental” discovery of the oil press.
The oil press following excavation. Note the darker horizontal line beneath the hewn niches, indicating the level of the original floor.

Virtual Tour

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Video

Video Transcript

We are on top of the subterranean complex of the olive press and the ritual bath uncovered by us in 2005. The excavation of the site actually started here in October 2005, after I noticed antique looters were digging here illegally. After a few days of excavation we found a shaft hewn in the rock that lead to a subterranean tunnel. When we crawled inside the tunnel we came to the ceiling, to the top of the subterranean complex and first to the olive press and later to the ritual bath. The olive press was established in the 2nd century BCE by the Idumeans who were a pagan people who lived in this area from the 4th and the 3rd century BCE until the Maccabees conquest in 112 BCE. Then the site became a Jewish site and then they added the ritual bath attached to the olive press. Inside the olive press we uncovered three large presses and huge crater that could hold one thousand pound of olives as well as an intact grinding stone sitting next to it.

Next to the olive press we uncovered a Jewish ritual bath where the people who worked in the olive press immersed themselves every day in order to be pure before they started work. It is very important in Judaism to be pure while you’re manufacturing olive oil. Perhaps they will use this olive oil in the Temple in Jerusalem and in order to do that you have to be pure. We uncovered a complete ritual bath which include what a water channel, steps, a window where the water gets inside and seven benches plastered with hydraulic plaster and in the lower part of the ritual bath in the pool where we found a few pure pottery cups that the people used when the level of the water was low. We find the link between the ritual bath and the olive press in order the olive oil will be pure and kosher before it was sent to the Temple in Jerusalem

Description of the Olive Press

In early October 2005 our team arrived at the site, slightly unsure of what awaited us even though we were familiar with the basilical church and the Jerusalem Cave. The surrounding region was riddled with large boulders and the remains of crude Late Islamic structures. We surveyed the sight, exploring what was visible on the surface to decide where best to establish our excavation areas. We decided on two: the first comprised a concentration of what seemed to be the foundations of Late Islamic dwellings, and could thus comprise part of the village that existed during that time; and the second was where we had found evidence of crude and hurried excavations carried out by antiquities looters. The former would become the village area, and the latter, the oil press and ritual bath subterranean complex.

The first day’s work in the latter area exposed a number of square- and rectangular-shaped openings carefully carved into bedrock. We entered one of these openings, which was in fact a seven-foot deep shaft, leading us into a well-hewn tunnel that wound its way for a short distance before reaching its final destination.

At the time, we were convinced that the tunnel system was one of countless others that dot the landscape of the Judean Shephelah, hewn into the soft limestone by Jews who both fled from and fought the Roman army during the massive and disastrous Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132–135 CE. Today, after many excavations, we are not really sure and believe that some may be connected to the numerous industrial installations discovered at the site.

The tunnel lead into a large soil and debris-filled chamber, reached by a short drop onto the huge pile of debris that had accumulated over the millennia. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we realized that we had stumbled upon an oil press. Moreover, this was no modest Byzantine oil press like the one see adjacent to the basilical church, but a finely crafted and sophisticated press typical of the Hellenistic or Early Roman period (also known as the Second Temple period: the second century BC to 70 AD). We could also make out a main entrance that was blocked by soil and rocks from inside and completely hidden from the outside.

Making our way back outside via the tunnel, we then estimated where to begin digging and hopefully expose some sign of the oil press entrance. Our calculations proved correct, and we exposed a stepped passageway that descended into the oil press. But that was not all! Another chamber was discovered immediately to the left of the oil press, its entrance partly blocked by debris. This would ultimately be the Jewish ritual bath (miqveh), though we didn’t not know it at the time, and would not begin excavating it until Spring 2006.

The oil press, entirely rock-hewn, comprises a large basin in which olives were stored olives; a large stone crushing basin and crushing stone for the initial crushing of the olives; and three pressing installations for squeezing the oil, in which frails (baskets) holding the olives were suspended from a wooden beam that fitted into the niche in the wall and force was exerted on them with the help of stone weights. On the right is a storage basin for olives. The opening in the center allowed workers to reach the pressing installation on the left. Olives were placed on the crushing basin and were crushed by the aptly-named crushing stone to prepare them for the pressing process. The crushing stone was turned either with a donkey or even by one or two workers.

An almost perfectly preserved Herodian oil lamp supports the dating of the oil press. The three crudely inscribed seven-candle menorahs discovered on the oil press walls may have been the work of Jews who settled the site following the Hasmonean conquest. At some point after it was abandoned, the oil press was converted into a quarry, and its floor was systematically lowered some ten feet.

Description of the Ritual Bath

Jewish law attributes great significance to matters of purity; this was especially the case during the Second Temple period. This touches on all aspects of life, especially food and drink. To ensure that it will be kosher, oil has to be prepared in pure conditions, and in order to not sully these conditions, the workers preparing it must also be purified. Modern methods provide multiple methods to guarantee purity, but in antiquity workers immersed themselves in a ritual bath prior to beginning their labor. Indeed, the phenomenon of ritual baths being built near an oil press (or wine press) is known from the archaeological record in Israel. Therefore, we were not surprised at the relationship between the Beit Lehi ritual bath and oil press. Beit Lehi’s ritual bath is particularly impressive for two main reasons: it is one of the largest ever found (and keep in mind that this is a rural, peripheral site), and it was preserved almost unscathed. Like the oil press, it dates from the first century BC or AD, and like the oil press, it went out of use by no later than the second century AD, at which time Jewish refugees during the Bar Kokhba Revolt dug an escape (or hiding) tunnel into one of the bath walls.

The ritual bath is situated immediately to the southwest of the oil press, and like the oil press, is entirely rock-hewn. It is an almost square chamber, measuring about 16.2 × 14.6 feet and 16 feet in height. East of the entrance is a square “window” with a small breached opening through which water flowed into the bath. A water stain is visible underneath the opening. The bath contains seven steps stretching along its entire width, culminating in two much narrower steps running lengthwise. Each step is plastered with a thick layer of plaster, and some areas of plaster have also been preserved on the bath walls themselves. When excavations began, only the top of the first step was exposed.

The escape tunnel and chamber

The hewn tunnel which is apparently from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt was exposed in the bath’s southwestern corner. At some twenty feet in length, it is remarkably free of debris, and leads into a rock-hewn chamber. Excavation of the chamber is slow-going as it was both completely filled with packed earth and debris and earth removal has been solely via the tunnel. Nevertheless, we have succeeded in exposing three wall faces and a bit of the ceiling, and hope to eventually locate the entrance from above ground which will mike the final excavation much easier.