Industry and industrialization are concepts hardly applicable to the ancient Mediterranean world, yet new theoretical paths are explored. “Industrious” does capture the scale of nonagricultural production during the Hellenistic to Byzantine periods. The archaeological and written records reflect this complex and remarkably colorful part of society. Archaeological and other evidence for production also reflects the state of technology and technological development, inasmuch as these show regional and chronological diversity: whereas self-sufficiency was fundamental to ancient society, it simply could not always apply because of ecological diversity, uneven availability of resources, and the socioeconomic climate.

Technology and technological change, as well as the ability to put theory into practice, remains a hotly debated field of study. Some argue for a more colorful and less “stagnant” perception and appreciation regarding technology. Nonetheless, the myriad of ancient agricultural and artisanal activities envisaged through the evidence imply a considerable degree of knowledge and understanding of technologies and their practical application. Clearly, there was room for technological improvement, with sizeable implications, for instance, concerning the agroeconomic sector.

The available archaeological and written records, aided by other disciplines and techniques, must be fully explored. Ideally, archaeological discoveries find corroboration in written testimonies, and vice versa, or through laboratory research, which is increasingly used. Although often enough the evidence is elusive, hard facts are needed to back up the story. Whereas the written record expands only slowly, archaeology remains the most valuable source with which to materialize ancient (artisanal) life. However, Kingsley provocatively drew attention to “the overwhelming trend for interpretation to be site-specific, with no attempt to relate cargo types or domestic assemblage characterisation to provincial agricultural or industrial production structures and to the political economy [of the Byzantine state]” (2004, pp. 74–75).

Artisanal Activity in Classical Antiquity.

Both the archaeological and written records that pertain to production offer a vivid picture: potters, mosaicists, textile weavers, goldsmiths, perfume makers, etc. Cities or regions were renowned for specific products, and the list seems endless. Through the Oxyrhynchus papyri, Egypt is an oft-mentioned exception that is mostly lacking in other areas, which were obviously not devoid of artisans. Yet, the evidence is patchy, signifying a strong reliance on archaeology and epigraphic sources.

Scholarly interest into artisanal production (organization, specialization, architectural context, chaîne opératoire) has increased over the past decades. Although not easy to detect archaeologically, the methodological portfolio features meticulous excavation, comparative modeling, the study of quantified distribution patterns, and laboratory analyses.

Artisans were organized in collegia, or suntechnia, of which we hear through written sources. Unclear is whether each artisan was a member of such a “guild,” as is the degree of social organization and impact. These probably differed regionally and depended on the socioeconomic context. Artisans and “guilds” were not found only in large(r) (coastal) cities such as Rome and Ephesus: although such centers were vital forces both in the Mediterranean economy and also in light of the size and requirements of their population, suburban and rural evidence indicates that their artisanal framework must also have been considerable and varied.

Industry and Production in Hellenistic to Byzantine Palestine.

As elsewhere, the material culture of Palestine was hybrid: it shared features with material culture used elsewhere and at the same time had distinctive, “personal” traits. Although variation differed considerably within and between regions, settlements, and sociocultural groups, it sparked a continuous urban and nonurban need for building materials; agricultural tools; vessels for food and drink consumption made of clay, glass, and other materials; clothing; perfumes; and so on supplied by urban and nonurban artisans.

What did differ, however, were the socioeconomic climate and the scale of the activities, particularly during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The geographic location and the religious and general politicomilitary situation in Palestine played a role. During the Hellenistic period, Palestine belonged to the Ptolemaic kingdom; following the Seleucid conquest around 200 B.C.E., it found itself on the fringes of that empire, although it changed hands on other occasions. Whereas unrest and war in the late Hellenistic eastern Mediterranean had its effects also on economic life, it is generally acknowledged that the peacefulness of the early Roman period had a very positive effect on productive and distributive mechanisms and was accompanied by significant demographic increase and urbanization: the Pax Romana offered socioeconomic opportunities that people took with both hands.

The available sources for the study of artisanal production are (1) the written record (mostly epigraphic and classical sources), (2) (archaeological) finds and their contextual analysis, and (3) archaeometrical or laboratory analyses. Ideally, all three sources are explored and brought together. However, research into artisanal life in Palestine is relatively recent, with a number of methodological problems affecting our perception and interpretation. Progress is nevertheless being made, in which laboratory analyses increasingly provide valuable results. Despite the uneven preservation of archaeological artifacts and the regional variation in sources of evidence, Palestine, where urban and nonurban sites are thoroughly investigated and the written sources encompass more than epigraphy and the “traditional” classical authors, together with Egypt is rather an exceptional case within the Hellenistic to Byzantine world.

The written sources offer their own challenges, such as the relationship between the Bible (and, for instance, the Talmudic writings) and archaeological research. On a broad, sociopolitical and religious level, this has certainly shaped the outcome or interpretation on either side. In fact, the repertoire of classical authors is crucial in understanding parts of the Bible. Of greater concern here are how and to what extent written sources directed daily life and the chain from production to consumption and use of material culture. Some written sources, such as the rabbinic and Talmudic, provide valuable information. From these sources we hear of the purity and impurity of categories of artifacts and clothing habits and how an installation was supposed to have been furnished. Clearly, beliefs and regulations affected the life of some, but not all; and archaeological research has certainly improved our understanding as such. It may not have been as religiously black and white as one might think. Archaeological and related disciplines should perhaps focus on the region in its own right, with its distinct, hybrid, material culture just as any other region within the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine world. Conscientiousness and standing to one’s own ethnic and socioeconomic background resulted in a dissimilar impact of “becoming” Hellenistic or Roman that, moreover, was chronologically dependent, resulting in a mixed society.

Even though agriculture formed the chief motor behind ancient economies for both subsistence and surplus purposes, the persistent view that nonagricultural production made only a very limited contribution to the economy is increasingly difficult to maintain. For instance, the continued importance of the southern Levant in raw glass production and the dynamic production and distribution of wine and amphorae in the Byzantine period must have given a considerable (economic) boost to the region.


Despite an incomplete picture, plenty of workshops must have catered to most local and regional needs in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, for which much evidence exists. Production took place both in urban (e.g., Jerusalem as well as smaller-scale settlements) and in rural (e.g., Kefar Hananya) areas. One cannot, however, accept a geographical distinction between the manufacture of lamps and figurines, on the one hand, and that of common pottery, on the other.

Basically, all functional ceramic categories could be catered for, including oil lamps and storage jars (amphorae), as the examples of Shikhin and Yodefat illustrate. However, the fragmented picture slows down our thinking about production organization and distribution, for instance, through which channels rurally produced pottery found its way to villages and cities. Through written sources, however, we are rather well informed on such matters, and perhaps the KEPA/MEΩN graffito from Gerasa reflects the (known) local production. An exception is a Roman and early Byzantine workshop that mostly catered for regional markets. Oboda in the Negev illustrates the possibility of an alternative view: besides the fairly illogical original hypothesis, a reevaluation of the archaeological evidence has led to a new idea about this ceramic workshop.

As elsewhere in the Roman Empire, legionary forces stationed in Palestine had a certain impact on local and regional economies, not in the least with new styles and techniques. The Legio X Fretensis was stationed in the Jerusalem area from 70 C.E. onward, following the First Jewish Revolt. Besides bricks, red-slipped tablewares in the terra sigillata tradition were manufactured, using Italian-style techniques.

In the Byzantine period, Palestine was drawn into the Mediterranean economy because of an unprecedented production and export of wine. Two major types of amphorae acted as containers, the so-called Gaza Amphora (or Late Roman Amphora 4) and the bag-shaped series (predominantly Late Roman Amphora 5) from northern Palestine. The former, in particular, is found throughout the Mediterranean; the wine it carried may partly have had a liturgical purpose. A number of production sites are known, including a farmstead in the vicinity of Ashkelon, equipped with several winepresses. A model of regional production can be pictured, comprising a number of workshops scattered in the wider area of Gaza, likely more often than not in conjunction with agricultural installations that were supplied with amphorae by the workshops, as the example of Ashkelon implies. The prolific surplus production of olive oil and wine in the Byzantine period in the Galilee possibly worked along similar lines, for which Caesarea acted as a major outlet and to which the production of bag-shaped amphorae at Shikhin was possibly coupled.

Nevertheless, a detailed understanding of the role of Gaza and Caesarea and their hinterlands in the Byzantine economy deserves further investigation. For example, are all known kilns found in the proximity of agricultural installations? Did all workshops for amphorae operate contemporaneously? How was the work organized, and can we recognize division of labor? In fact, with some notable exceptions, these questions mirror the situation in the eastern Mediterranean more generally.


Although the technology of glass-making, forming shapes and vessels, was already known, in the first century B.C.E. the new technology of glassblowing “revolutionized the entire glass industry” (Stern, 2008, pp. 535–536). The southern Levant played a significant role in this and continued to do so during the Roman and subsequent periods. The region was well equipped with natural resources required for the primary production of glass. Glassworking appears to have been practiced on an industrial scale, given the sizeable installations found at, among other places, Apollonia and Bet Eliאezer, continuing into the early Islamic period. A glass furnace has been identified at Acco, though the region also supplied other areas with raw glass, for which the large furnace slabs were broken into more manageable “chunks.” The (southern) Levant was also known for secondary production (glass-making), including that of windowpanes at Samaria/Sebaste and Scythopolis.


Metal tools and implements are common finds in archaeological excavations, reflecting their importance in everyday life. Yet, metals and metallurgy seem underrepresented in studies of this region in terms of provenance determination, the process of quarrying, and workshops. Safrai noted that this “industry has not yet been examined in detail… and in any case was not very widespread,” despite “smithies, smelters, silversmiths, goldsmiths and even forgers of weapons” being mentioned in written sources (1994, p. 211). Surely, his view does no justice to the technology of quarrying and production or the scale and variety of objects recovered in excavations in the region; probably because it is poorly investigated, it appears not to have been widespread.

The minting of coins, which took place in a number of cities in the region during the Roman period and must have spurred a considerable supply of ores, may be a case in point. For instance, copper ores are known in the region. The military presence in the region also demanded metal, in the form of either ores or finished products. Evidence for local manufacture, possibly including weaponry, comes from Lejjun. A particular product was the manufacture of lead coffins at, among other places, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Caesarea, and Tyre in Roman and Byzantine times yet apparently is not substantiated through firm (archaeological) evidence. A blacksmith’s workshop of possible late Roman or Byzantine date in the Galilee provides exceptional evidence that indeed merits further study. Compelling evidence has been provided for the casting of bronze objects at Tel Dor in the Roman period. This example especially shows the methodological intricacies of such research as well as how little such activities might actually have left behind in terms of production waste. Nevertheless, the attempt to contextualize the installation is praiseworthy, as is the sociocultural reading of ethnicity-based “choice.”

Stone and marble.

The southern Levant played no role in the quarrying and trade of marble or colored stones because of a lack of sources. This implies that builders relied on imported marbles and colored stones for decorative and other purposes, which possibly affected the production of sculpture and architectural elements, in terms of locally available skilled sculptors. Building materials (e.g., limestone) were rather extracted from local quarries. The coastal zone of Mount Carmel was rather rich in quarries, supplying other cities through coastal trade. Although theoretical calculations suggest that a considerable part of the population in that area was involved in quarry activities, little seems to be known on extraction techniques or the organization within the quarries.

However, Palestine differs considerably in its use of material culture with the manufacture of stone vessels. Related activities possibly developed from this, for instance, the manufacture of lamp molds. The morphological repertoire of stone vessels discloses traits discernible in, for instance, pottery. Although stone vessels were already used in pre-Hellenistic societies and in other parts of the Roman Empire, rabbinic belief stipulated stone vessels as ritually pure, in contrast to ceramic vessels. The production of stone vessels took place mostly in and around Jerusalem, though other places have been identified, and is thought to have continued after 70 C.E.

Textile production and related activities.

One of the chief, yet equally invisible aspects of ancient life is the manufacturing of clothing and related activities, such as fulling, tanning, and dyeing. The preservation of organic material is strongly dependent on climatic conditions; therefore, finds are geographically dispersed yet complemented by those from specific archaeological contexts. Spindle whorls and, especially, loom weights are valuable testifiers of weaving activities, yet they largely disappeared during the early Roman period after the invention of the warp-weighted loom. The importance of textiles, however, is gathered from written sources, in which particular cities or regions were renowned for a certain cloth. Scythopolis, for instance, was renowned for its linen, from Gerasa an association of linen weavers is known during the third century C.E., and “Tyrian purple” appears to have had all the hallmarks of a “brand,” being prized by classical writers and remaining important well after the Byzantine period.

In spite of the supposedly luxurious purple-dye cloth from Tyre, the manufacturing of clothing and related items (mats, for instance) must have been enormous, for which a range of fibers could be used. Flax and wool were the most commonly used fibers in Palestine, and their use was possibly even regionally distinct. Since the production of textiles results in such archaeological lacunae, especially after the Hellenistic period, evidence for related activities could serve as proxies for textile manufacturing. Installations for textile dyeing is one type of evidence, yet more tangible perhaps are deposits of crushed shells belonging to several species of the genus Murex, a gland of which produces a substance with which cloths were dyed, called argaman (Tyrian purple) and tekhelet. These were not only of interest economically but also had social and religious relevance. The process of purple dyeing is revealed through recent experimentation, in which ash and perhaps salt are indispensable, thereby illustrating how different industries joined hands to produce a single end product. It is therefore no surprise that installations for (purple) dyeing, though not all, are to be found in coastal sites: beneath a synagogue in Gaza, in Dor and Sarepta in Lebanon, at Aperlae in Lycia, in Libya, and on Delos.

Other manufacturing and industrial activities.

Asphalt seems to have been appreciated; its extraction may have declined after the early Roman period according to written sources. Asphalt was used by medicine makers, among others. Palestine is geographically well located concerning the manufacturing of medicine and perfume, given the requirements of ingredients from Arabia and India. Archaeologically, the perfume industry is a delicate subject, as the supposed installation at ʾein Feshka illustrates. This is also true for balsam, which was used in perfume making and for which, according to written sources, certain places were famed: the best came from en-Gedi. Although its economic importance is impossible to gauge, the presumed manufacturing context could provide a clue. Because of the delicate nature of the profession, distinguishing between perfume and medicine making may not always be easy archaeologically, if, indeed, they did not even overlap, partly because of joint requirements. Salt extraction was practiced, for nutritional and other purposes (purple dyeing), though archeologically it is hardly demonstrable. Although fishponds are found quite often, these seem to have been more recreational: making fish sauces (garum, liquamen) does not appear to have been practiced. Honey and papyrus were also produced in Palestine. Technologically certainly not inferior is the carving of objects from bone and ivory, as well as jewelry making. The demand for wood must have been enormous and rather steady, for instance, for building projects, toolmaking, and shipbuilding. Consequently, carpentry was a profession of some importance. However, archaeological research concerning wood remains can be hampered by practical and methodological difficulties.

Many products and ingredients represent a fundamental problem: ample references in the written record yet archaeologically elusive or invisible. The question as to what to rely on presents itself. The written record is a rich source, and used rightfully so. Clearly, it offers much information that otherwise would not be known. Yet a critical stance and backing up the sources with other (archaeological) evidence are imperative if understanding is to be improved. With increased knowledge and application of laboratory techniques, the cooperative nature of the archaeological discipline regarding “classic” disciplines (epigraphy, ancient history) is thus increasingly modernized (residue analyses, isotope analyses).

The Context of Production.

The manufacturing of products represented a society in “need” (practically, socially), from small-scale farmers to Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors. The context in which production took place is important to understand: What was its purpose and on what scale? Who was involved? What was there to gain? What sorts of subsidiary work were involved? In the case of Palestine, attitudes and beliefs described in the written record are potentially helpful, yet these may change over time and should not always be taken at face value.

Self-sufficiency was integral to ancient societies, and a considerable part was taken up by agriculture, “the foundation of the ancient economy” (Sallares, 2007, p. 27). Small-scale farmers provided for their own needs, yet what they could not produce themselves (lack of resources or knowledge, for instance) would be obtained from the “market” (literally and figuratively). Otherwise, the balsam groves at en-Gedi are thought to have been imperial property from which the state gained economically, yet the use of balsam also required a steady (and perhaps therefore controlled) production. Production itself must also reflect anything between self-sufficiency and surplus production for “international” markets. This was the case for both food and nonfood production, as archaeology and written sources testify.

In Hellenistic times, pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple played a considerable economic role, which only increased under the Roman Empire. Sanctuaries and pilgrimage cannot be neglected as economically potent forces, in terms of both manufacture and consumption, although meaning and content changed between Hellenistic and Byzantine times. The military is another factor: considerable in light of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid clashes, the military presence also during the Roman and Byzantine periods had a certain (economic) impact. The evidence from Jerusalem also nicely shows that manufacture was not simply urban or rural. The considerable demand for finished and half-finished items generated by settlements could simply not be met only through local manufacturers: rural areas were indispensable for agriculture, as well as for channeling goods and produce through markets and fairs.

Current and Future Scope.

The examples of Oboda and ʾein Feshka show that our understanding of (artisanal) life in Hellenistic to Byzantine Palestine is open to alternative interpretation(s): other excavated production sites may also merit a reevaluation of the evidence. Improving excavation and recording techniques, contextual interpretation of the workshop and its instrumentum, and laboratory analyses, studied in conjunction with other (mostly written) sources, will increasingly develop the picture.

However, generally it appears that where Palestine or, to wheel out an old dichotomy, the eastern Mediterranean differs from the western Mediterranean is in terms of a synthetic approach concerning industry, manufacture, and the role of artisanal life. Scythopolis provides an interesting case regarding Byzantine urban planning and mentality, as do Gerasa, Caesarea, and, farther away, North Africa. The evidence from Byzantine Beirut equally attests to a vibrant artisanal production yet again one strongly based on the written (epigraphic) record. The regional (economic) contextualization of Khirbet Qumran is another example of a synthetic approach. Although partly based on written sources, it provides a valuable insight into a regional economy, embracing different levels of production and consumption. Finally, from the scattered evidence for Gerasa emerges a fragmentary yet varied picture of artisanal activity.

Gathering from the richness of the available published evidence, the Hellenistic to Byzantine period in modern-day Israel is intensively investigated. Many written sources are available that provide a fascinating picture of artisanal life. Archaeologically, however, the picture still appears somewhat fragmented. Certainly, excavations and surveys regularly take place and are described in monographs and a range of journals, displaying a wealth and variety of material culture. Although this has already resulted in interesting syntheses, the available evidence holds great potential for a fascinating and balanced picture of artisanal production in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Palestine.



  • Adan-Bayewitz, David. Common Pottery in Roman Galilee: A Study of Local Trade. Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1993.
  • Adan-Bayewitz, David. “A Lamp Mould from Sepphoris and the Location of Workshops for Lamp and Common Pottery Manufacture in Northern Palestine.” In The Roman and Byzantine Near East: Some Recent Archaeological Research, edited by John H. Humphrey, pp. 177–182. JRA Supplementary Series 14. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1995.
  • Aviam, Mordechai. “A Byzantine Blacksmith Workshop in the Galilee.” In his Jews, Pagans, and Christians in the Galilee: 25 Years of Archaeological Excavations and Surveys, Hellenistic to Byzantine Periods, pp. 246–256. Land of Galilee 1. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2004.
  • Eliyahu-Behar, Adi, Lior Regev, Sana Shilstein, et al. “Identifying a Roman Casting Pit at Tel Dor, Israel: Integrating Field and Laboratory Research.” Journal of Field Archaeology 34 (2009): 135–151.
  • Greene, Kevin. “Historiography and Theoretical Approaches.” In The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, edited by John Peter Oleson, pp. 62–90. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Greene, Kevin. “Industry and Technology.” In The High Empire, a.d. 70–192, edited by Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsey, and Dominic Rathbone, pp. 741–768. Cambridge Ancient History XI. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Heszer, Catherine, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Khamis, Elias. “The Shops of Scythopolis in Context.” In Objects in Context, Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity, edited by Luke A. Lavan, Ellen Swift, and Toon Putzeys, pp. 439–472. Late Antique Archaeology 5. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
  • Kingsley, Sean A. “Specialised Production in the Holy Land.” In his Shipwreck Archaeology of the Holy Land: Processes and Parameters, pp. 74–92. London: Duckworth, 2004.
  • Magen, Yithzak. The Stone Vessel Industry in the Second Temple Period: Excavations at Hizma and the Jerusalem Temple Mount. Judea and Samaria Publications 1. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2002.
  • Oleson, John Peter, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Safrai, Zeאev. The Economy of Roman Palestine. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Sallares, Robert. “Ecology.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco–Roman World, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris, and Richard P. Saller, pp. 15–37. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Stern, E. Marianne. “Glass Production.” In The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, edited by John Peter Oleson, pp. 520–547. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Vitto, Fanny. “Potters and Pottery Manufacture in Roman Palestine.” Institute of Archaeology Bulletin 23 (1986): 47–64.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Rome’s Cultural Revolution, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Philip Bes