Since at least the fourth century C.E., the site of the present Israeli city of Nazareth has been recognized as the place of the same name mentioned in the New Testament: the location of the Annunciation and the upbringing (“nutrition”) of Christ. The center of modern Nazareth is surrounded by Roman-period burials, indicating approximately the location of the Roman-period site, although the frequently cited assumption that these delineate the New Testament–period settlement is incorrect: the forecourt of a kokhim tomb (a burial complex consisting of long, narrow shafts in which bodies were placed) of first-century C.E. type at the Sisters of Nazareth convent cuts through Roman-period occupation evidence. However, it is unclear whether any of the published burials date to the New Testament period.

In order to understand the archaeology of New Testament–period Nazareth more fully it is necessary to appreciate its landscape context. Nazareth is located immediately north of a high and rocky natural escarpment (the Nazareth Ridge). It is hard to imagine that this escarpment was itself farmed in antiquity or that the inhabitants of ancient Nazareth could have regularly made use of the land to its south, which was, at least to some extent, malarial marsh into the twentieth century. It is more likely that the farmland belonging to residents of Nazareth was in the present city and the broad river valley (Nahal Zippori) to its north.

Nahal Zippori has good-quality calcareous brown rendzina soil formed over the Eocene limestone of its surface geology. The white rendzina that can form over the Senonian chalk below this is much less fertile, but the chalk is only rarely exposed. High-quality soil and a good water supply enabled Nahal Zippori to be a productive agricultural area into the nineteenth century. Then one of its principal crops was barley, and much woodland (including oak) was present until the Ottoman period. The valley is largely agricultural in the twenty-first century, with wheat, olives, and vegetables being grown. Patches of dense woodland remain, and parts of the valley are used as pasture for cattle and sheep, as they may well have been in antiquity. In the Roman period, this natural situation could have provided an opportunity to produce primary and secondary agricultural products in greater quantities than in neighboring areas, and the greater presence of woodland might have afforded ample timber for construction.

The first systematic archaeological survey of this part of Nahal Zippori, directed by Ken Dark for the Nazareth Archaeological Project (funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund) between 2004 and 2008, found a dense pattern of largely hitherto unsuspected Roman-period settlements in the valley. Associated artifacts suggest that these were small villages or farms, established at the start of the Roman period and disused at, or just after, the end of the Byzantine period. There seems to have been a cultural difference in the Early Roman period between those sites nearer Sepphoris, immediately north of Nahal Zippori, which had imported material, and those closer to Nazareth, which had only pottery types and limestone vessels produced in known Jewish contexts. Thin scatters of artifacts around the sites nearer Sepphoris may show zones of manuring, using household waste, around the settlements; these are absent from the sites near Nazareth. This evidence may suggest that the inhabitants of the Nazareth area sought to disassociate themselves with provincial Roman culture and follow more strictly Jewish purity laws than did those to their north or south.

Nahal Zippori provided another important natural resource: stone that was durable yet easy to quarry. The limestone surface is divided naturally into a hard, thick, calcrete crust (nari) and softer Eocene limestone beneath it (quirton). Both can be worked with iron tools into blocks and structures. Nari, formed by the dissolution and redeposition of calcium carbonate from the evaporation of soil moisture on the surface of the limestone, is a good building material. The quirton is less suited to construction but is used in the manufacture of lime. Roman-period quarrying is well attested in the valley and in the urban area of present Nazareth, where it is seen at Nazareth Village Farm. A large, probably Roman-period quarry extracting both nari and quirton was excavated on the eastern part of Har Nadav in Nazaret ʾIllit by Moshe Hartal and Edna Amos for the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2004.

Nahal Zippori contains many small springs. Two larger natural wells are known at En Zippori (excavated by Leea Porat for the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2001–2003) as well as at St. Mary’s Well in the current city of Nazareth. St. Mary’s Well rises at the foot of Jabal es-Sikh, where it gushes from within a small cave, rather than from the site of the present wellhead, excavated in 1997 to 1998 by Yardenna Alexandre and Butrus Hana for the Israel Antiquities Authority.

It is probably the presence of a cluster of lesser springs that accounts for the location of Roman-period Nazareth. The known springs in this area are the Apostles Fountain and the Sisters of Nazareth spring; another, in the general area, was found during World War I but subsequently lost. Another lost spring is implied by a Byzantine water channel from the Synagogue Church to the Sisters of Nazareth, and there may be others within the center of Nazareth. However, St. Mary’s Well appears to have been located outside the settlement, and the Roman-period occupation found there by Alexandre and Hana may belong to a neighboring farm.

The other natural feature affecting the settlement at Nazareth in the Roman period was a steep-sided wadi, no longer visible as a surface feature but extant until the early nineteenth century. The wadi passed immediately west of the current Church of the Annunciation complex along the line of the present street. It then followed the line of the side street to the northeast leading toward St. Mary’s Well. The slopes around the wadi included smaller hills running parallel with it and a series of caves.

Artificial terraces in the vicinity of Roman-period Nazareth are attested by excavation at the site called “Nazareth Village Farm,” where they were associated with other agricultural features. Nazareth Village Farm is ca. 1,640 ft (500 m) south of New Testament–period Nazareth and adjacent to the west and southwest of the twenty-first-century Nazareth Hospital. Roman-period features and pottery were recognized on wasteland near the hospital in 1996 by Stephen Pfann, of the University of the Holy Land, Jerusalem. The hillslope was surveyed by Ross Voss for the University of the Holy Land and Mordechai Haiman of the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1997 and subsequently excavated during 1997 to 2000 by Pfann and Voss, on behalf of the University of the Holy Land. Survey and excavation revealed irrigation channels, olive and winepresses, a threshing floor, a quarry, what may be a domestic building, a tomb, small towers, and agricultural terraces.

The excavation of the terraces is especially interesting as prior to this study only limited work had been undertaken on the details of Roman-period agricultural terraces in the Galilee. Pfann and Voss divided the terraces at the site into two types: “dry” terraces, watered by the rain and dew, perhaps with additional watering by hand, and irrigated “wet” terraces. The revetments of the dry terraces were built of approximately similar-size, unshaped stones placed on carefully flattened rock surfaces. The soils contained by these revetments were generally thin, implying that vines may have been grown on them, although some were sufficiently deep to have been used for olive groves. Wet terraces were built of shaped stones that had been carefully fitted to avoid the escape of as much water as could be achieved. Irrigation channels serving these terraces were identified, one leading to a cistern; and these were fed from a stone-built platform that may have been a spring house. Pfann and Voss suggest that, in addition to olive trees and vines, dry terraces were used to grow almonds, figs, barley, and wheat and that wet terraces were used to grow vegetables or fruit trees. The local place-name for the area adjacent to the site, al Kurum (“the vineyards”), suggests viticulture in a more recent period; and winepresses attest the production of wine at the site in the period of the terraces. Olive oil production is evidenced by the oil presses.

Nazareth Village Farm may well provide information about the agricultural activities and technological knowledge of the New Testament–period residents of Nazareth, although dating agricultural features with any precision is notoriously difficult. An experimental archaeology project at the site, reconstructing Roman-period structures, including a house and synagogue, has provided important information regarding the construction and appearance of buildings of this date. However, no buildings were excavated at Nazareth Village Farm, except for what may be field watchtowers.

No other site in or near Nazareth provides so much direct Roman-period evidence for agricultural practices, although it is worth noting that imported black basalt rotary querns are recorded from Nazareth. At least some of the rock-cut scoops and pits at the Church of the Annunciation site may be further evidence of the processing of olives for oil, perhaps on a larger scale than for local needs alone. Artificial caves on the same site included byres for animals and food stores, suggesting, if correctly interpreted, both an involvement with agricultural production and the presence of farm animals within the area of domestic occupation. Together, this evidence suggests an agricultural settlement, with crop-processing functions serving a rural hinterland. In a first-century C.E. Galilean context, it is reasonable, then, to assume that this is the sort of place where one might expect a rural population, probably from Nahal Zippori, to come for market and to obtain secondary agricultural and manufactured products that they were incapable of making themselves or chose to obtain there. It is perhaps most relevant to the gospels that one might expect, on grounds of archaeological analogy, that this is a location where one might find a synagogue, although the only finds that could represent such a structure consist of a few architectural fragments from the Church of the Annunciation site, probably later in date than the New Testament period.

Direct settlement evidence of first century C.E. date comes from three sites in the center of present Nazareth: the Church of the Annunciation, the Sisters of Nazareth convent, and the International Marian Center. An Israel Antiquities Authority excavation, directed by Yoram Tepper, just south of the Church of the Annunciation at the Ottoman Rashidiya School in 2003, produced unstratified Roman-period pottery but found no other evidence of this date. The Church of the Annunciation site includes the whole area within the Franciscan complex of the Church of the Annunciation, including the monastic buildings, school, and Church of St. Joseph. The most important evidence from the site comes from rescue excavation directed by the Franciscan scholar Belarmino Bagatti during construction of the Church of the Annunciation between 1955 and 1966. This consists of a series of artificial caves, cisterns, and “silos” (storage pits) cut into the rock. Other rock-cut features may have been associated with processing agricultural products.

The artificial caves contain pottery and other finds but are most readily interpreted as storage facilities rather than dwellings, taking advantage of the cooling effects of both the limestone and the underground setting. The ritual purity of limestone, attested by its use for the ritual washing vessels in Second Temple Judaism, may have been an additional attraction of storing food in these caves. One of the artificial caves has been venerated since at least the Byzantine period (and probably earlier) as the location of the Annunciation.

Another artificial cave found at the Church of St. Joseph was, once more, associated with cisterns and silos, suggesting a storage function; but unlike the other artificial caves, this was later adapted as a hideaway in the period of the Jewish Revolts. Similar artificial caves and underground features are known to have existed between the Church of the Annunciation and St. Joseph’s, but the detailed records no longer exist. This suggests an area of approximately similar features extending to the eastern edge of the wadi and then back to the east at least as far as the school in the Church of the Annunciation complex and perhaps beyond it. To the north it seems to extend to the wadi edge as this turns along the road to St. Mary’s Well.

No well-dated evidence for surface-built structures was found at the Church of the Annunciation site, although there are signs of foundations of robbed-out buildings in the limestone surface, indicating that built structures did stand in this area. However, surface-built structures are known from two sites immediately to its northwest, both on the other, west, side of the wadi: the International Marian Center and the Sisters of Nazareth convent.

The International Marian Center site was excavated by Yardenna Alexandre for the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2009. The principal Roman-period structure was found below a Mamluk building that partially reused its walls. Two rooms with stone-built walls and a part of an associated courtyard containing a rock-cut feature were within the excavated area, although these plainly formed only a portion of a larger structure, probably a courtyard house. Pottery sherds and fragments of limestone vessels led the excavator to assign the structure plausibly to the early first century C.E., and a refuge tunnel demonstrates use later in that century.

Although the International Marian Center building is an important discovery, the claim in media sources that it was the first domestic building of Early Roman date found in the city is unfounded. The first evidence of Early Roman–period settlement to be found in Nazareth is that from the Sisters of Nazareth convent, where excavation by nuns, clergy, workers, and other nonarchaeologists started in the 1880s. The confusion may have arisen because the site was almost entirely undescribed until archaeological work there, directed by Ken Dark for the Nazareth Archaeological Project, began in 2006. The subsequent program of recording and investigation, the first undertaken on this site using modern archaeological methods, between 2006 and 2010 enabled its significance to be more fully understood.

The evidence for domestic occupation at the Sisters of Nazareth site consists of a well-preserved structure associated with Roman-period pottery and other artifacts probably dating to no earlier than the beginning of the first century C.E. The south of the structure is cut through by the forecourt of a kokhim tomb typologically datable to the first century C.E. Consequently, this is a well-dated first-century C.E. structure near the other two sites, the Church of the Annunciation and the International Marian Center, that may have first-century C.E. domestic evidence but better preserved because it was partly cut into the limestone hillslope of the west side of the wadi and encapsulated in the crypt of a Byzantine church, probably the Church of the Nutrition, where it was the focus of later veneration. De Locis Sanctis says that a house in the crypt below the church was considered to be where Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, and if the church is correctly identified, this may well be that structure.

The better preservation of the structure at the Sisters of Nazareth site allows a reconstruction of many of its details. The extant rooms consist of one larger rectilinear space, aligned north–south, with three of its walls cut back into the rock, and one that may have been entirely built of stone. Smaller rooms were found to the north and south of this: that to the north had three rock-cut walls, with one probably stone-built, and was entered by an extant rock-cut doorway from the larger room. The room to the south is much less preserved, but fallen stones indicate that the upper part of a rock-cut wall was once stone-built. A rock-cut stairway is preserved to its full height along the west side of the larger room, suggesting a courtyard in this area, which has another wall line going along its north side. This stair leads onto what may have been a flat roof or upper story as a rock overhang has been carefully retained as a support for a platform at this level within the northwest corner of the large room. The tops and sides of the rock-cut wall with the stairway are very well smoothed, fragments of wall plaster suggest that they were internally plastered, and the structure shows considerable skill in utilizing the natural limestone. Like that at the nearby International Marian Center, this maybe a courtyard house of the sort known from elsewhere in first-century C.E. Galilee.

These discoveries show that first-century C.E. Nazareth consisted of domestic structures similar to those known from other Galilean sites. The use of rock cutting for buildings and subterranean storage more extensively at Nazareth derives from nothing more than its distinctive topography and geology, but its population may have been part of an area unusually resistant to provincial Roman culture. The settlement was probably the local center for an agricultural population farming the south side of Nahal Zippori immediately to the north.

[See also GALILEE and SEPPHORIS.)]

Bibliography

  • Bagatti, Bellarmino, with Eugenio Alliata. Excavations in Nazareth: From the Beginning until the Twelfth Century. Translated by Eugene Hoade. Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1969.
  • Dark, Ken. “The Byzantine Church of the Nutrition in Nazareth Rediscovered.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 144, no. 3 (2012): 164–184.
  • Dark, Ken. “Early Roman-Period Nazareth and the Sisters of Nazareth Convent.” Antiquaries Journal 92 (2012): 1–28.
  • Dark, Ken. “The Roman-Period and Byzantine Landscape between Sepphoris and Nazareth.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 140, no. 2 (2008): 87–102.
  • Hartal, Moshe, and Edna Amos. “Nazerat ʾIllit, Har Nadav (East): Final Report.” Hadashot Arkheologiyot: Excavations and Surveys in Israel 118 (2006). www.hadashot-esi.org.il/report_detail_eng.asp?id=354&mag_id=111.
  • Pfann, Stephen, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano. “Surveys and Excavations at Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report.” Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 25 (2007): 19–79.
  • Porat, Leea. “En Zippori: Final Report.” Hadashot Arkheologiyot: Excavations and Surveys in Israel 117 (2005). www.hadashot-esi.org.il/report_detail_eng.asp?id=177&mag_id=110.
  • Tepper, Yoram. “Nazareth: Final Report.” Hadashot Arkheologiyot: Excavations and Surveys in Israel 121 (2009). www.hadashot-esi.org.il/report_detail_eng.asp?id=1132&mag_id=115.

Ken Dark