site located about 1.5 km (1 mi.) south of Beth-Guvrin and 39 km (24 mi.) east of Ashkelon (map reference 1405 × 1113). The site was identified as biblical Mareshah (Gk., Marisa) by Edward Robinson, William Flinders Petrie, Frederick Jones Bliss, and others on the basis of biblical references and the writings of Josephus and of Eusebius. The identification has been confirmed by excavation. Ancient Mareshah comprised a high mound, a lower city with ancillary cave complexes, and a necropolis that encompassed the entire site.
Mareshah is first mentioned in the Bible as a city in Judah (Jos. 15:44). After the destruction of the First Temple it became an Edomite city. In the Late Persian period, it was the capital of Idumea at which time a Sidonian community settled there. It is also mentioned in the Zenon papyri (259 BCE). During the Hasmonean wars, Mareshah was a base camp for assaults on Judah and suffered retaliation by the Maccabees. After John Hyrcanus I took and destroyed Mareshah in 112 BCE, the region remained under Hasmonean control (Antiq. 13.396). The Parthians completely devastated the “strong city” in 40 BCE, and it was never rebuilt.
Mareshah was first excavated on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1900 by Bliss and R. A. S. Macalister, who uncovered a planned and fortified Hellenistic city surrounded by a wall with towers. They also identified two Hellenistic and one Israelite strata. From 1989 to 1993, Amos Kloner cleared the northwestern tower on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, revealing two Hellenistic building phases. Beneath those fortifications were Persian and Iron Age constructions. The earlier tower, dated to about 300 BCE, was built into debris of the Persian period. A new tower, dated to about 200 BCE, and built over the earlier Hellenistic tower, was probably destroyed toward the end of that century. Finds from the Israelite stratum found during the 1900 excavations include seventeen lmlk impressions. Among the numerous Hellenistic finds were 328 Rhodian amphora handles and three inscriptions. Sixteen small lead figurines and fifty-one limestone execration tablets attest magic practices at Hellenistic Mareshah.
Ceramic evidence dates the original construction of the lower, partially walled city, which surrounds the mound in a belt of varying width, to the Hellenistic period. The lower city consisted of private houses, baths, workshops, and stores laid out in insulae with lanes and streets. The Southern House above Macalister's cave 53 was almost entirely excavated in 1989. It was erected in the mid-third century BCE and continued in use until the final destruction of the city. A staircase led to a second story and a corridor descended to a network of cisterns. [See Cisterns.] A juglet found under a floor contained twenty-five coins of 122–113/112 BCE. Similar dwelling units and caves were excavated in 1992–1993 in area 61, in the eastern part of the lower city. More units and caves beneath them were excavated in 1994 in areas 939–940.
The lower city had been constructed above hundreds of caves hewn into the soft chalky limestone of the hillsides. Macalister listed sixty-three cave complexes in his survey, and recent investigations have revealed ninety more. The principal uses of these caves were for the manufacture of olive oil and for pigeon breeding. Twenty-one Hellenistic oil presses have been discovered, of which two—comprising a crushing installation, three pressing beds, storage areas, a cistern, and a cultic niche—have been excavated. [See Olives.] More than seventy columbaria have been identified, the finest in caves 30 and 61. Cave 21 was excavated by Kloner in 1972 and 1981 and dated to the third-first centuries BCE. Each columbarium comprises halls with many small niches carved in the upper part of the walls; there are probably about fifty thousand such niches in all of Mareshah. There is no evidence for these having been used as repositories for human ashes. It is likely that the niches were intended initially as dovecotes; their subsequent functions are unclear. The caves were also used as stables, animal stalls, storerooms, cisterns, bathhouses, and ritual rooms. Cave 70, examined in 1980, consists of thirty-one rooms and contained various cereal grains and olive pits. Cave 75, explored in 1988, was occupied in the Iron Age, Persian, and Hellenistic periods.
In the eastern necropolis there are fifteen tombs, of which seven were first excavated in 1902 by John P. Peters and Hermann Thiersch (1905). Tomb I is the largest and most lavishly decorated, with a painted frieze of hunting scenes and animals adorning its walls. Greek inscriptions and graffiti date the tomb to 196–119 BCE. Tomb II, also painted, contains inscriptions dating it to 188–135 BCE. The northern necropolis contains twenty loculus tombs dated to the third-second centuries BCE. One tomb in the southwestern necropolis was excavated in 1989. Greek inscriptions and varied pottery assemblages date it to the third and second centuries BCE. Other tombs were cleared in 1989–1994. These tombs indicate that the inhabitants of Mareshah in the Hellenistic period (Idumeans, Sidonians, and Greeks) practiced secondary burial, added loculi for primary burial, and built family tombs.
- Bliss, Frederick Jones, and R. A. S. Macalister. Excavations in Palestine during the Years 1898–1900. London, 1902.
- Kloner, Amos, and Orna Hess. “A Columbarium in Complex 21 at Mareshah.” ῾Atiqot 17 (1985): 122–133.
- Kloner, Amos. “Mareshah.” Qadmoniot 24.3–4 (1991): 70–85.
- Kloner, Amos, and Nahum Sagiv. “The Technology of Oil Production in the Hellenistic Period at Mareshah, Israel.” In Oil and Wine Production in the Mediterranean Area, edited by Marie-Claire Amouretti and Jean-Pierre Brun, pp. 119–136. Paris, 1993.
- Peters, John P., and Hermann Thiersch. Painted Tombs in the Necropolis of Marissa. London, 1905.