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A Prosperous Jewish Settlement at the Time of the Second Temple
While preparing the ground for the Aderet vineyard of the Valley of Ella Wineries, remnants of a settlement dating from the Second Temple and from the Roman period, were discovered. These remnants included ostracons describing the commerce of dried figs and which were used as receipts or shipment certificates. The name "Itry" appears on one of them, which is why it is believed that this is "Kfar Atra", the village which, according to Yossef Ben Matityahu, was in the area and was destroyed by the Fifth Legion of Aspasianos in the year 69 CE. Although this has not been confirmed, we are clearly dealing with a Jewish settlement - three purification baths were uncovered, as well as coins dating from the time of the Big Revolt and oil candles with Jewish ornaments.
This flourishing agricultural settlement covered a total of 12 dunams and was built on a high mount overlooking the area. In addition to a number of wine presses, archeologists also uncovered a columbarium used for raising pigeons to provide fertilizers, as well as loom weights, and a spindle used for spinning and weaving, and parts of an olive press.
In spite of the tremendous destruction that took place at the time of the Big Revolt, the settlement was rebuilt, and in view of the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132 CE), its residents dug hiding tunnels and a system for collecting rain water. During the Bar Kochba Rebellion, the settlement was once again destroyed and abandoned, with the exception of a short-lived resettlement around the year 200, probably by ex-Roman legionaries. The fact that it was abandoned helped preserve the remnants of the village until they were uncovered by archeologists.
A village with Wine Presses and Crushing Pits
A number of wine presses and crushing pits were found among the remnants of the village. On the eastern side of the village, archeologists discovered a sophisticated wine press, which now appears on labels of the Ella Valley wines. The wine press comprises a carved crushing area surrounded by side walls with, at its center, a pit with a large stone which served as a base for the extraction mechanism. This pit had two openings: one to a filtering pit and one to a collecting pit with steps.
The wine press was carved and built at the time of the Second Temple, while the screw-like extraction mechanism was added during the Roman period. Following the Muslim conquest, the large stone was taken out and used as a millstone.
Wine Making in Ancient Times
After the grapes were scattered on a surface and crushed, the yeast found on the grape skin started to ferment the crushed grapes and grape juice. After a few days, the wine was directed to the sedimentation pit, which had been filled with a thorny plant, which served as a filter. The wine was collected into the collecting pit, where it remained for a few hours, in order to enable the light elements to sink.
According to the Talmud, it seems that some ground chalk was added to the wine, in order to hasten this latter process. The clear wine was transferred to clay jugs for aging. The entire process lasted between 8-10 days, which means that it was done a few times in the course of each harvest season.
The volume of the wine press is 4.8 cubic meter, but it was not filled to the top. One can safely assume that some 3,600-4,000 liters of wine were produced each time. In other words, one harvest season could yield up to 16,000 liters of wine which, in modern terms, corresponds to a total of 20,000 bottles!
The Site Today
Hurvat Itry is part of the Adulam Caves Park, which offers many archeological sites, as well as treks for the entire family. The Israel Antiquities Authorities and the Jewish National Fund have restored some of the structures, and have put up signs and explanations about life in the village in ancient times, at a number of places.
Living quarters at the time of the Second Temple: the living quarters comprise rows of rooms surrounding interior courtyards, with massive external walls. This area was abandoned at the time of the Big Revolt.
The reliefs cave: close to the purifying bath, carved in the rock and covered in white plaster, a burial cave was uncovered. Three crypts were carved along its side walls, bearing Roman-style ornaments. The cave was originally used as a hiding place and was later used for burial purposes.
Purifying ritual bath: remnants of a purifying ritual bath were found at the entrance to the main road, with carved steps leading into it. The bones of 15 people, who were buried with some belongings, were discovered at the site. They were probably killed at the time of the Big Revolt. One head was chopped off with a sword.
- Synagogue: The main finding at the site is a public structure of about 100 square meters, with three square posts, which bore columns and capitols. The structure was built facing Jerusalem, and was probably used as a synagogue.
- Hiding cave dating from the time of the Bar Kochba Rebellion: From the corner of structure, carved steps going down some 40 meters lead to a cave, which one can cross by crawling towards the exit located in another structure. Do not forget to bring a torch!
- Wine press: at the southern tip of the site lies the wine press, described above.