Ancient settlement and mosaics uncovered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee

Analysing pottery fragments recovered from the site, archaeologists have dated the construction of the settlement to between the 5th and 7th centuries AD.

Mosaic floors dated to around 1,400 years ago have been uncovered at a previously unknown ancient settlement located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, revealing a new chapter in the site’s history that predates the arrival of a nearby Umayyad-era palace.

Archaeology students from JGU recording the outlines of a mosaic. In the exposed portion (left), the mosaic depicts a tall waterside plant with blossoms and small green leaves on three stems and, below this, the stern and rudder of a boat.
Photo: © Hans-Peter Kuhnen, courtesy of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Evidence of the settlement was first identified in geomagnetic surveys and test-pitting carried out in 2019 by archaeologists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

Excavations took place earlier this year, and revealed the remains of basalt stone structures, plastered walls, a water cistern, and a wealth of pottery fragments which were used to date the construction of the settlement to between the 5th and 7th centuries AD.

Colourful mosaic floors depicting images of flora and fauna native to the Nile Valley – symbols of the river’s life-giving powers – were also uncovered.

A mosaic depicting a flowering plant. In the foreground are traces of the marks made by a pickaxe when the mosaic was deliberately destroyed.
Photo: © Hans-Peter Kuhnen, courtesy of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

These discoveries all convey that a thriving settlement once existed on the lake shore, centuries before work began to build the nearby palace of Khirbat al-Minya, commissioned by the early Islamic Caliph, Walid I (AD 705-715).

The settlement’s original inhabitants, who were either Christians or Jews, appear to have been joined by a small Islamic community, for whom the caliph had a side entrance created connecting the settlement to the palace mosque.

Dating of pottery fragments has indicated that the settlement remained occupied under the control of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates from the 7th until the 11th century. However, it appears that construction work undertaken sometime during this period resulted in the mosaics being destroyed and sections of old walls being torn down, with the stones transported away for reuse elsewhere.

The team making drawings of the firing chamber of a medieval sugar cane boiling vat.
Photo: © Hans-Peter Kuhnen, courtesy of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

The team’s geomagnetic surveys also identified dozens of stone-built furnaces used to process sugar cane – with one such furnace exposed during the excavation – which appear to have been in operation between the 12th and 14th centuries AD.

Such large-scale cultivation of sugar cane – one of the region’s top agricultural exports in the late Middle Ages – would have required large volumes of water, along with a great deal of wood to keep the furnaces burning. This is likely the reason that there is such extensive soil erosion around the lake, which remains even to this day.

Site Director Professor Hans-Peter Kuhnen said: ‘Our research has brought this settlement adjacent to the caliph’s palace to light again, putting it in its rightful context among the history of human settlement of the Holy Land.

‘Over the centuries, it experienced alternating periods of innovation and decline, but there was no real disruption to its existence during its lifetime.’

The research was undertaken with the support of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and with funding from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the Axel Springer Foundation, the Santander Foundation, and the German Academic Exchange Service.