Israeli state archaeologists have discovered mosaics, pottery and other remains of a Roman-era Christian building on the grounds of a high-security prison here. They say the site could be the oldest public place of Christian worship ever uncovered in Israel and perhaps one of the earliest such sites in the world.
The mosaic floor of the structure, buried beneath rock, soil and asphalt, was discovered Oct. 30 by an Israeli prisoner working on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The agency has been excavating the compound for more than a year to ensure that nothing of historic value is lost during an ongoing renovation project. At a news conference Sunday, Yardena Alexandre, a spokeswoman for the authority, called the discovery "one of the most important finds for the history of early Christianity."
Judging by the age of broken pottery discovered on the floor, the distinctive mosaic style, inscriptions citing Jesus and the apparent pre-Byzantine design of the building, state archaeologists said the structure was most likely a public place of Christian worship that dates to the mid-3rd or early 4th century. If true, the find would join the early 3rd-century Christian gathering place at Dura Europus in Syria as one of the oldest of its kind.
At that time, near the end of the Roman Empire, Christianity was an outlawed religion practiced in the Holy Land in the clandestine chapels of private homes. Archaeologists involved in the excavation were reluctant to describe the remains as a church because the term was not used during that period.
But they said its inscribed dedications to community figures, mosaics of fish and specific mention of "the God Jesus Christ" were proof it was a public building used in Christian worship -- the sort of structure archaeologists here had read about in historical texts but had never uncovered.
"The most important thing about this is that it is the oldest Christian building we have found in archaeological form," said Yotam Tepper, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation. "The problem is that we didn't have churches at that time."
Some archaeologists not involved in the project said the conclusions, while tantalizing, might be premature given that only 10 percent of the site has been excavated. Workers have yet to turn up a dated inscription or other evidence that firmly establishes the year the structure was built.
Zeev Weiss, an archaeology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who runs the largest excavation project here in the Galilee region, said: "There is no question that what they have found is connected to Christianity. The only questions concern the design of the structure, the use of the structure and the date.
"To my mind, they don't really know what they have," said Weiss, who nonetheless called the discovery "very interesting." "That's probably why they are hesitating to call it a church."
On the cypress-studded plain of Megiddo, the biblical site of the Battle of Armageddon, a Jewish village thrived during the 1st century. On fields that stretch northeast toward Nazareth, a smudge of white frosting on distant hills, Roman soldiers made camp over centuries and swelled the village population. By the 4th century, it was a city of some size known as Maximianopolis.
Before the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 313, Christians were persecuted here in sporadic waves of violence. But archaeologists say the second half of the 3rd century, when the building might have been erected, was probably a relatively open time to be Christian. The Byzantine period that followed Christianity's legalization featured a boom in church construction.
The Israeli army built the Megiddo prison in 1982 and the compound now holds 1,200 high-security Palestinian inmates. Earlier this year, the army turned over the makeshift collection of tent encampments to the national prison authority, which has since been replacing the tents with hardened cellblocks.
Because the area is known for its rich history, archaeological excavation has preceded each phase of the prison's expansion. Israeli prisoners -- the only inmates allowed to work inside the grounds -- began about six weeks ago surveying the area where the mosaic floor was found. It was scheduled to be cleared for construction two days after the discovery was made.
Covered by scaffolding and a black tarp to protect against rain during the approaching winter months, the site is roughly the size of a tennis court, with the fragile mosaics covering approximately half of it. Tepper said the building does not follow the basilica plan, characterized by colonnades along a central nave leading to a rounded apse. He said the simple design suggests it predates Christianity's legalization.
The oldest definitively dated church in Israel is in Ramle, where inscriptions say the structure was built in 376. But some archaeologists believe the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which tradition says marks the spot where Jesus was crucified and entombed, was built in 330 by Constantine's mother. This site would predate those by decades.
The base of a column is visible along the low ruins of one wall. Archaeologists say it arched over the floor to support a stone roof, indicating that the building was probably among the grandest in the area. The intricacy of the mosaic floors also suggests it was more than a private home, archaeologists say, although some of the region's wealthy residents may have had such design flourishes in their houses.
"They say it's not a basilica, but they don't say what it is," said Weiss, the archaeology professor. "They haven't finished the excavation, so this could be a courtyard or a room inside of a larger building."
Tepper said the most important evidence comes from three inscriptions found in the mosaics. Along the edge of the largest mosaic, featuring at its center the early Christian symbol of two fish, an ancient Greek inscription, roughly translated, reads: "Gaianos, also called Porphyrio, centurion, our brother, having sought honor with his own money, has made this mosaic. Brouti has carried out the work." Tepper said the inscription refers to a Roman officer -- many officers were early converts to Christianity -- who financed the structure's construction.
An inscription on a second mosaic, closer to the base of a pedestal whose use archaeologists have not determined, recalls by name four women from the community.
Tepper said the third inscription is the most archaeologically valuable. It reads: "The God-loving Aketous has offered this table to the God Jesus Christ, as a memorial."
The table might have been an altar or a place where local Christians gathered for meals on holy days, recalling the Last Supper. Tepper said the pottery found on the floor included a wine jug and cooking pot. But Weiss and other archaeologists said it was possible for older pottery to be found on a floor built more recently. He said excavation should take place under the mosaics to determine what is there and to better determine the timeline.
A delegation of Italian academics is due to arrive this week to begin studying the site and comparing it with other early Christian finds. In the meantime, Tepper and his team plan to research the names on the inscriptions for evidence about when those mentioned might have lived.
In the coming weeks, Israeli archaeology and prison officials will determine what to do with the site, now at the center of a very unwelcoming location for tourists. The options include digging up the area and moving it -- an expensive prospect -- or separating it from the rest of the prison and making it the centerpiece of a small museum.
"It's a very important place," said Ofer Lefler, spokesman for the Israel Prison Service. "Important to Israel and the rest of the world."