Ein Yael is an open-air museum in the Rephaim Valley outside Jerusalem where one can learn about farming techniques and agricultural technology as was practiced nearly three thousand years ago. It is a field laboratory where research related to rural life in the Biblical period can be pursued.

While today Ein Yael is a busy living museum where children and adults can experience life in Biblical times, twenty-five years ago when I took a group of volunteers to work the archaeological site, it was a remote and desolate area. Although part of the Rephaim Valley was within the municipal boundary of Jerusalem, about four miles southwest of the Old City, its steep slopes and rocky terrain deterred visitors. Even the local taxi drivers had a difficult time finding the site.

The valley is named after the race of giants that presumably inhabited the place in ancient times. It extends from the valley of Hinnon south of Jerusalem and runs southwest toward Bethlehem. The Philistines were twice defeated there by David, but its primary reputation is its stony but very fertile soil which led it to become the breadbasket of Jerusalem (cf. Isaiah 17:5).

Three sites have been worked in the valley. Khirbet Er-Ras dates from the first temple period (c. 1000 BCE) and contains a typical four-room Palestinian house, terraces, and agricultural installations such as wine and oil presses, reservoirs, cisterns, artificially cut caves and pathways that make it a preplanned farming unit.

Ein Yael, which gives its name to the entire site, is specifically a Roman-Byzantine location. It contains a spring (ein in Hebrew), a Roman bath, and the remains of a Byzantine church.

The third area is the Canaanite site where our group excavated two rooms of a Middle Bronze II period home (c. 1800 BCE). Several buildings have been uncovered on this slope indicating that the area had been continually occupied with a good size settlement.

A visitor to the valley today can still see the remains of ancient terraces which had been constructed by the settlers whose homes we were now excavating. These agricultural terraces are still in use today producing such crops as almonds, figs, olives, grapes and grains.

The topography of the valley is naturally stepped, resulting from the different erosion in the soft and hard bedrock. On the front edge of the natural limestone terrace, a stone retaining wall was constructed. Inside the wall the area was carefully built up of different materials, alternating layers of gravel, soil and stones. Gradually, on top of this porous bed, silt and organic material accumulated to create a thin layer of top soil.

This type of agricultural construction served two main purposes. It minimized erosion caused by the heavy winter rains, and it conserved and made maximum use of the rainwater. As the water was absorbed by the porous soil-gravel bed, surplus water flowed slowly over the bedrock to the terrace below. It is estimated that 60 percent of the hills west of Jerusalem are now covered with these terraces, most of them more 3,000 years old.

While we were excavating Canaanite farm houses, there was located nearby a later Iron Age I installation (1200-586 BCE). We saw here the remains of a wine making process. A square treading area had been cut into the rock to prevent the grape juice from splashing out. The juice would then pour into a bell-shaped vat carved from the rock. A filtering basin between the area and the vat collected the skins, pits and pulp.

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Images from the Ein Yael:
(Click large image for larger image)