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
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
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
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.