Israeli Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a major early Christian church believed to be built in the fourth century A.D. at a site in the town of Beit Shemesh.
Extraordinary mosaics, crucifixes and iconic Christian architecture were discovered by the archaeologists last month after they were called in to survey the site ahead of the expansion of Ramat Beit Shemesh, located some 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem.
With the help of over 1,000 teenage volunteers, the archaeologists uncovered walls built with large, worked stone masonry, as well as several architectural elements, such as a marble pillar decorated with crosses and marble window screens.
Benyamin Storchan, director of the excavation for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, said that the building may have served as a meeting ground for pilgrims.
"We were surprised by the wonderful state of preservation of the ancient remains, and the richness of the finds being uncovered," he said, as reported by The Jerusalem Post.
"The artifacts found in the large building, which seems to be a monastic compound, may indicate that the site was important and perhaps a center for ancient pilgrims in the Judean Shfela [Judean foothills] region," he continued.
During unrelated excavations in the same area, archaeologists have found a major wine-producing installation and an olive oil production facility. Storchan noted that both sites were about a minute's walk from the church and he surmised that the new discovery was the central entity in the area, judging by its splendor.
The diggers and the teenage volunteers found crosses in the form of jewelry, and also on pillar bases and on business stones. Other finds at the site included parts of a chancel screen (a divider), a window post with crosses and incense burners.
The mosaic floor featured birds, which are said to be common in ancient Byzantine stone art, but it also depicted leaves and fruit trees, which Storchan said have "no close parallel in any church uncovered in Israel, Jordan or Syria," adding, "It's a style that is unique to this place."
Storchan noted that the diggers have only uncovered a small portion of a monastery, which was abandoned in the seventh century A.D. for unknown reasons.
He admitted that he has no idea why the church was built at the site, as opposed to any other place in Israel, but he speculated that it could be because an ancient martyr or saint was buried there, or because of a tale from the Old or New Testament.
Teenagers from various organizations, including schools and pre-military associations, have taken part in the excavations since it began last summer.
"We searched for a way to fund-raise for our class trip to Poland, and we decided to take part in the archeological excavations," said Hadas Keich, a 16-year-old student at the Sde Boker Field School.
"Little by little, we uncovered exciting finds here, which helped to connect us to our country and its history. Amazing what is hidden here beneath our feet!" Keich went on to say.