Excavations at Capernaum
Exploration at Capernaum began already in 1838 by Edward Robinson who described the site as follows:
Capernaum is "desolate and mournful. A few Arabs only of the Semekiyeh were here encamped in tents, and had built up a few hovels among the ruins which they used as magazines." In 1866, C. W. Wilson performed a small excavation in the ruins of the synagogue, but real excavations would not be carried out in that area until 1905 by Kohl and Watzinger of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft.
The Franciscans (Custodians of the Holy Land) acquired a portion of the ancient village from the Bedouin in 1894. Upon purchasing, they built a wall (seen at the present site) around the ruins and even covered the synagogue with dirt so that further devastation would not come upon it. The stone wall interestingly divides the town into its ancient division of the Greco-Roman town. For beyond the walls of Franciscan Capernaum lies an additional 20,000 square meters of land that is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, upon which today sits the Church of the Twelve Apostles and the infamous Tomb of the Centurion.
In 1905 and again in 1921, Father Gaudentius Orfali from Nazareth uncovered part of the octagonal church and part of the Umayyad ruins. Later he would restore the synagogue, but unfortunately this work would cease in 1926 with Orfali’s sudden death.
Much of what is witnessed today athe site are a credit to the seventeen seasons of excavation carried out from 1968-1984 by Franciscan Fathers Virgilio C. Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda.
Archaeologists discovered Paleolithic flint knives and Early Bronze age pot sherds, however the earliest evidence of inhabitable layers of Franciscan Capernaum date to the 2nd Millennium BCE (Late Bronze Age period) and the latest archaeological remnants date to just before the town's destruction in the first half of the 7th century. After the 614 CE destruction, there was only minor temporary settlement by Arab tribes throughout the centuries. For many, this would be clear evidence to Jesus' prophesy in Matthew 11:23 (NIV): "And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day." The Greek Orthodox site of Capernaum, just 30 meters from the Franciscan wall, however does show significant occupation from the time of the Persian conquest in 614 CE to the middle of the 10th century CE in the form of a fish market, public buildings, streets and more. For details about these excavations, click here.
First Century Capernaum had all the makings of a small Jewish-Roman village of no more than 1,000 inhabitants. The houses were essentially built around spacious courtyards where the fishermen and wheat farmers could practice their trade. The courtyards were surrounded by numerous rooms for the family members and storage facilities for their goods and perhaps livestock. The rooftops were made of light materials in a mixture of staw, river reed and mud with plaster coatings to prevent rain seepage. Stone stairways led up to the rooftops. There is considerably much stone and little evidence for uses of wood. Houses contained ovens, grinding stones or 'mill-stones' for grinding the wheat into flour. There were however no toilets or drainage systems within the town. Nor did the archaeologists discover in any silos, water cisterns, or mikvaot for ritual bathing, which have been discovered in other nearby towns like Korazin and Magdala. There is however a system to its streets. The main streets of the town ran North-South and they had small alleyways running East-West. These separation points left city blocks or 'insulae'.