Shivta (Hebrew: שבטה), originally Sobata (Greek: Σόβατα) or Subeita (Arabic: شبطا), is an ancient city in the Negev Desert of Israel located 43 kilometers southwest of Beersheba. Shivta was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2005, as part of the Incense Route and the Desert Cities of the Negev, together with Haluza/Elusa, Avdat and Mamshit/Mampsis.
Long considered a classical Nabataean town on the ancient spice route, archaeologists are now considering the possibility that Shivta was a Byzantine agricultural colony and a way station for pilgrims en route to the Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.
A few Roman-period ruins have been discovered, but most of the archaeological findings date to the Byzantine period. Shivta's water supply was based on surface runoff collected in large reservoirs.
Roman ruins from the first century BCE have been unearthed in the southern part of the town.
Three Byzantine churches (a main church and two smaller churches), two wine-presses, residential areas and administrative buildings have been excavated.
The wine presses at Shivta give an insight into the scale of wine production at the time. According to the calculations of archaeologists, the Nabatean/Byzantine village of Shivta produced about two million liters of wine.
In the early 6th century, grape production in the Negev for the so-called vinum Gazentum ('Gaza wine' in Latin) experiences a major boom, due to the high demand for this product throughout Europe and the Middle East. This has been documented by studying ancient trash mounds at Shivta, Elusa and Nessana, which showed a sharp peak in the presence of grape pips and broken "Gaza jars" (a type of amphorae used in this period to export Levantine goods from the port of Gaza), following a slower rise during the fourth and fifth centuries. However, mid-century two major calamities strike the Byzantine Empire and large parts of the world: a short period of climate change known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age (536-545), caused by huge volcanic eruptions in faraway places, which lead to extreme weather events; and in the 540s the first outbreak of bubonic plague in the Old World, known as the Justinianic Plague. Probably as a result of these two events, international trade with luxury goods such as Gaza wine almost grounded to a halt, and in Shivta and other Negev settlements grape production again gave way to subsistence farming, focused on barley and wheat. The previously widely accepted theory that the Muslim conquest, which came a century later, and the Muslim ban on alcoholic beverages were the cause for the decline of the wine industry in the Negev has been now proven wrong. In nearby Nessana, the number of grape pips is even on the rise again during the Early Islamic period, probably due to the needs of a local Christian monastery. This seems to indicate that the wine industry of the Negev could well be sustained over centuries through appropriate agricultural techniques and in spite of the arid climate, but that the grape monoculture was economically unsustainable in the long run.
Ulrich Jasper Seetzen was the first Westerner to visit the site when he arrived in 1805, but he misidentified it as Abde (Avdat). Edward Henry Palmer came in 1870 and the following year he published the first official description, while Alois Musil's 1901 visit resulted in the publication of the first photos of the ruins. A team from the École Biblique in Jerusalem including famed researchers Antonin Jaussen, Raphaël Savignac and Louis-Hugues Vincent studied a few aspects of the site in 1904, Theodor Kühtreiber added a few observations in 1912. The first scientific study covering agricultural and social aspects came as a result of a survey by C. L. Woolley and T. E. Lawrence (the future "Lawrence of Arabia"), taken on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in 1914. During the Great War, a German team of researchers (Theodor Wiegand, Carl Watzinger and Walter Bachmann), part of the Deutsch-Türkisches Denkmalschutzkommando ("German-Turkish Command for Cultural Heritage Protection"), studied the site in 1916. The École Biblique returned in 1926 with a team under Raphaël Tonneau, and in 1929 with Alexis Mallon.
In 1933–38, American archaeologist Harris Dunscombe Colt (from the family of revolver inventor, Samuel Colt) conducted a dig at Shivta. The house he lived in bears an inscription in ancient Greek that reads: “With good luck. Colt built (this house) with his own money." Colt never published the result of his excavations, altogether undertaken in a scientifically less than laudable manner, which also represent the only large-scale archaeological campaigns executed at the site. Much of the archaeological information is lost for good, not least due to a dubious fire at the expedition house that consumed all the collected architectural decoration and dig notes.
In the late 1940s, Bellarmino Bagatti continued work at the northern church, and in the 1950s Nelson Glueck researched Shivta's ecology. Between 1958-1960, Michael Avi-Yonah and made the site accessible, in the process also clearing the central church of debris.
In the 1960s, botanist Michael Evenari studied the economy of Shivta and water collection in its arid environment, his methods of experimental archaeology offering important insights into subsistence farming in the Negev desert.
Between 1970-1976, Avraham Negev led various surveys, others following with a number of small digs, theoretical studies and mapping efforts. A 2000-2001 in-depth study of Shivta's water systems, based on surveys and analysis, was the work of Tsvika Tsuk.