Jodi Magness, in The Archeology of the Holy Land, talks about early first century Galilee.
Archeological finds that relate to the life and ministry of Jesus are sparse. This is partly because of the narrow time frame. Things that specifically date to the early part of the first century are hard to place.
For instance, archeologists agree that Sepphoris in Galilee was an important town in Jesus’ day, but most of what they have excavated there comes from later times. It was a large town just four miles from Nazareth, and during Jesus’ youth, Herod Antipas had building projects going on there. If Jesus apprenticed as a carpenter, he might have worked there. Since Sepphoris would be “a city set on a hill” from the perspective of Nazareth it may be the origin of that phrase. Magness says the fact that the New Testament does not speak of Sepphoris by name means that Jesus’ ministry was in the village and farming parts of Galilee–just where the gospels seem to place it.
Some historical Jesus scholars have made a big deal out of Sepphoris being a Romanized city and assume Jesus was exposed to Roman culture. However, Magness points out that the evidence for Romanization there is later than Jesus’ time. Josephus does say that Sepphoris readily surrendered during the Jewish War. But that is a frail piece of information to use for an assumption that Jesus was exposed to Roman culture and (Cynic) philosophy.
Nothing much has been found at Nazareth. The Gospels paint it as a small backwater, so that should not surprise us.
More has been found at Capernaum. We know that fishing was important to its economy. We know that there was a border toll office there during the time of Herod Antipas. These facts confirm the picture in the gospels. We have not found the synagogue. But we have found houses from Jesus’ time. They give us a picture of ordinary life. The houses are of volcanic rock (basalt). They are each centered on a walled courtyard, and they usually have a flat roof used as a kitchen and sleeping porch. Windows and most doors faced the courtyard. Usually only one door opened to the street. We have found similar houses at nearby sites, Chorazin and Gamala.
In 1986 the level of the Sea of Galilee dropped because of a drought and a first century fishing boat came to light. The boat had been scavenged and then sunk, apparently when it got so that it was beyond repair. Mud protected it from the air, causing the 2000 year old boat to be well preserved. It was 27 feet long and designed with a flat bottom for fishing in shallow water. Radio-carbon dating puts it in the period from 50 B.C.E. to 50 C.E.
Magness says that the picture of early first-century Galilee given us by archeology is consistent with textual evidence from the gospels and other sources. People farmed and fished. Some were employed in crafts like carpentry. They lived in simple, sturdy homes. Most were lower class, but all that means–since the upper class was small and isolated in cities–is that the vast majority of people were at about the same level. They were very poor by our standards.
In several villages of Galilee and also in Sepphoris we have found a mikveh, a place for Jewish purity rites. This indicates that some people, at least, tried to be observant Jews. At Gamala a mikveh was found next to an olive press. Magness thinks this shows that the people observed the Old Testament call for the donation of first fruits. The ritual offering would have taken place in ritual purity right there where the oil was produced.