The sacred complex, including the temple and round stone structure. Photo: SkyView (from AFTAU site)
On Monday, November 12, 2012, Tel Aviv University archaeologists announced the discovery of an 11th-century B.C.E. sacred compound at Tel Beth-Shemesh. According to the American Friends of Tel Aviv University website
, “The newly discovered sacred complex is comprised of an elevated, massive circular stone structure and an intricately constructed building characterized by a row of three flat, large round stones.” Declared an unparalleled discovery by excavation directors Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman,* the early sacred site was not merely destroyed; it was intentionally desecrated by later occupants. Just above the sacred stratum, which yielded shards of painted chalices and goblets, bones and liquid channels, lies a stratum featuring manure and Phytoliths (weed remains), suggesting that the sacred space was reused as animal pens in the successive occupation. Later still, occupants built ovens over the complex, a surprising construction in a non-domestic area. Archaeologists working at the site believe the ovens were used to cook feasts celebrating the memory of the sacred history of the site even after it was desecrated.
The recently excavated temple at Beth-Shemesh. Photo: Dale Manor (from AFTAU site)
The intentionality behind the sudden shift from veneration to devaluation comes as no surprise at this heavily contested site. Located at the meeting place of three of the most powerful peoples in ancient Palestine, Beth-Shemesh suffered the varying fortunes of the Israelites, Canaanites and Philistines who lived in the region. Although the Bible identifies the site as Israelite during the period of the Judges, recent excavations reveal this border town was a hotbed of political, social and cultural interaction. Remains from the Iron Age I city (1200-1000 BCE) make it difficult to determine just who occupied the city during the period when Israel began to emerge in Canaan. Canaanite-style pottery and column bases appear among the ruins of the “Patrician House,” but the scarcity of pig bones parallels findings at contemporaneous “Israelite” sites in the hill country, such as Shiloh and Mt. Ebal. After a fire destroyed the village around 1100 B.C.E., it was rebuilt with a new orientation, and architecture from the period includes square monolithic columns that are commonly associated with the Israelites. The newly discovered sacred space has only been partially excavated, and will certainly shed new light on the Iron-Age Israelite, Philistine or Canaanite cult.
For more on the recent discovery, read the American Friends of Tel Aviv University announcement “Desecrated Ancient Temple Sheds Light on Early Power Struggles at Tel Beth-Shemesh.”
* BAS Library Members: Read Shlomo Bunimovitz and Lederman, Zvi. “Beth Shemesh: Culture conflict on Judah’s frontier” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1997.
For another recent discovery at Beth-Shemesh, read “Lion Seal from Beth Shemesh Sparks Samson Discussion
” in Bible History Daily.
For readers interested in learning more about archaeological evidence of imperial powers intentionally devaluing local cult, see Noah Wiener. “Damaged Representation: The Figurines from Bronze Age Tell Sabi Abyad, Syria and the Archaeology of Disregard.” (available in pdf format)