Heavy Rains Reveal Limestone Funerary Busts Near Beth Shean, Israel

Bible and archaeology news

Archaeologists are not always the only ones to unearth the past; mother nature has occasionally been known to excavate ancient artifacts and reveal hidden ruins. Erosion and wind storms can expose antiquities and reveal entire cities once concealed beneath the ground. You may recall from this past summer when a heatwave struck the UK, showing “shadows” of buried architecture in the browning grasses. In Israel, however, it was the heavy winter rains that recently led to the discovery of a pair of rare specimens.


Winter rains helped expose these two busts at Beth Shean. Photo: Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Following a particularly torrential rain this past December, a local resident was taking a stroll around the northern cemetery of the old city of Beth Shean in Israel’s Northern District. Looking down, the hiker noticed the top of a curious marble-white head peeking through the soil. Upon realizing her chance discovery, the woman and her husband immediately called the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Theft Prevention Unit, which then dispatched archaeologists to the site.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

beth-shean-mapBeth Shean has served as a critical crossroads city at the junction of the Jezreel Valley and the Jordan River Valley since the settlement was first founded in the Early Bronze Age I (approximately 3200–3000 B.C.E.). Excavations at the site under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s and ’30s first revealed the cemetery on the northern mound of the settlement with interments from the earliest occupation of the site through Byzantine times.1

Upon arriving at the scene, IAA Theft Prevention Unit inspector Nir Distelfeld identified the partially-inhumed head as a limestone bust. He carefully excavated the statuary and—following a brief probing of the immediate area—quickly discovered a second, similar piece nearby.
The recent rains contributed to the exhumation of the limestone statues.

“It seems that the busts were exposed following the recent heavy rainfall in the area,” said Distelfeld. He continued, “It’s important to note that heavy winter rains can bring other finds to the surface and we call on people to report them to us.”

The natural excavation of antiquities exposes them to harmful forces such as weather damage or looters; luckily, it was a not a grave robber but a local Good Samaritan who happened upon this fortuitous discovery. The pair of heads were then taken to IAA laboratories in Har Hotzvim in order to safeguard them from theft as well to study and preserve them.


Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit inspector, with the two busts. Photo: Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy head of the IAA Theft Prevention Unit, identified the two busts as protomae—funerary statuary datable to the Late Roman era (third–fourth century C.E.). These busts would have been placed outside of burials and served as grave markers in the cemetery. Although approximately 200 similar protomae are currently housed in museums and private collections from Israel to America, most were purchased from looters or on the illicit antiquities market and thus lack conclusive provenance, rendering them useless for archaeological study.

A recent exhibition curated by Dr. Avshalom Zemer at the National Maritime Museum at the University of Haifa displayed several protomae from the collection of Dr. Alexander Roche (the founder and first director of the Museum of Ancient Art in Haifa). Zemer suggests that protomae are generally schematic, although some show evidence of an attempt at a likeness. In other words, although most known protomae are rather general in appearance, some may have been attempts to reconstruct the appearance of the deceased. Not one of the protomae resembles another, each with their own facial expressions, hairstyles, clothing, and adornments. Made of local limestone, one of the busts recently discovered depicts a bearded man.

The custom of marking graves with limestone busts appears limited to only two cities in antiquity: Beth Shean and Sebastia to the south, known during the Roman era as Skythopolis and Sebaste, respectively. Most similar busts are known (or thought) to have originated from cemeteries near Beth Shean, like the one the hiker recently came across.


A three-dimensional rendering of the busts. Image: Argita German-Levanon, the National Laboratory for Documentation and Digital Research in Archaeology, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Palestine boasted a diverse population during the Roman era. Especially as a critical hub along major thoroughfares, Beth Shean would have been home to Jews, Samaritans, Romans, and Christians originating from across the Mediterranean and Near East. Protomae are often inscribed with Greek, Latin, and Semitic names, although the ones recently discovered are not. These inscriptions are thought to name the deceased but offer little in the way of identifying the dead, as most adopted some form of Greek or Latin moniker. Klein proposes that the protomae likely did not mark the interments of Jews or Samaritans because of the restriction on graven images in the Ten Commandments.

The earliest known protomae date to the end of the reign of Trajan (98–117 C.E.) and, according to Zemer, the custom appeared limited to the upper classes. Fine details and particular stylistic tendencies in the early busts indicate several active artisans and workshops. However, by the middle of the third century C.E., the lower classes of Beth Shean also adopted the practice—poor workmanship on some of the busts and lower-quality limestone suggest cheaper protomae available to the masses. Zemer notes that by the third century, there was a marked “decline in artistry, expressed in generalization and standardization.” By the middle of the fourth century, it appears that protomae had vanished from style, perhaps due to the spread of Christianity in Palestine.

Archaeologists separate protomae into two stylistic traditions—Roman and Oriental. Although both reflect Hellenistic iconographic forms, Roman is more reminiscent of imperial busts and memorial portraits of family ancestors, while the Oriental style exhibits Nabataean influences. Craftsmen at Beth Shean appeared to influence one another; although each statue is distinct, there appear to be general stylistic trends and shared techniques throughout the centuries of protomae production.

Klein told the Times of Israel that further excavation is being planned for the area where the two busts were found. For her good judgment, the hiker will be awarded a certificate of appreciation from the IAA.

Samuel DeWitt Pfister is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the George Washington University.



1. For more information on the archaeological work at Beth Shean, see the Jewish Virtual Library’s entry on the site.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

9 Responses

  1. David Lewis says:

    Protomae or Promotae? They seem to be used interchangeably.

    1. Sam says:

      Good catch, thank you for pointing that out—overlooked that misspelling.

  2. Wendy says:

    Why do I see Jack Black and Sir Alec Guinness?

  3. Joe Cantello says:

    Glad to see that the IAA is giving the hiker a certificate; probably trying to encourage others to help keep the artifacts in Israel.

  4. Elena George says:

    Would it kill the author to refer to the region by a name other than Palestine?

    1. Dennis B. Swaney says:

      Probably academically, but not literally.

  5. bobs109 says:

    A study of these objects was just presented at the SHAJ 14 Conference in Florence last week.

  6. bobs109 says:

    Protomae are not exclusively found in Sebastia and Beth Shean. They are found in excavation reports of sister multi-ethnic cities like Gadara, Abila and others in the Decapolis.

    1. Dennis B. Swaney says:

      But Beth Shean/Skythopolis is the only Decapolis city in Israel and west of the Jordan River. Was Sebaste possibly a “colony” town of Skythopolis or another Decapolis city?

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