Salvage archaeology exposes deep history of famed biblical site
Tel Beth Shemesh was one of the first biblical sites to be excavated in the Land of Israel. The site is perched on a low hill overlooking the wide Soreq Valley, a main water source crossing lush agricultural land, on the border between the higher Shephelah (foothills) to the west and the Judean Highland to the east. Biblical Beth-Shemesh appears in the Books of Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles—notably as the place where the Philistines returned the briefly captured Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites (1 Samuel 6).
In 1856, Edward Robinson identified the archaeological site as biblical Beth-Shemesh, using both its geographical features, which correlate with biblical and other textual descriptions, and the Arabic name of an abandoned village found on its eastern side: Ein Shams (‘Ain Shems).
The first to excavate the site was Duncan Mackenzie, who launched an expedition in 1911 on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund. This was followed by a large-scale American expedition led by Elihu Grant of Haverford College between 1928 and 1931. In 1990, Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman launched a new, multi-year expedition on behalf of Bar Ilan University (1990–1993), Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (1994–1996), and Tel Aviv University (1997–present).
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These past excavations concluded that the site was inhabited from the Middle Bronze Age IIB (c. 1750 B.C.E.) to the end of the Iron Age IIB (eighth century B.C.E.), when King Sennacherib of Assyria destroyed the Judahite city in 701 B.C.E. Much later, during the Byzantine period (fifth–seventh centuries C.E.), a large building was erected on top of the ancient ruins (see below).
With excavations focused on the western mound, where the Bronze and Iron Age remains were close to the surface, it was wrongly assumed that the site of Beth Shemesh was bordered by the road that divided the ancient mound from the abandoned Arab village to the east. This road later became Israel’s Highway 38.
In 2018, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) mandated salvage excavations at the ruins of the Arab village, Tel Beth Shemesh (East), to allow for the expansion of Highway 38. The excavations, which I directed, were carried out by the Israeli Institute of Archaeology, on behalf of Tel Aviv University and the IAA, with the assistance of Dr. Aaron Tavger and Yoram Haimi, from 2018 to 2020. The excavations were funded by Israel’s National Transport Infrastructure Company (Netivei Israel).[i] Until our excavations, there had been no investigation of what lay under the abandoned village bordering the site on the east, except for the examination probes conducted by the IAA’s Eli Hadad and Nathan Ben Ari.
Our discoveries surpassed our expectations. Exposing remains from the Late Bronze Age to the Ottoman period, our excavations proved that Tel Beth Shemesh (East) was indeed part of the ancient site.
The area under construction was divided into three sections, A, B, and C. We excavated in Section A, the deepest and most stratigraphically complex of the three. Our excavations spanned several hundred 5-by-5-meter squares, totaling 1 hectare. Sections B and C were excavated by Hebrew Union College (HUC).
The remarkable findings from our excavations in Section A, which identified remains from the Late Bronze Age to the 20th century, are summarized below.
|19th–20th centuries CE
|Seasonal agricultural activity; Foreign expeditions’ camp
|c. 15th–19th centuries CE
|Late Byzantine/ Early Islamic
|c. 7th–10th centuries CE
|4th–7th centuries CE
|Agricultural/ Industrial area
|Late Hellenistic (Hasmonean) – Early Roman
|1st century BCE–2nd century CE
|Iron Age IIC – Persian – Early Hellenistic
|7th–2nd centuries BCE
|Iron Age II
|9th – 8th centuries BCE
|Late Bronze – Iron Age I
|12th–11th centuries BCE
Late Bronze Age to Iron Age I (12th–11th centuries B.C.E.)
Remains from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I (c. 12th–11th centuries B.C.E.) are well documented on the western mound. On the eastern mound, however, only a single complex was found: a large cistern (about 16 ft in diameter and 13 ft deep) identified east of Highway 38. The cistern dates to the Late Bronze Age. In one of its upper fill layers, we identified a wall or platform dating to the Iron Age I. A later installation (an Iron Age II pit) was cut through the side of the cistern, indicating that by the Iron Age II (c. ninth to early sixth centuries B.C.E.), the existence and contour of the cistern were already unknown.
As this cistern is the solitary Late Bronze Age find from among the nearly 1,000 excavation squares dug east of Highway 38 (by both the Tel Aviv and HUC teams), it is safe to assume that there was not a continuous occupation covering the entire site (i.e., the western and eastern parts of the mound). Instead, it seems that the cistern was an isolated feature that likely went out of use at the end of the Late Bronze Age or in the early Iron Age I.
Iron Age II (ninth–early sixth centuries B.C.E.)
During the Iron Age II, the eastern mound saw its first identifiable settlement. The earliest recognizable human activity from this period is quarrying, followed in the subsequent Iron Age IIB-C period by agricultural production facilities that cut into the quarried area or re-used its existing rock-cut surfaces. At least four olive-oil presses, dated from around the seventh to fifth centuries B.C.E., were identified in situ. This adds to the ten installations uncovered in the neighboring HUC excavation to the south (in Sections B and C).
The ancient inhabitants of Beth Shemesh made not only olive oil but also wine. We discovered three winepresses dating to this period.
Interestingly, in no place where we found Iron Age II remains did they superimpose any prior occupational layer. This means our identification of an Iron Age IIC (c. 700–586 B.C.E.) settlement negates previous archaeological and historical reconstructions regarding the fate of the Iron Age II Judahite town of Beth Shemesh—that is, that the site was abandoned after Sennacherib’s attack in 701 B.C.E. Further, the material remains from the Iron Age IIC reflect a level of Judahite continuity, as indicated by pillar and animal figurines, and lmlk and rosette stamp impressions—all typical of Judahite culture.
This preliminary assessment suggests that the site remained strongly affiliated with Judah even after Sennacherib’s campaign. No destruction or abandonment was identified at the site—neither from the Assyrian campaign nor from the Neo-Babylonian campaigns of the early sixth century B.C.E. Alterations to the olive oil and wine installations suggest a continuation of an agricultural economy at the site. This, together with the few yhud (Judah) impressions and even a yršlm (Jerusalem) impression, may indicate a continued economic and political affinity to Jerusalem.
Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods (fifth–third centuries B.C.E.)
Although only a few architectural remains can be solidly assigned to the Persian and early Hellenistic periods, numerous ceramics and coins from these periods have been uncovered. It appears, for the most part, that the Iron Age II agricultural installations continued in use until the third century B.C.E., a notion further reinforced by Early Hellenistic pottery recovered from atop the Iron Age IIC floors.
A building complex that includes a partially modified cave found in the western part of the site may be dated to this period. The cave was accessible through a built entrance of large stones, later deliberately filled and blocked around the second century B.C.E. Later, probably during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–136 C.E.), the cave was reused and connected to a more extensive “hideout system” that included a long underground corridor and cistern (see below).
Hasmonean and Early Roman Periods (c. second century B.C.E.– second century C.E.)
During the Hasmonean period, the site underwent its first major change since the Iron Age II: It evolved into a Jewish village. Late Second Temple period settlements share a distinct material culture, such as the presence of ritual baths (or miqvehs, of which at least seven have been found at Beth Shemesh) and limestone vessels, and an absence of pig bones.[ii]
Unfortunately, many of the architectural elements of the village did not survive, likely due to the massive construction activities that took place later during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. With the exception of a single intact dwelling from the period, what remained included mainly subterranean installations (miqvehs) and cisterns.
And yet, one special building did survive. In the northwestern part of the site, we found (near the edge of the settlement overlooking the Soreq Valley) a monumental rectangular structure (measuring 21 by 33 ft), originally built during the Early Roman period (late first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.). Built of finely dressed ashlar blocks with drafted margins, the structure survived to a height of 10 feet on its northern side. Along its interior walls, we identified a plastered bench.
Due to the building’s quality of construction, position, and uniqueness within the site, it can be clearly interpreted as a public structure. Further, given its architectural elements, as well as the masonry and bench, it most likely served as a synagogue during the latter part of the Second Temple period.[iii]
Sadly, this unique building was dismantled by the IAA during the excavation—with plans to reconstruct it in an alternate location—to allow for the construction of the new road. The dismantling, however, provided important insight into the building’s construction.
While most of the eastern wall and the northeastern corner were original to the building (first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.), most of the western wall and the northwestern corner were rebuilt during the Byzantine period (fifth–seventh centuries C.E.). It was remarkable, therefore, to discover that while the external facade of the structure seemed uniform, the internal building technique was entirely different between the earlier and later phases. The Byzantine construction also included several decorative architectural elements in secondary use. These elements were placed so that the decoration faced inward, while the external face was chiseled with drafted margins, imitating the Early Roman style. The reconstruction aimed to replicate the original form of the building, including a reconstruction of the bench, even though it is unclear if the bench served any purpose during this period.[iv]
The Jewish inhabitants of the eastern mound most likely abandoned their village during or shortly after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–136 C.E.). Evidence for this comes from underground hideout systems, previously unknown at Beth Shemesh. Underground, rock-cut hideout systems were used in Judea and Galilee during the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 C.E.) and became widespread during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. This is particularly true for the Shephelah, where the natural soft limestone allowed for easy and quick tunneling. Aside from one system that stretches more than 130 feet and incorporates several (earlier) chambers, most of the hideout systems at Beth Shemesh are small in scale. They were probably used by domestic households for emergency necessities. Although most of the systems were found empty, with many partially collapsed due to the fragmentary nature of the site’s bedrock, some contained complete vessels, coins, and even iron agricultural tools.
Following the second-century C.E. abandonment, the site was not resettled until the end of the Roman period (fourth century C.E.).
Late Roman and Byzantine Periods (fourth–seventh centuries C.E.)
In the fourth century C.E., the site was settled anew, but in a completely different style and function: as an industrial center with pottery kilns, at least one winepress, and two large olive-oil press compounds. The kilns (found at the northern edge of the site) are among the largest and best preserved ever discovered in Israel from the period. They include two chambers, each 17 feet in diameter and at least 15 feet deep. Although the roofs did not survive, they were clearly domed structures. The eastern kiln is the best preserved, as it still includes the burning chamber, along with its arched entry, heat vents, a small part of the firing chamber floor, and even some of the original clay powder from the vessels fired inside.
The kilns and their technology will be thoroughly dealt with in future publications,[v] though it is already clear that these kilns almost exclusively produced storage jars, presumably to pack and market the products of the site’s agricultural installations, namely wine and olive oil.
Of the two large olive-oil press complexes we discovered, the southern complex, which included two presses, was better preserved due to its continued use through the Early Islamic period (seventh–tenth centuries C.E.). The large winepress (measuring 33 by 21 ft) in the northwestern edge of the site included a central treading floor with a screw press and a secondary treading floor with separating and storage vats. The winepress was well built— made with heavy, industrial mosaic floors—and was clearly intended for long-term use and durability. Unlike the large olive press, the winepress was abandoned during the Early Islamic period (seventh–tenth centuries C.E.), after which its vats were used as dumps for the still-operating olive press—as suggested by the hundreds of olive seeds found in its fill.
Despite the overwhelming industrial nature of the site during this period, several complexes also suggest non-industrial and even religious uses. Between the two olive presses, a large area may have been used for storage or dwelling. Plus, the Second Temple period synagogue was reconstructed to include a decorated, multi-colored mosaic floor, only the frame of which remains. The mosaic may have been deliberately disassembled during the Early Islamic period, due to a prohibition of figurative art depicting humans and animals. The presence of the east-west oriented mosaic, which covered the newly sectioned-off southern third of the building, clearly suggests the special status of the structure—one that may have included or even continued religious practice. Interestingly, this decorated area, alongside the reconstruction of parts of the building as described earlier, represent the only identified instance of an earlier building being reused during the Byzantine period in our section of Tel Beth Shemesh. Furthermore, the phenomenon of erecting religious buildings on top of older sacred buildings is well attested throughout the Byzantine empire. In most cases at our site, the early architecture was simply demolished to obtain stones for secondary construction and to use the bedrock as foundations.
To the south of the synagogue (now likely used as a chapel), a new building was constructed. It had an antechamber and a vaulted main room, leading to an underground cavity that collapsed in antiquity, probably in the Early Islamic period. Its massive stone floors—as with the reconstructed walls of the synagogue—included many decorative architectural elements. These similarities hint that the two buildings may have been part of a single religious complex. Marble fragments, amulets, and several capitals bearing cross reliefs, all found in secondary use or fills, suggest that the complex was a Christian chapel.
We assume that the industrial installations, storage or domestic units, and possible chapel belong to the large Byzantine complex at Tel Beth Shemesh, excavated by Duncan Mackenzie in 1911. The massive complex, about three-quarters of an acre in size, was identified by Mackenzie as a convent. It is possible, however, that it was used as a farmstead, while the religious buildings of the settlement were, in fact, excavated by our expedition.
Early Islamic Period (seventh–tenth centuries C.E.)
The site continued to evolve over time, and during the Early Islamic period, it became a rural settlement once again—but with patrician houses and rich ceramics. Many of the Byzantine industrial complexes were abandoned or covered, some reused as domestic areas. The chapel complex was built over—perhaps even with a deliberate defacing of the decorated mosaic.
During the mid-eighth century C.E., the site suffered a major destruction, probably due to an earthquake (possibly the great earthquake of 749 C.E.). Part of the olive press’s northern wall collapsed on top of a pen for goat and sheep that was there at the time. Dozens of in situ skeletons of the livestock, buried under the collapsed stone blocks, portray the severity and suddenness of this event.
The town recovered after this destruction and the olive press was rebuilt. However, the site was again abandoned in the tenth or early 11th century C.E., not to be reoccupied until the 15th century.
Mamluk and Ottoman Periods (15th–19th centuries C.E.)
During the 15th century, in the Mamluk period, the settlement at Beth Shemesh resumed with the establishment of another rural village—named Ein Shams. The settlement stretched over at least 1.75 acres and included a mosque, later known as the Weli of Abu-Mizar. [vi] Another sheik’s tomb, the Weli of Abu-Ghazala, may have been located in the eastern part of the village. Duncan Mackenzie mentions the Weli of Abu-Ghazala in his 1912 report, and Sir Charles Wilson describes a surviving building in the eastern part of Ein Shams’s ruins in 1881, possibly representing the tomb. Beyond these, however, no other references to this monument appear in 19th or early 20th-century texts.[vii]
We uncovered two underground olive-oil presses dating to the Ottoman period: one near the Weli of Abu-Mizar and another to the north.
Alongside the public buildings and agricultural installations, we found a domestic area concentrated on the eastern part of the site. The domestic units themselves present dense architecture, which include a main room sometimes divided into two elevations. The upper space was likely reserved for sleeping, while the lower room was reserved for general use and to shelter livestock. A doorway (or two) sometimes led to a courtyard, which in many cases also included a water cistern or an underground storage cave (in many instances, the secondary use of an earlier water cistern or even a hideout system). The domestic units were grouped together in long “trains,” perhaps indicating the organic growth of the family.
Despite the flatness of the site’s existing surface, the inhabitants wished to build their settlement on a sloping hill. Thus, they invested a tremendous amount of effort into sculpting the surface and landfills (some 8 ft thick) to enhance the existing—but moderate—slope of the site from southeast to northwest. The suggested Weli of Abu-Ghazalah and even simpler dwellings were constructed on top of such fills.
By the end of the 18th or early 19th century, the village was abandoned, most likely due to civil unrest and land disputes that plagued the country during that time.[viii] Most of the inhabitants probably relocated to the nearby village of Deir Aban, about 2.5 miles east of Beth Shemesh.
Our excavation of Ein Shams is one of the largest of an Ottoman-period settlement to have ever taken place in Israel and, to the best of our knowledge, worldwide. In the past, many archaeologists were simply not interested in the late Islamic periods and regarded their layers of material remains as obstacles in reaching the “real” finds of earlier periods. Unfortunately, it was this kind of scientific bias that led, for more than a century, to a misunderstanding of the full extent of the size and chronology of Beth Shemesh, as no scholar wished to probe through the remains of the Arab village on the eastern part of the mound.
In addition to the sheer size of the excavation, the remains at Ein Shams are also important because they reflect Arab rural culture before the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the country. The remains are devoid of later imports and industries, such as cast iron, cement, and European ceramics.
Modern Period (19th–20th centuries)
Following its abandonment by the early 19th century, Beth Shemesh became a seasonal agricultural settlement. During the early 20th century, the main activity at the site, aside from seasonal agricultural activity, involved foreign archaeological expeditions, some of whose excavators repurposed the abandoned (though still intact and maintained) Abu-Mizar Weli complex. Our expedition located their pottery dumps, as well as canned food, cosmetic and medicine bottles, canisters, and more. Additionally, they restored at least one of the water cisterns within the Weli’s courtyard.
The salvage excavation at Tel Beth Shemesh (East) is one of the largest archaeological excavations in Israeli history. In recent years, several such excavations have taken place around the country (e.g., En ’Esur, Moẓa, and Yavneh). Modern archaeology has tended to refrain from this type of wide and deep excavation. Although popular in the past, this excavation style became gradually less common over the course of the 20th century. The reason is clear: It is almost impossible to maintain adequate data resolution while excavating gigantic areas of hundreds (if not thousands) of squares and managing hundreds of laborers with various levels of expertise.
As such, the use of modern scientific methods in archaeology has led to ever-shrinking excavation areas in most archaeological expeditions, which now focus mainly on extracting the most information out of every bit of excavated space. This direction, of course, is correct if one accepts the concept of antiquities as a depleting resource and that archaeology is, in essence, “controlled destruction.”
Salvage excavations are different by nature. These take place in areas doomed to destruction. Without excavating the complete, threatened area, it would be entirely lost. Here, government agencies decide what can be sacrificed and what must be saved—though with the understanding that massive salvage excavations may preserve less than they hope. The goal of such agencies should be to find, with developers, creative solutions that limit the scope of antiquities destruction, rather than trying to salvage as much as possible through massive excavation areas.
Another issue arises from the integration of “old archaeology” scales of excavation with “new archaeology” approaches to collection and documentation. That is to say that the sheer volume of information gathered now requires modern processing, cataloging, storage, and analysis, all of which adds unprecedented challenges to the ever-growing publication “debt” of Israeli archaeology.
There is, however, a major advantage to these massive excavations—a large scope of exposure. Since the “golden age” of archaeology in the Holy Land during the 1920s and 30s (and, to a lesser degree, the excavations at Masada and Hazor by Yigael Yadin), no major site in Israel has been “stripped” to expose entire occupational layers and horizons. Such large exposures permit analysis of settlement planning, borders and boundaries, and non-elite domestic areas. Our excavation at Tel Beth Shemesh allowed for the nearly full exposure of five main settlement plans spanning more than three millennia. Our finds will provide topics of research for years to come and numerous publications, including several M.A. and Ph.D. theses.
A few months into the excavation of the site, the community of modern Beit Shemesh awakened. In a rare example of public outcry, they lobbied, demonstrated, and petitioned to save the site from development, advocating for the digging of an underground roadway beneath the mound, rather than cutting through it. They did so until the road plans were changed, in the form of a compromise: The IAA renegotiated the width of the planned road development from 230 feet to 82 feet, thus decreasing the scale of destruction by 65 percent. Although this is a remarkable achievement, a careful consideration of the known information from the preliminary probes at the site could have also revised the original scale from the outset.
Massive salvage excavations may sometimes be necessary in a densely populated and antiquities-rich country such as Israel, when no feasible planning alternatives can be found. It is our duty to produce a swift, high-quality excavation report, if we hope to even the “pros” with the “cons” of such enterprises.
I wish to thank the numerous individuals who made this excavation possible, such as my partners in the management of this excavation, Dr. Aharon Tavger and Yoram Haimi, and the archaeologists of the Jerusalem Region of the IAA, particularly Dr. Amit Shadman (District Archaeologist), for his guidance, assistance, and supervision. I extend my gratitude to the municipality of Beit Shemesh led by mayor Dr. Aliza Bloch, who visited on several occasions and supported both the excavation and the efforts to limit the destruction, and the community of Beit Shemesh for their genuine love of heritage, courage, and strength to take action. I also thank the staff of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, including its head, Professor Oded Lipschits, and the many scholars who visited, consulted, and advised the expeditions. Lastly, I am grateful to Dr. Alon Shavit, CEO of the Israeli Institute of Archaeology, who provided the scientific and logistic experience, as well as advice, on how to tackle and succeed in such a great project.
About the Author
Boaz Gross, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology at Tel Aviv University, is Vice President of the Israeli Institute of Archaeology and Director of the salvage excavations at Tel Beth Shemesh. He also serves as Field Director of the Masada Expedition.
[i] Among the senior staff of the excavation are O. Tsuf (Chief Registrar and Ceramic Specialist), Y. Condo and L. Torbatti (Administration), N. Rozenfeld and R. Ushki (Cataloging and Registration), N. Ben-Melech, N. Goldin-Meir, A. Hodson, G. Mavronanos, H. Maynard, A. Tavger, L. Torbatti, and R. Ushki (Area Supervision). Primary specialists collaborating with the expedition include E. Ayalon (Agricultural Installations), D. Raviv (Second Temple Period), L. Namdar (Archaeozoology), A. Wrathall (Iron Age II), Y. Farhi (Numismatics), I. Taxel (Ottoman Period pottery), and D. Resenberg (Stone Objects). I also wish to thank A. Wrathall who helped prepare and edit this paper for publication.
[ii] D. Raviv will publish a thorough analysis of the Second Temple Period settlement at Tel Beth Shemesh. The faunal remains were analyzed by L. Namdar and L. Sapir-Hen and will be published in the final report.
[iii] I wish to thank specialists H. Ben David, H. Geva, G. Stiebel, S. Veksler-Bdolah, O. Peleg-Barkat, and B. Zissu, who are among the many scholars who visited the site and provided the expedition with invaluable information, parallels, and professional opinions regarding the nature of the building. Special credit must go to Yeshua (Yeshu) Dray who was the first to suggest this interpretation of the building during a visit to the dig site. The building complex is part the MA thesis research of A. Hodson, a student of the Tel Aviv University Ancient Israel International MA program, under the supervision of Dr. Guy Stiebel.
[iv] Of the scholars who visited the site, Benjamin Arubas was the most adamant that the building should, in fact, be dated to the Byzantine period, rather than to the Early Roman, mainly due to the “double” drafted margins on some blocks in the upper courses of the building. His suggestion has held merit, as major parts of the building are indeed Byzantine.
[vi] On behalf of the Israeli Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, and the IAA, Nathan Ben-Ari excavated the Weli of Abu-Mizar in 2013. In 2016, it was relocated to an eastern location in preparation for the road expansion. During the excavation and dismantling of its foundations, we discovered that many of its walls were originally built in the Early Islamic period.
[vii] See Duncan Mackenzie, Excavations at Ain Shems (Beth-Shemesh), The Palestine Exploration Fund Annual I (London, 1911), pp. 41–94; Charles Wilson, Picturesque Palestine (1881). The building itself was mostly excavated during the 2017 excavation of the IAA, led by Eli Hadad and Nathan Ben-Ari, who described it as a “monumental arched building,” but did not identify it as the Weli of Abu-Ghazalah.
[viii] Roy Marom (Ph.D. candidate at the University of Haifa) suggests that the abandonment was part of the Qays and Yaman rivalry. Marom will conduct a thorough historical synthesis of the Mamluk and Ottoman phases at Tel Beth Shemesh.
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