Tel Beth-Shean

Tel Beth-Shean: An Account of the Hebrew University  Excavations*


            The mound of Tel Beth-Shean (Arabic: Tell el-Hosn = "the mound of the fortress") towers steeply above the Beth-Shean Valley to a height of 113 m below sea level, set on the base of a hill originally some 125 m below sea level. [Picture 1] The tell's location is strategically incomparable: the northern and southern sides are defended by deep ravines, through which the Harod (Wadi Jalud) and Asi Rivers flow, until they converge to the east of the mound.  The site commands the main road descending from the Jezreel and Harod Valleys to the Beth-Shean Valley, which was a segment of the international highway that, even today, connects Israel's northern coastal plain with Transjordan. To the east of the mound, in the Beth-Shean Valley, this latitudinal road intersects with the important longitudinal thoroughfare which traverses the Jordan Valley. From here, it continues north to the Huleh Valley and the Lebanese Bek'a.  These strategic advantages, as well as the abundant water and fertile lands nearby, made Beth-Shean an attractive site for settlement from earliest times. Indeed, evidence has been found for its initial inhabitance as early as the end of the Neolithic Period (the fifth millennium BCE), with continuing occupation until Medieval times.

Air view of Tel Beth Shean
1. Air view of Tel Beth-Shean during 1994 season, looking west towards the Jezreel Valley.

            Between 1921-1933, widespread excavations were conducted at Tel Beth-Shean by a team from the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, directed consecutively by Clarence Fisher, Alan Rowe, and Gerald FitzGerald. This expedition exposed an Early Arab dwelling quarter which covered the entire tel, a round church and dwelling quarter of the Byzantine Period on the mound's summit, and the remains of a monumental Roman temple. A large area excavated in the high, southern part of the tell, contained settlement strata dating from the Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

            The most important finds belonged to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I, which was the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom (15th-12th centuries BCE). During this era, Beth-Shean served as the center of Egyptian imperial rule in the north of Israel. This period yielded temples, governors' residencies, and  dwelling quarters of the soldiers and officials of the Egyptian garrison stationed at the site. The most renowned finds of this excavation included three monumental basalt stelae with inscriptions from the reign of Seti I and Ramsess II, a life-size statue of Ramsess III, as well as numerous other Egyptian stelae and inscriptions, which constitute the most significant assemblage of Egyptian monuments to be found in Israel. The many objects of artistic value and ritual vessels which were found in the temple and its vicinity represent, until today, one of the most valuable collections of such artifacts dating to the second millennium BCE to be found in Canaan. Excavations in the cemetery to the north of the tel uncovered burial caves from various periods, including clay anthropoid coffins dating to the period of Egyptian domination.  

            In light of improved modern excavation and research methods, it was deemed appropriate to renew the study of Tel Beth-Shean. This was initiated by Shulamit Geva and the late Prof. Yigael Yadin, who, in 1983, conducted a brief excavation season in the Iron I Age levels at the site. In 1989, the prospect of renewing the excavations at Tel Beth-Shean on a large scale became viable. Between 1989-1996, nine seasons of excavation lasting six weeks each were carried out, with the participation of workers from the town of Beth-Shean,  volunteers and archaeology students of the Hebrew University. The excavations were directed by A.Mazar under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of  Jerusalem, in the framework of a joint expedition coordinated by the Beth-Shean Tourism Development Administration.

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The Tel and Its Environs

            Although Tel Beth-Shean is one of the most imposing mounds in Israel, with its steep, impressive shape, it is not especially large: the ancient remains cover an area of ca. 4 hectares, which for extended periods was only partially occupied (see below). An examination of the history of Beth-Shean must take into consideration the settlement pattern throughout the entire Beth-Shean Valley, where there are dozens of mounds and ruins of various sizes, some very large (such as Tel Rehov=Tell es-Sarem, covering 10 hectares), alongside much smaller mounds of some one tenth of an hectare. In several places along the Jordan River (such as around Kibbutz Kefar Ruppin) and near 'Ein Hemed (the Sahne Spring), there are concentrations of four or more small mounds. It appears that the major Canaanite city state and Israelite urban center in the region was Rehov, which had been surrounded by a dense settlement in the valley. The subsistence of these settlements was most probably based on irrigation agriculture, which was facilitated by the abundance of springs and the differences in elevation. During the Bronze and Iron Ages, Tel Beth-Shean was only one of the settlement centers in the valley, and perhaps not even one of the more important ones.            

One of the major questions which we faced was why did the Egyptians of the New Kingdom chose Beth-Shean as a garrison town? It appears that the answer is related to the status of the town in the previous period. For during the Middle Bronze Age II, occupation on the mound was not extensive, and apparently the town was not fortified by the typical massive ramparts or glacis. Thus, it appears that during the New Kingdom, the Egyptians chose to establish their administrative and military center in the north of the country at a site of strategic importance, but nevertheless played only a secondary role in the pattern of Canaanite settlement in the region.  Thus, the study of Tel Beth-Shean is closely interrelated to that of the entire valley. A research agenda which considers this factor requires years of prolonged study, involving comparative surveys and excavations at sites throughout the valley.

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Excavation Strategy 

The large scale excavations of the University of Pennsylvania concentrated on the highest area of the mound on the south , and terminated on disparate levels which resulted in the formation of several steps. On the summit, excavations ended in the Iron Age I levels (Level VI), while in the large area in the center of the summit, the excavations reached the sanctuary of Level IX (14th century BCE). In the southeastern part of this area, the excavation stopped at Level XIII (the Early Bronze Age III). In 1933, a more limited area (16x21 m) was taken down from the Early Bronze Age III levels to bedrock. Levels XIV-XVIII date from the Early Bronze Age I to the Neolithic Pottery Periods.            

This situation afforded us with an opportunity to plan our work as a direct continuation of the Pennsylvania excavations, and to simultaneously dig remains of various periods in different areas throughout the mound. During our work, we were able to reexamine almost all the previous excavation areas, and to proceed down; new areas were opened as well. Since our expedition uncovered more occupation phases  than those identified by the Pennsylvania team, we had to keep a separate tally of settlement phases in each excavation area. The enclosed table and site-map  show the excavation areas, the correlation between the different occupation phases in the various areas, and their relationship to the strata numbers utilized by the University of Pennsylvania excavators. [Picture 2]     

Plan of Tel Beth Shean, with location of the excavations area of the Hebrew University expedition.2. 2. Plan of Tel Beth-Shean, with location of the excavations area of the Hebrew University expedition

 What follows is a presentation of the major results of our excavation, ranging in chronological order from the earliest to the latest periods. 

 The Early Bronze Age

The University of Pennsylvania team identified a ca. 6 m deep accumulation dating to the Early Bronze Age and earlier. The Early Bronze Age was explored during the present excavations in two areas: M and R.  Area M, which covered a total of 500 sq m, is located in the southeastern corner of the tell. Here we could start our work by cleaning building remains of the Early Bronze III uncovered by our predecessors (our Phase M1), and to proceed through thin and enigmatic Early Bronze I/II transitional level (our Phase M2) down to a major  settlement phase of the Early Bronze Age IB (Phase M3).

            At this level we  hit a unique public buildings built of mudbrick, whose walls were preserved to a height and width of more than one meter. The total dimension of this building is still unknown, but what was excavated included part of a large hall, (6.5X8.3 m inner dimensions), with a circular outer corner.[Picture 3]  Along its walls were brick benches. Its roof was supported by 14 wooden pillars laid on flat stone bases, the latter found sunken below the plaster floor of the hall. The post holes in the floor could be well defined. In one corner, a quern and pestle were found on a mudbrick raised platform, and in another corner evidence for production of flint blades was found. The building was destroyed in a violent conflagration, which resulted in the partial firing of the collapsed bricks. Several bricks bore manufacturers' marks, which had been impressed while the bricks were still wet. Lumps of clay, reeds and plaster found in the fall  are probably part of the fallen roof. In the collapsed debris were sherds of many large storage jars, covered with "band slip" (known also as "grain wash") as well as several small vessels typical of this period.

Plan of Early Bronze Ib public building, 32-31st centuries BCE
3. Plan of Early Bronze Ib public building, 32-31st centuries BCE (Area M).

 Several sherds bore incised decoration, and one clay ram's head probably decorated the inside of a pottery bowl. Many flint implements were found in this building, along with a large amount of charred grain. It is noteworthy that in this level, no vessels of "Grey Burnished Ware" were found. Such ware was found during the University of Pennsylvania excavations in earlier levels. Thus, this building should be attributed to a late phase of the Early Bronze Age I. One C-14 dates of burnt grain seeds from this building yielded  the calibrated date 3300-2946 BCE.

            Following the violent destruction of this building, new structures were erected in this area, containing two building phases (M2b and M2a) which are badly preserved and hardly separable. A new curved mudbrick wall was built just above the curved outer wall of the previous burnt building, a fact which demonstrates architectural continuity between Phases M3 and M2. However, the plan of the new building was altered, as evidenced by several new walls and floors.  Some special finds from this phase were three copper axes, a copper spearhead, and a well-made limestone macehead. These finds can be dated to the end of the Early Bronze Age I, or the beginning of the Early Bronze Age II.

            These EBI remains are especially significant when attempting to reconstruct the process of urbanization in the late fourth millennium BCE. Many sites dating to this period are known in the Beth-Shean and Jordan Valleys, such as Tel Shalem (where fortifications attributed to this period were found), Tel ed-Diaba, Tel Kitan and Tel Yakush west of the Jordan, and Tell esh-Shuneh east of the Jordan. It appears that the structure at Beth-Shean was a public building related to a centralized socio-economic organization. It possibly fulfilled a role in economic administration such as the concentration and re-distribution of agricultural produce by a central authority.

             Only a few remains may be ascribed to the Early Bronze Age II, such as sherds painted with red triangles filled with red dots, in the style characteristic of this period. The Early Bronze Age III, Beth-Shean and its vicinity was home to an especially dense settlement, representing the southernmost appearance of the immigrants who arrived here from northeastern Anatolia and the Caspian Sea region, bringing with them manufacturing tradition of "Khirbet Kerak" ware, which they continued to produce for generations.

            At Beth-Shean, several occupation phases  from this period were excavated in Areas R and M. In the former, at least four phases from this period were unearthed in a limited area. The ceramic assemblage in each of these phases contained a substantial amount of "Khirbet Kerak" ware. The density of EBIII occupation in the region is illustrated by the recent excavations at Tel Iztaba, opposite Tel Beth-Shean and across the Harod River, where an extensive settlement with "Khirbet Kerak" ware was uncovered.

            It is difficult to determine what brought about the end of this period. In several places, evidence of fire in the final phase of the EB III was found, while in most of the excavated area, the floors of this latest stage were found empty, and lacked the signs of a violent end.

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The Early Bronze IV Period ("Middle Bronze I" or "Intermediate Bronze Age")

            The "Northern Cemetery" excavated by the University of Pennsylvania contained abundant burial caves of the EBIV period (akso known as MBI or Intermediate EB/MB period). In our excavations in Area R we detected scant remains of occupation from this period. These included mere beaten earth floors and groups of stones, with no actual architectural elements. Among the finds were several complete pottery vessels and copper implements, similar to those  found in the Northern Cemetery. Vessels painted in light red were particularly outstanding in this assemblage. This pottery differs to a large extent from that found in the last phases of EBIII, demonstrating  discontinuity between these two periods. The remains indicate that the settlement was short-lived, and perhaps seasonal in nature. It appears that the inhabitants dwelled in huts and tents. This situation recalls similar occupation at other mounds  during this period, such as at Jericho. However, it should be noted that remains of substantial villages dating to this period were found in the region, such as the large site of Tel Yosef to the west of Beth-Shean, and a large settlement at Tel Abu Niaj, across the Jordan River, opposite Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. Thus the settlement from this period on Tel Beth-Shean was  only one of many settlements of this period which represented various non-urban modes of subsistence.

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The Middle Bronze Age II Town

            Our excavations proved that there was an occupation gap during the Middle Bronze Age IIA (20th-19th centuries BCE), and perhaps even during the early part of the MB IIB (18th century BCE). Following this lapse, permanent settlement was renewed, though apparently limited to the summit of the mound, covering an area of ca. 1.2 hectares.

            A unique phenomenon was observed at the center of Area R, below the sanctuaries of the LB period: a huge oval pit was found, whose maximum length was ca. 22 m, width ca. 18 m and it was 6 m deep at its center. The pit cuts through Early Bronze Age III settlement layers (though in fact it could belong the EB period; in this case the edges of the EB ocupation layer must have been eroded into the pit during later generations; see below) and was full of earth layers mixed with ash, sherds and animal bones, which had been poured into it from all sides, towards its center. Buildings and floor surfaces constructed above and adjacent to the pit during the latest phase of the MB period and during the LB, all sunk towards the center of this depression, perhaps as the result of earthquakes. Both the date and function of this huge pit were a riddle for us.  It appears that during the Middle Bronze Age, it was used for refuse disposal. If this was indeed the case, the question must be posed: why was this huge pit dug in the lofty central part of the mound?  We have no definitive answer to this riddle. One possibility is that the pit was originally dug in the EB period as a reservoir, while during the MB period it went out of its original use and was utilized now for garbage disposal. However, this proposal has not been unequivocally proved.

            East of the pit was a vast open area during the MB period. It was paved with a thick layer of lime and covered an area ca. 15 m long. Three hearths found on this floor were circular in shape, 80 cm in diameter, and paved with wadi pebbles. It appears that they were used for cooking or roasting food. Such a spacious, well paved courtyard with roasting installations could perhaps be related to a nearby shrine, yet no evidence of such a structure was found within the excavated area.

            To the west of the large pit, a dwelling quarter was uncovered, containing three main phases of houses flanking a street. The street itself had undergone many repavings and repairs with at least eight consecutive floors in a total accumulation of 1.5 m. Several baby burials in storage jars were exposed in these houses.  Each interment was found together with one to three pottery vessels. One of the building phases yielded a human skeleton haphazardly laying on his side. This might represent evidence of sudden destruction by earthquake.

            The pottery recovered from the various phases is very homogeneous, and is typical of the last phases of the Middle Bronze Age (17th-16th centuries BCE). The final phase of this period (our Phase R3) is characterized by the abundant appearance   of "Chocolate on White" ware, a very fine ware characterized by thick white slip on which brown geometric decorations were painted. This ware is typical to assemblages of the 16th century BCE in the Jordan Valley, Samaria Hills and Transjordan. No imported wares including  "Bichrome" vessels were found; the latter ceramic group is characteristic of assemblages dating to the same period along the coast and in the Jezreel Valley. 

            Excavation in Area M revealed burial pits cut into the Early Bronze Age settlement levels. In each pit a child  aged 8-12 was buried, laying on his side in a flexed position, next to a concentration of animal (goat or sheep) bones. Above the bodies, several pottery vessels were placed. Similar burial pits were dug in the same area by the University of Pennsylvania expedition, and additional such burials were found by us in our Area L.

            Among the noteworthy finds of this period were a hematite cylinder seal in local Canaanite style, Hyksos style scarabs (several of them especially fine), bone inlays with geometric designs, alabaster vessels [Picture 4] , jewelry, and miniature pottery chariot wheels.

            The southern end of the mound has been damaged by severe erosion, and no evidence for Middle Bronze fortifications were found. It is most likely that if any glacis or earth rampart had existed, traces of it would have been preserved. It thus appears that either the town remained unfortified at this time, or was protected by a simple curtain wall, which was completely destroyed by erosion.

            Thus, the Middle Bronze Age settlement at Tel Beth-Shean was small and of secondary importance, and was apparently unfortified. This settlement existed only during the latter part of the period, in the 17th-16th centuries BCE.

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Alabaster vessels from a grave of the Middle Bronze Age II
4. Alabaster vessels from a grave of the Middle Bronze Age II (17th century BCE). 

A Late Bronze Age I Temple

            The University of Pennsylvania expedition uncovered a series of temples dating to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I. The earliest of these was the sanctuary of Level IX of the 15th-14th centuries BCE. This holy precinct had an exceptional plan, including a central courtyard, two cultic structures to its east, and a series of rooms and corridors adjoining the courtyard on its other side. Area R in our renewed excavations incorporated what remained of this complex (the southeastern part had been dismantled by the previous expedition).

            Our first goal was to ascertain  whether the Level IX cultic complex had been built over earlier temples. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1989 season, below the courtyard of the Level IX complex (our local Phase R1), an earlier temple was unearthed (our Phase R2).[Pictures 5, 6] This was a modest structure, built of mudbricks covered with white plaster. Its external length was 14.6 m and width 11.7 m. The temple was found in a poor state of preservation. It had been constructed on top of the unstable fills of the huge Middle Bronze Age pit, and thus its walls had sunk towards the center of the pit. The building had three parts: the entrance vestibule, central space (hall), and inner room (holy of holies). The plan is asymmetrical, with the opening leading from the entrance vestibule to the central hall located on the periphery of the hall. This is in contrast to the accepted practice in Canaanite temples, where the entrance is in the center of the wall. Plastered benches lined the walls of the central hall and inner room. The bench which ran along the western wall of the central hall was widened to form a kind of stepped platform. On one of these steps was a roughly worked, round stone column, as well as a posthole for a wooden column. On the western side of the temple were two rooms, one of which contained some kind of sanitary installation, with a sump.

Though the plan of this temple is exceptional, it has several features in common with the Fosse Temple at Lachish, the temple at Tel Mevorakh (both from the Late Bronze Age), and the temples at Tell Qasile dating to the Iron Age I. However, the temple uncovered at Beth-Shean is earlier than the others, having been built apparently during the Late Bronze Age I, prior to the establishment of the cultic complex of Level IX. It appears that the building had been intentionally abandoned, as its floors were found empty of finds. The temple then had been covered with an artificial fill, on which the courtyard floor of the Level IX holy precinct was laid.

View of the temple of Stratum R2
5. View of the temple of Stratum R2 (15th century BCE).

Isometric reconstruction of the Stratum R2 temple
6. Isometric reconstruction of the Stratum R2 temple

            In the courtyard in front of the temple, cultic installations were found, including a deep, stone-lined pit, perhaps used in ceremonies related to water.     

            This temple is the earliest in the series of the Beth-Shean temples. It is interesting that no evidence was found for any earlier cultic structures on this spot.

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The Period of Egyptian Domination at Beth-Shean

            During a period of over 300 years of the Egyptian New Kingdom, Beth-Shean served as the center of Egyptian Pharaonic rule in northern Land of Israel. One of the important results of the renewed excavations was the definition of the size of the settlement at this time. We are able to almost unequivocally determine that this occupation did not exceed an area of ca. 1.2 hectares, and that there was no significant Canaanite settlement at the site during this period. Beth-Shean essentially served only as the headquarters of Egyptian rule, containing administrative buildings, temples, and dwelling quarters of the Egyptian officials and the soldiers serving in the Egyptian garrison.

            The occupation strata from this period at Beth-Shean may be divided into three subdivisions, concurrent with the main chapters in the history of the Egyptian New Kingdom:

  • Strata IXa-b: The Eighteenth Dynasty (Following the reign of Tuthmosis III until the late 14th century  BCE).

  • Strata VIII-VII: The Nineteenth Dynasty (13th century BCE).

  • Strata Late VII and Lower VI: The Twentieth Dynasty (12th century BCE).

Each of these sub-periods contained two occupational phases; the latest of each one of them being destroyed in a violent destruction. These three subsequent destructions during the time of the New Kingdom could have been caused by uprisings of the local population during periods of weakness in the Egyptian hold over Canaan at the end of the 18th, 19th and finally the 20th dynasties.

 Strata IXA-B: The Time of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The Level IX sacred precinct mentioned above was the main discovery attributed to the Eighteenth Dynasty that was exposed by the University of Pennsylvania. We cleaned and studied whatever components of this complex which were still identifiable 60 years after the excavation terminated. It became clear that the western part of this complex contained two constructional phases: our local Phases R1a and R1b. Phase R1a (=Level IXa) represents the final phase of the  architectural compound as described by Allan Rowe. It appears that the eastern half of the sanctuary, where the main cult rooms were located, was used with no change at both phases of Level IX. However in the western part there were detected two clear phases. In this part, Phase R1b included earlier structures whose plan differed from that of the later phase. Several large rooms were detected here. In one of them a round, stone-lined installation apparently served as animal (sheep and goat) roasting pit. In the northwestern corner of the area, several smaller rooms contained a rich assemblage of bowls, lamps and kraters decorated in the local Canaanite style, as well as several typically Egyptian style vessels. This was probably a collection of offering vessels used in the local cult. This earlier phase of Level IX may be assigned to the second half of the 15th century BCE.   

Along the southern edge of the Level IX  precinct, the University of Pennsylvania team uncovered a series of rooms and corridors between two parallel walls. It was suggested in the past that these were remains of a casemate wall, yet our excavation has shown that these rooms were part of a large building whose southern part had been destroyed by the severe erosion which affected this side of the mound. One of the rooms was a bath, having no known parallels in Canaanite architecture. The room was well plastered with impermeable plaster, and it contained four plastered steps, reminiscent of the Second Temple Period ritual baths. A feeding channel and a drainage channel were found as well. It is noteworthy that in another room belonging to this same structure, the University of Pennsylvania team discovered the celebrated relief on a basalt orthostat  depicting a struggle between a lion and a dog or lioness. [Picture 7] This is one of the most important examples of Canaanite monumental art, an testifies to the importance of this building which was possibly a palace located south of the holy precinct and overlooking the valley to the south of the mound.

In the northeastern corner of Area R a small segment related to the later phase of Level IX was excavated, yielding evidence of a fierce destruction. An interesting group of finds was uncovered here, including a clay bathtub, and a potsherd painted with a human figure. The latter is extremely similar to the fine Canaanite faces of a man and woman painted on pottery sherds discovered by the University of Pennsylvania. [Picture 8] The evidence in this area indicates that Level IX was violently destroyed in the 14th century BCE, perhaps as a result of the riots against Egyptian rule which broke out in Canaan, encouraged by Egyptian weakness at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty. To this period belongs a miniature clay cylinder found recently in the dumps of the old excavations at the foot of the tell. This was a short message written in Akkadian from Tagi, the ruler of Gath-Padalla, to Labaya, the ruler of the land of Shechem, both well known figures in the el-Amarna letters from Canaan. (3). The contents of this message was not preserved, but it probably had something to do with the special relations between these two rulers, who first joined forces against the Egyptians and then later separated (Horowitz 1994). 

 The Nineteenth Dynasty (the 13th Century BCE). During the Thirteenth Century BCE, the reign of Seti I, Ramesses II and Merneptah, the Egyptian rule over Canaan became stronger, as evidenced by the establishment of citadels, governors' residencies, and headquarters of the Egyptian administration. Beth-Shean was rebuilt (Strata VIII-VII), and a new temple was constructed, along with administrative buildings and a dwelling quarter (James and McGovern 1993). The University of Pennsylvania team uncovered impressive monuments dating to this period, including two stelae with historical inscriptions attributed to the reign of Seti I, and a monument from the reign of Ramesses II. Both were found in later contexts.[Picture 9]

            In our excavations, Level VII was reached in Area N, located to the north of Area R. A massive building was exposed here, with some of its walls exceeding 2.5 m in width. A large hall (probably a basement, since it had no entrance) in this building contained a square silo and a brick bench, on which sat upper and lower grinding stones for wheat.

Basalt relief showing combat between a lion and a dog or lioness
7. Basalt relief showing combat between a lion and a dog or lioness (Late Bronze Age).

Paintings on pottery sherds, 14th century BCE
8. Paintings on pottery sherds, 14th century BCE. Above: from the University Museum excavations; below: a trumpeter, from the Hebrew University excavations.

Basalt stele of Seti I
9. Basalt stele of Seti I, mentioning his victory over cities and tribes in the Beth-Shean region. Found at Beth-Shean by University Museum expedition.

     A small room adjoining the hall contained a large amount of charred grains. These are evidence for the storing and grinding of grain, yet no baking ovens were found in this building. Thus it appears to have functioned as a storage facility where food stuff was gathered and processed; perhaps as part of the activity of the Egyptian administration at Beth-Shean.

            The building had been destroyed in a fierce fire. Among the many pottery vessels found in the destruction were Egyptian storage jars, sherds of Cypriot imports, and a complete "collared rim" pithos which is one of the earliest examples of this type to be found in Israel. This building is the sturdiest of all the excavated structures attributed to this Level. It is possible that it had been part of the governmental citadel which occupied this part of the mound. The destruction of this building is evidence of some traumatic event in the history of Beth-Shean which apparently took place sometime during the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty, perhaps during the reign of Merneptah, or shortly thereafter.

 The Twentieth Dynasty (the 12th Century BCE). The Egyptian administrative center at Beth-Shean was re-established during the Twentieth Dynasty along the lines of its predecessor. The University of Pennsylvania team called this Stratum  "Level VI", and ascribed to it a temple, governor's residency (Building 1500) and a dwelling quarter. Yet, since there was also a "Late Level VI" (to which we shall return below), we term the bulk of Level VI as "Lower VI".

            A part of the dwelling quarter north-east of the temple of Level VI was excavated by Yigael Yadin and Shulamit Geva in 1983 (their Stratum 4, Yadin and Geva 1986: 40-88). We expanded and deepened this area (our Area S). We also  investigated the Egyptian governor's residency (Building 1500) and re-examined part of the large area to its east (our Area N), where the previous excavations already uncovered most of the buildings from this period.[Picture 10] The area to the east of this residency was re-excavated as well (Area N), and it became clear that this period contained two occupational phases. In our main excavation area, Area S, these were designated Strata S3 and S4. The upper stratum (S3) is equivalent to "Lower VI" in the University of Pennsylvania numbering system. The lower phase (S4), apparently should be correlated with the phase termed "Late VII" in the latest publication of the Pennsylvania excavations (James and McGovern 1993: Map 1). Both phases contained houses flanking intersecting streets. The accumulation of debris in these two strata reached a depth of 2.5 m. The upper stratum (S3) had been destroyed in a violent conflagration, represented by a thick destruction layer which was rich in finds. On the other hand, there was no evidence of destruction in the lower phase (S4), and it appears that the transition between S4 and S3 was the result of gradual, peaceful, local development. In any event, it is surprising to find two distinct constructional phases in a relatively short time span of ca. 80 years.

Plan of the Egyptian garrison quarter at Beth Shean during the time of the 20th Dynasty
10. Plan of the Egyptian garrison quarter at Beth-Shean during the time of the 20th Dynasty (12th century BCE, Stratum Lower VI).

            The houses in both strata S4 and S3 contained large rooms with grinding, cooking, baking and storing installations. One of the many ovens had been built in the Egyptian style typical of this period: a small opening was located on its side wall. The architectural decoration was characteristically Egyptian as well. In the collapse accumulated in one of the rooms, the finds included remains of wall paintings in blue, yellow, black and red on a thick layer of mud mud-plaster. Other Egyptian style finds were a fragment of an Egyptian style painted chalkstone lintel, and a fragment of a chalkstone relief depicting a part of a human figure sitting on a folding chair of typical Egyptian type. These are small additions to the collection of Egyptian reliefs, architectural fragments and stelae from this period uncovered by our predecessors.
The pottery assemblages of both strata are similar: alongside local Canaanite vessels typical of the 12th century BCE, were many Egyptian style vessels.[Picture 11] Petrographic analysis proved that the majority of the latter had been produced in local workshops by potters who were trained in the manufacturing techniques of Egyptian pottery, and preserved shapes identical to those current at the time in Egypt. Especially dominant were bowls with everted red-painted rims. Storage jars and red slipped tear-drop shaped vessels were common as well. Isolated vessels had been imported from Egypt, especially small cups with one loop handle. The assemblage lacks imported Cypriot or Mycenaean wares, aside from a small amount of Myc. IIIC sherds. These were sherds of high quality vessels (mostly stirrup-jars and bowls) which were probably imported from Greece or from Cyprus. The interpretation of these sherds remains enigmatic: they might represent the presence of mercenaries of "Sea Peoples" origin who served in the Egyptian garrison stationed at Beth-Shean at this time, or they merely indicative of continuity of trade relations. In any event, the appearance of a small number of  Myc. IIIC imported ware during this period at Beth-Shean differs from the phenomenon of the local production of similar ware in the Philistine cities such as Ashdod and Ekron, which was related to the settlement of the Philistines in these towns.
The finds in the houses indicate the high standard of living enjoyed by the residents of the Egyptian garrison at Beth-Shean. These finds included thin gold leaves which plated various objects, a ram's head of hammered gold which apparently had been a furniture casing,
[Picture 12] gold earrings and pendants, silver rings, carnelian and other stone beads. In one of the rooms attributed to S4, two small hoards were found which included bits and pieces of silver jewelry, wrapped in a scrap of linen woven in an Egyptian style.

A group of pottery vessels in Egyptian shape, produced at Beth-Shean
11. A group of pottery vessels in Egyptian shape, produced at Beth-Shean (20th dynasty).

A gold ram head; made of thin gold sheet. 12th century BCE
12. A gold ram head; made of thin gold sheet. 12th century BCE.


 Several scarabs and faience amulets with various Egyptian motifs, such as the god Bes, the Horus eye and others were common in these strata.

          Clay bird head figurines which were typical of the Egyptian culture were found as well. One of them was painted in red and blue. Several seal impressions on clay sealings of documents (bullae) are evidence of the Egyptian administrative activity which took place here.
            In our Area Q we cleaned and examined the previously excavated Building 1500, the Level VI Egyptian governor's residency, and continued digging under its floors in order to fully explore its phases and to prepare it for preservation. [Picture 13] It became apparent that the thick brick walls of this building were set on basalt stone foundations. When we excavated below these foundations, an earlier building emerged, which appears to be contemporary with our Stratum S4 (the beginning of the 20th Dynasty). This earlier building was constructed in a typically Egyptian manner, with brick walls without stone foundations. Several of its rooms had mudbrick floors, a technique well known from Egypt. The general outline of the building was similar to that of Building 1500: a square whose walls measured 20 m each.

Plan of the Egyptian governor residency (Building 1500)
13. Plan of the Egyptian governor residency (Building 1500) of Stratum Lower VI, 12th century BCE.

 However, the inner division differed from the later building, and included a complex of rooms and narrow corridors. The plan, dimensions and architectural technique of this building are very reminiscent of the Egyptian citadel dating to the Nineteenth Dynasty, which was uncovered by Trude Dothan at Deir El-Balah south of Gaza.[Pictures 14, 15] Building 1500, and its predecessor, were chronologically close. It seems that both buildings were erected during the Twentieth Dyansty, and the variations in plan are a result of totally different functions. The early building apparently served as a military or administrative center, while Building 1500 was a kind of small palace. In its center was a hall, whose ceiling was supported by two columns. The entrances to this hall were decorated with hieroglyphic dedicatory inscriptions. It is obvious that this hall was used for ceremonies and receptions. It is difficult to guess the reason behind this drastic change in the plan of a public building which occupied such a central place in the settlement. [Pictures 16-17] 

Reconstruction and conservation of the Egyptian Governor Building on Tel Beth Shean.
16. Reconstruction and conservation of the Egyptian Governor Building on Tel Beth-Shean.

     In the area to the east of Building 1500, the University of Pennsylvania uncovered remains of a large structure which they termed "Building 1700". Re-examination of this building (our Area N) showed that while it was indeed monumental in size, it appears to postdate the period of the Egyptian rule at the site, and probably belongs to the 11th century BCE town ("Level Upper VI").

lan of the building found below Building 1500

14-15. Top: Plan of the building found below Building 1500; below: plan of the citadel at Deir el-Balah (13th century BCE) to which the building below Building 1500 can be compared.

   Detail of  reconstruction of the Egyptian Governor Building
17. Detail of  reconstruction of the Egyptian Governor Building on Tel Beth-Shean

 Below the foundations of this building, remains of two strata dated to the Twentieth Dynasty were found, though most of their remains had been removed by our predecessors. These structure covered the public structure of the 19th dynasty described above.          

It is difficult to surmise the circumstances resulting in the violent destruction which terminated the Egyptian presence at Beth-Shean. The general background of the disappearance of Egyptian rule is certainly related to changes which took place in the geopolitical structure of the country with the penetration of the "Sea Peoples" and the emergence of Israel. This was a period of unrest and insecurity, and it is possible that an incident such as the Midianite foray into the Jezreel Valley and Gideon's pursuit through the area of Beth-Shean are examples of events which might have caused the destruction of Beth-Shean.

          However, while the Egyptians had been able to reconstruct their stronghold at Beth-Shean following destructions at the end of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, it was apparently beyond their ability to do so at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, and their presence terminated. We have no data concerning the exact date of this demise, but information from other sites indicates that the Egyptian rule in the country held out until the reign of Ramesses VI or VIII (no later than 1127 BCE). [Picture 18]

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Lid of an anthropomorphic coffin
18. Lid of an anthropomorphic coffin, 12th century BCE.

Beth-Shean during The 11th Century BCE  

            The fate of Beth-Shean during the 11th century BCE is of particular interest in light of the mention of Beth-Shean as the site where the Philistines hung the bodies of Saul and his sons after the battle on the Gilboa (1 Sam.31; I Chron. 11). The archaeological picture relating to this period was unclear due to the ambiguity of the University of Pennsylvania excavation results. Out excavations now allow us to better define this period.

            In Area S, it was seen that the traces of the last Egyptian settlement had been partially renovated during the 11th century BCE. The inhabitants during this period apparently reconstructed some of the ruins of the earlier occupation. Walls were rebuilt, and the streets continued the same contours as in the previous stratum. However, the finds were of a purely Canaanite nature. It seems to me that the "twin temples" (the "northern" and the "southern" ones), which had been uncovered by the University of Pennsylvania expedition and attributed to Level V, should be reassigned to this stratum. In the courtyard fronting these temples, a group of Egyptian monuments were found, including the aforementioned stelae of Seti I and Ramesses II, as well as a statue of Ramesses III. These were relics of the previous golden days of Beth-Shean, as during this period, Egyptian presence was a thing of the past. To this period we ascribe Building 1700 - a public building, whose northern wall foundation was made of large basalt boulders.

            The finds from this period contain no traces of Philistine presence in the town, and it appears that the Biblical account of the death of Saul at best relates to an historical event in which the Philistine forces carried out a military campaign from Philistia to the Gilboa and the Beth-Shean Valley, but never occupied this region for any length of time. The town of the 11th century BCE had been destroyed by fire, which apparently was not as extensive as that which terminated the previous occupation.

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The Period of the Monarchy (The Iron Age II)

            During the reigns of David and Solomon, Beth-Shean became part of the United Israelite kingdom. The University of Pennsylvania excavations uncovered many building remains from the period of the Monarchy (Levels V-IV) but the documentation is confusing. The renewed excavations uncovered remains of this period in two areas: Area S and Area P.

            In Area S, on the southeastern corner of the tel, stood part of a mighty building, perhaps a citadel, dating to the 10th century BCE. Its foundations were made of basalt stones on which was a brick superstructure which had been destroyed by such a violent conflagration as to fire the bricks to the consistency of pottery. Some of the walls were 2.5 m wide. In one room, vessels typical of the Solomonic period were found, similar to those at other sites in the Beth-Shean and Jezreel Valleys which had been destroyed by fire as well. It appears that this common destruction was the work of Shishak, a pharaoh of the Twenty-Second Dynasty, whose army passed through the Beth-Shean Valley five years after the death of Solomon.

            In Area S, all remains of the Iron Age II following the time of the United Kingdom were removed by our predecessors. Thus we opened a new excavation area adjoining the western slope of the tel with the purpose of examining remains from Iron Age II and later. This area (Area P) has so far yielded remains of a large and well planned building dating to the 8th century BCE.[Picture 19]  Its brick walls, 1.2 m wide, were preserved up to 1.5 m high and  plastered with thick mud plaster. The building appear to have been an elaborate version of the "Four Room Buildings" of the Iron Age: a large central hall was flanked by rooms on all three sides. Only the central hall and two rooms to its east were excavated: the back rooms are beyond the limit of the area and two additional rooms west of the central hall were close to the slope of the mound and were heavily destroyed by erosion. This fact eliminates the possibility that there was a city wall protecting the Iron Age town, as was the case in most other Iron Age towns. In the excavated parts of the building a thick destruction layer contained fallen remains of the upper floor and the upper parts of the walls and burnt beams.

Reconstructed plan of an Iron Age II  dwelling
19. Reconstructed plan of an Iron Age II  dwelling, destroyed by fire probably during  the Assyrian destruction of 732 BCE.

It appears that this destruction was the result of the Assyrian conquest of the northern part of Israel during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (732 BCE). In the layer of burnt debris and mudbrick collapse, numerous pottery vessels typical of this period were buried. A large loom with over 120 clay loomweights was found along a wall in the main hall. We still miss a stratigraphic sequence to fill the gap between the 10th century BCE destruction layer found in Area S, and the 8th century destruction layer in Area P. 

            Among the finds from this period was the bottom of a jar inscribed with a Hebrew inscription in black ink on its lower part. The inscription is apparently a list of names and quantities of commodities. The rare name Zma` is repeated three times, once in the combination `lt zma` (="The goddess of Zma?").

            Only few remains were uncovered dating to settlement activity following the Assyrian conquest at Beth-Shean. Few thin walls in Area P which  postdate the destruction of the 8th century building apparently can be related to this period. These walls are unrelated to the plan of the previous building and serve as evidence for a scanty settlement on the site following the Assyrian conquest.  Following this brief occupation, there was a settlement gap on the mound until the Hellenistic period.

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The Hellenistic and Roman Periods

            Above the Iron Age II remains in Area P, an occupation level from the Hellenistic period was uncovered. The remains include houses with thin stone walls of ordinary houses, large courtyards and baking ovens. Two to three sub-phases were observed. A rich assemblage of pottery vessels of this period was found, including stamped Rhodian handles, mold-made Megarian bowls, and terra-cota figurine fragments. Ptolemaic coins and two silver Tyrian tetradrachmas are evidence for the date of the settlement: from the late 3rd century BCE to the 1st century BCE. This settlement belongs to the establishment of the Hellenistic town of Scythopolis. Opposite Tel Beth-Shean, on the other side of the deep Jalud river, excavations at Tel Iztabah revealed extensive Hellenistic town which perhaps was part of the complex of Scythopolis.

            Practically nothing was found in our excavation which could be related to the Roman period. It appears that at this time, when the large Roman city was founded to the south of the tel, the mound itself remained unoccupied, aside from a monumental temple built on its summit, the remains of which had been discovered by the University of Pennsylvania. This temple overlooked the civic center at the foot of the tel, and it should be viewed as part of the overall town planning of this urban complex. In fact, the excavations carried out at the foot of the mound revealed possible monumental staircase which led to the top of the mound during the roman period. 

The Byzantine and Early Arab Periods

            A fine residential quarter was built on the entire area of the mound during the Byzantine period, while the summit was occupied by a round church, whose foundations were exposed by the University of Pennsylvania team. These were parts of the much larger Byzantine city which spread all around the mound. In three of our excavation areas (P, H and L), segments of well-built ashlar houses were found. In one of the houses was a mosaic floor with a motif of grape vines and grape clusters. The Byzantine houses on the lower part of the northern slope of the tel were very well preserved.

            During the Early Arab period, a residential quarter covered the tel as well. Though the previous excavations uncovered the foundations of most of the houses of this period, we uncovered at Area P some additional building remains and floor surfaces. It appears that the settlement terminated in the 8th century CE, probably as a result of the devastating earthquake of 749 CE.

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The Medieval Period

            During the Middle Ages, at the end of the Crusader Period or the beginning of the Ayyubid period, the entire mound was enclosed with a 1.2 m wide stone wall. Our excavations examined parts of this wall, as well as several buildings which contained pottery typical of the 12th century CE. In the northwestern corner of the tel a gate was built which incorporated earlier architectural components. The plan of the gate is similar to that at the Crusader fortress excavated on a ridge south of the mound. A stone paved road ascends from the gate and reaches buildings which stood its upper part. Inside the gate was a room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, which apparently belongs to this period. It appears that the mound was a fortified estate, which contained a few buildings along the wall and on the summit. The relationship between this estate and the Crusader fortress on the ridge south of the tel requires further study.

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            The extensive excavations which yielded rich finds carried out by the University of Pennsylvania, served as the base for the renewed study of Tel Beth-Shean with more refined methods. Our excavations have allowed for more precise definitions, and provide a more sound base for interpretation of the previous excavations, as well as correcting misconceptions concerning the settlement continuum and character of the settlement on the tel over the various periods.


* Text by Amihai Mazar, based on paper published in Biblical Archaeologist  60 (1997) pp. 62-76.

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