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Beth-Shean

(also Beth-Shan; Ar., Tell el-Ḥuṣn),

site located at the intersection of two major roads that cross the land of Israel from west to east (through the Jezreel and Beth-Shean Valleys toward Transjordan) and from north to south (along the Jordan Valley). The mound, about 4 ha (10 acres) in area, is located on a steep natural hill on the southern bank of the Harod River, in the midst of a fertile, well-watered valley. The site was settled intermittently from the Late Neolithic period until the Middle Ages. [See Jordan Valley.]

Although the appearance of the name Beth-Shean in the Egyptian Execration texts of the Middle Kingdom is questionable, it does appear in various Egyptian New Kingdom sources: the topographic lists of Thutmose III, Seti I, and Rameses II; the Amarna tablets (in which it is mentioned only once); and Papyrus Anastasi I also from the reign of Rameses II. During this period (sixteenth-thirteenth centuries BCE) Beth-Shean was an Egyptian administrative center, second in importance only to Gaza. In the Bible, Beth-Shean is one of the cities from which the Israelites, at the time of the conquest, did not rout Canaanites (Jos. 17:11; Jgs. 1:27), and the city onto whose walls the Philistines “fastened” the body of Saul and those of his sons (1 Sm. 31:10). Later, it is a city in the fifth district of Solomon (1 Kgs. 4:12) and is on the list of cities Shishak conquered during his campaign in the land of Israel (c. 918 BCE) shortly after the monarchy was divided. In the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, the city was known as Nysa or Scythopolis, during which time it is attested in the written record. It was recorded as well by Theodorich of Würzburg, who visited the town In 1172. During the Early Islamic period, it was once again called by its ancient Semitic name, in the form of Beisan; a nearby Arab town preserved the name, making the identification of the site certain.

The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania carried out excavations at Beth-Shean from 1921 to 1933, under the direction variously of Clarence S. Fisher, Alan Rowe, and Gerald M. FitzGerald. They exposed the site's uppermost strata (Early Islamic and Byzantine periods) across the mound; their work on the upper part of the mound was more limited, but they cleared an extensive cemetery to the north of it. As the first large-scale stratigraphic excavations conducted in Palestine after World War I, the work contributed significantly to the archaeology of the biblical period despite deficiencies in excavation methods and publication. In 1983, Yigael Yadin and Shulamit Geva of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem excavated briefly on the summit. Since 1989, Amihai Mazar has been working there, under the auspices of the university and the tourism authority at Beth-Shean; his on-going excavations have reexamined almost all the site's occupation layers, refining its stratigraphic sequences.

Neolithic–Early Bronze Age: Strata XVIII–XI.

An 8.5-meter-deep layer of occupation debris dating from the Neolithic period to the Early Bronze Age attests to the importance of these periods at Beth-Shean. However, very little is known about them. In stratum XVIII, the Pottery Neolithic period (fifth millennium) is represented by pits dug into the bedrock. In stratum XVII, the Chalcolithic period (fourth millennium) is represented by pottery. Strata XVI–XIV, the Early Bronze I (thirty-fifth to thirty-first centuries BCE), produced an oval dwelling, gray-burnished pottery, and bronze axes, all typical of the period. Strata XIII–XI appear to be EB II–III occupation layers (thirtieth to twenty-fourth centuries BCE). A rich assemblage of Khirbet Kerak ware, reflecting Anatolian influences, characterizes its last phase. The latest excavations uncovered a very shallow occupation level, perhaps evidence of a seasonal settlement of the EB IV/Middle Bronze I transitional period (2300–2000 BCE). Pottery typical of the Jezreel and Beth-Shean Valleys has been recovered from many MBI burial caves in the Northern Cemetery.

Middle and Late Bronze Ages: Strata X–VII.

A gap existed in the occupation of the tell during the first phase of the Middle Bronze Age (William Foxwell Albright's MB IIA, or MB I, c. 2000–1800 BCE), although the tomb of a warrior from this period was discovered in the Northern Cemetery. Three settlement layers belong to the MB IIB–C periods (MB II–III; mainly seventeenth-sixteenth centuries BCE) were discerned in the recent excavations (stratum X in the nomenclature of the earlier excavations). Dwellings of this period yielded high-quality domestic pottery and luxury objects, indicating an advanced standard of living. No fortifications were discovered. The period's last occupation phase is characterized by pottery of the so-called chocolate-on-white ware.

Settlement in the Late Bronze Age generally reflects Egyptian hegemony and is divided into five phases. The first settlement phase, in LB I, occurs before the Egyptian occupation. Of the four phases that followed, strata IXB–A date to the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BCE and strata VIII–VII to the thirteenth century BCE.

Five successive temples of the Late Bronze and Iron Age I periods were found on the summit of the tell. Mazar's excavations revealed the earliest temple in an occupation level later than MB stratum X and earlier than LB IIA stratum IX, which should be dated to LB I. This modest (11.7 × 14.6 m) building's plan is unique: it is tripartite and includes an entrance hall, a central hall with benches and raised platforms, and an inner room (sanctuary) whose walls were lined with benches. The entrances, however, are not on the same axis. In stratum IX (divided into two sub-phases) a large sacred area was established in which various structures surrounded a central courtyard. On the east, the main part of the complex included a monumental hall and an additional cultic room. The plan of this holy precinct is unique and has no parallel at any known temples in Canaan. Outstanding among the many finds attesting to an Egyptian presence is the Mekal stela, a small stone monument carved with a cultic scene that is Egyptian in style and that was dedicated by an Egyptian official to the memory of his father. The iconography in the scene includes a seated god whose dress and attributes are Canaanite. A large building partially preserved at the edge of the tell south of the sanctuary yielded one of the most outstanding relics of Canaanite monumental art: a basalt orthostat carved with two scenes, each of which depicts a struggle between a lion and a dog (or a lioness).

The stratum IX town was destroyed by a massive conflagration but was soon rebuilt on a new plan (strata VIII–VII, thirteenth century BCE), perhaps during the reign of Seti I. A new temple, with an entrance vestibule, was erected on a north–south axis. The ceiling of its main hall was supported by two pillars, and its holy of holies was raised about 1.5 m above the floor in the main hall. A foundation deposit, found underneath the steps leading to the holy of holies, yielded a rich assemblage of precious objects, including dozens of cylinder seals and numerous pendants. In a residential quarter east of the temple, houses lined the street. Rowe called a massive building southwest of the temple a migdol, a “tower” or inner “citadel,” which would have been the seat of the representative of the Egyptian government at Beth-Shean; however, both its reconstructed plan and its supposed function are suspect. A large round silo found nearby may have been used by the Egyptians to garrison their soldiers.

Beth-Shean

BETH-SHEAN. Figure 1. Plan of building 1500, the Governor's Residence. (Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia)

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Three locally made basalt Egyptian royal (nineteenth dynasty) stelae found in later contexts belong to this stratum, evidence of Beth-Shean's prestige as an Egyptian administrative center in the Late Bronze Age. The text on one of the three stelae relates that during the reign of Seti I, Egyptian units put down a rebellion in the northern Jordan Valley at Hamath (Tell el-Ḥammeh) and Peḥal (Pella). The text also mentions the cities of Reḥob, Yano'am, and Beth-Shean. A second stela from the reign of Seti I preserves the record of military action in the hill country against raiding ῾Apiru and Theru. These actions were meant to shore up Egypt's administration of Canaan, which, at the end of the eighteenth dynasty, had been weakened. The third stela bears a standard laudatory inscription of Rameses II.

Iron Age I: Upper and Lower Stratum VI.

Two strata (lower VI and upper VI; “lower” and “upper” are the terms used by the University of Pennsylvania excavators) are attributable to Iron I. Lower stratum VI is dated to the time of the twentieth dynasty (twelfth century BCE), namely to the final stage of Egyptian administration in Canaan. In this stratum the buildings of stratum VII were rebuilt, retaining the earlier town plan. The temple of the stratum VII city was rebuilt, but changes were made in its entrance vestibule and holy of holies. To its north were found administrative buildings whose architectural details are Egyptian in style. The most important of these buildings is the Governor's Residence (building 1500), a square structure with a central hall surrounded by rooms (see figure 1). Two monumental pillars supported the ceiling in the hall; door sills and inscribed doorjambs, and two lotus-shaped column capitals found nearby that may belong to it, are all distinctly Egyptian. Additional Egyptian friezes, reliefs, and inscribed door jambs were recovered from adjacent buildings. The inscriptionsare dedications, prayers, vows, personal names, and titles. The most important is a dedicatory inscription of an official named Rameses Waser Khepesh. He may have been the governor of Beth-Shean during the reign of Rameses III, whose life-sized statue, found in the following level, probably originated in this stratum. These finds, as well as locally made Egyptian pottery, attest to the intensive Egyptian presence in the city during the twentieth dynasty.

During the reign of Rameses VI or Rameses VIII, as Egypt's control over Canaan was waning, lower stratum VI was destroyed in a violent conflagration. Among the finds in the destruction level were bronze stands similar to ones known from Cyprus and the Mycenaean IIIC sherds of vessels that most probably were imported from Cyprus.

Beth-Shean

BETH-SHEAN. Figure 2. Anthropoid sarcophagus in situ. (Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia)

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In the Northern Cemetery many strata VII and VI tombs were found that held fragments from more than fifty anthropoid clay coffins (see figure 2). The lids of most represent human faces, five of them in what is known as the grotesque style reminiscent of the anthropoid coffins from Deir el-Balaḥ in the Sinai Desert. [See Deir el-Balaḥ.] An Egyptian funerary influence and contemporary Egyptian funerary customs are clear. On the forehead of three of the lids is a headdress that resembles the one worn by the Sea Peoples in the wall reliefs at Medinet Habu in Egypt. The finds from these tombs include bronze vessels, Egyptian-style Ushabti figurines, jewelry, ivories, and weapons. The coffins were probably used to bury Egyptian officials and military personnel, although some of the coffins with grotesque lids may have been for mercenaries who originated among the Sea Peoples. There are no burials in this cemetery later than the end of the period of Egyptian domination in Canaan (mid-twelfth century BCE).

In upper stratum VI the town was rebuilt following the violent destruction of lower stratum VI. Some of the streets and ruined buildings of the previous city were reutilized, while many others went out of use. The material culture is typical of the eleventh century BCE. During this period, Beth-Shean was probably settled by Canaanites and perhaps by some of the Sea Peoples. The American excavators identified a pair of public buildings they uncovered above the temples of the previous strata as twin temples: “the House of Ashtoreth” (1 Sm. 31:10) and “the House of Dagon” (1 Chr. 10:10) mentioned in accounts of the Philistines removing Saul's armor and impaling his head on the wall of Beth-Shean. Although attributed by the excavators to stratum V, the buildings may belong to upper stratum VI. These buildings were damaged by later construction work, so that many details of their plans are lost. Access to the southern temple, a long building, was indirect, through its large entrance hall in the front. The building's main room is a large rectangular hall with auxiliary rooms on its two long sides. The ceiling of this central hall rested on two rows of three columns each. Access to the northern temple, which could be reached from the southern temple through a narrow corridor, was also indirect and led to a central hall in which four columns supported the ceiling. The rich assemblage of cultic vessels found in the temples includes an assortment of ceramic cult stands. Many are multitiered, possibly to suggest multistoried temples, and are decorated with human and animal figures. Others are cylindrical with applied decoration of snakes in relief.

Several of the above-mentioned Egyptian monuments of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties were found in the large courtyard in front of the northern temple. An Egyptian stela dedicated to Antit was discovered in the northern temple. These Egyptian monuments predate the context in which they were found, suggesting that they came to be venerated in local tradition and were passed from stratum to stratum in a cultic context. The recent excavations showed that this town was also destroyed by fire, perhaps during the conquest of Beth-Shean by King David in the early tenth century BCE.

Iron Age II: Strata V and IV.

It is difficult to interpret Beth-Shean's development in the tenth–eighth centuries BCE because of the complicated remains in stratum V. The original excavators subdivided the stratum into two phases: lower V and upper V. However, the temples attributed to lower V should probably be dated to the eleventh century BCE (upper VI). A large, well-planned architectural complex north of the temples, apparently an administrative center, may belong to the tenth century BCE, along with a partially preserved public building the recent excavations uncovered. The latter was severely burned, perhaps as a result of Shishak's invasion in about 918 BCE. It may be that the buildings in the northwest section of the excavated area, whose construction with ashlars and stone pillars is characteristically Israelite, were also built in the tenth century BCE. One of the buildings appears to have been used as a city gate through which the administrative complex on the acropolis could be reached. A large hall to the east of this gate was either a royal storehouse or a stable.

The upper phase of stratum V, as well as a few poorly preserved buildings attributed to stratum IV (ninth–eighth centuries BCE), indicates a later date for the town. The new excavations revealed a well-preserved large building that was destroyed by heavy fire, probably during Tiglath-Pileser III's conquest of the region In 732 BCE. A few structures may represent a partial resettlement following the conquest.

Persian–Roman Periods: Stratum III.

In the Persian period, the tradition of Beth-Shean as a cultic place may have been perpetuated in the vicinity of the temples, which is indicated by the discovery from that period of several ceramic figurines on the tell itself. The Hellenistic period is represented by a hoard of tetradrachmas, as well as by an occupation layer from the second and first centuries BCE identified by the recent excavations. It appears that the tell was occupied after the Hasmoneans destroyed the nearby large settlement at Tel Istaba. The Early Roman period(stratum III) is represented by what appears to have been an isolated structure on the summit. Interpreted as the remains of a monumental temple, it towered over the civic center that had grown up around the foot of the mound. Several of its architectural elements were a rectangular stone podium, column fragments, and Corinthian capitals. Late Hellenistic and Early Roman tombs were uncovered in the site's Northern Cemetery.

Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader Periods: Strata II–I.

The entire tell was resettled in the Byzantine period (stratum II). A round church, typical of the fifth century CE, was constructed on the summit and embellished with a mosaic floor and carved capitals. In the northern part of the tell a residential quarter filled with grand houses was clustered on a ledge to the east. On the tell itself, another well-protected neighborhood of large, well-built houses existed, a suburb of the large Byzantine city to the south and west. During the Early Islamic period (stratum I) a residential quarter appeared here as well. At the northwestern corner of the tell a thin circumference wall and a city gate have been identified that probably date to the Crusader period.

Bibliography

  • FitzGerald, Gerald M. The Four Canaanite Temples of Beth-Shan: The Pottery. Beth-Shan II.2. Philadelphia, 1930.
  • FitzGerald, Gerald M. Beth-Shan Excavations 1921–23: The Arab and Byzantine Levels. Beth-Shan III. Philadelphia, 1931.
  • FitzGerald, Gerald M. “The Earliest Pottery of Beth-Shan.” The Museum Journal 24 (1935): 5–22.
  • James, Frances. The Iron Age at Beth Shan: A Study of Levels VI–IV. Philadelphia, 1966.
  • Mazar, Amihai. “The Excavations at Tel Beth-Shean in 1989–1990.” In Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, June–July 1990, edited by Avraham Biran et al., pp. 606–619. Jerusalem, 1993. Report of the excavations of the Hebrew University.
  • Mazar, Amihai. “Beth Shean in the Iron Age: Preliminary Report and Conclusions of the 1990–1991 Excavations.” Israel Exploration Journal 43 (1993): 201–229.
  • Oren, Eliezer D. The Northern Cemetery of Beth-Shan. Leiden, 1973.
  • Rowe, Alan. The Topography and History of Beth-shan. Beth-Shan I. Philadelphia, 1930.
  • Rowe, Alan. The Fourth Canaanite Temple of Beth-Shan. Beth-Shan II.1. Philadelphia, 1940.

With the exception of Mazar (1993), all of the items below are University of Pennsylvania reports of the excavations.

Amihai Mazar

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