Magazine article History Today

Israel's Dig for History

Magazine article History Today

Israel's Dig for History

Article excerpt

Recent excavations in Northern Israel have thrown intriguing light on the multi-period sites of the region dating from the Iron Age to the late Byzantine era. Foremost amongst these, is Bet Shean, lying to the north-east of the country, close to the Jordanian border. The excavation sites of Bet Shean are some of the largest in Israel and are currently being excavated by the Hebrew University. The dig is part of ongoing archaeological activity taking place throughout the country, involving teams from both domestic and foreign universities.

Set in a fertile and watered region, in the words of the Talmuid, 'if the Garden of Eden is in the Land of Israel then its gate is at Bet Shean', the area has been continuously settled since the Iron Age. The modern town of Bet Shean suffers from high levels of unemployment and the Israeli government sees the development of the area's archaeological heritage as a way to create a strong tourist industry.

The results of excavations so far lay testament to Bet Shean's multi-cultural development. In a valley lie the prominent remains of the Graeco-Roman city, Scythopolis, first settled by Greeks and later reconstituted by Pompey the Great in 63 BC. The main streets, bath house and living quarters are all clearly visible, as is the amphitheatre which is used today as a venue for rock concerts.

Nearby rises the Tel (from the Arabic word for 'mound'), an area settled by the Canaanites and then the Israelites. Here, in abundance, lie the revealed foundations of the ancient settlements. There are many freshly excavated walls of temples and houses, piled on top of one another, indicating the different levels of habitation.

The area of the Tel was first excavated by the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920-30s, but then abandoned, and now Israeli archaeologists are continuing and developing the work on the site. A main problem is the huge accumulation of dust and mudbrick. This has been made worse by the Pennsylvanian expedition digging and re-covering some of the area they excavated. Much work has needed to be done to sort out and classify the varied nature of finds from different periods which have got mixed together. As well as the Canaanite and Israelite settlements, Bet Shean was also under Egyptian occupation in the second millennium BC when it was used as a military and administrative centre. …

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