Huge new excavation uncovers the largest and best-preserved Roman/Byzantine city in Israel
Archaeologically speaking, Beth-Shean refers to two major sites. The first is a tell, a magnificent mound rising from the plain: Biblical Beth-Shean on whose walls the Philistines displayed the mutilated bodies of King Saul and his sons, whom they had killed in battle at nearby Mt. Gilboa.
In the shadow of the tell lies the second Beth-Shean, a vast Roman/Byzantine city with theaters, fountains, temples, baths and colonnaded streets—not only the largest, but the best-preserved Roman/Byzantine city in all Israel.
Beth-Shean has been inhabited almost continually for something like 6,000 years. Today it is home to 15,000 Israelis. Modern Beth-Shean, adjacent to the archaeological ruins, is a development town with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Nearby kibbutzim, about 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, till the fertile Jordan Valley.
In ancient times Beth-Shean was important both militarily and economically, situated as it is where the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley 018meets the Jordan Valley and, thereby, connects the valley to the Mediterranean Sea to the west (see map). The earliest evidence of occupation on the tell comes from pits in stratum XVIII (the lowest stratum) that date to about the fifth millennium B.C. (the Neolithic period). The earliest buildings appear in the early third millennium (the Early Bronze Age). During the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.), Beth-Shean was controlled by the Egyptians. Hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Late Bronze strata bear cartouches (royal ovals) of Pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep III. A victory stela from the Late Bronze Age refers to Seti I. Foundation deposits from buildings include objects inscribed with the names of Ramesses I and II. A lintel contains the name of Ramesses III. A statue of Ramesses III himself was also recovered.
In Iron Age I (1250–1000 B.C.) Beth-Shean became a Philistine city. It was at the end of this period that the Philistines hung the bodies of King Saul and his sons from Beth-Shean’s walls (1 Samuel 31:10). In Solomon’s time (c. 960–921 B.C.), or perhaps in David’s time (1000–960 B.C.), Beth-Shean became an Israelite city.
In the Hellenistic period (beginning in about the third century B.C.), the city moved to the foot of the mound. It is this great city, what we call lower Beth-Shean, that we will be examining here.
The idea of excavating lower Beth-Shean was part of a joint ministerial plan for creating an archaeological park in Beth-Shean to attract tourists and to help alleviate the unemployment in this distressed area. The plan involved not only the Department of Antiquities and the Institute of Archaeology of Hebrew University, but also the Israel Government Tourist Corporation, the National Parks Authority and the Local Council of Beth-Shean. Out of poverty came riches. Or, perhaps more accurately, from Beth-Shean’s economic problems came archaeological treasures—a surprisingly rich and well-preserved city.
In fact, that is the reason for what some may consider a premature report to BAR readers. Because there is much more work to do before a full picture emerges, and because so many of the archaeological conclusions are still tentative, it might have been better to wait before publishing this article. On the other hand, so much attention has been drawn to the site by what has already been revealed that BAR readers will want to know about it at this early point in the excavation.
As noted above, lower Beth-Shean appears to have been established in the Hellenistic period, about the third century B.C. But this conclusion is based archaeologically on only on a few pottery fragments that can be dated to this period. The excavators have reached bedrock in only a few places, however, and the picture may well change as the excavation proceeds.
From the early Roman period (first century B.C.), the excavators have found a basilica and some walls, in addition to pottery and coins. Two small altars were also uncovered, one dedicated to Dionysus and the other to Serapis. The one dedicated to Dionysus bears a date (Year 75) that corresponds to 12 A.D.
The vast city that has been uncovered flourished beginning in the second century A.D. It was then that the main streets of the city were laid out; in the second and third centuries A.D. many important buildings were constructed, although as yet they cannot all be dated precisely, nor can the order of their construction even be determined.
In the Greco-Roman period Beth-Shean was known as Scythopolis, the city of the Scythians. (It is not clear who the Scythians were or where they came from.) The city was also called Nysa or Nysa-Scythopolis. According to an ancient tradition mentioned by the first-century A.D. historian Pliny and by the second-century A.D. historian Solinus, Dionysus founded the city in honor of Nysa, his nurse, who was buried here.
Scythopolis is famous as a member of the league of ten Greek cities created after the Roman general Pompey conquered Palestine in 63 B.C. Each city in the Decapolis, as this league was called, was really a city-state and included considerable area around the city as well. Members of the Decapolis included Damascus, Philadelphia (Amman), Pella, Gerasa and Hippos (on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee). Scythopolis was the only member of the Decapolis west of the Jordan River. Incidentally, the Decapolis is mentioned in the Gospels of both Mark and Matthew. We are told that “great crowds followed [Jesus] from Galilee and the Decapolis” (Matthew 4:25). When Jesus’ miracles were told in the Decapolis, “all men marveled” (Mark 5:20).
Lower Beth-Shean is immediately recognizable as a distinctly Roman city, but its plan is not typical. In a Roman city we would normally expect two main streets—which are called the cardo (for the north-south street) and the decumanus (for the east-west street)—to divide the city into four parts. The terms cardo and 020decumanus are not applicable to lower Beth-Shean because the plan of the city was determined by its hilly topography. The deep ravine of Nahal Harod bisects the town. Another valley is south of the town. This topography created a configuration so abrupt that it was impossible to build parallel and intersecting streets.
Some of the public buildings of the city were grouped in the valley at the foot of the tell. On the tell itself was the acropolis of the town, where a temple stood; this temple was probably dedicated to Zeus Akraios, god of the “High Mountain,” since he is mentioned in inscriptions found in the lower city and in another inscription found in a suburb of the town many years ago. The residential quarters of the town were probably built on the slopes around the city center, but these parts have not yet been excavated. No real evidence was uncovered for any wall surrounding the city in the Roman period; it is quite possible that the city was unfortified.
The central focus of the Roman city was at the foot of the tell, almost hugging it. Here the excavators found four important public structures from the Roman period. (As you read the descriptions that follow, refer to the plan below to better understand where the public buildings were located in lower Beth-Shean.)
The first is a large temple. It was built on a specially constructed podium partly supported by barrel vaults of basalt blocks cemented with a reddish mortar. (Barrel vaults are very deep, tunnel-like arches.) This was found under the floor level of the temple. Broad, white limestone steps lead up to the temple. (This limestone, like all the limestone in the city, was imported from quarries on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa, where the fatal battle between King Saul and the Philistines occurred.) Four steps led up to a platform on which stood a colonnaded gateway facade to the temple (the prostyle).a Six more steps, somewhat narrower, then led up 021to the temple building itself. Inside the temple were found the remains of a semicircular nags, the inner shrine of the temple. The excavators have not yet uncovered the back of the temple, so we are not sure what it looked like.
The colonnaded prostyle was over 65 feet wide. Four very large, one-piece limestone columns supported a triangular pediment, which in turn supported a gabled roof. The columns were over 4 feet in diameter and over 30 feet high! In addition, the columns sat on pedestals over 4 feet high and were topped by large, well-made Corinthian capitals. The temple was apparently destroyed by Christians in the Byzantine period and was never rebuilt.
In front of the temple was an extended square, paved with well-polished flagstones. The pavement was intermittently interrupted or broken with a number of six-sided hollow spaces. Small altars were probably set into these hollows, facing the temple.
The excavators found, lying on the square, a round pedestal of what must have been a large statue. The pedestal itself is over 6 feet high. An inscription on the pedestal states that citizens of Nysa-Scythopolis are honoring the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was the Roman emperor between 161 and 180 A.D.b
Beside the temple (on the east) was another fine monumental structure, consisting principally of an open apse built of dressed basalt blocks and faced with slabs of white limestone. It is preserved to a height of nearly 10 feet. On either side of the apse were two projections, one smaller and the other larger, on which stood magnificent fluted columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals. The columns were over 23 feet high, and the capitals added another 3 feet. Overall the building rose over 45 feet above its surroundings. The richly ornate decoration indicates it was built in the second half of the second century A.D.
What function this structure served is still in question. The excavators suspect it was an elaborate fountain (called a nymphaeum) commonly found in Roman cities. If so, statues may have lined the apse 022around the fountain. This is not certain, however, because substantial changes were made in the structure in the late fourth century A.D., the early Byzantine period. A monumental Greek inscription from this time found on the architrave of the structure states: “In the days of Flavius Artemidoros the most magnificent archon … all the work of the nymphaeum was done from its foundations.” Is Artemidoros being truthful? Did he really build the nymphaeum from its foundations? The structure was certainly there earlier. Artemidoros simply renovated it substantially. Is he then implying that he was the first to build it as a nymphaeum? If so, the apse in the Roman period structure was simply a decorative element. Perhaps we will know more when the pool in front of the building is excavated.
Flanked on one side by the temple, the nymphaeum—if that’s what it was—was flanked on the other side by a magnificent basilica, constructed sometime after the first century A.D. The basilica was a long building (perhaps more than 150 feet; it has not been completely excavated) with an apse at one end. Rows of columns divided the main hall into a center nave and two side aisles. A row of columns also separated the apse from the main hall. Where the rows of columns came together at the corners, the pedestals of the columns are heart-shaped in plan (looking down on it), as if two columns had come together and partially joined. The basilica walls were built of basalt and were faced and decorated with marble panels.
Inside the basilica was a six-sided limestone altar. The excavators are not sure that this was its original location, however. Each of its six sides is decorated with a relief containing a Dionysiac theme—a mask of Pan, Pan’s flute, and shepherds and staff. On the front side of the altar is a mask of Dionysus as a handsome, long-haired youth. Below the mask is a Greek inscription in a customary frame called a tabula ansata (a rectangle with a triangle on either side pointed toward the rectangle).
The inscription starts with the common formula “In good fortune” and then records that Seleucos, son of Ariston, dedicated the altar “as a thanks offering to the god, the lord Dionysus, the founder [of the city].” The date—“year 75 [of the Scythopolis era]”—is the date mentioned earlier that corresponds to 12 A.D.
Sometime after the basilica was constructed, a large monument-structure of which only the podium (or platform) survived was built outside the basilica, abutting it, and partially covering it. Because it covered the apse of the basilica, a new apse was constructed for the basilica which protrudes into the later monument-structure. The monument-structure adjoined the plaza at the city center. The walls of the monument-structure were lined on three sides with semicircular and rectangular niches that perhaps contained statues. One of the statue pedestals related to the building is decorated on all four sides with reliefs. On one side we see a Nereid (a sea nymph) riding a sea monster led by a cupid; on other sides we see masks of Dionysus and an escort depicted above a garland, as well as a wreath held by two cupids. The excavators have not yet clarified the superstructure of the monument-building. It probably had two colonnaded stories. Its function was mainly decorative, intended to emphasize and embellish the city center.
Outside the monument-structure was the plaza of the city center, into which fed a colonnaded street. We have exposed this colonnaded street only for a short distance at its junction with the central city square. The street itself was about 35 feet wide with a colonnade on either side. Counting the sidewalks on 023either side, the street was about 75 feet wide.
A statue base was found in the street with a poetic Roman-pagan inscription that must refer to a goddess who once stood on the pedestal:
“Artemidoros erected (the statue) of the queen of all the earth, the glorious, the gilded one, who is seen on all sides.”
Other structures beyond the monument-structure include a portico of unknown function and parts of several large buildings from various periods. In one of these buildings the excavators found the torso of a double life-size, cuirassed marble statue. On his cuirass, or breastplate, is the head of a snake-haired Medusa. Below her are two griffins and the eagle of Zeus on a thunderbolt, symbolizing his power. These are customary motifs found on similar statues all over the Roman empire.
Another important street of the city was built probably in the fourth century and led from the temple towards the southwest. This street was also colonnaded, and was adorned with a covered sidewalk (a stoa) and shops on the northwestern side.
At the other end of this colonnaded street is a huge semicircular Roman theater that was already excavated in the 1960s. Although built in the Roman period, the theater continued to be used with changes in the Byzantine period. The theater is to be reconstructed so that it can be used for live productions. It is the best preserved ancient theater in all Israel.
Some 1,500 feet south of the main urban complex of the Roman city is an oval-shaped amphitheater. By the Byzantine period, this area was within the expanded boundaries of the city. Today this area lies within the modern town, not far from the modern city center. Therefore excavations could be conducted only in the west half and the east end of the amphitheater. The outer wall of the amphitheater is built of dressed black basalt blocks. The wall of the arena was built of four courses of large, well-dressed limestone blocks, laid on a basalt foundation. The top of this wall was crowned with a limestone cornice. No evidence of any paving was found in the arena; presumably the shows were presented, as was the usual practice, on a floor of packed earth. The wall surrounding the arena was covered with light-colored stucco, on which traces of paint are visible—mainly red. In some places, representations of trees painted in brown and green up to the full height of the wall can be traced. Presumably these trees served as a backdrop for hunting spectacles (venatio) presented in the arena.
The amphitheater probably had between 11 and 13 rows of seats, some of which are still well preserved. They could accommodate between 5,000 and 7,000 spectators. Vaulted passages leading to the arena where the spectacles were staged may have served as dens for animals; others perhaps housed small shrines (sacellum) for gladiators. Certainly any gladiatorial spectacles, 025however, did not continue into the Byzantine period. The gladiatorial spectacles—and the construction of the amphitheater—may perhaps be linked to the presence of the Sixth Roman Legion (Ferrata) in the Beth-Shean area in the second century A.D.
With this taste—and it is only a taste—of Roman Beth-Shean, we may turn to the next period, in which the excavators also uncovered a major flowering of the city—the Byzantine period.
The Byzantine period in Israel begins in 324 A.D., when Constantine became ruler of the entire Roman empire, including the east. It was he who adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. In 330 A.D. he moved his capital to Constantinople. During the fourth century A.D., Beth-Shean gradually became a Christian city. An inscription found on a large limestone slab north of the theater reads:
“In the time of Ablabios the magnificent Metro[politan] … the city was renewed.”
We don’t know where this inscription originally came from, nor what particular event it refers to, but the final phrase seems to reflect a general renovation of the city that in fact occurred.
For example, the central thoroughfare of the city, which starts at the foot of the tell beside the temple and runs all the way to the theater, is, as now exposed, largely the street of the Byzantine period. Although 026below the level of some shops that bordered the street the excavators found some distinctively Roman material of the second and third centuries, they cannot say even whether the street itself was paved during the Roman period. What we describe here is the Byzantine thoroughfare, which contains numerous and substantial repairs in various elements, such as in the stylobate that supported columns and in the sidewalk. Other changes included raising sidewalk levels and raising floor levels in the adjacent shops.
In the center of the thoroughfare was the street, paved with black basalt flagstones laid diagonally in a herringbone pattern. In the center of the street is a line of specially carved slabs that cover a 6-foot-deep drain. Auxiliary drains cross the street every few yards and join the main drain. On one side of the street is a raised sidewalk (2 to 4 feet above the level of the street). The colonnaded portico or covered sidewalk was paved with mosaics and later with marble and is almost 20 feet wide. Beyond this portico was a row of shops that opened into the portico. Traces of marble facing were found on the shop facades, indicating in all probability that the facades were entirely covered with marble. Some of the floors of the shops were paved with mosaics.
Near the theater end of this thoroughfare was a very large Byzantine bathhouse covering over an acre and a half. It contained a complex of halls, pools and courtyards, and a palaestra (a colonnaded portico for exercise) on three sides of the bathhouse building—a kind of country club in the city. An earlier building sat here in the Roman period, but we do not yet know what it was used for. Under the floor of three hot-rooms (one of which had a marble-faced pool in it) were hypocausts, consisting of short ovoid colonettes (small columns) and square piers made of tiles that supported the floor. Steam and hot air circulated through the hypocausts. The furnaces were located on the east side 028of the bathhouse. Each hall had its own furnace and system for circulating the hot air through the arched openings of the hypocaust. The pools in the bathhouse, located near the furnace system, were also heated from there. The intensive use and the constant damage caused by the fire necessitated repeated repairs, as revealed in the excavation. At certain periods, plastered benches were placed in the palaestra. Small rooms with benches lining the walls were also constructed in the palaestra. Statues were no doubt placed in these niches. Mosaic floors were laid at various times and include a number of Greek dedicatory inscriptions, often with a date. A typical inscription is as follows:
“This work was done
in the time of Leon
the most magnificent comes [a title]
and archon [governor].”
“In your wisdom, Theodoros, this fine work was built and all those who are passing through it will praise.”
A very impressive propylaeum (an entrance or gateway building) led from the street to the bathhouse area. The propylaeum collapsed in an earthquake in the eighth century, during the early Arab period. In the collapse we found adequate fragments to reconstruct much of the structure on paper, including columns, Corinthian capitals, a floral frieze, a cornice and even parts of a gable. The propylaeum was nearly 40 feet high.
Adjacent to the northern corner of the bathhouse was a Roman odeon, a small semicircular theater used for musical as well as theatrical performances. About half of the stage area and the bases of the blocks of seats have been exposed. During the excavation of the odeon, a marble bust and head of a statue identified as Hermes were found. The style points to the Roman period.
In the Byzantine period, the east half of the odeon was destroyed and another Byzantine structure erected in its place. One of the rooms in this new structure was decorated with a startlingly beautiful mosaic floor featuring the head and bust of Tyche—the goddess of fortune and wealth of the city. She wears a turreted crown and holds a cornucopia. She is enclosed in a medallion surrounded by geometric designs. This representation of the goddess was common since the Hellenistic/Roman period.
We have described several Roman-period features of the city and other Byzantine-period features. But in excavating the city, these features are not always distinct. They overlay each other throughout the excavation. Often elements of an earlier period are incorporated into buildings of a later period. Or architectural elements of an earlier period are used as part of a wall from a later period. Repairs and reconstructions complicate things still further.
And we are not dealing with just two periods, Roman and Byzantine, although these were the periods of the city’s greatest opulence. The Byzantine period ended 029officially in about 636 A.D. with the Arab conquest of northern Palestine. The change this brought to Scythopolis was, however, very slow and moderate. We do not see any radical change between the Byzantine and the Ummayad periods, although a gradual decline and a population reduction are clear. The name of the town, however, changed from Greek Scythopolis to Arabic Beisan, a return to the name’s Semitic roots.
Structures of the early Arab period were built into the halls of the Byzantine bathhouse and made extensive use of parts of columns, Corinthian capitals and bases from the Byzantine period. In a later Arab period, there were animal pens here. The excavators even found the skeleton of a horse and parts of a metal saddle in what had been the Byzantine bathhouse.
In 749 A.D. a major earthquake occurred in the Jordan Valley, as we know from literary sources. This enormous earthquake is also reflected in the archaeological remains at a number of sites. This severe earthquake left Beth Shean in ruins. The front wall of the shops along the main street had arched entrances that collapsed in the earthquake. The excavations exposed the arches of these entrances lying on the ground in the same orderly manner as before the earthquake, when they were standing upright.
The city was rebuilt in the Abbasid period (750–969 A.D.), but it was a mere shadow of its former glory. No attempt was made to renovate major ruined buildings. Capitals and decorated architectural elements were reused as building materials or as furniture in later 030buildings. Not even the main thoroughfare was rebuilt; it simply went out of use. From this period the excavators found transverse building walls across the street, effectively blocking it.
In the Crusader and Mameluke periods, the city declined in size, clustering mainly along the valley (above the monument-structure and the colonnaded street), where the water conduits were located.
Although the city was originally pagan and later became Christian, its population continued to include Jews and Samaritans. In one of the shops of the main thoroughfare, the excavators uncovered a Jewish bronze oil lamp decorated with a free-standing miniature menorah, or candelabra (of which only the stem has been preserved), a shofar (ram’s horn), a lulav (palm branch) and an ethrog (citron). The lamp, which was cast in the Byzantine period, must have been brought to the shop for repairs or for remelting. Another oil 031lamp, probably from the fifth century A.D., was found near the east entrance of the amphitheater; it too bears a relief of a menorah.
The Jews were not the only ones to decorate their lamps with religious symbols. In an excavation of a Christian monastery in Beth-Shean, archaeologist Nehemiah Tzori found a beautiful bronze oil lamp, dated to about the sixth century A.D., decorated with a bull’s head and a handle in the shape of a cross.
Although no church has been found in the new excavations of the city center, in the 1920s a large circular church was excavated on the tell, the acropolis of Scythopolis. Other monasteries and churches have been uncovered in the Beth-Shean suburbs, the most famous of which is the monastery of the Lady Mary (a donor, not the Virgin Mary), in which a beautiful mosaic was found with personifications of the 12 months. Two synagogues have also been uncovered, one in 1962 and the other in 1970. The first was paved with a beautiful mosaic that featured the ark of the Law, flanked by menorahs and other ritual objects. This synagogue might be a Samaritan synagogue, however, rather than a Jewish synagogue.c In the second synagogue was a mosaic that featured a menorah in the center of the floor. Above it in Hebrew letters is the word shalom (peace). Both synagogues date to the late Byzantine period.
Slowly but surely, the rich history of Beth-Shean is being recovered, stone by stone.d
(For further details, see Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1987/88, vol. 6, the English edition of Hadashot Arkheologiyot, the archaeological newsletter of the Israel Antiquities Authority.)
Archaeologically speaking, Beth-Shean refers to two major sites. The first is a tell, a magnificent mound rising from the plain: Biblical Beth-Shean on whose walls the Philistines displayed the mutilated bodies of King Saul and his sons, whom they had killed in battle at nearby Mt. Gilboa. In the shadow of the tell lies the second Beth-Shean, a vast Roman/Byzantine city with theaters, fountains, temples, baths and colonnaded streets—not only the largest, but the best-preserved Roman/Byzantine city in all Israel. Beth-Shean has been inhabited almost continually for something like 6,000 years. Today it is home to 15,000 Israelis. […]