BAR volunteers discover Beth-Shemesh’s lifeblood

When Sennacherib destroyed Beth-Shemesh in 701 B.C.E., he did not drive out all the residents: A few dedicated souls clung to their hometown, resettling beside the town reservoir (drawing, lower left). But they did not last long. In the early seventh century, Philistine marauders apparently attacked Beth-Shemesh and sealed off the water supply, thereby forcing the last Beth-Shemeshites to abandon their city.

Thanks to two volunteers who joined the dig at Beth-Shemesh after reading about it in BAR, excavators Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman have been able to piece together this dramatic story of Beth-Shemesh’s final hours.

At its peak, the city supported about 1,000 residents, but, until recently, the excavators did not know how the inhabitants obtained water. An entrance to what was assumed to be a 19th-century cistern lay in a plaza inside the city’s northern gate. But volunteers Glenn and Paul White (a father and son team from Massachusetts) were eager to explore the shaft, so they lowered a video camera into it. The camera dropped 20 feet before revealing a cavernous, cruciform water reservoir, capable of holding 7,700 cubic feet of water—enough for the town to survive a three-month-long siege. Hewn in soft chalk and then covered with plaster, the reservoir was built in the tenth century B.C.E. Each branch of the cruciform structure is 30 feet long, 20 feet high wide, and 6 to 12 feet wide. Throughout the city, plaster water channels directed rainfall (Beth-Shemesh receives about 18 inches a year) into the reservoir.

In the photo below, excavator Zvi Lederman emerges from the narrow shaft leading to the reservoir. Knowing that the inhabitants of Beth-Shemesh could not have transported large quantities of water up this precarious path, Bunimovitz and Lederman began to search for a more accessible entrance. About 30 feet away, they discovered a pile of dirt and broken pottery, dating to the seventh century B.C.E., that concealed the entrance to a wider, slanting shaft. (This pottery and dirt, we now know, was used by the Philistines to seal off the local water supply.)

Retaining walls reinforce the walls of the shaft, which encloses a stairway leading down to the reservoir. At the east side of the shaft is a large pier, around which the stairway descends. Careful excavation revealed steps descending from the surface of the tell. At the bottom of these steps, the path turns sharply to the left and then continues down seven broad steps, with a plaster water channel running alongside them. These steps lead to a small landing, where a woman is standing in the photo. Above her head, three cigar-shaped stones, each weighing a half-ton, cover the final stretch of the descent. Here the shaft narrows, and plastered niches serve as steps for about 15 feet, until they give way to a rock-hewn shaft that opens onto the ground level of the spacious reservoir. Inside the entrance was a small bench where water drawers could rest their jars.

Dating to the seventh century B.C.E., pottery jugs and pots found in the northeastern branch of the reservoir must have belonged to the few hardy residents who survived Sennacherib’s attack in 701 B.C.E.