Preserving the past and paving the way for progress have come to a crossroads in Israel. Archaeologists discovered what they believe to be the ancient town of Beit Shemesh and what they found there overturned their assumptions about the fate of the ancient city.
The discovery came as part of a project to excavate the area outside the modern city of Beit Shemesh before a new highway expansion comes through the area. The result is an exhibit entitled “Highway through History,” where “significant finds” from the dig will be on display. Also, the project will facilitate a discussion about “how to balance the needs for preservation vs. modernization.
Amanda Weiss, director of the Bible Lands Museum, explained the previous assumptions about the destruction of Beit Shemesh. She said, “We thought the Assyrians destroyed (it) and it took years for us (the Jewish people) to come back and that everyone left and no one was here. But its not true. And we know it’s not true because we have these finds.”
Yehuda Kaplan, curator of the “Highway Through History” exhibit, [said] that they now believe happened at the ancient site. “What they understood from the finds is that after the city of Beit Shemesh was destroyed in the year 701 by Sennacherib the King of Assyria – a very, very famous biblical and historical event– a new settlement was found not at the top of the mound but on the slope, on the eastern slope of the mound.”
The site revealed several interesting facts about life in ancient Beit Shemesh. They discovered a large area dedicated to the production of olive oil, including oil presses, stone basins for crushing olives and storerooms and clay jars for storing the oil they produced. The “Highway through History” website explains that “The olive oil industry was a primary economic source of Beit Shemesh at this time. The quantities of oil produced were so vast, exceeding local requirements, that they possibly served to supply the demands of the Assyrian empire.”
They also found carved figures of horses and women on the site. They found many “Judean pillar figurines,” which feature women with cylindrical bodies holding their breasts. Scholars believe they suggest the remains of a fertility cult in the area associated with the Canaanite goddess Asherah. The heads on some of the figurines were smashed, leading the curators of the exhibit to wonder if they could be “a physical record of the religious reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah described in the book of Kings.”
Yehuda Gorvin, who headed the excavation [said] that the highway would never have happened if they knew what was located at the site. He said, “If the Israel Antiquities Authority would have known this is what was there, they wouldn’t have allowed the development of the road there.” Mayor Aliza Bloch said that balancing the needs of the present while preserving the past can be difficult. He [said] “It’s complicated because I want to protect the road. I want to protect the Tel, the site and I need to find the way to protect both of them.”
Andrea Weiss summarized the dilemma archaeologists and Israeli politicians both face. She said, We walk the land and we’re walking on top of history. The progress that is required to build a new nation with housing and roads and infrastructure requires digging down and building new things.”