Highway through History

A new exhibition presents artifacts discovered during a rescue excavation of Tel Beit Shemesh.
The Route 38 expansion plan has inadvert
ently led to important new historical evidence.
Significant finds uncovered are displayed
 for the first time, as will the question of how to balance the needs for preservation vs. modernization.

Curators: Oree Meiri, Yehuda Kaplan  and Dr. Yigal Bloch


In March 2018, rescue excavations of an unprecedented scale began at Tel Beit Shemesh in preparation for the planned expansion of Route 38 – part of broader development of the modern city of Beit Shemesh. The Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and Y. G. Archaeology (under the auspices of Hebrew Union College), unearthed extensive remains of settlements dating from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE to the end of the 19th century, exceeding all expectations.

Excavations revealed an impressive settlement dating to the final decades of the biblical Kingdom of Judah (7th century BCE) whose very existence overturns accepted understanding of the history of the Kingdom of Judah under the Assyrian Empire. Until now, scholars believed that the ancient city of Beit Shemesh was utterly destroyed by King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 BCE following Hezekiah’s rebellion, and the entire lowland region torn from the authority of the Kingdom of Judah. These new discoveries reveal that after its destruction, the city was reestablished on the eastern slope of the mound and became an important economic center of the kingdom of Judah under Neo-Assyrian rule.

Photography: Tal Rogovski

This exhibition displays a sampling of the important 7th century BCE finds from the rescue excavations of Tel Beit Shemesh carried out under the auspices of the Hebrew Union College. These discoveries sparked nationwide debate over the competing importance of preserving cultural heritage and the increased need for urban development. In the face of this controversy, the National Roads Company of Israel (Netivei Israel) and the Israel Antiquities Authority worked together to reexamine their plans. 

Oil for the Empire?
One of the keys to understanding the importance of Beit Shemesh in the 7th century BCE is the discovery of a large industrial area dedicated to olive oil production.  The finds include numerous oil presses, large stone basins for crushing olives, storerooms and clay jars for storing oil. The olive oil industry was a primary economic source of Beit Shemesh at this time, similar in scope to that found at Tel Miqne, identified with Philistine Ekron, around 12 km north-west of Beit Shemesh. At both sites, the quantities of olive oil produced were so vast, exceeding local requirements, that they possibly served to supply the demands of the Assyrian empire

Photography: Tal Rogovski

An important economic center in Judah
Stamp impressions on jar handles are a distinctive feature of administration in the kingdom of Judah.

Early examples date to the late 8th century BCE and were part of a system known as the LMLK stamps. These impressions bear the inscription LMLK (“LaMelech” translated to mean belonging to the King) to signify royal ownership of a jar's contents, as well as the image of a winged beetle or a symbol possibly derived from a winged sun-disc. The impression ends with one of four place-names: Hebron, Ziph, Socoh, or Mmsht (the latter's location is unknown). All four locations were probably royal storage centers for agricultural products.

Hundreds of LMLK stamps were found at sites across Judah, especially Lachish, Jerusalem and Ramat Rachel, and it seems they held an important role in the preparations for Hezekiah's revolt against Sennacherib, King of Assyria (701 BCE). The fact that around 200LMLK stamps were found at Tel Beit Shemesh reveals that the city was a key administrative center even after the suppression of Hezekiah's revolt.

Alongside the LMLK stamps, there was another system of stamp impressions, which feature names of royal officials. After Hezekiah's rebellion, additional administrative marks appear on jar handles: two circles engraved after firing, and later a rosette stamp.

What do we know about cult at Beit Shemesh?
Fragments of figurines depicting women and animals, especially horses, were found throughout the site. Judean pillar figurines – women with cylindrical bodies and hands holding their breasts – were especially common. Pillar figurines have been found at many sites in Judah dating from the 8th century BCE to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.  They are probably remnants of a popular fertility cult. Some scholars identify them with the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Alongside small clay figurines, the Tel Beit Shemesh excavations unearthed an extraordinary stone statue of the Egyptian god Bes. All the figurines were found broken, and the head of the Bes statue was smashed. Could these discoveries be a physical record of the religious reforms of kings Hezekiah and Josiah described in the book of Kings?

Photography: Tal Rogovski

 Photography: Tal Rogovski

Amanda Weiss, director, Bible Lands Museum:
"The Bible Lands Museum works tirelessly to preserve and protect the heritage of this region for visitors of all ages and faiths.  Your story – the story of each individual – is rooted in the events and cultures that ultimately shaped the development of human history in this region.  A great deal of media attention has been focused on these excavations, rightfully so, and it is our privilege to invite the world to come and see this evidence first hand and to understand why. 
Our goal here is to also present the modern day dilemmas faced by this burgeoning nation that on one hand is building a new future, but on the other is responsible for the preservation and study of our past.   Ultimately, shedding new light on this mysterious chapter in history emboldens research and strengthens a greater understanding of our history.