A Biblical Border City between Judah and Philistia
Tel Beth-Shemesh is an important biblical site in the northeastern Shephelah
(lowland) of Judah. The 7 acres mound is located near the modern town
of Beth-Shemesh, some 20 km west of Jerusalem, and overlooks the Sorek
Valley. Situated at the geographical, political and cultural border,
as well as the meeting point between Canaanites, Philistines and Israelites,
Beth-Shemesh was the scene of great historical events and cultural changes.
It is therefore an ideal site for the investigation of key historical
and cultural issues relating to the vexed relations and interaction
between these three peoples.
The name Beth-Shemesh ("House of the Sun") is suggestive of
the deity that was worshipped by the Canaanite inhabitants of the ancient
city. Identification of the mound with biblical Beth-Shemesh is based
on its geographical description in the Bible, on Byzantine sources and
on the name of the nearby Arab village 'Ain Shems, which preserved the
The Bible mentions Beth-Shemesh in the description of the northern border
of the Tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:10-11) and as a Levitical city in the
territory of Judah (Joshua 21:16). Following the battle of Ebenezer
and the capture of the Ark of Covenant by the Philistines it was returned
to Beth-Shemesh (1 Samuel 6: 9-18). The town is listed in Solomon's
second administrative district (1 Kings 4:9), and it was here that the
battle between Joash, king of Israel, and Amaziah, king of Judah , took
place (2 Kings 14: 11-13). Shortly thereafter, Beth-Shemesh passed into
Philistine control, but was restored to the Kingdom of Judah under Hezekiah
(2 Chronicles 28:18). The town was destroyed by Sennacherib, king of
Assyria, during his campaign in Judah, in 701 BCE.
conducted at Tel Beth-Shemesh in 1911-1912 by D. Mackenzie on behalf
of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) and in 1928-1933 by E. Grant
from Haverford College, Pennsylvania, exposed large parts of the mound,
down to bedrock. Remains of several successive cities from the Bronze
and Iron Ages were uncovered. But these excavations, conducted during
the early days of archaeology in Israel, left open many important questions
concerning the cultural and social history of Beth-Shemesh. The aim
of the new excavations initiated in 1990 by Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi
Lederman of the Institute of Archaeology in Tel Aviv University is to
answer these questions. In course of the past eleven seasons of excavation
(1990-2000) mainly remains from the Iron Age (periods of the Judges
and the Israelite Monarchy, 12th-7th centuries BCE) were exposed. In
the coming years, the expedition plans to excavate the remains of the
Canaanite cities that preceded the Israelite ones.
Period of the Judges
(12th -11th centuries BCE)
The new excavations at Tel Beth-Shemesh revealed that during the period
of the Judges a large village or town spread all over the mound. Remains
of a large two-storied structure, probably the house of a well-to-do
person, were uncovered on the north part of the tel. The house has a
few spacious rooms, one of them beautifully paved with river pebbles,
and a court. Some gold jewelry, fallen from the second floor, was found
among the ruins of the house. Next to this building simpler houses were
found, the ceiling of some of them supported by wooden columns on stone
bases. Grindstones, clay ovens and hearths attest to the daily activities
of their inhabitants.
The architecture of the houses as well as the pottery used by the inhabitants
of Beth-Shemesh during this period is in the Canaanite tradition. But
the bones of the animals they consumed attest to a diet typical of the
Israelites who occupied the hill country - pig is completely missing.
These intriguing finds indicate that ethnic affiliation during the 12th-11th
centuries BCE, especially on the Philistine border, was still fluid
and in a process of structuring.
Period of the United Monarchy and the Kingdom of Judah
(10th-7th Centuries BCE)
In the second half of the 10th century BCE, during the days of the United
Monarchy or the beginning of the Kingdom of Judah, the village of Beth-Shemesh
was transformed into a regional administrative center of the kingdom
on its border with Philistia. The archeological remains show evidence
of considerable planning and investment in the buildings.
An elaborate system of fortifications was discovered on the northeastern
side of the tel. The main elements are a piece of a massive wall with
a large retaining tower in front of it, and a series of casemate rooms
adjoining the wall from the east. A hidden passage (postern) in the
city wall allowed mergence exit of the town.
Underground water reservoir
To guaranty the water supply of the governmental town, a large subterranean
reservoir was quarried. The rock-cut reservoir is cruciform in shape
with four large halls coated with thick hydraulic plaster. Its capacity
is about 800 C3 of rainwater collected from the town's streets by plastered
channels. One may descend down into the underground halls via an impressive
entrance complex constructed of a stairway partly built and partly cut
in the rock. Huge cigar-shaped stones cover the stairway passage. See
image to the right.
In the south part of the site a large area used for industrial and commercial
activity was revealed. During the 10th- beginning of 9th centuries BCE,
an iron workshop was active in the place. Dozens of iron implements
and slags were found within the workshop, the earliest of its kind in
Israel. At a later stage, the function of the area changed and buildings
for storage and distribution of some agricultural commodities replaced
the blacksmith's workshop. The buildings contained fragments of numerous
pottery storage vessels destroyed in a conflagration at the beginning
of the 8th century BCE.
During the 8th century BCE, the inhabitants of Beth-Shemesh engaged
in olive oil production. Remains of olive crushing basins, oil presses
and stone weights, all used in the process of oil extraction were found
in the buildings by all three expeditions excavating at the site.
Beth-Shemesh was destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in his campaign
against Judah in 701 BCE, and abandoned. But in the 7th century BCE
some Judean families returned, refurbished the water reservoir and lived
for a while in its vicinity. Many pottery vessels, broken while drawing
water, remained embedded in the thick layer of silt accumulated at the
bottom of the reservoir.
This attempt by Judean families to settle in Beth-Shemesh once more
was resented by their Philistine neighbors and/or the ruling Assyrians.
This was due to the fact that Shephelah was torn from Judah by the Assyrians
and given to the Philistines in order to use its agricultural yield
for the tremendous olive oil industry that emerged at the Philistine
mega-city of Ekron. To ensure the abandonment of Beth-Shemesh, the entrance
to the reservoir was deliberately blocked with 150 tons of earth and
debris. The long-lived border town of Beth-Shemesh was now left in its