Beth Shean Revisited:

Reexamining a Late Antique City in Transition

Beth Shean, looking north to the Tel.

Sitting on an important crossroads in the Galilee and watered by abundant springs, Beth Shean (“House of Ease”), ancient Nysa-Scythopolis, is known variously as Beit She’an, Bet She’an, Beth-Shan, Baysan, or Beisan – the name can be transliterated and spelled in a variety of different ways.  Occupied as early as the sixth millennium BCE, around 1100 BCE, the site began to figure prominently in Biblical history when the Philistines conquered the Canaanite settlement, which they subsequently used as a base for their military operations in the region. The site is strategic in the battles of the following century, eventually retaken by King David when it became part of the Israelite Kingdom of David and Solomon.  For this period, Beth Shean is mentioned in the Old Testament books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. It fell to the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, after which occupation was minimal.

Beth Shean re-emerged as an important city in Hellenistic period of the second century BCE, when it became associated with the nymph Nysa, the nursemaid of the god Dionysos.  It became part of the Roman state in 63 BCE and continued to prosper well into the Late Antique period; it became the capital of Palestina Secunda in 409 CE with a maximum population of ca. 40,000. The period 330-638 CE in Palestine is usually termed “Byzantine,” referring to imperial rule from Constantinople; the more general term “Late Antique” refers to the period of cultural transformation across the Mediterranean, ca. 250-750 CE.  Indeed, Late Antique Beth Shean underwent a variety of profound political and religious transitions, including the advent of Christianity and the arrival of Islam – the latter with Umayyad conquest in 634 CE.  The city was destroyed by earthquake in 749 CE.  Under Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad rule, the city sheltered a religiously heterogeneous population, as the material evidence abundantly indicates.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum undertook excavations on the Tel (mound) of Beth Shean in 1921 in expectation of clarifying the Biblical history of the site, as Jordan Pickett discusses in the following essay.  The first American archaeological venture into the Near East following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Palestine at that time was governed by the British Mandate and was no longer subject to the Ottoman’s stringent antiquities laws.  Like contemporary colonialist ventures into Albania, Anatolia, and Iraq, the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s archaeologists saw this as a golden opportunity, through which they could combine scientific exploration with significant acquisitions to expand the museum’s holdings. In the end, the museum added more than eight thousand artifacts from Beth Shean to its permanent collection.

The archaeologists in charge, Clarence Fisher, Alan Rowe, and Gerald Fitzgerald, were all trained in Bronze Age archaeology and were interested primarily in the early history of the site.  As with the museum’s earlier excavation at Nippur in southern Mesopotamia (1889-1900), in which Fisher also took part, both scholars and the general public were concerned with establishing scientific proof for the validity of the Bible.  While the early finds from Beth Shean are noteworthy, the uppermost strata of the mound preserved substantial evidence of the Late Antique city, including a church of unique design, a small monastery, a domestic quarter, a synagogue, and extensive cemeteries.  Nevertheless, the archaeologists found this material less compelling than the earlier layers.  Consequently, the late material received scant attention and only brief publication. Major finds from their excavations are now divided between the UPM and the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.  And while significant elements of the older periods of site occupation are on display in the UPM, more than three thousand Late Antique and Byzantine artifacts are housed in the museum’s storerooms, many of them unpublished, some still in their original packing crates.  In addition, the UPM archives preserve the careful documentation of the excavation – including correspondence, daybooks, architectural drawings, photographs, and unpublished reports. 

 Jordan Pickett, "Contextualizing Penn's Excavations at Beth Shean (1921–1933),  Expedition  55, no. 1 (March 2013), 12-15.

Jordan Pickett, "Contextualizing Penn's Excavations at Beth Shean (1921–1933), Expedition 55, no. 1 (March 2013), 12-15.

Credits

Beth Shean After Antiquity is an online exhibition and archive of the materials excavated at Beth Shean by the University of Pennsylvania from 1921–1933. It is a collaborative project of the History of Art Department, the Penn Museum, and Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at Penn Libraries, with support from the Digital Humanities Forum.

Project Director: Robert Ousterhout

Contributors: Megan Boomer, Matthew Chalmers, Victoria Fleck, Joseph R. Kopta, James Shackelford, Rebecca Vandewalle, and Arielle Winnik. 

Additional essays, originally published in Expedition 55, no. 1 (March 2013), contributed by Emerson Avery, Stephanie Hagan, Nicholas Harris, Jane Hickman, Gabriel Mazor, Daira Nocera, Robert Ousterhout, Jordan Pickett, and Geoffrey Shamos.

Site logo designed by Rebecca Vandewalle.

Special Thanks

Emerson Avery, Karen Beckman, Katherine Blanchard, Alexander Brey, Jennifer Conway, Jane D. Evans, Cosette Gastelu, Stephanie Hagan, Nicholas Harris, Jane Hickman, Renata Holod, Kenneth Holum, Jeffrey Kallberg, Ann Kuttner, Stephanie Mach, James Mathieu, Charlotte Matthai, James Moss, Daira Nocera, William Noel, Gül Öztürk, Alessandro Pezzati, Jordan Pickett,  Holly Pittman, Gabriel Pizzorno, Dot Porter, Annette Yoshiko Reed, Brian Rose, Eric Schnittke, Julian Siggers, Anne Tiballi, Steve Tinney, Rebecca Vandewalle, Sara Varney, and Richard L. Zettler.