It’s Raining, It’s Pouring in Israel and Exposing 1,700-year-old Busts in Roman-era Cemetery

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Walking by the ancient Roman cemetery outside the walls of ancient Beit She'an, a woman noticed a round protuberance from the ground.
Walking by the ancient Roman cemetery outside the walls of ancient Beit She'an, a woman noticed a round protuberance from the ground.Credit: \ Eitan Klein / Israel Antiquitie
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It’s been raining in Israel, after years of winter going AWOL. In fact it’s been pouring, which exposed something round in the ground that was noticed by a woman strolling in the ancient Roman-period cemetery of Beit She’an.

The curved protuberance turned out to be the top of a stone head, next to which the archaeologists hastily summoned in early December found another male bust.

The two pieces were dated to about 1,700 years ago, based mainly on dozens of similar artifacts found in Beit She’an itself, the region and northern Jordan over decades, Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dr. Eitan Klein told Haaretz. (The original discoveries were published by the late Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah of the Hebrew University.)

The town of Beit She’an lies almost 30 kilometers (nearly 19 miles) south of the Sea of Galilee, in a fertile valley with a bounteous water supply – which helps explain why it has been occupied by people since time immemorial. “It’s one of the oldest cities in Israel,” says Klein, deputy head of the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit.

The “modern” ancient city certainly existed at the time of King Saul, the purported first king of Israel around 1020 B.C.E., according to the biblical account; there are finds from the Bronze Age. In the time of Alexander the Great and his successors, the infamous infighting generals known as the Diadochi, it became a proper polis, being the crossing point of major inland trade.

The limestone busts found were not vanity decorations for the mantelpiece. Memorial likenesses of the dead were placed on the sarcophagus inside a tomb as a sort of headstone, or at the entrance to family tombs, Klein explains.

Limestone busts from a late Roman-period tomb, found in the ancient cemetery outside the old city of Beit She'an, IsraelCredit: \ Eitan Klein / Israel Antiquitie

In the late Roman era, the city probably housed some early Christians, but it was mostly pagan. “It had pagan temples. Apparently it did have Christians too, but we don’t know what their material customs were and cannot identify particular burials with these Christians,” Klein says.

The likenesses were made of the same hard local limestone that houses are built from in these parts. That in turn means they were presumably sculpted by local artisans, Klein adds.

The heads were stylized in the local Canaanite, Phoenician or Syrian style, not the classic Greek or Roman style.Credit: \ Eitan Klein / Israel Antiquitie

But the key reason to believe they were locally made is the style. These were not busts in the classical style: Rather, they feature the stylized artistic flair of the local Phoenicians, Canaanites and Syrians, the archaeologist explains.

The sculptures are highly schematic and disproportionate compared with the classical style, in which statues were based on the natural physical attributes of people, says Klein. (Just think about Greek marble statues with their extreme attention to facial detail, musculature, each and every fold of the toga and the miniaturized genitalia.)

“In the case of Oriental-type art, including these busts, the eyebrows and nose are overstressed and the eyes are schematic. The lips are pursed, though smiling,” says Klein.

Despite their stylization, evidently the busts were supposed to represent specific people. By this time, Klein points out, dozens of such busts have been found and all are different.

Some even bear the names of the dead, though the ones serendipitously found by the stroller in Beit She’an did not.

So, would the family that commissioned these sort-of-accurate busts of their lost loved ones have to have been elite? Not at all: If anything, Klein suspects they were probably middle-class. “If they were creating such a thing for the rich, they’d have used marble,” he observes. And yes, that does indicate that a lot more busts remain to be found in the soggy earth of the northern ancient Roman cemetery in Beit She’an – by passersby, archaeologists or just the rain.

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