Victory for Archaeologists: Planned Road Expansion Cut in Bid to Save Ancient Treasures

Route 38 will cut through a major 7th century BCE site. Roads company: Plans are being ‘reexamined’

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Route 38 in the Tel Beit Shemesh area.
Route 38 in the Tel Beit Shemesh area, January 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A planned expansion of the road that crosses Tel Beit Shemesh is to be cut back to avoid what archaeologists say would be irreparable damage to rare artifacts from the First Temple period discovered at the site.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said that according to an agreement reached with Netivei Israel, the national roads company, Route 38, which crosses the archaeological mound, will only be only 20 meters wide instead than 80 meters as originally planned.

Netivei Israel said that it is revisiting its plans in light of the archaeological findings, but would not confirm that the road would only be built to a quarter of its originally planned width. Even if the road is only 20 meters wide, it is expected to seriously damage the antiquities.

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Archaeological digs in Tel Beit Shemesh, January 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

About a year ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the archaeologist Yehuda Govrin (for the Hebrew Union College) launched an extensive salvage excavation along the route of the planned road. According to Netivei Israel, the road needs to be widened because of the plan to significantly increase the population of Beit Shemesh in the coming decades. The plans showed that the road would cross the archaeological mound and destroy large parts of it.

In the salvage dig, 1,000 excavation squares were opened (5 x 5 meters each), employing hundreds of laborers and costing some 60 million shekels ($16.3 million). During the excavation, Govrin discovered a previously unknown Judahite settlement from the 7th century BCE.

This period is considered an archaeological mystery, said Dr. Amit Shadman, the IAA district archaeologist for the region. “This period is after the campaign of Sennacherib, who destroyed almost all the settlements in our area. In a good many of the archaeological mounds a destruction layer was found from that period, and afterward there was a break in settlement,” he says. Shadman adds that archaeologists focused on the mounds themselves, while the salvage dig was on the slopes of Tel Beit Shemesh, and that’s where the settlement was discovered.

Shadman says that the period of peace and prosperity that followed Sennacherib’s campaign and the rule of King Menashe in Jerusalem manifests itself in a large olive-oil producing village, which was neither walled nor fortified. An abundance of artifacts were found, including seals with Hebrew names and dozens of jar handles stamped “of the king” in Hebrew. It is believed that these handles, well known from Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judah, came from jars used to pay taxes to the king in Jerusalem.

Emil Salman

Also found were figurines of deities; a rare statue of the Egyptian god Bes, which will be exhibited to the public in the near future; 15 olive oil presses and well-preserved dwellings of the type archaeologists call “four-room houses” that were considered the classic dwelling in both kingdoms, Judah and Israel, at the time.

“There is no other settlement as well preserved as this one from the seventh century in Israel,” Shadman says.

In other excavations at the site, conducted by Tel Aviv University, findings from later periods were discovered, including branching hiding tunnels from the Roman period, a large oil press paved with a mosaic from the Byzantine period and an early Ottoman village that ceased to exist in the 19th century.

The Israel Antiquities Authority was very concerned about the planned multi-lane road, which would have required digging 15 meters into the mound and 80 meters across it and would have meant wiping out most of the archeological findings.

Archaeological digs in Tel Beit Shemesh, January 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Last Thursday, Netivei Israel director general Nissim Peretz toured the site together with his senior staff and Israel Antiquities Authority representatives. People present at the tour said that at the end a proposal was raised to limit the width of the road to a quarter of its originally planned size in that area, without reducing the number of lanes. This would mean building the road with no shoulders and no room for other infrastructure. The Israel Antiquities Authority said they were satisfied with the idea, but would still like to consider diverting the road altogether to minimize damage to the ancient findings, because even the narrower road would go through the center of the ancient village and cover large parts of it.

Israel Antiquities Authority Director General Yisrael Hasson said: “I and the director of Netivei Israel are making a joint effort with the academic world to save everything possible and to allow development to continue. In the framework of the solution presented to us, we will be able to develop and preserve most of the site.”

Netivei Israel said: “The company ascribes great value to the discovery and preservation of antiquities, the proof of which are the hundreds of millions of shekels the Transportation Ministry is investing. With regard to Tel Beit Shemesh, the company is making many efforts to find creative engineering solutions to allow life-saving infrastructure to be built while maximizing archaeological value.”

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