Tel (mound) Beit Shemesh covers about 7 acres of a low hill, near the modern town of Beit Shemesh, some 20 km. west of Jerusalem. It overlooks the Sorek Valley, which widens here into a fertile valley.
The name Beit 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 Beit Shemesh is based on its geographical description in the Bible, on the Onomasticon of Eusebius (4th century CE) and on the name of the Arab village Ein Shams, which preserves the ancient name.
The Bible mentions Beit 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) Beit Shemesh is also mentioned in connection with the return of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, who had captured it in the battle of Eben-Ezer. The ark was placed on a cattle-drawn cart in the Philistine town of Ekron and sent via Nahal Sorek to Beit Shemesh:
Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beit Shemesh and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right or the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beit Shemesh.
(I Samuel 6:12-13)
At the beginning of the 8th century BCE, Beit Shemesh became strategically important, as it controlled the western approaches of the Kingdom of Judah, and the road to its capital, Jerusalem. It was here that the battle between Amaziyah, King of Judah and Jehoash, King of Israel, took place.
(II Kings 14:11-13) Shortly thereafter, Beit Shemesh passed into Philistine control, but was restored to the Kingdom of Judah under Hezekiah. The town was destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 BCE.
Talmudic sources describe Beit Shemesh as a small village; in the Byzantine period a large, fortified monastery was built on the southeastern part of the tel.
Excavations conducted at Beit Shemesh at the beginning of the 20th century and during the 1930s exposed large parts of the tel, down to bedrock. Remains of several successive cities from the Bronze and Iron ages were uncovered. But these early excavations, in part tunnels dug along the city walls, did not produce clear results. The aim of the new excavations, begun in 1990, is to shed more light on the history of ancient Beit Shemesh.
The present excavations focus on the northern and southern sides of the tel, which remained largely untouched. In the very first season, the remains of several impressive Iron Age buildings were uncovered, indicating the importance of the city. In the coming years, the expedition plans to expose the remains of the Canaanite city that preceded the Israelite one.
The Period of the Judges
(12th-11th centuries BCE)
Remains of a large structure, probably a public building, were uncovered on the slope of the tel. Its walls, built of large fieldstones, indicate that it had a second story. There was also a large stone-paved courtyard surrounded by many rooms. To the east of this building were many simple buildings with ceilings supported by wooden pillars on stone bases. Large grindstones and clay ovens attest to the daily activities of their inhabitants. This city was destroyed (the event is unknown) and its houses were buried under a thick layer of ash and bricks.
The pottery used by the inhabitants of Beit Shemesh during this period is in the Canaanite and Philistine tradition. But the bones of the animals they consumed attest to a diet typical of the Israelites who inhabited the hill country. Such finds indicate the cultural influences on the inhabitants of this border town; it is difficult, however, to ascertain their specific ethnic identity - Canaanite, Philistine or Israelite.
The Period of the United Kingdom
and of the Kingdom of Judah
(10th-7th centuries BCE)