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“Highway Through History” Exhibit to Display Archaeological Finds Unearthed in Excavations at Tel Beit Shemesh

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Amanda Weiss, director, Bible Lands Museum: "The Bible Lands Museum works tirelessly to preserve and protect the heritage of this region for visitors of all ages and faiths. Your story – the story of each individual – is rooted in the events and cultures that ultimately shaped the development of human history in this region. A great deal of media attention has been focused on these excavations, rightfully so, and it is our privilege to invite the world to come and see this evidence first hand and to understand why.” Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Opening on March 19, “Highway through History” will display important archaeological finds unearthed in large-scale rescue excavations at Tel Beit Shemesh. Carried out by Y. G. Archaeology under the auspices of Hebrew Union College, the goal of the rescue excavation was to make sure that nothing of unique historical importance lay beneath the old road. Netivei Israel, the national transport infrastructure company, was ready to begin work on the important highway expansion when excavators uncovered remains of a Judean settlement from the end of the First Temple period.

Scholars had believed that the ancient city of Beit Shemesh was totally destroyed by King Sennacherib of Assyria, but these new discoveries reveal that the city was reestablished following its destruction and became an important economic hub in the kingdom of Judah. Discoveries include a large industrial zone for olive oil production, hundreds of jar handles with stamp seal impressions characteristic of First Temple period administration in the Kingdom of Judah, and clay figurine fragments in the shape of women and animals. Photo Credit: Pinterest

These surprising discoveries have overturned previous understanding of the history of the Kingdom of Judah under Assyrian rule in the 7th century BCE. Scholars had believed that the ancient city of Beit Shemesh was totally destroyed by King Sennacherib of Assyria, but these new discoveries reveal that the city was reestablished following its destruction and became an important economic hub in the kingdom of Judah. Discoveries include a large industrial zone for olive oil production, hundreds of jar handles with stamp seal impressions characteristic of First Temple period administration in the Kingdom of Judah, and clay figurine fragments in the shape of women and animals. The most unique artefact on display is an impressive stone statue of the Egyptian god Bes – the only example found in Israel to date. The figurines and Bes statue, found smashed, may offer fresh insight on the religious reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah described in the Book of Kings.

Until recently, the whereabouts of this important biblical site mentioned in the story of the return of the Ark of the Covenant from the land of the Philistines, were completely unknown. Only during the of rescue excavations, which are an integral part of the greater urban development plan for the modern city of Beit Shemesh, was this important site revealed. The new finds sparked debate over the vying importance of preserving cultural heritage and the need for urban development. Unprecedented resources (NIS 60 million) have been invested in this new road, however in the face of controversy, the Israel Roads Company (Netivei Israel) and Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), have reexamined their plans. A compromise agreement was reached that would still enable the construction of a two-lane highway, albeit of minimal possible width in each direction, and the original plans for a new interchange were scrapped. Along with some of the most important artifacts, the plans and their challenges will also be on display in this exhibition.

The finds were transferred from the excavation site for registration, cleaning and conservation by the IAA in advance of display in this new exhibition Highway through History in the Bible Lands Museum. The exhibition will present highlights of the finds that provide evidence of a dramatic chapter in the history of Judah during the First Temple period. It will also address the contemporary dilemma of preservation vs. modernization in the 21st Century (CE). This is the first time that the newly-discovered artifacts are being publicly displayed. Due to the high level of public interest in the rescue excavations and their finds, special permission has been granted by the IAA to exhibit this material prior to their being studied and published.

Amanda Weiss, director, Bible Lands Museum: “The Bible Lands Museum works tirelessly to preserve and protect the heritage of this region for visitors of all ages and faiths. Your story – the story of each individual – is rooted in the events and cultures that ultimately shaped the development of human history in this region. A great deal of media attention has been focused on these excavations, rightfully so, and it is our privilege to invite the world to come and see this evidence first hand and to understand why.

Our goal here is to also present the modern day dilemmas faced by this burgeoning nation that on one hand is building a new future, but on the other is responsible for the preservation and study of our past. Ultimately, shedding new light on this mysterious chapter in history emboldens research and strengthens a greater understanding of our history.

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