Ancient Temple Dating Back to 1100 BC Found in Israel

A team of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University has unearthed ruins of a 3,100-year-old temple at the site of Tel Beth-Shemesh.

This image shows ancient Tel Bet-Shemesh and modern Bet-Shemesh in the background (Avishai Teicher / CC BY 2.5)

Tel Beth-Shemesh is an important biblical site located near the modern town of Beth-Shemesh about 20 km west of Jerusalem. According to archaeologists, the name Tel Beth-Shemesh (House of the Sun) is suggestive of the deity that was worshipped by the Canaanite inhabitants of the town. The Bible mentions the settlement in the description of the northern border of the Tribe of Judah and as a Levitical city. The town is also listed in Solomon’s second administrative district.

The newly discovered temple complex is comprised of an elevated, massive circular stone structure and an intricately constructed building characterized by a row of three flat, large round stones.

“This temple complex is unparalleled, possibly connected to an early Israelite cult – and provides remarkable new evidence of the deliberate desecration of a sacred site,” explained co-directors of the dig Prof Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr Zvi Lederman of the Tel Aviv University’s Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology.

“The village of Beth-Shemesh frequently changed hands between the ambitious Philistines and the Canaanite and Israelite populations that resisted them. The temple and its history reflect the power struggles that defined the region in the 12th-11th centuries BC,” said the archaeologists, who will report their discoveries on November 15, 2012, at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Chicago.

“In the archaeological record, there are no parallels to this Canaanite or Israelite sacred compound of the period,” they said.

The archaeologists revealed that the temple has a rich history steeped in conflict. They determined that the complex was not only destroyed, but also desecrated – invading Philistines possibly used the temple ruins as animal pens.

Excavations revealed almost only shards of painted chalices and goblets found spread on the floor but no traces of domestic use. One of the three flat stones was surrounded by animal bone remnants, and the two other stones were seemingly designed to direct liquids. These clues convinced the scientists that they had uncovered a likely place of sacred worship.

This image shows ruins of a 3,100-year-old temple found at the site of Tel Beth-Shemesh (Tel Aviv University)

“This discovery also serves to illuminate the recent discovery of a number of round clay ovens, called ‘tabuns,’ in the layer excavated above the temple. Typically, such ovens were located in a domestic building for food preparation. But these particular ovens were not part of a neighborhood or living quarter,” Prof Bunimovitz said.

“We believe that ancestors of those who had built the original complex came back to rebuild the site,” Dr Lederman said.

The team suggests that the ovens were used to cook celebration feasts held in veneration of the old temple. Thus, despite the desecration of the temple by the Philistines, the memory of the sacred site survived. Once the Philistines withdrew from the area, the descendents of the original worshippers returned to commemorate this sacred place.

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Bibliographic information: Zvi Lederman. The Rise, Fall and Regeneration of the Bronze Age City State at Beth-Shemesh. A29 Section: Beth-Shemesh between the Bronze and Iron Ages: New Discoveries, New Thoughts. 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. November 14-17, 2012. Chicago, Illinois

Hai Ashkenazi, Zvi Lederman. Deciphering Destruction with GIS: A Case Study from the Amarna Age City-state at Tel Beth-Shemesh. A29 Section: Beth-Shemesh between the Bronze and Iron Ages: New Discoveries, New Thoughts. 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. November 14-17, 2012. Chicago, Illinois

Shlomo Bunimovitz. Resistance, Endurance and Ethnogenesis: What Happened to the Canaanites after the ‘Canaanite’ Period? A29 Section: Beth-Shemesh between the Bronze and Iron Ages: New Discoveries, New Thoughts. 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. November 14-17, 2012. Chicago, Illinois