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Roman busts found in an ancient cemetery outside the old city of Beit She'an, Israel

Woman Spots Stone Head Poking Out of the Ground in Israel and Discovers Two 1700-Year-Old Statues

A woman walking through a cemetery in northern Israel has made a very important discovery. After heavy rains had washed away top soil, she chanced upon the top of a stone head, which turned out to be a rare, ancient funerary bust. In a follow up search, archaeologists found another similar sculpture dating to the Roman period. The find is an exciting one as it allows specialists to examine the objects in their original context and offers an unprecedented insight into the Roman era in this area and its particular tradition of funerary sculpture.

The discovery was made near Beit She’an, a busy town in what is now the north of Israel, according to Haaretz. Beit She’an was an important Philistine urban centre in the Bible and was later captured by King David. Later, it was known as Skythopolis and became a leading city in the league of semi-autonomous Roman cities known as the Decapolis.

A model of Bet She’an

A model of Bet She’an ( LevT / Adobe Stock)

Head in the Earth

The woman was out hiking through the old cemetery near the ancient town, when she spotted what looked to her like a head jutting out of the ground. After an investigation, she realised that it could be something of significance and she and her husband decided to contact the Israel Antiquities Authority. It seems that exceptionally heavy winter rains had exposed the funerary statute. They immediately sent out a team and declared that the hiker had found a Roman era limestone funerary bust. Nearby, to the delight of the experts they found another very similar sculpture.

Unique Sculptures

The two busts are quite heavy, they weigh over sixty pounds each (30 kilos) and were carved from a single block of limestone that was from local quarries. The two funerary monuments ‘are broad-stroke representations, the hair arrangements and clothing fashions match styles of the era and region’’, reports the Times of Israel .  One is intended to depict a bearded male and the other a female. In Latin, these busts were known as protomae. They were a custom that was peculiar to just two cities in the region: Skythopolis (Beit She’an) and the nearby Roman settlement of Sebaste.

The Roman town of Sebaste where similar busts have been found

The Roman town of Sebaste where similar busts have been found ( sezer66 / Adobe Stock)

They were typically placed in burial caves with the dead and made to represent the deceased and mark their passing. The busts unearthed are not inscribed, which is unusual, as typically the name of the dead is carved on them, usually in Greek or Latin.  They are in what is known as the Oriental style and this is one that was typical of the late Roman-early Byzantine period (third to fourth centuries AD), according to the Jerusalem Post . This style gradually superseded the classical art of Athens and Rome in the east of the Empire in particular. 

There have been many similar funerary busts found in the area since the nineteenth century. Based on the differences in the styles it is presumed that they were created in several local workshops in the region. The objects are not of great artistic value and they were probably relatively cheap. The Times of Israel quotes Avshalom Zemer an expert on the busts that ‘the lower classes of Skythopolis also adopted this custom’’.

The newly-discovered Roman busts in-situ.

The newly-discovered Roman busts in-situ. Credit: Eitan Klein / Israel Antiquities Authority

Unique Insights into Roman Era

It is theorized that because they are images of humans that they did not belong to the local Jewish or Sarmatian population. Any grave images are expressly prohibited in the Hebrew Bible. The two objects demonstrate that Beit She’an was part of the Greco-Roman world and influenced by its culture. After the great Jewish Revolt of 66-73 AD the settlement probably became exclusively populated by Romans, Greeks, and other non-Jews and this remained the case for centuries.

The two busts are of particular interest because they were found in burials. This would allow specialists from the Israel Antiquities Authority to understand the stylistic development of these statues and even the funerary practices of those who lived in the area in the late Roman period. They are only one of the very few limestone busts that are in the possession of Israel and many are in the hands of private collectors in Europe and America. It is believed that there are more limestone figures in graves to be unearthed in the cemetery.

Top image: Roman busts found in an ancient cemetery outside the old city of Beit She'an, Israel. Credit: Eitan Klein / Israel Antiquities Authority

By Ed Whelan

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