Digging Through the Ages




AT one known spot on the earth man has dwelt continuously from the Stone Age to the present time. Originally a hill of rock, primitive man sought shelter there; then came huts, walls, fortifications, houses, temples, fortresses, basilicas, whole cities, until the accumulations of ages have elevated that hill to a commanding size as each civilization built upon the remains of its predecessor.

Furthermore this eminence flanked the path of empire trod successively by the masterful peoples of the ancient world. Whenever Egypt marched east, or Assyria, Babylon, or Persia marched west, when the phalanxes of Alexander the Great swept over Asia, when Pompey made Rome lord of the East, their armies passed this way to victory or defeat. Proximate victory, eventual defeat — for though they might pass as conquerors, and tarry a few centuries more or less in lands won by the sword, they departed in due time and modern Palestine knows them no more. They garrisoned this hill, they left their dead in the cemetery across the Jalud, they drove their captives past laden with spoils of war, and now the only marks of those tumultuous efforts, those vast miseries and conflicts, are the stones they carved, the tools they used, and the pottery they made. The Pharaohs were mighty and advertised their might on walls and obelisks, but time is mightier and the steles of Seti and Ramses lay broken in the dust at Beisan awaiting the coming of a modest archæologist from the United States.

To-day Arab laborers under American direction are leveling that hill, cutting through the centuries and revealing, in what is perhaps the most remarkable work of the kind ever undertaken, an unbroken line of civilization back to remotest antiquity. Some twenty feet of the hill have been removed, leaving fifty more to be cut before rock is reached. Already the scientist has laid bare layer upon layer of historical facts covering a period through Biblical times to the present day, while a test shaft has yielded traces of peoples who lived beyond the dawn of recorded history.

The hill is at Beisan, Palestine, known successively as the Bethshean of the Old Testament and the Scythopolis of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when it flowered forth as the chief of the ten cities of the Decapolis. Situated eighteen miles east of Nazareth and some fifty miles north of Jerusalem, it is a little Gibraltar commanding the highway through the Valley of Armageddon at the head of the plain of Jezreel and dominating the fords of the Jordan River. Here for countless ages ran the main road from Egypt to Syria and Babylonia. The power that held the little hill of Beisan was master of the commercial and military routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia, between Jerusalem and Damascus. Allenby’s cavalry passed that way in the 1918 campaign that broke Turkish resistance.

From the references to Bethshean in five books of the Old Testament — I and II Samuel, Joshua, Judges, I Kings, and I Chronicles — Biblical scholars have long been able to locate the scene. Positive identification was made by George Adam Smith in his Historical Geography of the Holy Land, But the hill and town of Beisan belonged to the Turkish Sultans and until the end of the World War no archæological work could be undertaken there. Dr. George Byron Gordon, Director of the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, who had long been attracted to the site, visited it in 1919 in company with Dr. Clarence S. Fisher, formerly of the Palestine Harvard Expedition. To Dr. Fisher was given actual charge of the work of excavating. They found the hill to be from two hundred and fifty to three hundred feet in height, overgrown with underbrush, and approximately one half mile in circumference at the lower level where the River Jalud sluggishly moves toward the Jordan through the malarial swamps. The entire district lies well below sea level. The modern town of Beisan, a mean Arab village notorious as a centre of brigands, is a short distance to the north. Mount Gilboa rises a few miles to the west.

Dr. Fisher’s first view of the spot where he was to undertake his work of revelation was reassuring. In referring to it he says:—

‘I was attracted to Beisan at first sight. Not only was it the most perfectly shaped hill I had ever seen, but — even more important to the archæologist — not a single modern building or tomb was there to interfere with complete excavation. I knew the Biblical references and was aware that the site was mentioned in the religious records of the Byzantine Church, but our hopes went far beyond these scant bits of history, because everything pointed to Beisan’s having been, by reason of its location, the commanding site of the district.

‘When work began we knew nothing of what the hill contained. Not a sign remained of buildings except a few outcropping walls of the latest occupation. As we went down, the discovery of evidence proving the presence of material of every important buildingperiod in a perfectly clear, logical sequence is one of the most inspiring things I have ever experienced.’

Save for sheep and a few lazy herdsmen, the place was a wilderness. After making peace with the local Arabs, Dr. Fisher employed several hundred men and women to work for the expedition. He also brought fifty or sixty of his most experienced men from the University of Pennsylvania Museum excavations at Memphis, Egypt. For three years from two hundred to four hundred men and women have been laying bare each level of civilization as found, and measuring, sketching, and photographing the findings to provide historians of the future with accurate data for their studies.

What appeared to be outcroppings of natural rock soon were seen to be formidable walls, and as the dirt was removed an uncompleted fortress of the Crusaders came to light. The outer fortifications appeared, then the living-quarters, the refectory, kitchens, bakery, and some partially constructed outer buildings. Recognizing the military value of the site, the Crusaders established here an outpost under Adam, Lord of Bethune in France, who afterward called himself ‘Lord of Bessan.’ But the citadel was never finished, because the pestilential climate drove the Crusaders to a more favorable site northward. The Lord of Bessan, ancestor of George V of England through the Woodville line into which Edward IV married, looked over Jordan as master of the country round about Bethshean in the early years of the twelfth century when Baldwin of Flanders was King of Jerusalem. No wonder the armorclad Crusaders ran away from Bessan, its malaria and suffocating heat. But the stone benches on which the knights sat, the table, the rock on which bread was kneaded, and some of their cooking utensils had been kept safely in the bosom of the earth.

When this heavy masonry had been shifted the early Arab remains were beneath. The site fell to the Saracens in 632 A.D. After the fashion of the East, the newcomers built a fort, a mosque, and a town over the buildings of their enemies, the Christians. Of this Arab town little need be said; its ruins, while abundant, were cleared away for the sake of more important things below. Then there came to light all that is left of the historic city of Scythopolis, known by that name for nearly a thousand years, from the third century B.C. to the seventh century A.D.


Christ was reared and grew to manhood not far from Scythopolis in one of its most influential periods, when it was probably the most prominent city in the interior of Palestine. Following Pompey’s campaign in Palestine (64-63 B.C.) ten cities, nine of them located in the Jordan Valley or on the Sea of Tiberias, formed the confederation of the Decapolis for mutual protection. Keeping in close touch with Greece, they became centres of vigorous municipal life which, after the Greek manner, found expression in literature, athletics, and commerce. Chief of these focal points of Greek culture was Scythopolis itself, which, by virtue of holding the trade route between the Jordan Valley and the sea, soon became the most important city in the league. Various explanations have been given of the Hellenism of Jesus, the Jew who thought as Greeks thought, the Oriental whose philosophy has conquered the Occidental world. Need we look beyond the influence of Scythopolis on Nazareth for the explanation? While there is no record of the Saviour visiting Scythopolis, we may be sure he went there occasionally as an impressionable boy. Even in his little village he could not escape the cultural influences of the great city which overshadowed the district both culturally and commercially.

For the Scythopolis of Christ’s youth far exceeded in population and splendor the Jerusalem of the same period. It early was famed for churches and monasteries. Noble houses and other buildings stood not only on the hill but in the valley below, as the city walls at that time had a circumference of nearly two miles. In the valley beyond was grown flax of finest quality, and the city was the centre of the linen manufacture through the Roman period. But the city and its prosperity vanished in 632 A.D. under Heraclius, when the defenders, pressed by their Arab foes, cut the culverts of the waterways, thereby turning the entire region into a malarial swamp where even to-day the archæologist is in constant danger.

In 300 A.D. Scythopolis was the centre of Christian culture as well as the capital of the ten-city league of Palestine and Syria. The first recorded bishop was Saint Patrophilus, who apparently erected the first large church on the summit, portions of which were used again in the later and greater basilica. In 361, soon after his death, occurred the antichristian riots under Julian in which the city was looted and the first church burned. The tomb of the Saint was opened, his bones desecrated, his skull used as a lamp. Dr. Fisher has been able to retrace portions of the earlier church under the floor of the basilica, of which certain bronzes and mosaics have been actually found.

Its Christianity reviving after the wave of Julian’s persecutions passed, Scythopolis built its second church, one of the largest and loveliest religious edifices of its era, about 400 A.D. The feature of this great basilica was a circular rotunda, one hundred and fifty feet in diameter. The dome was supported on columns of green-andwhite marble brought from Europe, with bases and capitals of white marble. The walls and floors were covered with religious scenes in glass mosaic, while the floors were inlaid with marble mosaics. Portions of this floor and two of the columns have been shipped to this country and will be placed in the new wing of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. An equal amount of the exhumed material goes to the new Museum at Jerusalem, maintained by the Government of the mandate territory of Palestine.

Side by side with the uncovering of massive foundations and statues went on constantly the recovery of the smaller and less conspicuous tools of the ancient common life. The cisterns of the old town are rich deposits of antiques. While much of the record of Beisan is martial and religious, it is equally accurate to think of this famous site as a community in which chatting servants, drawing water, carelessly let their vessels slip out of their hands into the depths, no doubt to be soundly berated by their mistresses. And not only ewers and pitchers, but likewise rings and hair-combs and whatnot — even nails. One pictures some carpenter contemporary of Jesus leaning forward for a drink while his crude hand-drawn nails slipped from his apron into the water, to be recovered centuries later by men of another age. Of all this multitude of common antiquities only a few specimens of each kind can be retained, but all significant pieces are measured and sketched, the cards filling drawer upon drawer in the Museum.

When the archælogists had dug away all the remains of the Byzantine period more huge columns appeared — the fallen pillars of a Roman temple. And then for one year Dr. Fisher slowly removed débris and reconstructed a Graeco-Roman period from 200 A.D. to 300 B.C. Then the summit of the hill was crowned with a temple of Dionysus or Bacchus. This god of green things growing, of wine and harvest, was supposed to have been born here. A portion of an enormous foot, in all probability from a heroic statue of this deity, came out of the rubbish. The building itself had gigantic Corinthian columns six feet in diameter. It probably was destroyed by earthquake, together with most of the material used by the early Christians in erecting the early church and basilica. Some delicate Roman mosaics, utensils, and statuary have been preserved. Inscriptions tell that the structure was erected by Demetrius I, who was King of Macedonia from 294 to 287 B.C. Many inscriptions of early visitors to the place — tourists, if you please — were written on the fallen columns. A hoard of silver coins of the Egyptian King, Ptolemy Soter I, of this same period, were recovered in an adjacent house.

After months of wearisome labor, the stones of the Roman days were removed to improve the roads of the Holy Land near Beisan. Under these stones were remains of a Scythian occupation. In spite of the evidence of the place-name fixed by local tradition, the reality of an invasion of Palestine by the Scythians had been questioned. The finding of the remains of their crude mud huts in the corners of Egyptian ruins indicates that these barbarian warriors of the steppes actually swept into the Jordan Valley — presumably about 627 B.C. — in an attempt to invade Egypt. They never advanced beyond Jerusalem, where they met defeat and retreated to the north. The ruined Egyptian city of Bethshean attracted some of these refugees. It was the descendants of these nomads whom the Greeks found there, and from them the place was called Scythopolis.


But the greatest discoveries were to come. Sweeping away the ruins of the Scythian hovels, the American scholar located remains of the Egyptian domain in Palestine and established the fact that this strategic hill was the great outpost of Egypt in Palestine throughout the militant XVIIIth Dynasty. From here the armies of the Pharaohs moved northward in their conquests of Syria. Here a fortress, burned and charred, yet standing from six to ten feet in height, came from the earth as the digging progressed. This fortress marked Egyptian supremacy at Beisan from 1313 to 1200 B.C. It was still standing, but no longer in Egyptian possession, in the time of Saul and David, and saw the rise and fall of the Philistine kingdom. From its heights the women of Bethshean looked across to the bloody slopes of Gilboa, where Saul and his sons fell beneath Philistine spears, in revenge for which David put Bethshean to the torch.

Seti I, Ramses II, and Ramses III made conquests from this hill fortress. One stele found in the ruins, and nowpreserved in the national Museum in Jerusalem, tells of the local campaign of Seti I and gives a detailed account of the composition of an Egyptian expeditionary force. In addition to proving that the essentials of military strategy are old as man, this record reveals a shrewd recognition of the propaganda value of high-sounding names for armed bodies. When the chief of Bethshean asked his aid against the ‘vile one’ of Hamath, who had formed a league with the men of Pella across the river, Seti was quick to make this local quarrel serve his imperial designs. With four divisions he was occupying the western end of the valley of Jezreel preparatory to marching north against the Hittites. Straightway he sent his Ra division (‘manifold of victories’) to occupy Bethshean, while that of Amon (‘the strong bows’) proceeded against Hamath. In order that his punishment of Hamath might not be interfered with by the equally vile Hittites, with whom Egypt had not yet come to grips, the Pharaoh sent his Sutekh division (‘powerful of bows’) northwest into the foothills of the Lebanon to protect his flank. Meanwhile his Ptah division was left behind to keep the road open to Egypt. There were generals in those days even if they lacked high explosives. Needless to say, the last line of Seti’s stele records a complete victory.

The most important Egyptian discovery, however, was a companion basalt stele, that of Seti’s son, Ramses II, which contained among its flowers of self-praise one vital, long-sought line: ‘I have collected the Semites that they might build for me my city of Ramses.’ Here, at last, is definite verification of the Israelitic bondage. It is regarded by Egyptologists as the last evidence required to establish Ramses II as the Pharaoh of the Oppression, and consequently places his son, Mineptah, as the Pharaoh of the Exodus. By a strange coincidence it was Dr. Fisher, now conducting the work at Beisan, who three years ago excavated the palace and throneroom of Mineptah at Memphis under twelve feet of Nile mud. To an American institution have come both these ancient treasures — the portals of this palace through which Moses and his brother-in-law Aaron must have passed on their way to appear before Pharaoh, and this stele of Ramses II, on which the record of the Israelitic bondage is preserved.

Egypt held this hill of Beisan as a great garrison-town until the end of the reign of Ramses III, when her power waned in Syria as it had waned before and was destined to wane again under the Ptolemies. Seti’s occupation, in fact, represented merely a return of Egypt to power in the Jordan Valley. Thothmes III, of the preceding dynasty, most energetic of all the Pharaohs, had broken an earlier Syrian revolt in battle at Megiddo, between Beisan and the sea, and chronicled his victory on the walls of the sanctuary at Karnak, together with brief reports of his subsequent expeditions in Syria. These expeditions were no less than seventeen in number, in the course of which this mighty ruler crossed the Euphrates and made himself master of all the territory between the Euphrates and the Nile. The Egyptian outpost of Beisan appears to have remained in the hands of his successors down to the fourth generation, when the extraordinary figure of Akhenaton, great-great-grandson of Thothmes III, and father-in-law of Tutankhamen, allowed the military phase of Egypt’s greatness to languish in order that he might build a new heaven on earth.

Thrusting the old gods of force aside, Akhenaton established the worship of one god, Aton, the sun or life-giving principle, and relied upon good-will rather than the majesty of arms to maintain his dignities. This renunciation of power, however, exalted as it may have been spiritually, brought chaos to the frontiers. Amid the ruins of Akhenaton’s palace at Tel-el-Amarna were found three hundred letters in clay from distressed Egyptian captains on the fringes of the empire, begging for aid to maintain their positions in the face of the enemy — letters which the pacifist Pharaoh disregarded or to which he returned a sublime refusal. Beisan is represented in these appeals, and the next layer to be excavated will no doubt reveal definitely the XVIIth Dynasty’s occupation of the hill and furnish traces of the other end of the El-Amarna letters. Test sinkings indicate this strongly. By the end of Akhenaton’s reign, about 1350 B.C., Egyptian rule in Syria had gone down under the indifference of the altruistic monarch on the Nile and the pressure of the militant natives of the marches of the empire. It remained for Seti and his strong bows to make Egypt once more dominant in Palestine and master of the hill of Beisan.

For a time after the Egyptian stronghold at Beisan was abandoned, in the twelfth century B.C., the place was a town of the Canaanites, well equipped to raid the plains with their chariots. ‘And the children of Joseph said, The hill is not enough for us: and all the Canaanites that dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron, both they who are of Bethshean and her towns, and they who are of the valley of Jezreeh.’ The historical importance of the site revived with the Philistines who settled there. The original Philistine settlers are believed by Dr. Fisher to have been mercenaries in the employ of the Pharaohs. When their kinsmen swept down from the north in the great invasion, the Philistines of Bethshean opened the gates of the city to them, and what had been an Egyptian fortress became the stronghold of the enemies of Israel. Cutting the nation of the Jews in half, it menaced the entire growth of Israel, and it was here, just outside the walls, on the slopes of Gilboa, that Saul met defeat.

‘And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was sore wounded of the archers. . . . Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it. . . . So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together.

. . . And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth: and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. And when the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead heard of that which the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there.’

When the messenger brought the news of the defeat of Saul to David, he gave voice to that beautiful lament in II Samuel: ‘The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!’ following with a curse upon the scene of the tragedy: ‘Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain upon you, nor fields of offerings.’ David shortly appeared before Bethshean and defeated the invaders. He burned the fortress; and the completeness of his vengeance may be read to-day in the charred bricks and fused metal in the ruins. Thus have come to light the very walls on which the naked body of Saul was nailed, while his armor was hung in triumph in the temple of Ashtaroth. All through Biblical history Bethshean was a dagger pointed at the heart of Jewry, in the hands of whose enemies it prevented the effective coöperation of Israel and Judah, earning the wrath of both great sections of the Jewish race. In spite of David’s vengeance, the Jews had only slight control of the place, holding it for less than a score of its more than three thousand years of recorded history.


The work at Beisan stands to-day as perhaps the greatest single achievement of American archæology. Fifty more feet of rubbish, ruins, and earth must be removed before rock is touched, but already the record of countless ages is known to live below. Dr. Fisher recently climbed down a well and cut within ten feet of rock. He detected stonework of the earlier Egyptian period and Hittite buildings. No doubt both Hyksos and Hittites, in the imperialist eras, maintained great fortresses here. Under the remains of these he believes Babylonian structures will come forth, while at bed rock itself implements of the Stone Age will be found — in fact, traces of these implements already have been seen.

In the side of the hill across the river Dr. Fisher has opened many graves. Valuable jewelry, pottery, and household utensils have been recovered. Some tombs of the Hyksos have been opened and one skeleton, that of a woman, found intact. Here also he located the tomb of Antiochus, son of Phallion, first cousin of Herod the Great. Unique terra-cotta coffincovers were saved from the tombs and are believed to have been made by mercenaries in the Egyptian armies, possibly by men from distant islands. Resembling grotesque masks, these covers are thought to reveal Sardinian characteristics, a suggestion that rouses a whole train of questions as to the early flow of peoples in the Mediterranean basin.

Thus, day by day, the haunts of men of other ages are being bared to the sun of Palestine. It will require at least ten more years to complete the work to bed rock.

‘In the field of archæology,’ says Dr. Fisher, ‘Palestine alone seems to have been neglected. One hesitates to think that this neglect was due largely to the fact that active exploration there does not produce enough of material value, for we cannot hope for the wealth of beautiful art-objects which both Greece and Egypt have given us. We should look to Palestine for something other than this. Of fine art it had little, but it did have a history and an influence throughout the Near East which must be reckoned with.

‘Beisan will furnish us with a complete chronological sequence of the various occupations of this “key to empire,” each represented by its buildings, tools, and weapons. There is always, too, the hope of alighting upon some inscriptional evidence for the more accurate datings of events now disputed or preserved only in the uncertainties of folklore. We have too long looked upon Palestine merely as the Holy Land, meaning the country sacred as the birthplace of our religion and filled only with associations of the life of Christ. Our interest has rarely gone beyond this point and we seem to have shrunk from desecrating its soil by scientific exploration. The Biblical archæologist, I am afraid, has been considered too much of a destructive critic and a modernist to entrust to his skeptical hands any large sum of money for research. This feeling is a quite mistaken one. No excavation I know of in Palestine has thus far done anything but confirm in a remarkable manner the statements of Holy Writ, and I have no fear that any excavation ever will. In the coming years Palestine is going to attract more and more of our attention, outrivaling Egypt, and we may expect many great and astonishing results.’

Among these ‘great expectations’ roused by the excavations at Beisan are hopes of solving some of the puzzles of history. Who were the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings, invaders and rulers of Egypt? Perhaps they too held the hill of Beisan long enough to leave evidence of their origin; at least there are Hyksos remains in the cemetery across the Jordan. And who were the Hittites? Light may be thrown on the spread of the gifted Semite race and its dispersion into clans throughout the vast areas in which history begins. The confusion of tribal names that have descended out of the dim past, antedating written records, may be somewhat, if not altogether, cleared away as the Beisan diggers proceed toward bed rock, going further and further back in time with each level until finally the kitchen middens of the elemental Flint Age are exhumed.

For in Palestine, as far as human knowledge goes, man has always lived by preference on the hilltops.

Eight distinct civilizations occupy twenty feet of vertical space at Beisan. In this distance the excavators have dug through thirty-two centuries. If the intervening space between bed rock and the Egyptian level represents an equal compression of time, approximately eighty centuries more await their picks and shovels. That might push the curtain of history back to 9300 B.C. And if the first layers above bed rock contain authentic relics of the Flint Age, the interval between Beisan’s first settlement and the present day may be as much as 20,000 years. The possibility that Beisan may furnish the data with which to check the fundamentals of human existence through such a long period makes it the outstanding spot in the world’s archeological research. Other sites may reward searchers with more refined objets d’art, but none offers such promise to history.

At sunset to-day in far-off Palestine the foreman’s whistle blows and the Arab diggers troop noisily down the slopes of the hill of Beisan toward their homes. The more experienced men from Egypt return more leisurely to the camp of the expedition, leaving a lonely guardian on the excavations to commune through the night with the ghosts of the past. Now and again some Arab urchin takes his flock a short cut over the hill, and the notes of his pipe coming across the Jalud make a melancholy accompaniment to our thoughts of the departed grandeur of these ancient cities.