For the first time, a pair of limestone funerary busts — a style of grave marking unique to the region during the Late Roman (3rd–4th centuries CE) period — were discovered in situ, after early December rains near Beit She’an.
Walking in the northern cemetery at Beit She’an, a hiker saw a small head popping out of the muddy earth — thankfully mineral and not animal. She quickly phoned the Israel Antiquities Authority, which hastened to send out a team to pick up the well-known, but very rare limestone funerary bust.
It turned out to be a two for the price of one operation: While the archaeologists worked they discovered a second limestone bust, each weighing circa 30 kilograms (66 pounds).
These two busts are the only examples found in the location in which they were lain after the burial of the subject depicted by the statue. “Because of that, we hurried to remove them,” said Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit. Klein told The Times of Israel that an excavation is being planned for the future in the area where the busts were unearthed.
While each individual funerary bust’s depiction is unique, the style, material and craftsmanship is particular to the Beit She’an region, said Klein. Of the few dozen known to scholars, Klein said, all were traded in antiquities markets of the world, predominantly during the British Mandate era. Often, he said, they were purchased by individual collectors or American universities.
Recently, said Klein, he has not seen them for sale on the antiquities markets and today most of the busts are again inside Israel — largely in state holdings, which loan them for display in Israeli museums.
According to an article by Avshalom Zemer, curator of the 2012 Haifa-based National Maritime Museum’s exhibit, Funerary Busts of the Roman Period in Eretz-Israel, the limestone funerary busts or protomae began to be seen in very specific parts of the land of Israel in the Late Roman era, circa 2nd-3rd centuries CE and until the 4th century.
The busts schematically depict men, women, and children, writes Zemer, without the impulse of creating a true likeness as is seen elsewhere in the Roman Empire. While they are broad-stroke representations, the hair arrangements and clothing fashions match styles of the era and region.
Some of the dozens of discovered busts are inscribed with the age and name of the deceased, which Zemer notes could be of Greek, Latin, or Semitic origin. This is not the case of the recently unearthed ones, said Klein.
“In Eretz-Israel, the custom was limited to two cities — Skythopolis (Beth-Shean) and Sebaste (Sebastia). Most of the busts were found in the environs of Beth-Shean, and analysis of their styles suggests that there were several workshops in the area,” writes Zemer. “It seems that, in the mid-3rd century CE, the lower classes of Skythopolis also adopted this custom, which probably accounts for the poor workmanship that was obviously cheaper,” he writes.
There are two general styles of bust, Hellenistic/Classical and oriental, and they were largely used in the burials of the elite. “These busts are in the Oriental style, which shows that at the end of the Roman period the use of Classical art had subsided, and local trends came into vogue,” said Klein.
According to Klein, the two recently unearthed examples are of the oriental style and can be dated to the Late Roman period due to the context in which they were found, the 3rd–4th centuries CE graveyard. Living in Beit She’an during that period was a diverse population, including Romans, Christians, Jews, and Samaritans. Because of the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments, Klein hypothesized that the markers did not belong to Jews or Samaritans.
“These busts were made of local limestone and they show unique facial features, details of clothing and hairstyles. It seems that at least one of them depicts a bearded man,” said Klein. “But not one resembles another, and that’s the importance of these finds.”
Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit inspector, thanked the Beit She’an residents for their good citizenship and said they will receive a certificate of appreciation.
“These are very important finds, which tell us a great deal about the inhabitants of the Beth She’an area in antiquity. The discovery of the busts fills in another piece of the puzzle in our understanding of the material culture of the people of this land in the past. These finds belong to everyone in the country, and now we can all enjoy them and understand their historical context,” said Distelfeld.
“It’s important to note that heavy winter rains can bring other finds to the surface and we call on people to report them to us,” said Distelfeld.