Raining busts and horses?

It’s been dry in Israel for several years, a small reminder of periodic droughts mentioned in the Bible.

That recently came to an end with a spate of heavy winter rains.

Two funerary busts exposed after heavy rains. Credit: Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority

Israel typically has seasonal rains, usually beginning with scattered showers in October, intensifying through the winter months, and petering out in March or April. The months of May-September are usually as dry as unbuttered toast, with only eroded ravines and gorges — known as wadis — as a reminder of past gully-washers.

Winter rainfall has been particularly abundant this year, pounding the dry soil with such force and persistence that in some places it has exposed treasures normally uncovered in controlled archaeological digs.

Two Roman period funerary busts, for example, were discovered when a woman strolling through an ancient cemetery at Beth She’an noticed something round emerging from the ground, and it wasn’t a mushroom.

The Roman city of Scythopolis, from the tel of ancient Beth Shan, about 19 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. Photo: Tony Cartledge

The rounded nob turned out to be the top of a stone head, and when archaeologists came to remove it, they found another one right beside it.

The busts probably date to about the third century CE, when Beth Shan, also known as Scythopolis, was a prosperous Roman city. Scythopolis was one of the ten “cities of the Decapolis” mentioned in the New Testament. It was not unusual for families to place a marker or bust on or near the sarcophagus when people were buried.

The two recently uncovered busts were made from local limestone, and almost certainly by local craftsmen, as they follow the Phoenician style of heavy brows and little detail, unlike the much more representative statuary that had developed in Rome.

The two human heads were mere youngsters compared to two small horse heads that were also revealed by the rain — in two different places.

Horse figurines found many miles apart after recent heavy rains in Israel.
Credit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

A finely detailed depiction of a horse’s head, complete with a molded bridle and reins (left in the photo), was found by a passerby at Tell Akko, also known as Acre, on the Mediterranean coast in northern Israel. It probably dates to the second or third century BCE, during the Hellenistic period.

The other horse is considerably older, dating to Iron Age II, the period of the Israelite monarchy, in the neighborhood of 700-900 BCE. The older horse was found by an archaeologist, but not on a dig. Ayelet Kedar-Goldberg, who works with the Israel Antiquities Authority, was out hunting for mushrooms with her daughters somewhere in the Beit She’an Valley. They didn’t find any mushrooms, but one of her daughters noticed something sticking out of the wet ground, and Kedar-Goldberg recognized it as a figurine from the Iron II period.

A horse figurine from the Israelite period. Credit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

The older horse has a pronounced topknot and the remnants of a bridle painted in red stripes, crisscrossing the nose. The hand of a rider, also painted red, rests atop the neck.

Horses were the luxury cars of the ancient world. Few people actually rode them, but royals and other wealthy folk were ferried around in chariots pulled by the steeds. So valuable were horses that Solomon was credited with having 12,000 horses and 1400 chariots, importing horses from both Egypt and Que (a Hittite kingdom in southeastern Turkey, 1 Kings 10:26-28).

The Israelites did not worship horses, so the figurines would likely have been decorative items or possibly toys for wealthy children: lost along the way, but not forever.

 

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