Creating Beth Shean After Antiquity

July 8, 2014

Beth Shean After Antiquity home page

This spring, I had the opportunity to sit in on a graduate seminar focusing on the ancient site of Beth Shean in northern Israel (Beth Shean After Antiquity, taught by Dr. Robert Ousterhout). When I first registered, I expected the class to be similar to other archaeology courses I had taken – mostly lectures, discussions, and class presentations, with a few museum visits sprinkled in for good measure. However, as soon as I arrived in the first class, I realized that this was not the case – the professor had announced we were going to make a virtual web exhibit for Late Antique and Byzantine Beth Shean.

Map of the Tel at Beth Shean (Fitzgerald, 1931)

Situated in present-day Galilee, Beth Shean was an important location in Biblical times (ca. 1100 – 700 BCE) and Late Antiquity (ca. 250 – 750 CE). The Penn Museum initiated an excavation at the site in 1921, focusing on the Biblical levels. Today, many artifacts from these early levels of Beth Shean can be found in the Canaan and Israel Gallery. However, finds from later Late Antique and Byzantine Beth Shean are harder to spot. While they were well documented and preserved in the museum’s archives, they remain for the most part unpublished and in storage.

Led by Dr. Ousterhout, our task was to dust the decades off these later artifacts and breathe new life into them online.

We would soon discover that building a digital web exhibit is easier said than done, especially since none of us had significant web design experience. But we had a mission – constructing an engaging, historically accurate online exhibit in a single semester.

For four months, we were in overdrive, designing the site and its content. While developing appealing visual elements was important to engage visitors, the artifacts needed to remain central. The interface had to appeal to everyone, while remaining useful for visitors with scholarly interests.

After experimenting with several platforms, we decided on a layout that used image galleries for navigation. We kept the descriptions short and the background simple. This minimalism highlighted the striking appearance of the artifacts, allowing them to speak for themselves.

Once the foundation was laid, we began creating content. Each student wrote a research paper focused on a broad topic relating to Beth Shean, its people, or its surroundings. These papers were posted to the site’s digital archive.

Mother and Child Figurine from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-103-936

The real stars of the site, however, were the artifacts.

Each student curated a themed gallery, for instance focusing on a specific type of artifact (e.g., glass or architecture) or a context (e.g., a cemetery). We selected artifacts to be showcased by balancing daily experience, for instance, cookware that would have been found in every Beth Shean home, with stunning highlights from the archived collections. We wanted viewers to have a sense of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

The museum archives contain over three thousand Late Antique and Byzantine artifacts from Beth Shean, and the process of selecting precisely which ones to feature in the final exhibit was not unlike a game show. First, we hit the books and chose our contestants. Then, we requested our top picks from the Near Eastern Section storage room and presented these to the entire class. Some made the cut, while others were sent back to the storerooms. Once the set of artifacts was approved, we carefully photographed each piece. The photographs were then edited and uploaded, along with a brief description and scans of related documents. Unlike physical galleries, the web-based interface also allowed us to link artifacts to relevant references, including groundbreaking publications, other artifacts in and out of the museum’s collection, and to each item’s museum record.

Incense Shovel from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-108-28
Incense Shovel from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-108-28

While all of the information we present was accurate and verified, many students have expressed the desire to take advantage of the digital medium and continue to edit and update the site, even though the course has ended.

The movement of this project from the storerooms to the classroom to the web has definitely reshaped the way that I interact with archeological sites and materials myself. It has also impacted how I think about processing and presenting information to the public. If I’m ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on this sort of project again, I would in a heartbeat!

Check out our exhibit at https://beth-shean.squarespace.com/

Project Director: Robert Ousterhout

Contributors: Megan Boomer, Matthew Chalmers, Victoria Fleck, Joseph R. Kopta, James Shackelford, Rebecca Vandewalle, and Arielle Winnik.

Beth Shean After Antiquity is a collaborative project of the University of Pennsylvania History of Art Department, the Penn Museum, and the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at Penn Libraries, with support from the Digital Humanities Forum.