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BAR Interview: Avraham Biran—Twenty Years of Digging at Tel Dan, Hershel Shanks, BAR 13:04, Jul-Aug 1987.

tel danBAR Editor, Hershel Shanks, interviewed Avraham Biran, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College, in Jerusalem.

Hershel Shanks- The name of Avraham Biran is—and will be for generations—inextricably bound up with the name of Tel Dan. When anybody thinks of one, he’s inevitably going to think of the other. How long have you been excavating at Tel Dan, Dr. Biran?

Avraham Biran- It’s very flattering of you to say, “For generations.” But there’s nothing really permanent, as you know. I suppose to be remembered for a generation or two, that’s all one can really hope for. It is true, however, that Dan is probably the longest ongoing excavation in the country. We began at Dan in 1966. We have now completed our 19th season. We will have another brief season, which will bring us to 20. By that time, I think we’ll have done enough; we’ll have to sit down and put all the material together and publish the results.

HS- The word I get from the underground in Jerusalem is that you have had a very successful season this year.

AB- That’s right, that’s true. But I always wonder when we speak of a successful season, in what way is this season more successful than others? But if you refer to the discovery of unusual objects, then it’s true.

HS- What did you find?

AB- Well, we found one unique object. You know the famous dilemma—an archaeologist always tries to find something unique and then he complains bitterly because he cannot compare it to anything else. So that is what happened to us in 1985. We found a little figurine on a plaque that we call in Hebrew—because it rhymes better than in English—harakdan, mi-Dan—the Dancer from Dan. We have the complete plaque with a man who’s playing the lute and dancing. Of course, in Mesopotamia, north Syria, Egypt and Israel, we have found evidence of people who play an instrument. As a matter of fact, the lute that we have on our plaque looks very much like one of the lutes found in paintings from the Late Bronze Age in Egyptian tombs. So the lute is not so unusual. What is unusual is the whole movement of the person. It is the combination that is unusual. You have someone playing the lute, then you have the movement of the legs and the feet, which appears a little bit European or Aegean. The dress looks North Syrian or Canaanite. The face is very curious. Maybe the man wears a mask; on the other hand, it doesn’t look like a mask. It looks a little bit like a satyr. This whole combination is indeed very unusual. We haven’t been able yet to find any parallels with which to compare it.

HS- When do you date it? And what do you think its significance is?

AB- The dating I think is fairly accurate because we found it right beneath, or together with, a stone floor that extended out into a larger area which is dated to the Late Bronze Age.

HS- About 1300 B.C.?

AB- I would say around 14th–13th century B.C. But the question is- What is it? I have been trying to sort out some ideas, naturally.

HS- What are some of them?

AB- Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the Biblical account of David dancing in front of the Ark when the Ark was brought back from the Philistines to Jerusalem [1 Chronicles 15-29]. Now, of course, our plaque is a few hundred years earlier than David. But maybe our plaque depicts an event like this. Maybe there was a guild of dancers and lute players and this belongs to them. Or it may be just a decoration that was used in someone’s house who collected such things.

We found this plaque when we were actually trying to find something else. Last year, 1984, when we were digging in that area, we were getting to the bottom of what we call a settlement pit of the Israelite period, and we came to the top of a structure that seemed to be a tomb. Large basalt slabs were set together to form a roof or ceiling of a structure underneath. We made this discovery, as often happens on an excavation, the last two days of the dig. Everybody got very excited, said “C’mon let’s open it up, let’s see what’s in there.” We were able to peer through the cracks in the stones. At the northern end of the structure we saw vessels. That seemed to indicate it was a tomb. Although everybody said “C’mon, let’s excavate it,” I said, “No. We don’t have time.” We didn’t want just to open the structure; we wanted rather to open up a larger area in order to understand the relationship between this tomb, if it was a tomb, and the houses surrounding it. And that was what we actually did in 1985. We opened up a larger area and in the course of that excavation, we came across a stone pavement, and that’s where we found the plaque with the dancer.

We still went down to find out about the tomb, however. From the top it looked like a very large structure, about six and a half meters [20 feet] long, with very fine stone slabs. We eventually entered the structure. Again, this happened toward the end of the season—and we found there four vessels, two oil lamps, a little jug and two bowls, all from Middle Bronze II [c. 1700 B.C.]. But there were no skeletal remains. That again raises some interesting questions- How come? Maybe it’s not a tomb. Everybody started thinking and coming up with theories as to what it could possibly be. The most logical thing is to assume that it was built as a tomb, the offerings were put in, but for some reason—perhaps they didn’t have time—or for whatever reason—they didn’t bury anybody in there. And they closed it and blocked it from the outside. This is another one of those mysteries. Very intriguing.

HS- Let me come back to the plaque. You said it was Late Bronze. That would be the period just before the Israelite tribe of Dan conquered the city. At that time the city was called Laish, according to the Bible (Joshua 19-47; Judges 18-29).

AB- Right. That’s very interesting that you should mention that because just now we’ve been trying to date the conquest of Laish by the tribe of Dan on archaeological grounds. As you know, there is a long detailed account in the Bible about the Danite spies who were sent to Laish and how the Danites moved up and conquered the city, and so forth. That dates around the 12th century B.C. We are trying to establish a certain sequence between the Canaanite city and the Israelites. We did discover what we call the “Mycenaean” tomb—it wasn’t really Mycenaean. We only called it Mycenaean because there were fantastic Mycenaean imports in it, such as the beautiful charioteer vase, which is quite unique in this country. We all had the feeling that the contents of this tomb represented the height of Canaanite civilization, just before the city was conquered by the Israelites.

HS- But you didn’t find the Canaanite city itself. You found only the tomb. You didn’t find the Canaanite city, did you?

AB- Ah, there is something archaeologists should be very, very careful in drawing conclusions about. There is a theory going around that there weren’t many Late Bronze Age cities in Israel. There are even some doctoral dissertations written on the subject, about how little there was at the end of the Late Bronze Age in Israel. I came out with a statement years ago saying that if we had not found the Mycenaean tomb we would have to conclude that there was hardly any Late Bronze Age occupation at Laish at all. But if we had such a tomb, there must be a city. But we couldn’t find it. This year, along with this Dancer from Dan [from the Late Bronze Age], along with this [Late Bronze] floor, this [Late Bronze] stone pavement, we also found remains of walls and structures that indicate that there was quite a city here during the Late Bronze Age. Why didn’t we find it sooner? I think I have the answer- Everywhere we’ve been digging we came across these Israelite settlement pits. The Danites were a semi-nomadic tribe. As a matter of fact, the Bible refers to mahaneh Dan, the camp of Dan, when they were moving from the south to the north.

When they conquered Canaanite Laish, as the city was then called, they began a very slow process of urbanization, because the thing that strikes you at Dan is the many pits that were used for storage. Just this year we concluded that there were two types of pits. There were large pits, some of them stone-lined, which I think we might call community or clan storage pits. Then there were small pits, perhaps for families. While digging these pits, the Danites destroyed the remains of the city that existed before. It is indeed remarkable to find a few walls here and there. Now we have found this very fine stone pavement that extended over a large area and some walls, and we are convinced that there was quite a large city of the Late Bronze Age at Laish.

HS- Those pits would not destroy pottery sherds from the Late Bronze Age, would they?

AB- No, but it would upset the archaeologist completely. Last year, we had a supervisor who was not well acquainted with the pottery. He was “reading” the pottery from Iron Age levels (the Israelite period), and assumed it was all Iron Age. I came in and saw that there was Late Bronze pottery. So we did find some Late Bronze Age material, just a few sherds. Then, as we went down still further, the pottery was clearly Iron Age. This supervisor said to me, “Well, how can that be? You told me yesterday that we had Late Bronze. And suddenly we have Iron Age pottery below it?” That is against everything he had studied in college. But it became clear that the Late Bronze sherds had been taken out and thrown up when the Israelites dug the pits.

In these pits we found large collared-rim jars. I believe, with Albright, that these collared-rim jars were introduced into the country by the Israelites. Dan is an example of how this happens. There were no collared-rim jars at Dan during the Canaanite period. Suddenly they appear when the Israelites conquer the city.

HS- You say you didn’t find collared-rim jars from the pre-Israelite period. But that may be because you found very, very little of anything from the Late Bronze Canaanite city. You have been excavating here for close to 20 years; in the first 16 or 17 years all you managed to find of the Canaanite city that preceded the Danite conquest was an accidentally uncovered Mycenaean tomb. If it hadn’t been for that tomb, you would have found almost nothing from the Late Bronze Age, from Canaanite Laish. The people who read BAR hear all the time that there was no city at Jericho at the time of the Israelite conquest, and that there was no city at Ai, although the Bible says the Israelites conquered it. These people are bound to wonder. Should they conclude that the Bible is wrong, or should they conclude that maybe the archaeologists are wrong? Here at Dan is another instance that seems to fit into this pattern. Here you have no, or almost no, Late Bronze material and then suddenly, well, you have the tomb, you figure there must be a city. And now after 17 or 18 years you’re finding evidence of a city. How do you explain this?

AB- First, allow me to make a slight correction.

HS- Please.

AB- There were always some Late Bronze remains at Dan—in Area A, in Area Y, in Area B, there are vessels and pottery from the Late Bronze Age. As a matter of fact, two or three years ago we discovered a whole building. It’s true, the building is not from the end of the Late Bronze Age, but closer to the beginning of the Late Bronze Age. So although we didn’t find a complete city, we do have Late Bronze remains.

When you talk about Jericho and other Late Bronze Age cities, people always think of city walls.“Where are the city walls, the fortifications?” they ask. Now I’ve always maintained—with respect to Dan, and I think it may be true for Jericho as well—that what we found at Dan, the Middle Bronze Age rampart, the huge, so-called Hyksos fortifications, may help solve the dilemma. When the Israelites came, they encountered these Middle Bronze Age fortifications which were still being used in the Late Bronze Age. These were formidable fortifications. If we don’t find Late Bronze Age walls, it’s because the Middle Bronze Age fortifications served as a defense system in the Late Bronze Age as well.

HS- That was [Yigael] Yadin’s view, too, wasn’t it? About Jericho as well as Dan?

AB- I think so, and I think he was quite right. We have known about Dan from the beginning. When we began the excavation, we found an Israelite wall and an Israelite gate at the foot of the Middle Bronze Age rampart. This Israelite gate dated to around the ninth century B.C. so that it looked like there was no fortification of the city between the Middle Bronze Age [18th–17th centuries B.C.] and the days when Jeroboam set up the golden calf at Dan [at the end of the tenth century B.C.].

So the problem of the Late Bronze Age at Dan is not only the absence of a city, but also the absence of fortifications. Now we did have evidence of the Late Bronze Age here and there. We found Israelite settlement pits years ago. It took us about ten years to come to the conclusion that we had a lot of Israelite settlement pits. It wasn’t so clear until we opened up a larger area. These past two seasons have convinced us that there were so many of them, one next to the other, that they destroyed much of the Late Bronze Age stratum. Obviously if you dig a pit and you excavate a wall, you remove it. That’s what the Israelites did when they dug their pits. I think there was quite an important Late Bronze city here. The fact that we have the Mycenaean tomb from the Late Bronze Age and the fact that we have the Dancer from Dan from the Late Bronze Age indicate a very developed civilization. And then after that level—above it, stratigraphically—comes a complete change in the material culture of the settlement.

Some have suggested a continuation of the Canaanites into the Iron Age. But why should the people of a highly developed civilization [the Late Bronze Age people] suddenly leave its high-class city and move into tents and huts and dig pits for disposal and storage? It just doesn’t make sense. The change must reflect the coming of the Israelites and the displacement of the Canaanites.

HS- You called them “settlement pits.” Are these strictly for storage or do you think people lived in them?

AB- No, they’re definitely for storage.

HS- You have a great deal of evidence of the Israelite occupation of Dan. But you don’t have any evidence of the destruction of the Canaanite city, do you?

AB- That depends on what you call destruction. The archaeologist is always very fond of saying when he discovers a good layer of fire, “Ah, that was a good destruction.” He doesn’t think of the poor people who died in that destruction, but he collects all the vessels that he found in that destruction. We have one destruction from the middle of the 11th century B.C. that we connect with that very famous passage in the Book of Judges [18-31] about the temple or the sanctuary of the Danites that existed, “As long as the house of God was at Shiloh.” In other words, Dan was destroyed at around the same time that the sanctuary at Shiloh was destroyed. The archaeological evidence for this level of destruction at Dan is dated to the middle of the 11th century, the date of the destruction of Shiloh. Now I do not suggest that the Philistines, who destroyed the sanctuary of Shiloh, were responsible for the destruction of the sanctuary at Dan. But the Shiloh destruction was of such magnitude and left such an impression that the people who wrote the Bible connected the destruction at Dan with the destruction at Shiloh.

HS- But the destruction of Dan you are talking about was long after the Israelites settled there.

AB- Yes, of course. That destruction occurred after the Danites had become urbanized.

HS- How far back does a sanctuary go at Dan? Was this a Canaanite sanctuary? Was Dan a holy site even then?

AB- That’s a good question, penetrating—like all your questions. And embarrassing! Why did Jeroboam set up the golden calf at Dan? Was he looking for a site with a tradition of a sanctuary, a place that already had a tradition as a holy site? As you know, Jeroboam set up a golden calf at Bethel and at Dan [1 Kings 12-29]. Bethel is obviously the place where Jacob had his dream [Genesis 28-11–19] and there was already a sanctuary at Bethel. The name itself, Bethel, means the House of God. And so it was natural for Jeroboam to set up a sanctuary there. Bethel was also the southernmost city of the Israelite kingdom. Jeroboam also wanted a sanctuary in the north. But why at Laish/Dan? Just because it was in the north? The Canaanites perhaps already had a sanctuary there. Although we didn’t find the golden calf, we did find, I think, the sanctuary where it may have been placed by Jeroboam. We found the high place, or bamah, but we haven’t found the Canaanite sanctuary. Nor, for that matter, the sanctuary established by the Danites. There are great lacunae in our explorations.

HS- You haven’t removed the Israelite sanctuary to see what’s underneath it.

AB- Well, no. We can’t. I mean, we can, but I wouldn’t. Similarly with the Israelite city gate. It’s so massive—I’m referring to the high place—it’s a structure that is built of fantastic masonry which is similar to the masonry of the royal palaces at Megiddo and Gezer and Hazor.

HS- Do you know what lies under that sanctuary, that bamah?

AB- No, I don’t. But I would imagine if there is a Canaanite sanctuary it lies towards the center of the mound and not so close to the edge where the Israelites built their high place. The water level here is too high. We found a Late Bronze Age bowl in the area of the Israelite high place, but we were digging in mud, in water. Either the water table has changed or the system of drainage in antiquity was better than it is in modern times. We talked about bringing pumps and pumping the water, but I don’t think it would help because I think it’s a spring. In other words, we would be pumping the spring.

As for the Israelite sanctuary, it extended over a larger area than we supposed. That became clear this past season. In 1984 we excavated a large structure we call the lishkah, or chamber. We know about such chambers in sanctuaries from the Biblical account of the Jerusalem Temple, which mentions leshakhot, or chambers, as the King James Version translates it. There the priests officiated and their garments and the like were deposited. One of the walls of this lishkah at Dan extends 18 meters [nearly 60 feet]. There was only one entrance to it—from the east. At the end of this structure we found two tables, very well plastered, which may be offering tables. This season we decided to continue digging here. And we found the continuation of the building. They probably also built a terrace for a lower level of the building; here we found a square stone structure a little bit over three feet on each side. Of course we asked ourselves, “What is this?” One suggestion was that it is the base of a pillar that holds up the roof. Others suggested that maybe it’s an altar.
We are always being criticized by Biblical scholars for taking a Biblical term and applying it to an archaeological object. So I am very cautious. Should I call it an altar?

Then to the east we found a bronze bowl with beautiful lotus decoration. What was it used for? It could be anything. Perhaps part of the ritual. Then to the north of the altar, or whatever this structure was, we found what the King James Version calls a censer or a shovel for coal or for incense. We found two shovels together. They had a loop at the end to hang on the wall. Now, in many of the ancient synagogues of the third, fourth and fifth century A.D. you find a depiction of the Ark of the Law and beside it you find an illustration of a censer or shovel. I don’t think before our discovery last season anyone ever found an iron shovel in Israel from the eighth century B.C. Not even the most anti-archaeologist Biblical scholars can deny that these shovels are connected with cultic rites. Then to the southeast of the altar—or structure—we found another shovel. So now we have three shovels. To compound the excitement, we found a jar sunk into the ground full of ashes. These ashes are now being investigated by the laboratory. We haven’t gotten the report yet. But I think there’s no doubt that we are now in a chamber or in a room with an altar, probably an incense altar. Remember that the kings always offered incense. Some also made larger sacrifices of animals, but I think most of the time the kings would offer incense in the sanctuary, so we now have, I think, a sanctuary from the eighth century B.C., or maybe even a little earlier, around 800 B.C.

HS- That raises another problem for me. I noticed a time skip. We talked about the problem of the sparseness of Late Bronze Age material just before the conquest by the tribe of Dan. And now you discussed a lot of Israelite material. You have the building of the Israelite city and then you described this exciting sanctuary from perhaps as early as 800 B.C. Time and again, I find archaeologists talking about an enormous amount of material from these periods—the eleventh century and the ninth century, as you have done—but you’ve skipped something, you’ve skipped the period of Israel’s greatest glory, of its greatest empire, its expansion, power, authority—the period of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, the first half of the tenth century B.C. Now where is that? What happened?

AB- You said it bothers you. Well, it bothers me more.

Fifty years ago I went looking for Anatoth, the city of Jeremiah. Near Jerusalem is a village named Anatha which obviously is the same name; Anatha is Anatoth—about this there is no question. Way back in the 1930s, Albright and Albrecht Alt surveyed Anatha, but they could not find any pottery from the Israelite period at Anatha. It was all Roman and Byzantine. Albright suggested way back then, when I was a young student, that we dig a site called RasÆ el Kharrûbeh near Anatha, where there were Iron Age remains. I did that. But I was not happy with what I found. There was very little from the seventh century [the time of Jeremiah], none from the days of David and Solomon—which you mentioned before—although the Bible also mentions Anatoth in that time. Anatoth was a levite city; priests came from Anatoth, according to the Bible. I suggested in a manuscript I submitted to Albright that we have to look for Anatoth elsewhere. Albright, in his inimitable way, published my article but added a footnote saying I was all wrong. Okay, no harm in that. Fifty years later I went back to RasÆ el Kharrûbeh, but again I did not find any substantial evidence, not even from the seventh century, let alone from the tenth century. Not far from this site is a place called Khirbet es Sid where we found a large city of the seventh century. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the Anatoth of Jeremiah. But the question remains, where is the Anatoth of David and Solomon?

There’s something very interesting in the surveys that are being conducted these days. You find a very large and rich and intensive occupation of the hill country in the seventh century B.C., eighth century B.C., and very little of the days of King David.

We have this problem, even in Jerusalem. Nobody will say that Jerusalem was not occupied in the days of David and Solomon, at the time of the United Kingdom. Yet there is very little archaeological evidence for it. It’s a very interesting archaeological-historical problem you’re raising. There’s no question that a city was there, at Dan, at the time of David and Solomon, but we haven’t found it.
We have found a gate from the ninth century, possibly end of the tenth. In the ninth century, when Ahab obtained trade rights in Damascus [1 Kings 20-34], Dan was a very large city with a magnificent city gate, which we found. We also found the city walls. From a subsequent period, we found an upper gate—also from the eighth century B.C. Below the ninth-century gate is a fortress of the eleventh and tenth century. We have at Dan a fortification—perhaps what the Bible calls a migdol or a “tower sanctuary.” There is no doubt in my mind that the city was fortified at the time of David and Solomon.

This past year we also found evidence of a metal industry—crucibles and tuyères from this period. Until about two or three years ago, we would have dated this to the tenth century B.C. This year we found these tuyères in quite a large area near the fortification which preceded Jeroboam and Ahab. And to top it all, not far from where we found the Dancer from Dan, we also found a piece of a crucible and tuyère from the Late Bronze Age. In other words, you have a metal industry at Dan from the Late Bronze Age to at least the ninth century.

Let me digress. I belong to what I think is the last remnant of Biblical archaeologists that are so much derided and spoken against in America. Now we know that the king of Tyre sent Solomon experts to help build his Temple. Hiram, the king of Tyre, sent Solomon a man he describes as a very wise person who knows how to work in gold and silver and stone and everything else. Then Hiram adds a cryptic statement- This man’s mother comes from Dan [2 Chronicles 2-13]. Now why should he say that? Hiram is not interested in the question of, “Who is a Jew,” which is engaging the attention of the Orthodox today. I think Hiram was telling Solomon “I’m sending you a man, an expert as a result of a long tradition of metalworking. He comes from a tribe that is known for its metalworking ability.”

That’s why he says this man’s mother comes from Dan. As a matter of fact, we know from the Mari tablets that Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, in the Middle Bronze Age, in the 18th century B.C., sends tin necessary for the manufacture of bronze to Laish/Dan. So you have a complete picture from the Canaanites down to the Israelites for this metalworking tradition at Dan.

HS- Well, the evidence that you’ve accumulated for me indicates that there was a city you found from the period of the United Monarchy, from the time of David and Solomon.

AB- Oh, yes, no question about it.

HS- But what about walls and pottery for this period?

AB- You see, the difficulty that we have is that later people destroyed so much of the earlier remains. When the Danite spies came back to report on the Canaanites, they reported a secure people were living in Laish. Why were they secure? The people of Laish felt secure because they used the walls and defenses from the Middle Bronze Age. They were so sure that nothing would happen to them.

HS- I’m not talking about a city wall; I’m talking about houses. Even secure people had houses with walls.

AB- We found destroyed houses in Level V, a lot of houses. That’s the 11th century. That level was destroyed in a great fire. That’s just before the days of Saul and David and Solomon. In Level IV the houses had the same plan as Level V. As a matter of fact, the people of Level IV must have used the same walls; they just added to them; they raised them higher. Then we have the high place and sanctuary.

HS- That’s a little later than Solomon, isn’t it?

AB- All right, immediately afterward. Jeroboam [who reigned just after Solomon] didn’t go to a city that was nonexistent. He went to Dan because it was an existing city.

HS- You earlier mentioned William Foxwell Albright, probably the greatest Biblical archaeologist that ever lived.

AB- And a great man.

HS- You were a student of his, weren’t you?

AB- I was his first Ph.D.

HS- When was that?

AB- I hate to tell you! That was 1935. You know the Jewish tradition of the lamed vovniks, the righteous men by whom the world is saved. Nobody knows who they are. When one dies, he is replaced. Albright was one of them, the 36. Albright was great, a saintly man. Albright said that the purpose of archaeology is not to prove or disprove the Bible. Albright regarded the Bible as a book of divine inspiration that needs no proof. What Albright was trying to do was to see if whatever historical references, historical memories, that are contained in the Bible have any relationship to the archaeological finds. I subscribe entirely to what Albright said. Certainly archaeology is not here to prove or disprove the Bible. What archaeology does is to make the references in the Bible a reality. Archaeology gives these references some bones and flesh.

I attended a symposium a few years ago in which people were discussing Assyrian and Babylonian documents. They discussed every detail and every historical implication. I got up and asked the lecturer, “If the Babylonians and Assyrians still existed today, would you treat their documents in the same way that you are treating them in your discussion?” And he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and he said, “I think I know what you’re referring to.” Sometimes, merely because the Bible exists and merely because people read the Bible, study the Bible and follow the Bible, then for some people it is automatically discredited. Why?

HS- Why?

AB- The five books of Moses continue for twelve verses after saying that Moses died. It is the orthodox belief that the five books of Moses were written by Moses, so how can he die and the book continue? Some believers say that God dictated these verses to Moses and Moses, with tears in his eyes, wrote of his own death. Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, was a little bit of a liberal, you might say, or a little bit modern; he saw there was something wrong with this. So when somebody asked Ibn Ezra about those last 12 verses, he said, “In my opinion, Joshua wrote these verses.”

But, we were talking about Dan. As you know, Dan is mentioned in the story of Abraham. After the four kings of the north took Abraham’s nephew Lot prisoner, Abraham pursued them, the Bible says, “as far as Dan” [Genesis 14-14]. Now, Rashi, the great commentator of the late Middle Ages, knew his Bible well. And when he came to this passage he realized that in Joshua and in Judges it is said that the name of the city was Laish before the Israelite tribe of Dan conquered it. So how could Abraham go to Dan, as it says in Genesis he did. Rashi in his own inimitable way says, “God showed Abraham the future.” How do we explain this, according to our modern way of thinking? We say that the scribe who copied the text saying Abraham came as far as Dan was aware that nobody knows where Laish is anymore. Who knows today where St. Petersburg is? People don’t even know St. Petersburg was changed to Petrograd and then to Leningrad. Today everybody knows Leningrad. So the scribe said to himself, instead of Laish, I’ll write Dan. That’s what everyone knows it by.

That explanation may be correct or may not be correct. But from the archaeological point of view, there is a very interesting question- If the Bible refers to Abraham coming as far as Dan/Laish, you can ask, “Was it a city or was it a myth?” There’s no doubt in my mind that the city gate of the Canaanite period at Dan, the famous gate with the arches, was in existence. It was built around the middle of the 18th century, 1750 B.C. And there’s no doubt in my mind that when a chieftain such as Abraham, who wins a great victory against the four kings of the north, comes to Laish/Dan, he would be met by the king of Laish. Can you imagine the king of Laish not going out to greet him, to meet him and to invite him to enter the city? From the archaeological point of view, I can only say, in the 18th century B.C. there was a city there with formidable defenses and with a fantastic city gate with arches and with steps leading up to it. Now of course if you say Abraham was not a historical figure at all, it doesn’t make any difference. But if Abraham represents a historical figure and he comes as far as Dan/Laish in the 18th century B.C., then we uncovered the city he visited.

HS- So if Abraham existed and if he came to Dan/Laish, you have uncovered the gate he entered. Is that what archaeology is all about? Have you spent 20 years at Tel Dan to do that? What is the bigger significance of what you’re doing? What kind of illumination are you providing? You’re certainly not proving the Bible; you said that yourself. Nor are you disproving it. What is the bigger picture of what you’re doing? What is the significance?

AB- You know, I just came back from a lecture I gave at the Explorers Club in New York. The members of the Explorers Club go to the North Pole, to the South Pole, they climb Mt. Everest. I was quite flattered that they invited me to give a lecture at the Explorers Club. I think I’m the first archaeologist to lecture there. And I began by asking the question you asked me- Why explore Dan? Why excavate? And I took a page from the honorary president of the Explorers Club, Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mt. Everest. When he was asked, “Why? Why climb Mt. Everest?” he looked at his questioners with surprise.“Because it’s there,” he replied. It’s there—isn’t that all that we’re doing? Our country is dotted with sites. They’re there. We want to know what’s there, what’s hidden there, what story they have to tell.

We went to Dan really as a rescue operation. The army was building fortifications in 1965, 1966, on the site, and there was a danger that whatever remains existed would be destroyed. We went there to see what we could salvage before all the archaeological remains disappeared. When we discovered in that very first year the Middle Bronze Age rampart, nobody knew what kind of fortification Laish had. But we did know a great deal about the site from the stories in the Bible. Not only in the Bible, but from the Egyptian Execration Texts that mention Laish. And from Mari (Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, mentions Laish), and from Pharaoh Thutmosis III who mentions Laish. It becomes intriguing. You have historical references outside the Bible and in the Bible. Would archaeology illuminate these references? Of course, it would be fantastic if we would find an inscription that mentions Horon Av, king of Laish. That is the name of the king of Laish in the Egyptian Execration Texts. But we haven’t found such an inscription. What can I do? We haven’t found the golden calf that Jeroboam placed there either. But still we want to know. We want to find out about the history of the country.

You ask me, “What is the big picture?” Let’s go back to the collared-rim jars. They reveal very interesting “territorial history.” That was a term used by Albrecht Alt—how the people moved and what culture they brought with them. Is it true that the tribe of Dan brought the collared-rim jars with them to Laish/Dan? And is the collared-rim jar a sign of the coming of the Israelites? Now it’s true that Moshe Kochavi found collared-rim jars at Aphek from an earlier period, from the Canaanite period. And my colleagues in Jordan argued that there are collared-rim jars there and that therefore that doesn’t prove they’re a sign of the Israelites. But I say exactly the contrary. The Israelite tribes were east of the Jordan also. Historically, these collared-rim jars open up vistas.

You say I have been working 20 years at Dan and others are working elsewhere and what do we get? When I was studying under Albright and I despaired because Albright was such a genius and he knew so much, how could we even try to grasp anything; we students said to him, “Is there anything for us to do anymore?” That was in 1933, 1934. Albright replied, “You know, when I went to Jerusalem in 1920, I felt I had nothing to do. Everything had been investigated already. There was the survey performed by the British Palestine Exploration Fund, and there were other surveys.” And Albright said, “You know, within a few months I just walked around Jerusalem and found new sites.” He was so right. We have been working now so many years. It has now been a hundred years since Petrie excavated Tell el-Hesi [the first stratigraphic excavation in Palestine]. And still we haven’t begun to scratch the surface. There is so much more to learn. So we have made mistakes, but we carry on.

HS- Some people say that the older archaeologists like yourself are not extracting as much as the younger archaeologists out of the material excavated. The younger archaeologists, some say, are using more modern, more advanced methods. How do you respond to that?

AB- I’ll tell you, I feel young enough to consider myself part of the younger generation. And in my enthusiasm I think I can beat anyone of the younger generation.

HS- I wholeheartedly agree. How old are you Avraham?

AB- I’m 76.

HS- No kidding?

AB- No kidding.

HS- You act younger than I do, and I’m 55.

AB- You’re a baby. I do agree that you have to use entirely new methods. So do we older archaeologists. And we do. When we find some metal, for example, those censers I mentioned, we showed them to Professor Robert Maddin from the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps we or another scholar will research the metal and study it. When we found ashes in a jar next to the altar—years ago I would have thrown the ashes out. Now we save it and analyze it. Today everybody uses modern methods.

But I’ll tell you- There is a difference between what you call the older archaeologists and the younger archaeologists. I think the younger generation deals too much in details. They do not see the forest for the trees. They don’t see the whole picture. They don’t draw general conclusions. It’s not enough to say, “All right, there is so much percentage of gold in the bronze,” and so forth. Now that’s very interesting. In some of our bronze we found some gold in the tin, which comes perhaps from Great Britain. That’s very interesting. Was there any connection, any relationship between Great Britain and this part of the world? But men like Albright and Breasted or Albrecht Alt could see the overall picture. We don’t any more. They were trained in Egyptology, in cuneiform, in Phoenician, in archaeology, in history, and in Bible and in philology. That’s what enabled them to produce the kind of syntheses we really need in order to learn from the past. Some of us try to follow in their footsteps. But we can’t. We don’t have the ability, we don’t have the knowledge. There’s too much to know. And the younger generation knows much less. And they’re abandoning the effort. And that, I think, is a shame. I have no doubt that they’ll come back and make the effort to establish broader conclusions. You cannot stop with just the details. Otherwise, you’re a mere technician.

A younger archaeologist came to me one day and said, “I’m going to publish a section.” Ah! Wonderful! That’s important! Really? I mean, if you draw a section of an excavation and you show the various levels, is that the answer to understanding the history of the site? A section is so arbitrary. If you had dug one meter to the other side of this section, you may get a totally different section. Sections are important. We use them. We have to. You cannot dig stratigraphically without them. But the section is not the beginning and the end. It is an instrument to understand. You yourself asked me- What about the houses? Where are the walls? How did they live? That is what we’re trying to understand, the entire concept of the material culture of the civilization that existed. I think the younger generation will come back to that. In fact, they are beginning to do it, even now.

HS- You spoke about publishing a section. I suppose the greatest criticism I hear about you is that in 18 or 19 years of digging at Dan, you haven’t published a real preliminary report. How do you respond to that?

AB- That is partially true. And I know that famous saying, “Publish or perish.” But I don’t think it’s entirely true. We have brought to the attention of the scholarly world—and not only the scholarly world—everything that we have found. Some of it has appeared in BAR.a Now it is true that we have not provided all the details that substantiate what we have found. But there are problems here too. You know in most textbooks I now find a drawing of the Israelite city gate of Dan, which was published in 1970 or thereabouts. I’m sorry now that I published that plan—because it’s wrong. When we published it, that’s what we had, but subsequently we discovered a major outer gate. There’s always that danger if you publish too soon.

I’ll tell you a secret- If we had stopped digging in 1966, ‘67, ‘68 or ‘69 and published the results, we”d have had an easy time. We”d know all the answers to all the problems that we encountered. But it would all be wrong. We are finishing next year, and then we’ll sit down to produce first—I’ll let you in on another secret- already we have what I call the pre-draft—not the draft, but the pre-draft—of a book on Dan.

HS- I know I’ve talked to you about doing a popular book on Dan. Are you talking about a popular book?

AB- It’s not popular in a strict sense. It’s a semi-popular book.“Popular” is the wrong word because it may imply that it’s not scientific. But it will be a very readable book. After that, we will work slowly to publish the details. I don’t mean publishing 50 plates of collared-rim jars. You don’t have to do that, and besides nobody can afford to anymore. You have to give the various types of collared-rim jars, but no one’s going to learn anything by giving again and again and again the same one or the same cooking pot. You have to draw conclusions based on your evidence. And if scholars are going to be able to test your conclusions, you have to provide them with your material. That we shall do.

HS- Do you plan to publish a final report?

AB- A final report, yes, but I think that we’re going to do it topically. I’ll explain- We found a Mycenaean tomb. Everybody knows about the Mycenaean tomb; there have been some publications about it. True, we haven’t published all the vessels that were recovered, so we’ll do a monograph on the Mycenaean tomb. We’ve already published the three-arched gate from the Middle Bronze Age. Everything I know about that has already been published. I don’t think I can add to that. The sanctuary, or high place, which again is another important item, has been published. So it’s not entirely true, the accusation is not entirely justified, because the most important things have already been published. And these other things will come in due course.

HS- On a topic-by-topic basis rather than area-by-area?

AB- I think so. What I’m trying to do—and this comes back to your question about what we are learning. The “area” is arbitrary. I mean, after all, if I had dug, instead of Area A, let’s say Area X, I might find completely different things. Because we have worked for so long, I think we can look at it in its entirety. The point of publishing is not Area B or Area T or Area A, in all of which we unearthed the Middle Bronze Age rampart, but rather what we know about the rampart together with the Middle Bronze gate that was found with the rampart. I think that would be more of a contribution in understanding the history of the site, the civilization of the people who lived there.

HS- Why are you stopping at 20 years of excavating Tel Dan? Because it’s a round number?
Because you’re going to be 77 years old? Because you’ve done enough?

AB- All three together. We have to sit down. You see it’s very difficult to start writing when you know you’re going to have another season. So it’s a good date, and if the good Lord will give us strength, then after we write for a year or two, perhaps we’ll go back when I’m 80.

HS- May he bless you.

AB- Thank you.

a. See John C. H. Laughlin, “The Remarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan,” BAR 07-05.

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