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The Well at Arad, Ruth Amiran, Rolf Goethert, and Ornit Ilan, BAR 13:02, Mar-Apr 1987.

the-israelite-well-at-aradExcavating the missing link in the water-system of the Israelite fortress

Arad is actually a double site—a large and spacious 25-acre Canaanite city and a small, three-quarter-acre Israelite fortress. The ancient sites are situated on a bowl-shaped hill six miles from the attractive, modern, desert city of Arad in the Negev. The Israelite fortress is on the northeastern height of the hill. Below this Israelite citadel (11th to 6th centuries B.C.) stretch the extensive remains of the Canaanite settlement (3200–2650 B.C.), the latter encircled by its distinctive city wall interrupted by 11 extant round towers.a Two gateways to this city have been excavated.

The configuration of the bowl-shaped hill invites a certain kind of human use—settlement on the slopes and use of the low center to collect seasonal rain water and runoffs.
Indeed, our assumption from the start of our excavations in 1962 was that the depression in the hill concealed the water-supply system of the Canaanite city. While slowly progressing with the excavations during 18 seasons between 1962 and 1984 we realized that this assumption was not only correct, but twice and three times correct. In this depression we uncovered the water supply of the three major periods of settlement at Arad. This water-supply was used in the Early Bronze Age Canaanite city, again in the Israelite period (to provide water to the Israelite fortress) and, so it appears, again in the Herodian period.

Before returning to a discussion of Arad’s water systems, we will briefly describe the archaeological remains of the settlements that they served. The Early Bronze or Canaanite city is the largest city yet found from this period in the entire Negeb. Canaanite Arad had trade relations with Egypt and southern Sinai. Coveted by the Canaanites, copper was the principal item of trade. Arad may have been the distribution city for the copper coming from Egypt and Sinai. For some unknown reason, this Canaanite city was mysteriously abandoned about 2650 B.C.

About 1,500 years later, the northeast high point of the hill of Arad was fortified by King Solomon as part of his defense line in the south. It continued as a fortress, several times rebuilt, until the Babylonians conquered Judah in 586 B.C. Hundreds of years later, the fortress was again rebuilt and reused in the Herodian period (first century B.C.–first century A.D.) (See accompanying article, “The Well at Arad”).

Let us now look at the evidence that led us to an understanding of how the people of Arad, in their semi-desert environment whose average rainfall was 6.7 inches per year, satisfied their critical need for water.

When we started our excavation of the Canaanite city, we already knew about a piece of the water system from earlier archaeological excavations. In 1964–1965 Yohanan Aharoni excavated a channel cut in the rock outside the western wall of the thick-walled fortress (See “Arad—An Ancient Israelite Fortress with a Temple to Yahweh,” in this issue); the channel passes under the foundation of that wall and reaches, with a slight gradient, the two large cisterns inside the fortress. Before its exposure at Arad, such a channel was an unknown device. Aharoni suggested the following explanation for the function of this channel, that at first glance must seem to be a water carrier disconnected from any source of water. He observed that scantiness of rainfall in this semi-arid eastern Negeb site, complete absence of water sources, and the relatively small catchment-area of the roofs within the fortress dictated the need for a device to bring additional water from an outside source to fill the cisterns within the fortress. Aharoni correctly concluded that what was excavated was not complete in itself. The channel and cistern constituted only two-thirds of a sophisticated system- source + channel + cistern. It is only now with the completion of our excavations that we have probably found the missing one-third of that system—its source. The source of the waters for the fortress is a deep, carefully cut well.

The well lies some 65 feet (20 m) west of the fortress, in the area of the much earlier and long-forgotten ancient Canaanite city. Our first intimation that “something” from the Israelite period existed in the vast area of the Canaanite city occurred in 1976, when stray sherds of the Israelite period turned up while we were digging in the central area of the third millennium B.C. Canuanite city, our Area M. The most interesting sherd was a broken jar-handle bearing the impression of a seal LMLK HBRN. This handle was one of a type archaeologists call L’Melek handles because they all bear an inscription saying L’Melek (“belonging to the king”) of some place. In the case of our handle the place was Hebron (HBRN), L’Melek handles are also known referring to Ziph, Sokho and MMSðT (a city not yet identified). The handles are known to date to the eighth century B.C.

When we found ninth–eighth century B.C. Israelite sherds, we assumed that they could either have been washed from the Israelite fortress area down the mound throughout its long history or that these sherds testified to some stone-extracting operations in the central area of the Canaanite city executed by the builders of the Israelite fortresses on top of the mound. Further excavation gave us the answer to the puzzle of the sherds and, most important, to how the water system worked.

Let us now look closely at our Area M from its earliest to its latest uses. The heart of the Canaanite city consists of the most vital item in the life of any ancient community, namely its water source. For the Early Bronze Canaanite city, the source was the reservoir, a central water-reservoir, large and open to the sky, filled by rain and runoff, surrounded by a girdle of buildings which must have had some specific functions pertaining to the governing of the public-municipal waters. Thus, the first use of this depression in the mound was as a runoff reservoir for the Canaanite city. As work in various sections of this depression (Area M) was progressing, we learned of its use thousands of years later in the Israelite period- gradually we uncovered a deeply sunk shaft with a partly preserved beautiful lining still in place. This lining is made of large undressed flint slabs. The shaft was filled to the top with debris that included a mixture of the flint lining slabs with another type of stones—well-dressed, cubical blocks of limestone. Mixed with the stone debris were Early Bronze and Israelite pottery sherds as well as sherds characteristic of the Herodian periods (first centuries B.C. and A.D.). Removing this fill from the shaft was a very slow, complicated project requiring technical expertise and constant attention to the security of the workers. Working with a small crane, one of us (Rolf Goethert) undertook the task of clearance of the shaft in addition to regular archaeological supervision. We worked for four seasons clearing the shaft. The efforts of approximately 40 workers inside and outside the shaft were coordinated by Aude en-Nabari, a local Bedouin. En-Nabari and his group are now veterans at Arad, expert excavators and restorers.

While working our way down the shaft, we confronted two questions- What was the purpose of the shaft and when was it constructed? It was Dr. Uri Kafri of the Israel Geological Survey who answered the first question. Kafri concluded that the shaft was not a cistern, but a well dug by people trying to reach the upper aquifer, that is, the nonporous rock layer in which water was trapped.

About 1,800 years after the desertion of the Canaanite city in 2650 B.C., the builders of stratum X of the Israelite fortress on top of the hill dug the well into the lowest spot in their immediate vicinity, in what we now call Area M, the depression where the Canaanites collected runoff water. The Israelite well-diggers had to dig some 68 feet (21 m) into the rock to reach the upper aquifer. These early hydraulic engineers seem to have had a sort of instinctive geological-hydrological knowledge, because they chose the best place to dig—in the center of the long-deserted remains of the Canaanite water-reservoir.

We were never able to get to clear water because the earth fill from later times became mud at the bottom of the well at the water level. This mud now marks the original water level. The original diggers of this well did not have the problem of mud that faced us; they dug through a natural rock layer.

The second question—the date when the well was dug and used—was answered by pottery sherds. The well was cut by the Israelites who occupied the fortress sometime in the ninth or eighth century B.C.; the well was used again in the Herodian period (first century B.C.–first century A.D.).

We must assume that after the well shaft reached water, people came down the hill from the fortress with jars and goatskins and drew the water from the well. They carried it on their heads or on donkeys to the rock-cut channel, about 400 feet (120 m) from the well, and dumped the water into the channel through which it flowed into the cistern within the fortress walls. Since the channel is made in one piece with the wall of the fortress, we conclude that the well was planned as part of the water-system of the fortress from the time the so-called solid wall fortress (stratum X) was built in the mid-ninth century B.C. Thus, we have here one large-scale plan integrating the two vital aspects of any settlement- defense and water supply.

Although first use of the well seems to have been in the mid-ninth century B.C., it continued to be used to the end of the kingdom of Judah (586 B.C.). After having been deserted for several centuries, the well was cleared, refaced and reused during the Herodian period (first century B.C.–first century A.D.). The evidence consisted of Herodian pottery sherds in the shaft fill, as well as Herodian refacing of the well wall and Herodian water installations around the well. These installations consisted of small plastered cisterns with troughs attached to the cisterns for watering flocks. In addition, we found a large Herodian cistern and a small ritual bath, or mikvah, adjacent to the large cistern. The walls of the cistern were built of the same well-dressed cubical limestone blocks as those found in the shaft. Aharoni excavated a massive Herodian tower in stratum IV of the upper mound; therefore, we now tentatively assume that during the Herodian period both the well and the small water cisterns around the well were used. This assumption requires more verification by comparing the sherds from the Herodian tower inside the fortress with the sherds found by us in the well and in the surrounding small cisterns.

We have finished our work on this interesting water system. Our excavation of the Early Bronze Age city of Arad will continue, however, after we finish our first publication of the work done thus far. We hope to report to BAR readers on our conclusions. In addition, a local museum of finds from both the Early Bronze Age Canaanite city of Arad and from the Israelite fortress will soon open in the nearby modern city. We hope that all of you will come and visit us.

The excavation of the Israelite well at Arad was financed in part by Morris Rodman, through the Biblical Archaeology Society’s Preservation Fund (see “BAR Preservation Fund Goes to Work,” BAR 04-01). If you would like to contribute to this fund, send your check or money order, made out to the BAS Preservation Fund, Biblical Archaeology Society, 3000 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20008.

a. Originally there were probably nearly 40 such towers.

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