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The Iron Age Sites in the Negev Highlands, Israel Finkelstein, BAR 12:04, Jul-Aug 1986.

Barren limestone hills, NegevMilitary Fortresses or Nomads Settling Down?

Rudolph Cohen’s redating of some of his “Solomonic fortresses” to the Persian period will not be enough to satisfy many scholars.

Some will continue to question the date of the remaining fortresses Cohen dates to the tenth century B.C. But instead of lowering the date for those fortresses to the Persian period (538–332 B.C.), the scholars would raise it to the late 11th century B.C. So instead of associating the fortresses with King Solomon and the defense of his southern border, as does Cohen, they would associate them with the time of King Saul or with the time of the Judges, and more specifically with a southward expansion of the tribe of Simeon into the Negev highlands.1

But the uncertainty of dating is not the only problem. Some archaeologists, including myself, question whether these structures are military fortresses and even whether they are Israelite sites at all.2

Of the more than 45 sites in the Negev that have been identified as Iron Age fortresses, 26 have been at least partially excavated in recent years. The remainder have been identified and characterized on the basis of surface remains. The results of most of the excavations have not yet been published; even those that have been published fail to examine the environmental aspects which, especially in arid zones, are critical to understanding the background of human integration into the ecosystem.3 In order to determine whether or not the Southern Negev structures are fortresses, we must consider these environmental factors—for instance-

Fortresses or road stations in the desert are usually dispersed at more or less equidistant points along main routes or at important strategic points, such as permanent water sources, crossroads or difficult ascents. This is true in all periods.4 The Iron Age sites in the Negev highlands, however, do not conform to this pattern. Instead, we find a great number of them in a quite small area, a distribution that bears no resemblance to desert fortress networks in other periods. How can we account in military terms for the sparsity of sites, for example, between Beer-Sheva and Kadesh-Barnea compared to the density of sites, for example, between Arad and Kadesh-Barnea. Even along the region’s principal route, usually identified as the “Way of the Spies,” which connected Arad and Kadesh-Barnea, the sites are not distributed in any logical pattern. The distances between the sites along this route emphasize this point-

From To Distance (km)

Arad Rahba 35

Rahba Refed 5.5

Refed Hatira 1.2

Hatira Haro‘a 16

Haro‘a Haluqim 5

Haluqim Arqov c. 15

Arqov Nahal Avdat 4.5

Nahal Avdat Qaton 6.5

Qaton La‘ana 4.5

La‘ana Sirpad II 6

Sirpad II Kadesh-Barnea 14.5

In addition, south of Kadesh-Barnea, along the important Darb el-Ghaza, the main route to the Gulf of Eilat, not even one “fortress” has been found, although this was the most dangerous section of all—waterless and remote. Furthermore, several important water sources, such as Ein Avdat and the spring near Ein Qedeis,5 were not protected by fortresses—if fortresses they were.

If they were fortresses, why was no systematic attempt made to fortify locations with natural defensive features or places of visual dominance? Indeed, many of the supposed fortresses were built on slopes or in wadis instead of on heights.

Finally, the effort to place these fortresses on main routes of the Negev has faltered badly. The attempts to link the different sites with a road network have been completely artificial, and in some cases have resulted in “creating” routes that lack any topographical or historical logic, such as the proposed route south of Avdat. As Ze’ev Meshel has recognized-6

“The other fortresses discovered do not join in long clear lines. This seems to indicate local and not cross-country highways.”

Even Cohen squirms a little on this point-7

“The Bible mentions additional roads belonging to the same complex. … The exact course of these highways, however, is difficult to establish at present, and it is not known if fortresses were likewise erected along their lengths.”

Turning to the structures themselves, most of them seem to have casemate walls—two parallel walls with transecting walls forming rooms between the two parallel walls. But the outer casemate walls are usually only 1 to 2 feet thick. Rarely do they reach 3 or 4 feet. At 1 to 2 feet, the width is only one stone thick, hardly enough to defend a fortress.8

The attribution of these sites to Solomon, “one of Eretz Israel’s greatest builders, who fortified his kingdom and established treasury cities and numerous public edifices,”9 to quote Cohen, seems therefore most unlikely. If royal planning was indeed the rule, we would also expect the type of architectural uniformity found in various sites dating to the monarchical period (as well as in the systems of desert fortresses of other periods), including the three real tower fortresses of the Negev—Arad, Khirbet ‘Uza and Kadesh-Barnea. But among the sites discussed here, not even one duplicates another.

What then was the function of these Iron Age structures? One characteristic that might suggest their function is the ratio at each site between the open courtyard area and the built-up area. The relationship between open courtyard and built-up area must reflect the subsistence economy and everyday life of the inhabitants of the structures. In some of these sites the courtyard/built-up area ratio is 75-25; in other sites it is just the opposite. At Ein Qedeis, for example, it is 75-25; at the site near Haroia it is 29-71. If they were all fortresses, we would expect the ratios to be the same.

We can explain this variability by the different social and economic patterns of life at these sites. “Large courtyard” sites (those with a high ratio of courtyard to built-up areas), most of them oval in shape, were probably occupied mainly by a pastoral population, one that gathered their flocks in courtyards. The inhabitants of settlements with relatively small courtyards in proportion to the built-up area of the site were probably less involved with animal herding and more with agriculture. Indeed, the distribution of the sites shows that the inhabitants of the “large courtyard” settlements usually preferred the higher elevations of the southern Negev highlands, where a pastoral economy was dominant, while the other types of sites are usually situated in areas where seasonal crop farming is practical.

Cohen notes that these structures do not extend beyond the southern border of the Land of Israel as described in the Bible.10 In this he is correct, but his interpretation of them as fortresses is wrong- The Biblical description should be seen not as depicting the border of the United Monarchy defended by a chain of fortresses, but rather as the border of the settled land in antiquity.11 The absence of Iron Age structures south of this border is to be explained ecologically, not politically or militarily. It is not surprising to find in the Negev, within the same geographical boundaries, sites from both the Early Bronze Age II (about 2850–2650 B.C.) and the Middle Bronze Age I (roughly 2200–2000 B.C.).

A closer examination of the locations of these Iron Age settlements, as we should call them, shows that most are in arable valleys oriented northeast-southwest. The varying density of the structures in different areas has been noted. Areas suitable for agriculture show a relatively large concentration of these structures. Rocky, difficult terrain is almost completely empty of such sites. In short, ecological factors determined the settlement distribution pattern. The most important criteria for settlement were apparently good land for agriculture and pasture and land formations that were suitable for cistern quarrying and efficient rainwater runoff utilization.

If we attribute these Negev settlements to the indigenous population, we must ask why the phenomenon was so short-lived. What induced the establishment of these settlements, and what brought about their demise?

One need not wonder at the lack of evidence for human activity in arid zones over long periods. Rather, explanation is demanded for the short periods of time in which desert tribes did establish permanent settlements.12 Usually, desert nomads migrate seasonally together with their tents and flocks (in the region under discussion we deal with short-distance migration), but traditional archaeological methods have much difficulty in locating their encampments. It is not surprising, therefore, that during most periods of history the desert peoples left almost no trace in the Negev and Sinai. This lack of remains is not, however, a valid basis for concluding that there was a total gap in occupation. By way of example, look at the period of the British Mandate, in the present century. At that time, more than 60,000 Bedouin were estimated to live in the Negev; of these 8,500 to 16,000 lived in the Negev highlands and their immediate surroundings.13 This population left almost no material remains, however; without contemporary, documentary evidence, we would not know of its existence.

What then causes the nomads to adopt a sedentary lifestyle? The most important factors, usually interconnected, are improvement in security conditions, the influence of nearby cultures and, above all, the creation of external economic resources. Other possible motivations include military pressure, climatic changes and the difficulties of pastoral subsistence.14 New sources of livelihood lessen reliance on pastoralism and encourage desert peoples to establish permanent settlements in which field crops have a larger economic role. When these sources disappear, the process reverses itself- nomadic pastoralism once again becomes advantageous and permanent settlements are abandoned.

I mentioned earlier that some scholars date these Central Negev structures to the late 11th century B.C., rather than to the tenth century. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to differentiate late 11th- and early 10th-century pottery found at these excavated sites. Until a basic comparative study of the Negev highlands and Beer-Sheva basin material is carried out, we have no alternative but to rely on historical criteria to date the structures—either to the late 11th century or the early 10th century B.C.

I believe the impetus for early Iron Age sedentarization of the Negev population can be linked to the economic prosperity of the southern deserts in the 12th to 11th centuries B.C. During this period the local population may well have participated in a possible revival of copper mining in the Arava Valley. Other important elements in the economic framework of the area were the Egyptian and, later, Philistine centers that flourished in the southern coastal plain and the Shephelah. Some of the strongest evidence for the prosperity of southern Israel at this time comes from Tel Masos, the largest settlement ever to evolve in the Beer-Sheva basin.15 (I accept the view that Tel Masos is not an Israelite settlement site.)16

The evidence of metallurgical activity found here, as well as buildings influenced by Egyptian-Canaanite architecture, together with coastal-Phoenician and Midianite pottery, all point to copper trade and close ties between the northern coast of the Gulf of Eilat, the southern Arava Valley, Transjordan and the Mediterranean coast—with the Beer-Sheva valley as a venue of transit. The desert dwellers undoubtedly participated in this intensive commerce; they began to exploit the new opportunities that opened up before them, subsequently lessening their dependence on pastoralism and settling in the area ecologically amenable to agriculture, namely, the Negev highlands. This process was accompanied by the absorption of typical northern elements such as wheel-made pottery and the four-room house, into their material culture.

In my opinion the first stage of transition from nomadism to a sedentary life was expressed architecturally by the oval enclosures. During the early stages of sedentarization, herding was still a major component of the subsistence economy, hence the emphasis on large courtyards in which the flocks were gathered.

The layout of the oval sites was apparently influenced by the layout of the tent encampments that proceeded them; the single casemate-like room replaces the single tent, while the row of peripheral rooms between the casemate-walls has its origin in the belt of tents surrounding a large central space. This encampment layout is known from the not-too-distant past of the local Bedouin.17 It is generally accepted that nomads in the process of sedentarization transfer pastoral traditions to the sedentary stage; an example of this is the adaptation of the tent’s shape to the permanent architecture.18

As alternative income sources increased in importance, and as the sedentarization process intensified, crop agriculture increasingly superseded pastoralism at these 11th-century B.C. sites.

This development diminished the importance of the central courtyard and led to the development of new architectural forms—the rectangular structures with smaller courtyards. At the same time, scattered houses may have been built near the earlier oval enclosures. When security conditions improved, isolated houses like those at Ramat Matred and Mishor Harvah were built in areas not previously occupied by the ovaloid enclosed settlements. The process was not necessarily uniform chronologically; at any given time different tribes or family units may have reached different stages of sedentarization. In any case, the architecture of a particular site reflects its inhabitants’ socio-economic status.

Nomad sedentarization of the Negev reached its zenith toward the end of the 11th or the beginning of the tenth century. The crucial developments that brought about the decline of this process were taking place at the same time in the central part of the country. The new political entity that was established in Judah soon came into inevitable confrontation with the desert people over control of the south. The Bible describes Saul’s struggle with the Amalekites (1 Samuel 14-48, 1 Samuel 15) and tells how David “put garrisons throughout all Edom” (2 Samuel 8-14), referring perhaps to the Negev highlands. There was no need for the kings of Israel to vanquish the desert dwellers militarily. The disruption of Negev trade, which was their chief economic support, brought about the collapse of the special infra-structure that made their sedentarization possible.19

Following the destruction of Tel Masos, the commercial focal point of the south, Israelite settlement in the Beer-Sheva basin intensified. A dramatic reversal occurred in the lives of the desert dwellers in the Negev highlands as a result of these events- with the economic basis for permanent settlement gone, the desert population reverted to its previous mode of existence—pastoral nomadism—and the villages and farmsteads were abandoned.

Commerce in the south continued, of course, in the tenth century B.C. and thereafter, but the trade monopoly was taken over by the political powers to the north—initially the Israelite United Kingdom, then the Kingdom of Judah and, finally, the Assyrian empire. The inhabitants of the desert probably took part in this commerce but were unable to achieve the same economic and political advantages they had enjoyed previously.

Hundreds of years later, during the Hellenistic period, the conditions necessary for nomadic sedentarization reasserted themselves. This time it was the spice trade that stimulated the process, providing the foundation for the development of the Nabatean desert kingdom. But until then, the desert dwellers in the Negev remained pastoral nomads.

It is in the context of this earlier, relatively short period of sedentarization, however, that we must understand the settlement sites Cohen mistakenly identifies as fortresses.

1. Yohanan Aharoni, The Archaeology of the Land of Israel (Philadelphia- Westminster Press, 1982), p. 169. Ze’ev Herzog, Beer-sheba II- The Early Iron Age Settlements (Tel Aviv, 1984), pp. 82–84. Ze’ev Meshel, “Horvat Ritma—An Iron Age Fortress in the Negev Highlands,” Tel Aviv 4 (1977), pp. 132–133. David Eitam, “The Negev Highlands Fortresses—Settlement Sites?” Teva Va’aretz 21 (1979), pp. 124–130 (in Hebrew).

2. See, for details, Israel Finkelstein, “The Iron Age Fortresses of the Negev Highlands—Sedentarization of Desert Nomads,” Tel Aviv 11 (1984), pp. 189–209. The first scholar who expressed the view that the Negev sites were not Israelite fortresses was Beno Rothenberg, Archaeology in the Negev and the Arabah (Ramat Gan, 1967), pp. 88–92 (in Hebrew).

3. Cf. Rudolph Cohen and William G. Dever, “Preliminary Report of the Second Season of the ‘Central Negev Highlands Project,’” BASOR 236 (1979), pp. 41–60.

4. Cf. the Nabatean road from Petra to Gaza- Ze’ev Meshel and Yoram Tsafrir, “The Nabatean Road from ‘Avdat to Sha‘ar Ramon,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 106 (1975), pp. 103–118; 107 (1976), pp. 3–21; and for the network of Egyptian fortresses from the period of the New Kingdom in northern Sinai- Eliezer D. Oren, “L’epoque des pharaons,” Le Monde de la Bible 23 (1982), pp. 8–13.

5. The name Ein Qedeis is misleading, since the site is located about three kilometers from the spring.

6. Meshel, “A History of the Roads in the Negev,” in The Land of the Negev (Part 1), eds., Avshalom Shmueli and Yehudah Grados (Tel Aviv- Ministry of Defence Publishing, 1979), pp. 297–307 (in Hebrew).

7. Cohen, “The Iron Age Fortresses in the Central Negev,” BASOR 236 (1979), pp. 61–79.

8. Eitam, “The Negev Highlands,” p. 125.

9. Cohen, “The Israelite Fortresses in the Negev Highlands,” Qadmoniot 12 (1975), p. 50 (in Hebrew).

10. Cohen, “The Iron Age Fortresses,” pp. 77–78.

11. Eitam, “The Negev Highlands,” p. 127.

12. Benjamin Sass, “Sinai Between the Fourth and First Millennia B.C.,” in Sinai in Antiquity, eds., Meshel and Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv- Hakkibutz Hameuchad, 1980), pp. 41–54 (in Hebrew).

13. Eric Mills, Census of Palestine 1931 (Alexandria- Palestine Census Office, 1931), pp. 328–335; H. V. Musham, Bedouin of the Negev (Jerusalem- Academic Press, 1966), pp. 10–24, 31; Emmaunel Marx, Bedouin of the Negev (Manchester, England- Manchester University Press, 1967), p. 11; David H. K. Amiran et al., “Spontaneous Settlement of Bedouin in the Northern Negev,” in The Land of the Negev (Part II), p. 654.

14. Avshalom Shmueli, Nomadism About to Cease (Tel Aviv, 1980), pp. 18, 76, 100–101, 137–139 (in Hebrew). Philip C. Saliman, “Introduction- Processes of Sedentarization as Adaption and Response,” in When Nomads Settle (New York, 1980), pp. 1–19.

15. Aharon Kempinski, “Tel Masos,” Expedition 20 (4), pp. 29–37; “Israelite Conquest or Settlement? New Light from Tel Masos,” BAR 02-03.

16. Moshe Kochavi, “Rescue in the Biblical Negev,” BAR 06-01.

17. Cf. photographs in Alois Musil, Arabia Petraea III (Vienna, 1908), p. 131, Gustaf Hermann Dalman, Arabat und Sitte in Palastina VI (Gutersloh, 1939), p. 12, and description by Claude R. Conder, Tent Works in Palestine (London, 1889), p. 275.

18. Shmueli, Nomadism About to Cease, pp. 83, 107, 154–155; Motoko Katakura, Bedouin Village (Tokyo, 1977), p. 73; Shirley Kay, The Bedouin (New York, 1978), p. 143.

19. In fact, we might attribute the sedentarization of the desert inhabitants to the prosperity of the Beer-Sheva basin and the flourishing commerce in the south under the United Monarchy, followed by economic decline and abandonment of the sites in the wake of Pharaoh Shishak’s invasion of Eretz Israel. But then we would expect stratum II at Tel Masos to exist also in the tenth century B.C. Moreover, if we assign the prosperity of the Negev highlands to the southern trade of the United Monarchy, it is difficult to explain why this prosperity did not return later, during the climax of the Kingdom of Judah’s activity in the south, or under Assyrian rule. This would indicate that the sedentarization phenomenon existed only when the desert people themselves controlled the Arabian trade and not when a monopoly was held by northern political entities.

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