White stone ruins of Israelite AiA revealing look at village life when Israel first settled the Promised Land

I first learned of Ahilud in 1969. I had been director of excavations at the ancient site of Ai, the second city taken by the Israelites when they entered Canaan, according to the book of Joshua (Joshua 7–8). I had been working at Ai since 1964, and our field work was nearly finished. We had uncovered a large fortified city of over 27 acres that had existed from about 3000 B.C. to about 2400 B.C. (the Early Bronze Age). Then the site was abandoned for about 1,200 years until about 1220 B.C. At that time, the first Israelites built a small 2.75-acre village on the site, which lasted until about 1050 B.C. (the Iron Age I period). Then the site was abandoned for good.

Actually, Ahilud did not live at Ai. His neighbors and perhaps some of his relatives did. Ahilud himself lived at Khirbet Raddana, a site about four miles west of Ai. Raddana too was an ancient site. We had been asked to do some emergency or so-called salvage excavations at Raddana before the encroachments of modern civilization destroyed or covered the ancient remains. Despite our limited resources, we jumped at the chance because even from the surface we could tell that Raddana had been an Israelite village at the same time as Ai. Comparisons would be invaluable.

It was then I learned of Ahilud. His name turned up on a storage jar handle at Raddana. Lined up vertically on the handle, reading from top to bottom, were three letters—alef (A), het (H) and lamed (L)—in old Hebrew script. The dalet (D) was missing, but when we pulled out our Bibles, we found references to “Jehosaphat, the son of Ahilud.” The phrase appeared twice in 2 Samuel, 8-16 and 20-24. The Biblical references were contemporaneous with our jar handle. On this basis, we reconstructed the final dalet in Ahilud’s name as a good possibility. The Biblical Ahilud must have been a person of some prominence because his son Jehosaphat is among those in a list of officials at King David’s court. Jehosaphat was the mazkir or official recorder; the New English Bible translates the term “secretary of state.”

Although our Ahilud lived in the 11th century B.C., roughly contemporary with Samuel, it is unlikely that he was the Ahilud mentioned in the Bible as the father of Jehosaphat. Our Ahilud lived in extremely modest circumstances in a tiny village that had only six clusters of houses on a hilltop surrounded by terraced farmland; it is unlikely that he produced an educated advisor to the King. Probably he simply shared a name with a more prominent Ahilud.

Modest circumstances, however, do not mean that our Ahilud is of little interest; on the contrary, he represents village life at the grassroots level of ancient Israel’s culture.

Ahilud is important to me because his house is the only one I excavated at Ai or Raddana that can be personalized with a family name. In a special way, he is representative for me of the villagers in scores of nameless settlements that dotted the hilltops of ancient Judea and Samaria during the period of the Judges. When the excavation ended and I was faced with the enormous task of analyzing the results, I thought often of Ahilud. Sometimes I would sit on the hilltop where he had lived. Overlooking a deep valley to the south and surrounded by agricultural terraces, Ahilud’s hilltop has preserved its ancient appearance. If I could understand Ahilud, I thought, I could understand what it meant to be an Israelite peasant in the days of the Judges, shortly before Israel emerged as a monarchy under Saul, the first king.

In the summer of 1972 I was back at Raddana and Ai, searching for the remains of other “Ahiluds” who lived there some 3,000 years ago. A delegation of archaeologists from Jerusalem came out to get a first-hand report on the most recent findings at Ai. Their names are well-known to readers of BAR- Trude Dothan, Abraham Malamat, Nahman Avigad, Ruth Amiran, Miriam Tadmor.

We were talking while standing in the pillared home of an ancient Israelite. As we talked, Trude Dothan stood beside one of the roof-support pillars and laid her arm across the top of it. I stopped dead in my tracks. Anyone who knows Trude Dothan knows she is of average height, about five feet two inches; yet she stood with her arm on top of the main support for a roof beam in the home of her ancient forebears. Were these people shorter than she was?

I again examined the buildings we had excavated. In one house I found a wall still standing to a height above that of the pillars. There in the wall at the same height as the pillars was a well-made aperture for one end of a beam that had once extended across the pillar and into the wall. The underside of the beam aperture was about five feet three inches from the floor. Careful examination disclosed that all of the houses had roof supports in the range of five feet three inches to five feet six inches from the floor.

When we reconstructed an Israelite house at Ai, we placed roof slats on top of the beams and then a layer of huwwar, a white clay, on top of the slats to seal out the sun and rain. This is the way Ahilud’s roof was finished, according to the best archaeological evidence. The beam, judging by the size of the aperture in the wall, was about six to eight inches in diameter, so the underside of the slats on top of the beam was about six feet above the floor. In effect, the roof was about six feet high, interrupted by the beam, which reduced the height by six to eight inches.

The question is whether the villagers would build all of their houses with roof beams so low they would bump their heads on them, or whether, in fact, the people were shorter than their Israeli descendants. The latter seems to be more likely, although we have no skeletal remains to prove it. If I am correct, then Saul of Benjamin who was “ … from his shoulders upward … taller than any of his people” (1 Samuel 9-2) would not attract a second look today because of his height.

Ahilud’s house and those of his neighbors at Ai and Raddana were so simple in plan and size that they barely met the requirements for family life. The basic plan was a simple rectangle divided into two areas by a row of four roof-support pillars. In every case, the row of pillars was nearer to one long wall, creating an area about 4.5 feet wide on the narrow side, and about 10 feet wide in the “great-room.” Entry was through a small door in the front of the great-room. At Raddana, the largest house excavated had an additional room across the back of the basic rectangle. Passage to this back room was from a door in one corner of the great-room. These houses were simpler than the typical Israelite four-room house,a which apparently developed elsewhere in more prosperous surroundings. Ahilud’s house, therefore, was not a four-room dwelling, and was about as basic as one could imagine in meeting family needs for shelter.

When we travel today, let’s say to the Holy Land, we usually take what we consider the basic necessities- a toothbrush, cosmetics or shaving articles, shirts, underwear, pajamas, socks, Kleenex, etc., and, in our hotel, we do not normally sleep dormitory-style. If we could somehow turn the calendar back 3,000 years the way we turn the clock back by crossing time zones and visit Ahilud, he would be puzzled by all these things. “You won’t need them in our village,” he would say.
Ahilud had no toothbrush. Possibly he had a change of underwear and, most likely, he had only one outer garment. He had no pajamas, no socks, and no Kleenex.

In Ahilud’s house, there was no furniture of the kind we have. People sat cross-legged on the packed clay and stone floor; there they gathered around a small open fire. For family socializing, or when guests like us would come, they would line up shoulder to shoulder on a bench-like ledge built of stone along the base of the house wall. A few flat stones placed around the fire pit probably served as makeshift stools.

There was no kitchen in Ahilud’s house. Small round “ovens” for cooking bread or boiling foods were located outside the front door or in an adjoining open courtyard that was shared by two or three households. Apparently, each family cooked its own bread by stretching a thin, round cake of dough over a pottery disc inverted over the fire. Hosea’s assessment that Ephraim was “a cake not turned” (Hosea 7-8) suggests that cakes of bread were simply cooked to a crust on one side, then turned over and cooked for the same length of time on the other side.

There was no bathroom in Ahilud’s house. Where did Ahilud’s family take baths? They didn’t, at least if we define “bath” as soaking in a bathtub, or standing in a shower. Most baths probably consisted of washing the extremities occasionally. And where was the toilet? There wasn’t any. Where did people go? Outside, Anywhere.

Nor were there bedrooms. As is true even today in some villages in the Bethel-Ramallah area, everyone slept on the floor of the great-room that served at mealtimes as the dining area. Various kinds of pads constituted the beds. Outer garments provided the covers during sleep. Privacy? Sooner or later everyone knew what everyone else did at night as well as by day.

If life in Ahilud’s house was less than commodious, we must remember that these hill-country settlers were pioneers. During the period of the Judges, most of the Israelite villages, such as Raddana, Michmash, Rimmon, Taiyiba and Gibeah of Benjamin, were located on previously unoccupied hilltops or on the unoccupied ruins of ancient cities, such as Ai, Mizpeh and Gibeon. Generally, the new villages were small, less than five acres, and unfortified. The sites were inhospitable and marginal, the kind of places in which people live only to avoid conflict with the owners of more fertile areas.

A short passage in Joshua 17 reflects the sociological dynamics that led to hill-country settlement- “The tribe of Joseph said ‘The hill country is not enough for us; yet all the Canaanites who dwell in the plains have chariots of iron, not only those in Beth Shean and its villages but also those in the Valley of Jezreel.’” (Joshua 17-16).

These early Israelites were prevented by superior military power from expanding into the fertile valleys and yet, because of population pressures, they were desperate for room to live in the hill country. These pioneers were told that “The hill country shall be yours, for though it is a forest, you shall clear it and possess it to its farthest borders” (Joshua 17-18). Whether this passage refers to the Ai-Raddana area is not really important; the same pressures referred to in Joshua were undoubtedly felt there.

Pioneers like Ahilud, as this passage suggests, first had to clear a “forest” to provide an area for their village. We tend to think of forest as heavily wooded land, with stands of virgin timber like those encountered by pioneers in our own country two centuries ago. But this is not an accurate perception of a “forest” in ancient Judea and Samaria.

The word ya’ar, commonly translated “forest,” really means wild, untilled land carrying permanent vegetation. It can include the cedar forests of Lebanon or open woodlands or thickets and scattered shrubs. The precise meaning must be determined by the geographical context. Were there open woodlands with stands of trees in the Ai-Raddana region, or were the hills covered with thickets and scattered shrubs? Our excavations suggest an answer.

At Ai, the houses of the Early Bronze Age city (3200–2400 B.C.) were built on bedrock; floors were leveled with clay filling in uneven areas. The temple on the acropolis of the site was also constructed on bedrock; so, too, the street along the south city wall and even the streets between houses in the Lower City. This suggests that the layer of topsoil on this hilltop site had not been very thick, probably like the thin topsoil layer on neighboring hilltops in the area today It is unlikely, therefore, that a stand of trees like those found in open woodlands existed on this hilltop site.

When the Israelite settlers came to the site about 1200 B.C., it had been abandoned for 1,200 years, since 2400 B.C. Was the site wooded in 1200 B.C.? Apparently not, because the newcomers built their houses directly on the ruins of the early Bronze Age floors and walls. Two Israelite houses were built inside the still-standing enclosure wall of the Early Bronze Age temple. The earthen floors of these Israelite houses consisted of a few inches of soil laid down on top of the ancient, plastered floors.

The Israelite settlement was small. It covered only about 2.75 acres on the hilltop. The Early Bronze Age city with its fortified wall covered 27.5 acres. To build a small Israelite village, people like Ahilud simply cleared the ancient site of shrubs, thickets and possibly an occasional tree.

The situation was much the same on the hilltop of Raddana, although no previous city existed there. Early Bronze Age pottery dating to about 3000 B.C. was left in crevices of bedrock on the hilltop, suggesting that the surface of bedrock was exposed at that time. When Ahilud arrived about 1200 B.C., pillar houses were built on the same exposed bedrock.

These Israelite houses were abandoned about 1050 B.C. for unknown reasons. Gradually, the houses yielded to the ravages of wind, rain and sun. In one room of the ruins of Ahilud’s house, we found pottery from the sixth century A.D., left by a shepherd.

To clear the sites of shrubs and thickets, the Israelite settlers used crude mattocks and blades. In Ahilud’s house at Raddana, we found the handle socket of an iron mattock, which may have been used for this purpose.

Although most of the land was covered with low shrubs and thickets, there were undoubtedly some trees available for building purposes in the Ai-Raddana region. Cypress and pine wood was used at Gibeah of Benjamin in the 11th century B.C., and large poles were used as roof support beams at Ai and Raddana. By the time of the monarchy, however, few, if any, trees were left. As always, the newly settled population cut down trees on land that could not easily renew such timber resources.

One of the puzzles about these hilltop sites is that they are far from natural springs, which normally provided settlements with water. Ahilud’s people brought with them a well-thought-out strategy for dealing with this problem. At both Ai and Raddana, we found bell-shaped cisterns cut into the rock underneath and adjacent to each new house. These rainwater reservoirs provided a water source independent of the natural springs in the valleys, springs that had held earlier villages hostage to such vulnerable locations. Because these cisterns were hewed out of the rock when the houses were constructed, we must assume that the confident new settlers understood cistern-building techniques—and quite sophisticated ones at that.

The rock on most of the hilltops in this area north of Jerusalem consists of thick layers of Senonian chalk interspersed with thinner layers of Lower Cenomanian limestone. The Israelite villagers cut the cisterns into the chalk layers, which seem to have a self-sealing quality when wet. The thin layers of hard limestone most often were at the bottoms of the cisterns.

The cisterns were bell-shaped with narrow openings at the top. One bell-shaped cistern at Ai was connected with two other cisterns located under the adjacent house. The three cisterns operated together as a filtration trap system.

We literally stumbled onto the first cistern outside the house. When we explored this cistern, we found a hole in its side that led to the second cistern. Inside the second cistern, we looked up and saw that the cap on top was in place just as it had been left 3,000 years ago when the house was abandoned. The cap was set in the great-room floor of the house. The family that had lived here had an indoor water supply that would have been exhausted only when the three interconnected cisterns had been emptied. The second cistern also had a hole in the side that led to the third cistern. The holes in the sides that connected the three cisterns were located above the cistern-bottom level, so that impurities would settle and be left behind when the water flowed from one cistern to the next.

A rock-cut channel led to the cistern that collected the rainwater outside the house. In front of the cistern’s opening, a round trap about 12 inches deep was tilled with rocks that strained out the larger impurities. The successive “settling traps” in the bottom of the first and second cisterns removed additional impurities. Similar systems were found in several houses. In an adjoining house, two cisterns functioned together as a system. The larger one received the rainwater from a channel located outside the house. This cistern served as a trap for the smaller one. When the large cistern was full, the pure water overflowed through a small, round aperture near the cistern’s top.

Household cisterns were especially important, because the springs near Ai and Raddana have a very small flow and are located in deep valleys far from these villages. We studied the spring in the Wadi el-Jaya north of Ai and calculated its flow at 12.5 gallons per hour. This is not insignificant, and for people with patience and time the spring would have provided a backup water supply for the household cistern system, which depended on rainwater. We also calculated the capacities of the cistern systems in two other houses.b One was 28.3 cubic yards and the other was 23.2 cubic yards. If, as one unpublished study suggests, a person adapted to this arid environment got along quite well on 2.6 cubic yards per year, the house cisterns we examined could have supplied the water needs of eight to ten people.

Estimates of the population of these villages may also be based on the amount of living space available (roofed floor area and adjacent courtyards). Assuming 12 square yards per person, the 20 Israelite houses at Ai would have been home to about six or seven people each. On this basis, we may estimate the population of Ai at not more than 150 persons. Raddana, with six houses, was much smaller, with a population of not more than 50 people.

If we were to visit Ahilud and his neighbors, another dimension of village life at Ai and Raddana would be immediately obvious. Sheep and goats, which provided a significant part of the local economy, were quartered in enclosures adjacent to the houses. Usually, the enclosure was located on the east so that the prevailing western winds would waft the odor of the sheepfold away from the living quarters. Nevertheless, the odor, we would notice, was fairly constant and despite the prevailing winds penetrated the living quarters.

Perhaps we should be reminded that odors were not as offensive to people in ancient times as they are to many people in the 20th century. One implication of the meager water supply is that Ahilud and his friends did not take daily or even weekly baths. One’s odor was a part of one’s identity.

When Esau’s blind father, Isaac, said to Jacob, who was pretending to be Esau, “Come near and kiss me, my son,” (Genesis 27-26), Isaac “smelled the smell of his garments” which were “the smell of a field.” If Esau had taken a long shower and had washed his clothes with soap, he would have lost some of his identity!

Agriculture was the basis of the economy at Ai and Raddana. The villagers were farmers. One of the Israelite agricultural terraces at Ai was constructed on a contour of the Early Bronze Age city ruins. This agricultural terrace was first built about 1200 B.C. It was rebuilt once before the village was abandoned in about 1050 B.C. Later, the same terrace was repaired and strengthened in the Byzantine Period, and again in the Islamic Period. Most recently, it was repaired by villagers from Deir Dibwan who own and still cultivate the site. Thus, the Israelite terrace has been in continuous use from ancient to modern times. A 20th-century plow even now continues to churn up to the surface ashes and artifacts from the buried Early Bronze Age city, abandoned 4,400 years ago.

As Ahilud and his neighbors introduced cistern building to the area, so they introduced techniques of terrace building. While Israelite houses at Ai were constructed on terraces, the Early Bronze Age houses had simply followed the slope of the hillside. Agricultural terracing was simply an extension of the technique used in leveling house sites. Ahilud and his neighbors grew cereals on these terraces, as evidenced by the abundance of stone cereal-processing tools excavated at Raddana, and lying on the surface of the site. Cereal-growing on a hillside staircase of narrow terraces was an inefficient use of the land—such terraces were better suited to vine, nut and olive cultivation—but we must remember that these Israelite farmers were pioneers who probably considered mere survival a major success. Efficient use of the land would have to be developed by later generations.

A survey of settlements in Judea and Samaria during Iron Age I—the period when Ahilud lived—reveals that the hill country was literally covered by small villages like those at Ai and Raddana. Of 102 sites identified, some 90 were newly founded, indicating that Israel had its beginnings in unpretentious small villages that formed a microcosm of its society. Characteristically, the villages were unfortified and occupied by apparently peace-loving people. In fact, one reason they relocated in an inhospitable environment that had not previously supported anyone was to escape conflict with the better-equipped inhabitants of the more fertile lowlands. Each village existed virtually in isolation, as an economic entity depending upon its own subsistence base rather than a market system. This seems to be reflected in the concluding statement of the Book of Judges- “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21-25). Although there is some evidence of trading, especially in metals, which were apparently obtained in ingots and shaped into tools by the villagers, the society as a whole may be characterized as isolationist and highly individualistic. This has profound implications for our understanding of the social structure and political organization of ancient Israel.

If the village formed a microcosm within the larger hill-country settlement area, the household functioned similarly as a microcosm within the village itself. This may in part explain the conflicts that arose and that made it so difficult to establish a monarchy, as we learn from the Biblical accounts. From the beginning, Israel was self-sufficient, family-centered and characteristically independent. To preserve these qualities of life, her pioneer families settled the hilltop villages in what later came to be known as Judea and Samaria.