sw-corner-of-herodian-temple-mountA roundup of digs in Israel

In an oft-repeated story that the Patent Office denies, a 19th-century Commissioner of Patents announced that he would retire because everything that could be invented would soon be invented.

I was reminded of this story as I traveled from dig to dig in Israel recently. Hasn’t everything been dug up already? You would think so. But in fact there is no end to it, even in Jerusalem, the most excavated city in the world.

Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Ronny Reich took us to his new excavation—more accurately, re-excavation—at the southern part of the western wall of the Temple Mount. Here he has uncovered more of the handsomely paved Herodian street, complete with curbs on either side, that ran along the Temple Mount wall at the time the city was burned and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. We climbed down a long wooden ladder to get to street level while a backhoe was carrying away from the site tons and tons of dirt in enormous bags. At the bottom, we walked along the street, dwarfed by heaps of huge ashlars that the Romans had toppled from the high walls. There they had lain for nearly 2,000 years. Beneath these beautifully worked stones were the smaller stones of the crushed shops that had once lined the street. On the opposite side of the street, the shops were still intact, and we could walk inside.

Part of the street with the giant fallen ashlars is to be left as is; another part is being cleared to reveal the street as it originally existed. Beside the shops, which were once under a huge staircase that led up to the Temple Mount, was a mikveh, or ritual bath, where the people purified themselves before ascending the holy mountain. Jaded as I am, I could not help but be moved almost to tears by the reality this experience evoked.

Reich pointed out the remains of the piers that once supported the mammoth staircase. All that has survived are stubs and the springer known as Robinson’s Arch butting out from the western wall of the Temple Mount.

Among the ruins was a sizeable piece of balustrade that once sat at the very top of the Temple Mount wall.a It had been set at the southwest corner. I was aghast to learn that the famous inscription “To the place of the trumpeting … ” had been found on this very slab but that the inscription itself had been cut out of the slab soon after excavation for transport to the museum. Unforgivable!

I always wondered how Leen Ritmeyer, who drew the famous reconstruction of the inscription in situ, knew how to reconstruct the balustrade. Now I know; he had seen the slab from which it was torn shortly after being excavated.

I wondered if Jesus had walked this street, but Reich said no. Although Herod died in 4 B.C., the Herodian period lasted up to the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The fresh condition of the road, Reich told me, indicated that it had been constructed very close to the time the Romans toppled the wall on it. We could see the chisel marks on the finely cut pavers, indicating the street had not been used very long. Jesus was in Jerusalem in about 30 A.D. The street was probably paved in the mid-60s.

Interestingly, the upper levels of the piles of thrown-down Herodian ashlars had been taken for use in the nearby Omayyad palaces of the seventh century A.D. that lined the area south of the Temple Mount.

Curiously, the Israelis are restoring these Arab palaces rather than the earlier Byzantine residences that were in the area or the even earlier material that lies below. This decision is the right one. The Arab palaces are the most magnificent structures in this area, reflecting days of Muslim glory.

One of these huge Arab palaces south of the Temple Mount extends westward and emerges on the other side of the modern road leading down to Dung Gate. In this area, on the other side of the road, archaeologists have uncovered the lower walls of the Old City.

The main part of the Old City wall was constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The new excavations, however, revealed the walls that lay beneath Suleiman’s wall and on top of which his wall was built. The wall immediately below Suleiman’s wall can be dated to the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the work of the famous founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, sultan Salah al-Din, or Saladin as he is known to the West. Not long after this was built by Saladin and his succesors, however, it was destroyed by the very people who built it- Fearing that the Christians would recapture Jerusalem in the Third Crusade, the Arabs dismantled the wall so that the Crusaders would thereafter be unable to defend the city.

In this wall, Reich found a blocked-up postern gate that he unblocked. Voila! A new gate into the Old City! This is the second new gate archaeologists have opened in the Old City wall.b Outside the wall, this gate opens into the interior of what some believe is a Crusader tower, called Tanner’s Tower.
All over the country, a flurry of excavations is leaving more questions than answers, more puzzles than solutions. Many will be discussed in future BAR articles.

The suspense surrounding the potential discovery of a Canaanite cuneiform archive at Hazor continues.

A cuneiform archive has never been found in Israel, although such archives have been discovered at a number of sites in ancient Mesopotamia and in Egypt. Cuneiform letters from Hazor have even turned up in some of these archives. Other letters from these archives mention Hazor. Obviously Hazor is a prime candidate to contain an archive, especially because stray cuneiform tablets have turned up there from time to time. Yigael Yadin, who excavated at Hazor in the 1950s and 1960s, was convinced that he knew where an archive was buried, but he died before he had an opportunity to pursue his suspicions.

In 1990 his student and protégé Amnon Ben-Tor, now the Yigael Yadin Professor of Archaeology at Hebrew University, renewed excavations at the site. Four years ago, Ben-Tor found a cuneiform tablet that may mention Jabin.c This was the name of the king of Hazor mentioned in Judges 4-2, although if that is the name (it is only partially preserved on the damaged tablet), it is an earlier Jabin since the tablet dates to the 18th–17th century B.C.

This season Ben-Tor found four more cuneiform tablets. He is obviously getting closer. Most of the known archives date to the second millennium B.C. and were found in a temple or palace located on the acropolis of the site, and, as Ben-Tor puts it, “We are in a capital city from the second millennium in a magnificent palace on the acropolis of the city.”

At the site, about ten miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Ben-Tor showed us the huge palace—more than a hundred feet on each side—where he hopes to find the archive. Telltale details of architecture, like the facing on the outer wall that supported a mudbrick superstructure, indicate the magnificence of the structure that once graced the site. The walls have survived to a height of over 6 feet in places. The palace was built in the middle of the second millennium B.C. and was destroyed towards the end of the Late Bronze Age (about the 13th to 12th centuries B.C.), just when the Israelites were emerging in Canaan.

The palace was destroyed in an intense fire. Ben-Tor called it “the mother of all destructions”—a fire of 1,300 degrees in comparison to the 650 degrees of a usual fire. The fire was so hot that it turned some of the mudbrick to glass. Ben-Tor explained that large pithoi filled with olive oil had been stored in the palace. And timbers had been placed periodically in the mudbrick walls to reinforce them (he pointed to indentations in the wall showing the negative of the burnt timbers). Fanned by the strong winds at the top of the tell, the fire created by the combination of olive oil and timber was intense.

Ben-Tor believes the Israelites destroyed the palace. According to Joshua 11-10 (a passage Ben-Tor easily knows by heart), Hazor was “formerly the head of all those kingdoms.” Consequently, in the description of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, Hazor is the only city that was burned (Joshua 11-11). Ben-Tor explained that Egyptians or other Canaanites could not have destroyed Hazor because whoever did it defaced and mutilated the statues of Egyptian and Canaanite deities and royalty that were found in the destruction; neither the Egyptians nor the Canaanites would deface and mutilate their own gods or kings. Another candidate for the destroyer of Hazor is the Philistines, but not a single Philistine sherd has been found in the excavation. By default, only the Israelites are left. Of one thing we can be sure- Who destroyed Hazor will be hotly debated among scholars. Expect much of it to be aired in BAR.

How close is Ben-Tor to the archive—or the suspected archive? He showed us a plan of the palace and then compared this to a plan of the Level IV palace at Alalakh in Syria. The two plans nearly track one another. Ben-Tor has put an X where a cuneiform archive of about 300 tablets—including treaties, legal documents, census lists of settlements and inventories—was found in Alalakh. Ben-Tor has also placed an X on the plan of the palace at Hazor in the room analogous to the room in the Alalakh IV palace where the archive was found. He should get there next season.

A major dig at Tel Miqne, 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem, ended in triumph after 13 years of excavation. Long ago, the remains definitely established that the site was a major Philistine city. Excavators Trude Dothan of Hebrew University and Seymour Gitin of the Albright School of Archaeological Research of Jerusalem identified the site as Ekron, one of the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis described in the Bible.d For the icing on the cake, in the last days of the last season, the joint Israeli-American team uncovered a royal dedicatory temple inscription containing the name Ekron, thus buttoning down the site’s ancient name beyond cavil.

The inscription also refers to a king named Achish.

In the Bible that is the name of the Philistine king of Gath, where the young David fled from the jealous wrath of King Saul. David even joined Achish’s army, an act that could easily be regarded as treasonous (1 Samuel 21). The Achish mentioned in the Ekron inscription, however, is not the same as the Biblical Achish; the inscription dates to the seventh century B.C. David fled to Achish at the end of the eleventh century B.C.

In case anyone wants to argue that the very appearance of the name Achish supports the historicity of the Biblical account involving David and Achish, he should know that the argument on the other side is equally strong. It is objectively just as likely that the Biblical author, writing at a late date, took the name of a late king of Ekron named Achish and moved it back a few centuries and changed the name from Ekron to Gath.

Although the full text of the inscription has not been released at press time, we can report that it is a five-line inscription stating that Achish, the son of Padi, king of Ekron, built a temple dedicated to the goddess.

Achish is also mentioned as the king of Ekron in Assyrian annals of the seventh century B.C. Padi is mentioned as a king of Ekron in the Assyrian annals of the eighth century B.C.

One of the most puzzling—and potentially controversial—sites in the country is being excavated by Adam Zertal, chairman of the Department of Archaeology at Haifa University. Located on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean coastal plain halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa and dating to Iron I (c. 1200 B.C., about the time both the Israelites and the Philistines were emerging in Canaan), el-Ahwat is characterized by huge walls composed of black boulders. Appropriately enough, el-Ahwat means “the walls” in Arabic. In places, the perimeter wall is almost 15 feet wide. Outside this wall are piles of stones that Zertal interprets as the remains of towers. Short corridors leading nowhere were built into some of the walls. A longer corridor curls around into the wall. Low stone structures supported dome-shaped corbeled roofs.

Zertal’s search for parallels finally led him to Sardinia, where the famous nuraghe culture is found.e But what are nuraghi—truncated cone-like towers with corridors and corbeled construction—doing in ancient Canaan?

Like many scholars, Zertal connects the Shardana, one of the Sea Peoples (that also included the Philistines), with Sardinia. The phonetic relation seems clear. The Shardana, we know, came to Canaan along with their brother ethnic group, the Philistines. Zertal speculates that his site is a Shardana town, with some of the same nuraghic characteristics found in Sardinia.

Other scholars hotly contest this identification. Hebrew University archaeologist Ephraim Stern, digging at nearby Dor, which is identified in the famous Wen-Amon story from Egypt as a place where Shardana live, has uncovered none of the rough pottery found at el-Ahwat. Nor has Zertal found a single Philistine sherd at el-Ahwat. Zertal, on the other hand, points to the single small sherd he has found at el-Ahwat that bears some incised decoration that is also found on pottery from Sardinia.

Zertal visited a prominent archaeologist in Sardinia who then came to visit el-Ahwat. Doubtful at first, in the end the Sardinian archaeologist was convinced by Zertal’s hypothesis.
I could go on and on. Some of the most exciting sites we visited—not only in Israel but in Jordan and even Gaza—will be described in future issues. Stay tuned.