AroerA trip through the ages with the ageless Avraham Biran

Do you see those pottery sherds?” asks 92-year-old Avraham Biran as he points with his cane to the sun-baked earth of Aroer, an ancient site in the northern Negev. Not until I crouch close to the ground can I distinguish the reddish brown sherds from the stones and pebbles that cover the site. “That’s how you know this is a tell, that it was inhabited,” Biran explains.

By the time I stand up, the nonagenarian has hurried on ahead of the small group that has come with him to revisit Aroer, a site he excavated more than 20 years ago.a When we reach him, Biran is already at the top of the tell. “Welcome to Aroer,” he tells our slower-moving group.

“You have to walk fast to keep up with this guy,” whispers Gila Cook to me with a laugh. Cook, a surveyor at Hebrew Union College’s Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology in Jerusalem, which Biran heads, worked with Biran on the Aroer dig.

Biran, Cook, veteran BAR photographer Garo Nalbandian and I have come to Aroer at my urging. Biran was at first skeptical—what was the point of revisiting an old site, he wondered. But it soon becomes clear that he enjoys being back. He begins by noting the topography of the area. Aroer sits on the highest and southernmost hill in an area 13 miles southeast of Beer-Sheva. From this vantage point, defenders could see anyone approaching from the south. Biran then points to another key feature of the site- At the southern base of the tell stands a ribbon of green, the well-watered Wadi Ararah. It is the only sign of life in the barren Negev landscape. The Arabic name for the site retains its association with water—Bir Ar’air, the wells of Aroer.

Aroer is mentioned only once in the Bible. King David and 600 of his men fled from King Saul and served Achish, king of the Philistine city of Gath.b Achish granted David the city of Ziklag to live in as his own (1 Samuel 27). At one point when David and his troops were away, the Amalekites raided and destroyed Ziklag (1 Samuel 30). David then attacked the Amalekites and carried off much spoil. Though still in the service of the Philistines, David distributed the spoils to the elders of Judah- “‘This is a present for you from our spoil of the enemies of the Lord.’ [David sent the spoil to the elders] in Bethel … and … in Aroer” (1 Samuel 30-26–28).

This mention of the elders of Aroer is the only ancient reference to the Negev Aroer (two or perhaps three other cities named Aroer are located in Jordan and possibly near Damascus).

But back in the 1970s Biran and Rudolph Cohen, then a district archaeologist with Israel’s antiquities department who excavated Aroer with Biran, were not looking to prove or disprove the city’s existence during the time of David. Instead they were called on to conduct an emergency excavation because the encroachments of modern civilization were threatening to destroy whatever ancient remains may have existed at the site.

Little did Biran and Cohen know how much they would uncover during their two-week salvage dig in 1975. Their finds included remains of large buildings, a jar handle stamped with the word l’melekh (“belonging to the king”), a dome-shaped stone weight incised with the sign for four shekels, a small limestone altar, a sherd possibly inscribed with the word shalosh (“three”), a fragment of a glass bowl similar to those found in Assyrian palaces, and a stone silo that contained many vessels and a figurine of the goddess Astarte.

They knew excavation here had to continue, and Biran came back for six more seasons (until 1982, with the exception of 1979). But he found no signs of Aroer from the time of King David; the discoveries dated instead to two main historical periods- late Iron Age II (the seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.) and the Herodian period (first century B.C. and first century A.D.). Biran believes Aroer was founded on its hilltop site in the wake of the destruction of much of Judah in 701 B.C. by the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib and that its population may have been bolstered by refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.

As Biran takes us around the site, he points out the remains of a 13-foot-thick, seventh-century B.C. offset-inset wall that had been plastered on the outside. Houses had been built inside the wall. Biran had uncovered 400 feet of this wall in 1976; the wall had enclosed an area of 2.5 acres, and Biran estimates that an additional 2.5 acres outside the walls had been inhabited. At 5 acres, Aroer was twice as large as the better-known ancient site of Beer-Sheva.

Aroer was an extensive settlement for its time. Biran explains that Aroer was a stopping point for caravans traveling from Edom, in southern Jordan, to the Mediterranean coast, and much Edomite pottery has been found at the site. “Aroer had one of the biggest collections of Edomite fineware of any site, including those in Edom,” Cook notes.

Reinforcing the Edomite connection was the discovery of a seal belonging to a man named Qosa. The name incorporates the name Qos, the principal Edomite god.

“Here is where the students got very excited,” Biran says as he leads us to a spot overlooking the southern edge of the tell. The excavators had uncovered a well-preserved Herodian-era complex consisting of four rooms fronted by a large courtyard. The complex boasted a large underground storage area with a vaulted ceiling, which is still preserved. The excavators also found an Aramaic inscription in this area that listed names of workers.

With its commanding view of the south, the complex may have served as a Herodian fortress. It measures 38 by 35 feet and is preserved to a height of six courses (8 feet). The walls consist of large limestone blocks worked in Herodian style, with central bosses framed by margins set back several inches. Solidly built, the fortress could easily have supported a second story.

The fortress may have been reinforced during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 A.D.) and may have served as the Negev headquarters for the rebels. Biran found two Revolt-era coins at Aroer. On each, one side shows an amphora framed by the words shnat shtayim (“year two” [of the Revolt]); on the reverse is a leaf from a grapevine and the phrase leherut zion (“for the freedom of Zion”).

Biran never did find any signs of habitation at Aroer during the time of David. He believes that another site, Tel Esdar, about a mile north of Aroer, may have been the Aroer mentioned in the Bible. He suggests that Tel Esdar was abandoned because its location on the plain made it indefensible; when the fortified seventh-century B.C. town was built on the high mound now called Aroer, the name would have migrated to the new location.

The midsummer sun puts a limit to how long we can stay at the tell. We drive back to Jerusalem through Beer-Sheva, a bustling modern boomtown, and have lunch at an American-style fast-food restaurant along the highway. Once inside the air-conditioned building, Biran and Cook reminisce about the Aroer dig, recalling colleagues and volunteers. They speak of the excitement of finding the l’melekh handle and of uncovering the coins from the Revolt. “You could hear a pin drop,” Cook says. “It was a moving experience.”

The excitement was greatest among the students. “Kids enjoy working on digs. It gets them out of the classroom,” Cook says. “At first they complain about their backaches, but after a while they start comparing blisters to see who has more. It becomes a matter of pride.”

Cook recalls a man named Arthur Higgs, who had served in the British Army during the British Mandate of Palestine and who afterward settled in Israel. Higgs volunteered on excavations and had a good eye for finding the line of a wall. One windy day at Aroer, Cook was walking at the top of the tell with large, thin drawing boards on which she would update the field plans. Suddenly the wind came up and the boards got caught in Cook’s clothes; the wind threatened to pick her up like a kite. Higgs ran up and knocked the boards down. “He saved me,” Cook recalls with a laugh.

I notice that Biran has become quiet during lunch. No doubt the mid-day summertime tour of the tell has taken its toll. I ask him what he thought of our trip. Recalling his initial reluctance to revisit Aroer, he says with a smile, “It’s nice to be back. If not for you, I would not have come back.”
He could not have given me a greater compliment.

a. See Avraham Biran, “And David Sent Spoils … to the Elders in Aroer,” BAR 09-02.

b. See Aren M. Maeir and Carl S. Ehrlich, “Excavating Philistine Gath,” BAR 27-06.