pottery-vessels-from-en-hatzeva-223x300Now that we have uncovered some of the most unusual finds ever unearthed in Israel, we are faced with the problem of interpreting them and the site where they were discovered.a Clearly, ‘En Hatzeva, about 20 miles southwest of the Dead Sea, was an ancient religious center dating to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C.E. But is the site Edomite, as some believe? And if it is, did the Edomites invade and conquer this area of Judah, or did enterprising Edomite merchants merely set up their own enclave there?

Whatever the answer, the evidence is extraordinary—the kind of finds an archaeologist always dreams of, but seldom unearths- a hoard of religious artifacts, each completely restorable because every fragment of every object has been recovered!

When we started excavating ‘En Hatzeva, we assumed it was simply another Roman Negev fortress, of which there are at least a dozen. This one had been known since 1902, when it was observed and sketched by Alois Musil.1 In later years, it was identified both as a Roman fortress (by Albrecht Alt) and a Nabatean building (by Nelson Glueck). Then in 1950 Benjamin Mazar visited the site and found Iron Age pottery in addition to Roman and Nabatean pottery, suggesting that the site was an Iron Age fortress from the time of the Israelite monarchy. In several articles, Yohanan Aharoni, a student of Mazar at the time, identified the site with Biblical Tamar and Roman Tamara.

All proved correct. When we excavated the site, we uncovered six different occupation levels. The most recent (Stratum 1) was from the late Byzantine and early Islamic period (sixth-seventh centuries C.E.).

Beneath that level was indeed a Roman fortress, whose remains protruded above the surface in some areas- a square structure 150 feet on each side with corner towers, dating to the third-fourth centuries C.E.

Below that was a period of Nabatean occupation (Stratum 3, first century C.E.), as evidenced by some beautifully painted, distinctively Nabatean bowls and other pottery.

At a still lower level (Stratum 4, dating to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C.E.) was a small fortress and a cult site. Below these structures was a much larger fortress built during a still earlier period (ninth-eighth centuries B.C.E., Stratum 5). The fortresses of these two levels (Strata 4 and 5), covering the ninth to sixth centuries, correspond to what is known in Israelite history as the divided kingdom, when the Negev was part of the southern kingdom of Judah. The large fortress of the divided kingdom was, like the later Roman fortress, square with corner towers, but the Iron Age fortress (to use the archaeological term for this period) was much larger than the later Roman fortress and easily enclosed it. The walls of the Stratum 5 Iron Age fortress stretch over 300 feet on each side. Because of its immense size—two football fields—it may be more accurate to think of this Iron Age fortress as a kind of fortified city. In places its walls have been preserved to a height of nearly 15 feet.

Finally, at a still lower level (Stratum 6), we discovered the remains of an even earlier fortress—dating to the tenth century B.C.E.—that may have been built by King Solomon when he ruled over both Israel and Judah.

The site is at a crossroads linking east with west and north with south.2 For much of its history, travelers passing through the area no doubt found a welcome respite at ‘En Hatzeva. It was probably used both by pastoral nomads and caravaners who traversed the region.

Are all three overlaid levels (Strata 4–6) at ‘En Hatzeva really fortresses, as we believe? Or are they settlements or caravanserai, as some other scholars believe—at least concerning the structure in Stratum 6? Or, perhaps, did their functions change over time? Who built these structures, and were they constructed by order of a central government authority or on local initiative? Were they destroyed or abandoned? If destroyed, who destroyed them and under what circumstances? How reliable are the Biblical passages that might help us provide answers?

Scholars are deeply divided in their answers to these questions. The Negev fortresses of the tenth century B.C.E. are among the most controversial buildings excavated in Israel. Some scholars, for example, believe they date much earlier—to King Saul or before. Also, some have argued that they are not fortresses at all but rather animal pens. Of course, we do not accept the interpretations of these scholars.

In this article, however, we will consider only the questions that surround what is undoubtedly our most spectacular find—indeed, one of the most spectacular finds of recent decades in all Israel.
About 50 feet east of the fortress is a structure whose distinctive archaeological features support its identification as a cult site. We discovered this cult site during the normal practice of digging trenches at regular intervals from known structures, with an eye toward uncovering additional finds.
We dug these trenches, 5 by 20 meters each, outside the walls of the Stratum 5 fortress, expecting to find the glacis and moat usually present in large fortresses or fortified cities. Instead, between the cult site and the fortress—barely a meter from the fortress wall—we found a pit containing a hoard of cultic objects.

The young archaeologist whose good fortune it was to be working in the area where the cult objects were found is Amir Ganor. It was a special experience for us to remove the ashlars and see the smashed vessels below them. Although all of the vessels were broken, every piece was there, and we have subsequently been able to restore each one completely—indicating that these objects were placed in the pit intact.3 The ashlar blocks with which the objects were smashed rested above them in the pit.

Both the shrine and the pit can be associated with Stratum 4, seventh-sixth century B.C.E. But it is clearly an idolatrous shrine. BAR readers are already familiar with the finds from Qitmit, a shrine 27 miles from ‘En Hatzeva; Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, the excavator of Qitmit, believes there is no doubt that this was an Edomite shrine.b One important question for scholars involves the relationship between Qitmit and ‘En Hatzeva. Although the similarities between the sites are strong enough to suggest Edomite influence at ‘En Hatzeva, discrepancies among the two collections of artifacts make conclusive judgment difficult. Architecturally, the cultic buildings at each site show distinctive similarities, but there was no fortress at Qitmit.

In the pit at ‘En Hatzeva were 75 objects, including seven limestone incense altars similar to altars found at contemporaneous Israelite sites. There was also a stone sculpture with very stylized human features, which may represent a god.

The other 67 objects are made of clay. The most dramatic are three cult stands showing traces of reddish-brown paint and having human shapes (scholars describe them as anthropomorphic cult stands). One of the anthropomorphic stands may be the figure of a woman carrying a bowl (see cover photo). The other two are apparently warriors. The head and body of the stands were made on a wheel; the facial and other features—eyes, ears, nose, mouth and chin—were added to the figure and modeled by hand. Long locks of hair were affixed to the head. On top of the stand was a bowl in which an offering could be placed. It is these anthropomorphic stands that most clearly suggest that the hoard may be Edomite, based on their similarity to a stand found at Qitmit. The anthropomorphic figures probably represent priests, or their followers, rather than gods.4

An additional eight stands are simply cylindrical (and hollow). Some are decorated with crudely fashioned relief figures of humans and animals; one contains an engraved bull and geometric patterns. Several are fenestrated (that is, with windows). As with the anthropomorphic stands, a bowl would be placed on top, probably for an incense offering. The bowls are made with a long projection on the bottom that fits into a similar projection with a slightly wider hole on the top of the stand.

The eight cylindrical stands are not necessarily Edomite, though they contain some distinctively Edomite elements.

The lower edges of most of the bowls are decorated with projecting triangles (called denticulated fringe decoration). This decoration has been found on pottery from the so-called Edomite stratum at Tell el-Kheleifeh, from Buseirah (an Edomite site east of the Arava, the valley that extends south of the Dead Sea, in what is clearly Edomite territory) and from Kadesh-Barnea (an Israelite site).5 Some of the projecting triangles found on ‘En Hatzeva bowls are pierced, so that an object like a clay pomegranate (seven of which were found in our assemblage) could be hung from them. Similar pomegranates were found at Edomite Qitmit; still, pomegranates were common among various Near Eastern groups—including Israel and Judah—during the Iron Age.

Sometimes an offering bowl and a shorter stand would be combined into one object. The pit included 15 bowls on attached pedestals. The pedestals are not as high as the stands; but they, too, are hollow and sometimes fenestrated.

Then there are 11 chalices, another kind of offering vessel in which incense was burned. Neither the bowls nor the chalices can be said to be distinctively Edomite.

Burning incense was clearly an important cultic custom at ‘En Hatzeva. In addition to the stands and chalices, the hoard includes five perforated, cup-shaped incense burners with tripods. The hot coals from the burnt offerings were handled with special shovels; we found two clay shovels with looped handles 4 inches long. (The five objects in the pit unaccounted for in this brief description were simply small bowls.)

Another very important find was uncovered near the northeastern tower of the Stratum 4 fortress. It is a masterfully engraved seal of polished stone with an Edomite inscription and two figures facing one another on either side of a horned altar. Both figures are male, wear long robes and appear to be engaged in some religious rite. The hand of one seems to be raised in a gesture of blessing, while the hand of the other appears to be raised in a gesture of offering. This hemispherical seal probably belonged to one of the attending priests at the site. A similar figure is portrayed on a seal discovered at Qitmit. The inscription has been deciphered by Professor Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and reads “belonging to msŒkt son of Vh\zm” (LmsŒkt bn Vh\zm).

The similarity between our site and Qitmit seems obvious, but there are also differences. At Qitmit, the assemblage was found on the floor of the shrine; the ‘En Hatzeva collection was discovered in a pit. The cult objects at ‘En Hatzeva were deliberately crushed by dropping large ashlars on them—suggesting that the destruction of the objects may have occurred in connection with a religious reform, such as the reform of King Josiah of Judah (see 2 Kings 22–23 and 2 Chronicles 34–35). In 621 B.C.E., Josiah destroyed outlying shrines and sought to centralize Israelite worship in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 34-3–7). A pit containing deliberately smashed figurines was also found in Jerusalem during Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations in the 1960s.6 Many of the objects in the ‘En Hatzeva pit might well be Israelite, even though they are not representative of the rigorously monotheistic Israelite religion that is normative for the Biblical authors. It seems probable to us that the objects belonging to ‘En Hatzeva’s idolatrous shrine were destroyed as part of Josiah’s religious reform.

There are also stylistic differences between the Qitmit and ‘En Hatzeva collections; in addition, the vessel types found at the one site are not completely represented in the vessel types found at the other. It is thus possible that there is some chronological difference between the two sites.
The excavator of Qitmit is confident that his site is an Edomite cult shrine. We’re not quite so sure about ‘En Hatzeva. It may be an Edomite shrine, but since no similar shrine or cult vessels have been found in Edom itself (which lay east of the Arava Valley), we cannot be certain. We firmly believe, however, that the ‘En Hatzeva shrine was dedicated to idol worship.

The real detective work in archaeology starts after the last pail of dirt has been sifted, after the last vessel has been removed from its 3,000-year resting place, and after the last brick has been cleaned of extraneous material. The detective work starts when you try to piece together the story told by the artifacts.

If this shrine is Edomite, how do we explain its existence west of the Arava, in what would seem from the Biblical description to be Judahite territory?

According to the Bible, enmity between the Israelites and Edomites existed from the time of the patriarchs. Edom is said to be descended from Esau, Isaac’s son and twin of Jacob; in Genesis 36-43, Esau is called the father of the Edomites. As so often happens when brothers fall out, the animosity is intense.

This hatred between the two peoples is echoed again and again in the writings of the prophets (Isaiah 34-5–17, 63-1–6; Jeremiah 49-7–22; Ezekiel 25-13–14, 35, 36-1–6; Joel 3-19; Amos 1-11–12; Obadiah; Malachi 1-2–5).

Archaeologists have shown that, consonant with the Bible, Edom emerged at about the same time as Israel, but east of the Arava and south of the contemporaneous states of Moab and Ammon (see Genesis 36). Nahal Zered (Wadi e-Hasa in Arabic) formed the border between Edom and Moab to the north.

When the Israelites were on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, they asked permission to pass through the land of the Edomites, promising to keep to the highway. The Edomites refused, threatening the Israelites with a powerful military contingent (Numbers 20-14–17). Israel avoided Edom.

In the continuing friction that ensued over the centuries, Israel was sometimes victorious over the Edomites (2 Samuel 8-13–14; 1 Kings 11-14–17; 2 Kings 14-7–10) and the Edomites sometimes made successful incursions into Judah (2 Chronicles 28-17). At times, Edom appears to have been a vassal of Judah (2 Chronicles 18-13; 2 Kings 3-4–8, 8-20). But during the seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E., the period of our Stratum 4, Edom was a flourishing independent kingdom, having thrown off the Judahite yoke. The remains at the site of Tell el-Kheleifeh near Eilat and Aqaba on the Red Sea coast certainly prove this.

After Solomon’s death, toward the end of the tenth century B.C.E., the united monarchy split apart into the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. In 721 B.C.E., the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and sent many of its citizens into exile. The Assyrians also attacked Judah and besieged Jerusalem, without success. In the seventh century B.C.E., the Assyrians themselves were defeated by the Babylonians, who then became the superpower of the Near East. For Judah, there were ups and downs, but the long-term trend was clear. She could not withstand the Babylonian onslaught. In the early sixth century B.C.E., the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, sending the Israelites into exile in Babylonia. Thus ended the Israelite monarchy.

In the seventh and early sixth centuries, Judah was weak and vulnerable. Were the Edomites quick to take advantage of the situation? Their pottery has been found at a number of sites in Judah during this period, such as Aroer and Kadesh-Barnea.c. Does this mean that the Edomites had conquered part of Judah? Or was it a commercial incursion?

Undoubtedly, at both ‘En Hatzeva and Qitmit there was Edomite influence, if not a full-fledged presence. So was part of Judah in Edomite hands? Although some of our colleagues may disagree, we think not. This influence, we believe, was largely economic. Whatever the ultimate answer, a shadow of uncertainty must linger over ‘En Hatzeva for the time being.7

a. This article is dedicated to the memory of Professor Benjamin Mazar, our mentor, supporter and teacher. We cherish his memory and will always be grateful for his profound interest in our archaeological work at ‘En Hatzeva and in the Negev. His endeavors on behalf of Biblical archaeology have been and will continue to be an inspiration to generations of archaeologists.

b. See Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, “New Light on the Edomites,” BAR 14-02.

c. For Aroer, see Avraham Biran, “‘And David Sent Spoils … to the Elders in Aroer,’” BAR 09-02; for Kadesh-Barnea, see Rudolph Cohen, “Did I Excavate Kadesh-Barnea?” BAR 07-03.

1. Alois Musil, Arabia Petraea II. Edom (Vienna- k.u.k. Hof- und Universitäts-Buchhändler, 1907), pp. 207–208, figs. 144–145.

2. That mercantile links existed along established land/caravan routes as early as the Iron Age is suggested by the Biblical account of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon (1 Kings 10-1–13; 2 Chronicles 9-1–12). See Yohanan Aharoni, “Forerunners of the Limes- Iron Age Fortresses in the Negev,” Israel Exploration Journal 17 (1967), p. 1; and John S. Holladay, Jr., “The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah- Political and Economic Centralization in the Iron IIA-B (Ca. 1000–750 BCE),” in Thomas E. Levy, ed., The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (New York- Facts on File, 1995), p. 383.

3. We are grateful to Michal Ben-Gal, Head Pottery Restorer at the Israel Antiquities Authority, whose skill, dedication and patience enabled the complete restoration of our assemblage.

4. Pirhiya Beck came to a similar conclusion several years ago regarding the H|orvat Qitmit assemblage. She identified Phoenician elements and various Transjordanian traditions in the iconographic material from Qitmit and proposed that the human figures cannot be the work of Judahite artists but may be the work of Edomite or other foreign pagan artisans; see Pirhiya Beck, “Catalogue of Cult Objects and Study of the Iconography,” in Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, ed., H|orvat Qitmit. An Edomite Shrine in the Biblical Negev, Institute of Archaeology Monograph 11 (Tel Aviv- Tel Aviv Univ., 1995), p. 189. We agree with her conclusion.

5. For examples of this decoration, see Nelson Glueck, “Some Edomite Pottery form Tell El-Kheleifeh, Parts I–II,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 188 (1967), pp. 37, 38, figs. 2-6a–6c, 5-2; Gary D. Pratico, “Nelson Glueck’s 1938–1940 Excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh- A Reappraisal,” BASOR 259 (1985), p. 25, fig. 15-9; Crystal Bennett, “Excavations at Buseirah, Southern Jordan, 1972- Preliminary Report,” Levant VI (1974), fig. 16-4; and Rudolph Cohen, Kadesh-Barnea. A Fortress from the Time of the Judean Kingdom, Israel Museum Catalogue 233 (Jerusalem- Israel Museum, 1983).

6. See Kathleen M. Kenyon, Digging Up Jerusalem (New York- Praeger, 1974), pp. 137–144, plates 56–61; and Jerusalem- Excavating 3,000 Years of History (New York- McGraw-Hill, 1967), p. 101, figs. 8–10. Kenyon dates the pit a little earlier (to the reign of Hezekiah) and mentions that the figurines may have been broken intentionally. None of them, however, could be restored completely. Our vessels, on the other hand, were completely restored and are of a completely different type.

7. Excavations at the site of ‘En Hatzeva in the Negev, Israel, were conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). We wish to thank Amir Drori, General Director of the IAA, for his continuing support of the excavations since 1989. Through 1992, work there was directed by Rudolph Cohen.

The excavations in 1993–1995 were directed by Cohen and Yigal Yisrael with the assistance of Oded Feder, Eyal Tischler, Amir Ganor, Yacov Kalman, Meirav Zuaretz and Shala Blankstein. Also participating were N. Kollele, D. Poretzki, I. Watkin and R. Niculescu (surveyors), and N. Sneh and S. Mendrea (field photographers). Funding for the excavations was provided through the Negev Tourism Development Administration, and 50–60 workers from Yeruham were supplied by the Ministry of Labor. The editor of the ‘En Hatzeva excavation’s English publications is Caren Greenberg. For the most recent short report on the excavation, see Rudolph Cohen and Yigal Yisrael, ‘En H|as\eva, Excavations and Surveys in Israel 15 (Israel Antiquities Authority, 1996), pp. 96–98.