aerial-view-of-gezer-from-the-westFor Gezer there is still time. But not much.

The stones are still there, but gradually the walls are deteriorating. Soon they may tumble under the assault of winter rains and summer goats. Not even a fence protects the precious stones from the Bedouin who live in the area and who also need stones. What will be left for our children and our grandchildren?

Gezer is one of the most visually impressive sites in all of ancient Palestine. The large 30-acre tell may be seen from the old Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway rising from the plain. It could easily be a major tourist stop and an educational attraction.

But try to get the short distance from here to there. In winter, the muddy approach roads are often impassable. In summer, the odds are you will get lost at least twice—there are no signs to guide you—before you find yourself on the tell. Unless you are a surveyor or already know the site well, you will have no idea which approach to the tell you have finally managed to surmount.

Once there, not a single sign will direct you to what to see or help you to understand what you are looking at.

What is there to see?

• The largest extant tower foundation in all of ancient Palestine. Built in about 1650 B.C., it was once part of a defensive system that probably included more than 25 such towers. This excavated tower is almost 50 feet wide and is attached to a 12-foot-thick stone wall with a mudbrick superstructure. In places the wall still stands to a height of over 14 feet. A later addition to the wall is a massive glacis that may still be seen if you know where to look.

• An impressive Middle Bronze gateway comprised of huge roughly dressed rectangular cyclopean stones surmounted by over a meter of preserved mudbrick superstructure representing the original gate tower complex. The fire that destroyed the gate and associated fortification walls baked these bricks into a beautiful parquet of various colors.

• A unique Canaanite High Place with ten monumental standing stones. The High Place dates to about 1600 B.C. and may have been reused hundreds of years later. But for what? No one knows for sure, although some cultic purpose seems likely. Some scholars have suggested that each of the standing stones represents a tribe or a city and that together they commemorate a covenant ceremony or covenant renewal ceremony. Exodus 24-3–8 describes such a ceremony- Moses built “an altar at the foot of the mountain and erected twelve sacred pillars, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.” After offering sacrifices, Moses “took the book of the covenant and read it aloud for all the people to hear. They said, ‘We will obey and do all that the Lord has said.’”

• A six-chambered gateway built by King Solomon—far better preserved than its architectural duplicates at Hazor and Megiddo. Plastered benches line each of the chambers, which were probably used as guard rooms. The foundations of this gateway go down more than six feet.

• An underground water system that rivals the water tunnels at Hazor and Megiddo, but needs to be cleared. To get to the water at Gezer, you must climb down a shaft almost 25 feet deep and proceed into a tunnel for about 140 feet until you reach a large cavern. (See “How Water Tunnels Work,” BAR 06-02, by Dan Cole.)

• A mercantile and manufacturing area.

• A domestic and storage area.

• Burial chambers.

Gezer was a major metropolis in ancient times. It overlooked and dominated the so-called Via Maris (or Way of the Sea), a major highway between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and at 700 feet above sea level, it commanded a magnificent view in every direction. Thus it controlled not only the main highway but also the principal trunkline that branched off to Jerusalem. This crossroads was one of the most important in the country and still is today.

Gezer’s occupational history begins in Chalcolithic times (about 3300 B.C.) and extends to the Roman period. Gezer is frequently mentioned in Egyptian sources, especially in the 14th-century B.C. El Amarna letters, and is occasionally mentioned in Mesopotamian sources as well. Pharaoh Thutmose III commemorated the victories of his first Asian campaign in 1468 B.C. with scenes on the walls of the great Temple at Karnak. One of these scenes portrays bound captives from Gezer. In the 1960s, American archaeologists working at Gezer found the charred remains of Thutmose’s fiery destruction of Gezer, which occurred 3,500 years ago. The destruction level left by the Egyptian conflagration consisted of over three feet of burned bricks, charred wood and ash.

Gezer is mentioned frequently in the Bible. Although Joshua defeated a coalition of Canaanite kings that included the king of Gezer, the Bible does not say that Gezer itself was captured by the Israelites (Joshua 10-33; 12-12). Gezer was allotted to the tribe of Joseph (or Ephraim) (Joshua 16-3, 10; Judges 1-29; 1 Chronicles 6-67; 7-28), but we are also told that the Israelites “did not drive out the Canaanites,” who dwelt in Gezer (Joshua 16-10). Even King David was unable to bring Gezer into the Israelite kingdom.

Finally, when an Egyptian Pharaoh (probably Siamun, in about 960 B.C.) gave his daughter in marriage to King Solomon—the only recorded instance of a Pharaoh’s daughter being permitted to marry a foreigner—the Pharaoh ceded Gezer to Solomon as part of his daughter’s dowry. (1 Kings 9-15–17). In the early years of Solomon’s reign, Egypt had launched an invasion of Palestine and had conquered Canaanite Gezer. Undoubtedly, Solomon then mobilized against an Egyptian attack on his own Israelite kingdom. But Israel must have been the greater power because at this point Egypt apparently decided to abandon the invasion, opting for a diplomatic rapprochement by marriage and territorial concession. Thereafter, the Bible tells us, Solomon fortified Gezer, along with Jerusalem, Megiddo and Hazor (1 Kings 9-15). Twentieth-century archaeologists have found irrefutable evidence of these fortifications at Gezer, including not only the magnificent gateway but also a casemate wall (a double wall divided by partitions into rooms) attached to it.

Gezer also has special significance in the history of archaeology. Gezer was the first Biblical city to be identified by an inscription found at the site. Even today only a handful of sites—Beth Shean, Arad, Hazor—have been so identified. In 1873, the great French scholar Clermont-Ganneau found a boundary inscription dating from the Herodian period which reads in Hebrew script, “boundary of Gezer.” Eight more of these boundary inscriptions have since been found.

Gezer has also been the location of two of the most important excavations in Palestinian archaeology—over 50 years apart. Between 1902 and 1909, the Irish archaeologist R. A. S. Macalister excavated Gezer on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund. It was the largest excavation ever undertaken in Palestine. Macalister, working alone except for an Egyptian foreman, supervised up to 400 Arab laborers. Macalister’s plan was nothing if not ambitious. His intention was “to turn over the entire mound,” from ground level to bedrock. His method was to dig trenches ten meters wide, one after the other, across the entire width of the tell, an unrefined technique known as the trenching system. The debris from the second trench was simply dumped into the first trench and so on. It is impossible to understand the tell’s stratigraphy in this way (Macalister identified nine strata; more recent excavators identified 26). Even with 400 workmen and a seven-year effort, Macalister’s goal proved to be unachievable. His reports to the Palestine Exploration Fund began to be repetitive; as a result, the excavation’s financial backers withdrew support and Macalister was forced to abandon the project.

But to his everlasting credit, Macalister promptly produced three thick volumes reporting on the excavation. They are a mine of information—and misinformation. But even with his primitive methodology, by today’s standards, his results were impressive.

Perhaps it is fortunate Macalister was never able to complete his project, “to turn over the whole mound.” If he had been successful in doing this, there would have been nothing left for later, far better equipped archaeologists to work with.

In the early 1960s substantial federal funds became available, so-called P.L. 480 funds or counterpart funds, for scientific projects in foreign countries. G. Ernest Wright of Harvard and Nelson Glueck of Hebrew Union College conceived a project to utilize these funds in Israel for re-excavating Gezer.

For ten years, beginning in 1964, Gezer was re-excavated under the sponsorship of Hebrew Union College, the Harvard Semitic Museum and, indirectly, the American Schools of Oriental Research. Led first by Wright, then by William G. Dever and then by Joe D. Seger, this re-excavation will have a unique place in Near Eastern archaeological history.

Gezer was also the first Palestinian excavation to operate as a school by offering college credit; this is now a familiar pattern. Gezer not only used student volunteers but also gave them instruction in Bible, history, archaeological methods, pottery identification and, not incidentally, gave them academic credit. A generation of leading American archaeologists has been trained at Gezer. Among them are Carol and Eric Meyers, Lawrence Stager, Seymour Gitin, Glenn Rose, John Worrell, James Strange, Oded Borowski,a Paul Jacobs and Lawrence Geraty.

Equally important has been Gezer’s contribution to archaeological methodology. It is the example par excellence of the so-called “American method.”

This method is an adaptation of the Wheeler-Kenyon method in which excavation occurs within five-meter squares, separated by balks or catwalks that preserve a record of the stratigraphy. The American method is characterized by a meticulous recording system so that each find can be located three-dimensionally by slow, careful digging techniques and by frequent drawing of sections and plans. Highly organized teams of excavators prepare detailed reports of finds and collaborate with an array of collateral experts such as botanists, biologists, ethnologists, geologists, and environmentalists. The important thing in the American method is to squeeze all the information available out of every spoonful of dirt. Less emphasis is placed on uncovering major architecture than on making sure that nothing is missed, even in a small opening. (In all his years at Gezer, Dever exposed less than two percent of the tell.)

If this seems to reflect an attitude rather than a set of rules, it is an attitude that many believe divides the majority of American archaeologists from a substantial number of contemporaneous Israeli excavators. There is no doubt, however, that the Wheeler-Kenyon method of excavating and recording first is now accepted, to varying degrees, by all archaeologists. In a continuing debate over the American method, Gezer nevertheless remains the archetype.

For all these reasons, Gezer is important.

But each year less and less of Gezer survives. Since the archaeologists packed up their spades and departed in 1974, Gezer has been left to the elements.

Gezer must be saved—before it is too late.

a. See Borowski’s article on his experience at Gezer, “Not All That Glitters is Gold—But Sometimes It Is,” BAR 07-06, which describes the Astarte figurine.