Devona Brazier: “Interpreting Tel Aphek”

Devona Brazier: Archaeology of the So Levant


Devona’s final paper/project consists of two parts worth 20 points each and a third part worth 5 points: the first part will examine the student’s criticism capabilities of the archaeological process. The second will examine the student’s knowledge and understanding of the main issues concerning a specific time period in the archaeology of Palestine/Israel. The third will deal with the sources available for reconstructing history.

Devona Brazier
May 29, 2021

Interpreting Tel Aphek

It is with unsurprising regularity that a guest on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow is disappointed to discover that the early American artifact they have had in their family for ages is not three hundred years old and precious, but actually, a fifty-year-old replica and the reason it passed so plausibly is that it is poorly cared for, not because it is valuable. Our hopes for the authenticity of an object often prevent us from seeing the clues pointing towards any other origin story than the one upon which one has set their heart. This is true for hundred-year-old antiques and even more true for three-thousand-year-old remains in the Holy Land, the location of hundreds of archaeological digs. Each team working on the site arrives with their own expectations for what is embedded within each stratum of dirt based on political, cultural, ethnic, and religious biases. The hope is that through professional and measurable archaeological techniques, what is found beneath our feet can be cataloged and recorded in such a way that a realistic and accurate picture of life in the Levant region of the Bronze and Iron Ages, what was once Canaan, can be understood. Some of the evidence seems to validate the stories from Joshua, Judges, and Kings, but some do not. Despite the challenges, archaeologists continue to dig in the hopes of making clear the dusty past.

How does an historical city become buried in the earth, and how does an archaeological team uncover it? It is helpful to review the findings at Tel Aphek, a site called Area X situated just a short drive Northwest of modern-day Jerusalem. As one would see today, there is a sizable Ottoman-era fortress upon an earthworks mound. This site is already old, with the surface structures long abandoned by Ottoman Turks who built the fortress, but underneath the surface is a peeling-back of history to the Middle Bronze Age in the third millennium BCE. Anyone who has seen modern construction knows that to build a stable structure, first, one must build a level foundation. One way to establish that foundation is to excavate a flat ground, but when the safest location for a city is atop a hill, it is better to fill in the space on a hill and build on top of that fill. The earthen fill creates a packed layer of soil to build upon, but it also buries and hides whatever is under it, and only by digging down can one uncover what is there. Teams have found under the Ottoman fortress at Tel Aphek both Israelite and Philistine settlements from the Iron Age and Canaanite settlements from the Late Bronze and Middle Bronze Age (Finkelstein 599).

To uncover these sites, a team uses strategic digging techniques intended to disturb as little of the site as possible to prevent displacing objects when unprepared to catalog them appropriately. Using surface reconnaissance in areas suspected to hold evidence of human activity, archaeological teams decide where to dig based on the discovery of sherds, coins, or other metal artifacts, or depressions in the soils which appear to match man-made structures. Other times, modern demolition will uncover material culture that is obviously from an historic site, and a quick archaeological salvage effort will take place before the area is destroyed. In the early twentieth century and before, teams would dig a square locus of soil, ten centimeters at a time, and record their findings as they were discovered. But in the early modern era, a British team lead by Mortimer Wheeler and expanded by Kathleen Kenyan began a more intentional digging practice which came to be known as the Wheeler-Kenyan Method of excavation. In this new method, a locus would be dug carefully while taking note of changes in the soil structure and keeping any material culture found in a soil stratum and separated into baskets labeled with benchmarks from the stratigraphy. Using this method allowed teams to keep track of which material culture went with which strata and make it possible to compare the bulks in different loci to use the soil benchmarks to keep track of strata across a site.

If one were digging in Tel Aphek, the stratigraphy would look something like this: The surface soil is Ottoman Era backfill of soil, hard-packed into the floor of a fort. Next, the Ottomans filled a layer of earth, with material culture from the surrounding area randomly embedded within it as the soil was disturbed by the filling. Also within is the Iron Age walls and material culture in situ as it was buried by the Ottomans when filling. Below this is the dirt filled in by the Philistines or Israelites who built here when establishing the citadel on the previous remains of the Canaanite, or possibly Egyptian city built in the Late bronze era. By cataloging finds as they were discovered, layer by layer, different findings can be attributed to the Age to which it belongs.

But what has this to do with the risk of misattributing a find because of one’s presuppositions? Compare two different Iron Age discoveries- Jericho, which was carefully cataloged by Kenyon of the Wheeler-Kenyon method of stratigraphy whose goal was to determine if Canaanites were living in the city-state during the time of Joshua and his conquest recorded in the Bible, and Hazor, which was studied by Yigal Yadin, a Hebrew nationalist who worked in 1950 with the support of the newly formed Israeli government to establish an historical argument for the presence of Israel on what had previously been Palestinian land (Cline 42-45). Kenyon was asked to revisit the location of the ruins of Jericho, bringing her advanced excavation techniques to clarify whether there was any evidence of Jericho falling to Joshua’s army as recorded in the Bible. By a thoroughly cataloged review of pottery found in the site, Kenyon concluded that the city had fallen at least a thousand years previous to the time of Joshua’s military campaign. Indeed, the lack of any pottery from the Late Bronze Age led her to conclude that the city was completely uninhabited since 1550 BCE (Cline 41). Her lack of commitment to the Biblical narrative led to her conclusions.

In contrast, Yadin enjoyed Israel’s new prime minister’s blessing following the Six-Year War to work hard to uncover what could be discovered at Hazor, a Middle and Late Bronze Age Canaanite city that, much like Tel Aphek was an earthen mound with a fortification atop. Unlike the uninhabited Jericho, Hazor did have supporting evidence of destruction from the Joshua era as the strata dating to the thirteenth century BCE had evidence of ash and man-made destruction as well as a casement wall (Cline 44-45). These dates aligned with Joshua’s Biblical narrative with more certainty, as his campaign was recorded as traveling through Megiddo, Gezer, and Hazor. Yadin also worked on excavations at Megiddo, where he discovered an arch in a lower stratum, which he attributed to a palace of King Solomon. His intention to use archaeological discoveries to lend more credibility to Biblical accounts and thus validate the current Jewish position in Israel led him to seek similar arches in Gezer, Megiddo, and Jerusalem. These places were all mentioned in the biblical narrative as having been inhabited during Solomon’s reign and thus would be obvious locations to dig. Yadin did indeed find these arches in place underneath the foundation of Assyrian fortifications. In fact, there is evidence that the foundations discovered in Megiddo were even from the Age of King David (Mazar 382).

Which conclusions are correct? Just because someone comes to the site with preconceptions for what will be found there, it’s not necessarily a coincidence that the predicted discoveries were found. There are more ways than just digging until the team discovers a foundation of a building to corroborate a find in any excavation site. Sometimes a stratum will have unexpected material culture embedded within it; for example, Egyptian Scarabs are all over the Levant from different ages. The names of the Pharaohs written on the scarabs can help to date locations. Cult objects found in a location, like burial sarcophagus or idols set in places of worship, can be used to place a people group. Radiocarbon dating can verify the date of a site when organic material is present. Written records from outside the region but set in the same era can also prove a location, such as references to the House of David written on cuneiform tablets or Egyptian etchings of the King of Israel losing the battle to the Pharaoh.

Every once in a while, the object on Antiques Roadshow is an authentic artifact matching the family lore that followed from generation to generation as they passed the item along. But whenever that authentic item is appraised, the professional uses multiple clues for verification. That chipped paint, the crackle in the oil paint, the stamp in the base of the ceramic jar, these clues all point to the history of the piece in question. Likewise, when a site is uncovered in the Levant, no matter how tempting it is to attribute that location or artifact to the people group you hoped were responsible for its presence in the excavated unit, multiple methods of verification are required to make the case. Just because Yadin had a political purpose in finding evidence of Israelite sites, it does not discredit the actual discovery of Iron Age structures that match the biblical narrative of the Solomon era. Even at its most significant numbers, the Tribes of

Israel were always a minority in the region. Even at locations where most people agree the Israelites were the inhabitants, the cultic practices often mirrored their neighboring people groups blurring the lines between the people of YHWH and Canaanites, Assyrians, Philistines, or Egyptians. With so many competing goals for the research in the Levant and so many years of history layered one on top of the other, it is impressive we can say we know anything discovered for sure.

Cline, Eric H. Biblical Archaeology: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Gadot, Yuval, and Esther Yadin. “Aphek-Antipatris II- The Remains on the Acropolis.” Emery and Claire Yass, Publications in Archaeology, 2009.

Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10000-586 B.C.E. Yale University Press, 2009.