By: Robert Mullins and Nava Panitz-Cohen
Abel Beth Maacah is an imposing 35-acre mound controlling one of the most strategic passes in northern Israel and has the honor of being the northernmost site in Israel (running neck-and-neck with nearby Tel Dan, but winning by a nostril). It was also ancient Israel’s northern gateway to the Aramean world.
But this summer, a team of 40 led by Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University and Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in collaboration with Cornell University, began excavations at the largest site in Israel yet to be touched by the archaeologist’s spade.
The identification of Tell Abil el-Qameḥ with Abel Beth Maacah (1 Kings 15:20; 2 Kings 15:29; 2 Chronicles 16:4) has been accepted by most scholars, beginning with Edward Robinson and Victor Guerrin in the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century with W. F. Albright, Y. Aharoni, W. G. Dever, and others. But remarkably, despite the site’s size and obvious importance, it has never been excavated.
What are we looking for? For one thing, there is Abel’s Aramean connection. References to a political entity called “Aram Maacah” (1 Chronicles 19:6) and to the “king of Maacah” (2 Samuel 10:6, 8) evoke possibilities of Aramean presence at the site, allowing us to examine such an entity in relation to other presumed Aramean sites like Bethsaida, Tel Hadar, and En Gev. Even though the Arameans are specifically mentioned in ancient records, we know very little about them “on the ground,” especially within the borders of modern Israel. Can they be defined in terms of a distinct material culture? The location of Abel Beth Maacah on the northern borders of Israel (then and now) makes this site a viable candidate for the study of Aramean cultural and political influences.
Passages in the Hebrew Bible suggest that Abel Beth Maacah became an Israelite town during David’s reign, and it apparently remained so until its destruction by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III in 733 BCE. In the story of the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20:14-22), the city is enigmatically referred to as “a mother in Israel.” Her power and influence is apparent in that she directly negotiates the surrender of the Benjaminite rebel Sheba ben Bichri with Joab, David’s military commander.
The Abel Beth Maacah project is also intent on pursuing Phoenician connections in Iron Age II. The city’s location on a branch road of the International Highway leading north to Ijon (Tell ed-Dibbin) in Lebanon’s Marj Ayyun Valley, and roads leading west to Tyre and Sidon, will enable us to study cross-cultural ties with coastal Lebanon during the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
A modern illustration of the proximity of Tel Abel Beth Maacah to the Phoenician coast can be found in an exhibit in the local museum at nearby Metulla. An advertisement from the 1930’s invites one to spend their summer vacation in lovely, cool Metulla. According to the ad, the easiest way to get there from Tel Aviv is to take a boat to Tyre and then a carriage from there to Metulla, 35 kilometers away! We dream of the day when we too can take such a ride.
Scattered ruins of the small Arab village of Abil el-Qameḥ from 1948 are visible on parts of the tell, particularly on the upper mound. While not part of our immediate research agenda, the remains of the Arab village and the associated strata dating to Late Antiquity are slated for exploration in the future as an integral part of the occupation sequence of the site, emphasizing the longue durée of human occupation on this prominent mound.
If the tell is so impressive, important, intriguing, and full of potential, why has it never been excavated? The answer may lie precisely in the element that made the site so important throughout history – location, location, location. The geopolitical situation that drew Canaanites, Arameans, Israelites, Phoenicians, and Assyrians to this ‘bottleneck’ between the verdant Huleh Valley to the south and the lush Lebanese Beq’a Valley to the north also placed it a sensitive zone in modern times – it lies less than one kilometer from the Israel-Lebanon border. Archaeologists may have also shied away from the site due to the extensive excavations at nearby Dan and Hazor.
Whatever the explanation, we are extremely fortunate to be the team who has accepted the challenge of this great site, made possible by friends and alumni of Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, with additional contributions from Cornell University, made possible by Professors Chris and Lauren Monroe. We have also started a fruitful new partnership with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and its enthusiastic group of Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology and Language students led by Professor John Monson. A Harris Fund grant allowed us to purchase a much-needed digital camera. Our excavation has also been granted ASOR affiliation, and academic guidance is provided by Amihai Mazar, Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Lawson Younger of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Ruhama Bonfil, veteran of Hazor and chief surveyor in the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is our surveyor and expert field adviser.
Following a preliminary survey in May 2012, we conducted a four-week season in June and July 2013. We focused on two areas – Area F on the southern end of the lower mound and Area A on the eastern end of the connection between the upper and lower mounds.
Our choice of areas was guided by finds made during our preliminary survey, including an intact late Iron Age I ring flask at the foot of Area A and three very large stones visible in topsoil in Area F. We were greatly rewarded by a dense Iron Age I domestic occupation in Area A, whose finds included numerous collared-rim jar fragments. We also found an intriguing structure built of massive stones that might be part of a tower in Area F.
The date of this structure is yet to be determined. But our prize find in Area F was a small jug containing a silver hoard that sat on a floor abutting the structure. We have tentatively attributed this to very late Late Bronze-early Iron Age I. Much work still needs to be done to better understand our first season’s finds, but the beginning is extremely promising and exciting.
Standing on top of this lofty mound, bounded on the west, north, and east by the hills and valleys of modern Lebanon, and the imposing Lebanese/Syrian Hermon massif majestically dominating the scenery on the east, and the expansive Huleh Valley opening up to the south, one has the feeling of being transported to a different land and time. We saw early morning fog rising from the peaceful Lebanese village of Aadaisse to the west, sleepy UN patrols slowly climbing the road on the east, and farmers from Metulla and the nearby kibbutzim working in the fruit orchards surrounding the tell. Horses and cows grazed on the summit, and herons flew low and nonchalantly as they effortlessly crossed the border alongside pink and gray clouds that drifted by. And here we were, this small dedicated group, digging even further to find another link in this chain of everyday life that took place in the shadow of portentous events – just like today. We cannot wait to continue excavating this amazing site and fulfill our research goals – as well as dreams of peaceful coexistence in this border zone.
Robert Mullins is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University. Nava Panitz-Cohen is a Research Associate and Lecturer in the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Click here for more information on the Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavation.
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