By: Norma Franklin
Visitors to Megiddo thrill to the long descent into the famous water system, first climbing down the many steps that surround the gaping chasm dug deep into the tell and then the rock cut shaft followed by a long tunnel cut into the bedrock.
But who actually built the water system? In 1927 the Oriental Institute of Chicago excavated a water system at Megiddo and attributed it to the Late Bronze Age. Yet today visitor’s guides to Megiddo state that the great water system was constructed in the ninth century BCE, while the signage at the site specifically states that it was built by Ahab, King of Israel. How did this change come about and most importantly is it justified? Are the kings of Israel really the builders, or not?
Architect Robert Lamon on behalf of University of Chicago excavated the Megiddo water system. Although Lamon was not a trained archaeologist he possessed an eye for architectural detail and some of his excellent plans were published[i].
He was also reprimanded[ii] by his superiors in Chicago for the way he carelessly cut through the archaeological material that surrounded the entrance to the water system. But Lamon clearly established that the rock-cut section of the water system had a long period of use and had at least three distinct phases:
In Phase 1 access to the water source was via a rock-hewn staircase which allowed people to descend to the level of the water table and walk along a rock-cut horizontal tunnel to the underground spring located at the foot of the tell.
In Phase 2 the rock-hewn staircase was chiseled away to leave a square shaft with just the faint negatives of the steps as evidence. There was now no direct access for people; they were no longer able to descend to the level of the water table from within the city. But the gradient of the horizontal tunnel was changed so that water from the underground spring now flowed to the base of the shaft. This meant that the water system now functioned as an intramural well.
Finally, in Phase 3, access to the water source was again possible, this time via a masonry staircase built inside the shaft. People were able to descend directly to the tunnel and walk to the underground spring. Presumably the water level was now lower and water no longer flowed from the spring along the tunnel to the base of the newly built masonry steps.
Only Phase 3 could be placed in a secure chronological context. This was made possible due to the analysis of the pottery contained in the fill used to support the built staircase. The pottery appeared to correspond with that retrieved from the fill below the famous Stratum IV stable complexes. The stables and the city wall were originally attributed to the tenth century BCE and the reign of King Solomon. Therefore Lamon also allocated the final phase, Phase 3, of the water system to the tenth century.
Lamon also used another clue. Running below City Wall 325 was a narrow passage, Gallery 629, that led off the tell in the direction of the spring. Lamon thought it predated the “Solomonic” city wall and was built to allow access to the extramural water source prior to the construction of the water system. Therefore he attributed the initial construction of the water system, Phase 1 to the Late Bronze Age.
In 1967 Yigael Yadin of Hebrew University embarked on a series of excavations at Megiddo. He examined the northern Stables and City Wall 325, Gallery 629, and the exit from the water system. As a result of his work Yadin revised the dating of the Stables and City Wall 325, attributing them to the ninth century BCE and the time of Ahab. Consequently if Gallery 629 was now both pre-Ahab and pre-water system then Yadin reasoned that the water system too must have been built by Ahab in the ninth century BCE.[iii]
Today following excavation by the Megiddo Expedition of Tel Aviv University the Stables and City Wall 325 are now known to date to the eighth century BCE. If one wants a king to attribute these buildings works to then Jeroboam II would fit the bill. But does this mean that Gallery 629 was built by Ahab in the ninth century and the water system by Jeroboam II in the eighth century BCE? Emphatically no!
The first mistake was made by Lamon and compounded by Yadin. Gallery 629 is just a short stretch of a solidly constructed passage, built using ashlar masonry and stone pillars, and strategically placed below City Wall 325 in order to bear the weight of the wall at the point where it crossed over the gallery. That is, it is merely a postern gate that probably did serve to access the spring in an emergency but which was built together with City Wall 325 in the eighth century BCE. It certainly didn’t pre-date the construction of the water system.
A second mistake or rather omission was made by Yadin; he simply ignored the fact that the water system had three clear phases of use. The pottery belonging to Phase 3 was originally thought by Lamon to belong to the tenth century BCE but it is now known to belong to the late ninth or early eighth century BCE. This is the last phase in the life of the water system and so Yadin’s attribution of the first initial construction of the water system to Ahab in the ninth century BCE can no longer hold water!
So when was the water system built? Possibly Lamon was correct, albeit for the wrong reasons, and the water system was built in the Late Bronze Age. However, even Yadin, in one of his 1967 excavations proved that the underground water source was accessed via a cave at the base of the tell as far back as the Middle Bronze Age. In fact the classic shape of Tel Megiddo that we know today, a circular high mound, with contours formed by massive earthen ramparts, was formed during the Middle Bronze Age. Therefore I believe[iv] that similar to sites such as Jerusalem, Tel Gezer, and Tel Gerisa, the great Megiddo water system was constructed during the Middle Bronze Age and that it served the citizens of the city for perhaps as long as a thousand years. This conclusion makes the works of the Kings of Israel slightly less grand but those of their Canaanite predecessors all the more impressive.
For more information on the Megiddo check out the links below.
The Megiddo Expedition
Relative and Absolute Chronology of Gallery 629 and the Megiddo Water System: A Reassessment.
[i] See Robert Lamon,1935. The Megiddo Water System. (Chicago, Oriental Institute Publication 32, 1935).
[ii] Correspondence in the archive of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
[iii] See Yigael Yadin “Megiddo of the Kings of Israel.” Biblical Archaeologist 33 (1970): 66-96.
[iv] For a longer discussion see N. Franklin, “Relative and Absolute Chronology of Gallery 629 and the Megiddo Water System: A Reassessment.” In: I. Finkelstein, D. Ussishkin, and B. Halpern, eds., Megiddo III: The 1992–1996 Seasons. (Tel Aviv, 2000), pp. 515-523
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