Temples and Temple-Builders at Early Bronze Age Megiddo

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Tel Megiddo lies in the heart of the Jezreel Valley, Israel, at the hub international roads between Egypt and Syria. In this abridged version of a piece from Near Eastern Archaeology, Adams and his colleagues discuss one of the most recent important finds at Megiddo, the ‘Great Temple’ of the fourth millennium BCE, and the community of its builders.

By: Matthew J. Adams, Jonathan David, Robert S. Homsher, and Margaret E. Cohen 

Tel Megiddo lies in the heart of the Jezreel Valley, at the hub of international roads between Egypt and Syria. Its local importance in all periods of the Bronze and Iron Ages cannot be overstated but while major excavations have taken place at well-known sites like Megiddo, Jezreel, and Taanach, the valley itself has received little archaeological and historical attention. The Jezreel Valley Regional Project (JVRP) is designed to focus attention at the regional level through long-term, multidisciplinary survey and excavation.

The JVRP has focused four seasons of excavation on the Early Bronze Age I (ca. 3300–3000 BCE) site of Tel Megiddo East. This settlement was home to the community responsible for building the recently excavated Great Temple complex at Tel Megiddo, on of the largest such structures in the Levant. Together, the town and temple are providing new evidence for the precursors of urban societies of the EB II–III (ca. 3000–2500 BCE).

The Jezreel Valley in Northern Israel indicating significant EB sites. Arrows mark major routes in and out of the valley.  Image © 2012 Google and © 2014 Digital Globe.

Figure 2. The Jezreel Valley in Northern Israel indicating significant EB sites. Arrows mark major routes in and out of the valley.
Image © 2012 Google and © 2014 Digital Globe.

The dual site of Early Bronze Age I Megiddo. Tel Megiddo on the west, with estimated EB I size in white dashed lines, and Tel Megiddo East, with estimated  boundaries in black dash. The blue line represents the wadi cut by run-off from the local water source at ‘Ain el-Qubbi, and the blue dashed line is a reconstruction of the  location of the EB I marsh identified in JVPR excavations. Aerial Orthophoto of Jezreel Valley, Israel. Israel: Ofek Aerial Photography Ltd., January-February 2011.

Figure 3. The dual site of Early Bronze Age I Megiddo. Tel Megiddo on the west, with estimated EB I size in white dashed lines, and Tel Megiddo East, with estimated boundaries in black dash. The blue line represents the wadi cut by run-off from the local water source at ‘Ain el-Qubbi, and the blue dashed line is a reconstruction of the location of the EB I marsh identified in JVPR excavations. Aerial Orthophoto of Jezreel Valley, Israel. Israel: Ofek Aerial Photography Ltd., January-February 2011.

The Great Temple of Megiddo

As a result of the extensive excavations by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s, Tel Megiddo is recognized as an important site from the Early Bronze through Iron Age. The 1935–1939 campaigns focused on an enormous 5000 m2 excavation area on the eastern side of the tell, Area BB (figs. 1, 3). The result was the identification of the complete stratigraphy of the site through 20 major strata, and one of the largest exposures of Early Bronze Age levels at a major site in the southern Levant. Among the discoveries was a 120 square meter temple of Stratum XIX (our Level J-3), dating to the EB IB. Architecturally similar to a Chalcolithic cultic building found at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea, the temple featured an altar and four basalt slabs placed along the long axis of the sanctuary. Work was cut short by the onset of World War II.

When the Tel Aviv University Megiddo Expedition began work at Megiddo in 1992, the deep cut provided an unprecedented opportunity to revisit the Early Bronze Age using modern techniques.Through 2010, the Megiddo Expedition conducted extensive excavations in this area (now called Area J, figs. 1, 4) in order to refine the EB stratigraphy.

Figure 4. Remains of the Great Temple in Area J after the 2008 season. South is at the top of the photograph, basalt tables are at center, and the altar is at center left.  Compare with figure 5. Photograph courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition.

Figure 4. Remains of the Great Temple in Area J after the 2008 season. South is at the top of the photograph, basalt tables are at center, and the altar is at center left.
Compare with figure 5. Photograph courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition.

Figure 5. Isometric drawing of the Great Temple

Figure 5. Isometric drawing of the Great Temple

The most surprising result was the discovery of the Great Temple in Level J-4, a monumental shrine dating to the latest phase of the EB IB (ca. 3000 BCE). This enormous building was a rectangular sanctuary some 47.5 by 22 meters in dimension (a so-called ‘broadroom’) with two rear corridors stacked with the bone refuse from animal sacrifices (figs. 4–5). The main sanctuary was entered through a basalt-paved doorway in the northern wall, opposite a mudbrick and stone altar. A row of twelve column bases was located along the longitudinal axis of the sanctuary flanked by two rows of round and rectangular 1-ton basalt slabs. At 1100 square meters, the sheer size of the building is impressive and unprecedented. It was built to replace the similarly-styled but much smaller temple of Level J-3. But more impressive than the size of the temple is the precision of the craftsmanship, the scale of the labor, and the underlying organization of the society.
The temple was designed to exacting standards. It was laid out on a well-planned grid using a standard unit of measurement (a cubit of 52.5 centimeters) arranged in modules of six cubits. These determined the layout of the building and the placement of the cultic furniture. The structure was planned as an asymmetrical structure of two wings, each measuring seven modules by seven modules, and containing six column bases, six basalt tables, and a corridor. The geometric center of the temple is exactly at the center of the altar. Significant intellectual effort, complementing the manual effort, was invested in the design of this building.

Figure 6. Comparative plans of the Megiddo Level J-3 (left) and Level J-4 (right) temples to scale. Illustrations by M. J. Adams.

Figure 6. Comparative plans of the Megiddo Level J-3 (left) and Level J-4 (right) temples to scale. Illustrations by M. J. Adams.

But the manual effort was immense. Some 1100 cubic metersof stone were in the foundations alone, and we estimated another volume of 2200 cubic meters of mudbricks were used in the construction. The mudbricks would have required around 58,000 kilograms of straw temper, grown on more than 100 hectares, or 250 acres.

In addition to material resources, unskilled workers were required to transport materials along with skilled specialists who could quarry and cut stone, manufacture bricks, build walls, and sculpt basalt. These laborers carried out the detailed plans of a meticulous architect (or architects) who designed the temple employing innovative geometry. Behind the practical architectural design were priests who established the rules for the physical space and its sacred activities. These priests also determined and implemented the rituals for decommissioning the earlier temple and dedicating the new Great Temple.

Figure 7. Great Temple with 6-cubit module grid (green), diagonals intersecting on main altar (blue), 7-module by 7-module  wings (red), and additional 6-cubit module measurements (orange). Illustration by M. J. Adams.

Figure 7. Great Temple with 6-cubit module grid (green), diagonals intersecting on main altar (blue), 7-module by 7-module
wings (red), and additional 6-cubit module measurements (orange). Illustration by M. J. Adams.

Such an effort would have required an administrative entity to negotiate between participants, organize materials, calculate material needs, and compensate suppliers and workers. Finally, sizable agriculture and pastoral resources were necessary simply to feed the participants. This task too was immense.

While the Great Temple provides dramatic new evidence for the emergence of a well-organized society in the Jezreel Valley ca. 3000 BCE, the nature of its social and political organization remains unclear. In order to understand how this society functioned, the JVRP investigated the settlement responsible for its construction.

 

EB Megiddo: Two Sites

Tel Megiddo is only one within a larger cluster of archaeological sites, ranging in date from the Neolithic Period through modern times, within a mile of the main tell. Surveys identified a large area east of the tell with high concentrations of Early Bronze Age IB pottery, and architectural remains and remote sensing data helped to build a picture of a significant EB I settlement (figs. 3, 8). The eastern portion has been considered a separate archaeological site, known as Tel Megiddo East (TME).

Figure 8. View of TME from the height of Tel Megiddo looking westward. The excavation shades just right of center mark the area of the site under excavation by the  JVRP. Photograph courtesy of JVRP.

Figure 8. View of TME from the height of Tel Megiddo looking westward. The excavation shades just right of center mark the area of the site under excavation by the
JVRP. Photograph courtesy of JVRP.

The Settlement of the Great Temple Builders

Since 2010 the JVRP has investigated Tel Megiddo East to understand the social and political context of the Great Temple. These have included geophysical studies, paleoenvironmental studies, and trial excavations.

The settlement at TME was centered on a bedrock outcrop approximately 450 meters east of Tel Megiddo (figs. 3, 8). The boundaries of the site are not yet clear, but excavations suggest a maximum area of approximately 8 hectares (20 acres). These excavations demonstrated that the settlement itself was not contiguous with the cultic acropolis at Tel Megiddo. No settlement existed in the ca. 250 meters between the wadi and the rocky ascent below the Great Temple; rather, this area was a marshland, unsuitable for habitation but a great resource for flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs attested from the excavations.

Unfortunately, the extent of the EB I on the main tell remains hidden beneath later material. The types of occupation there (cultic? domestic? administrative?) are open to speculation but it seems probable that EB IB Tel Megiddo was approximately 4 hectares and consisted primarily of a cultic compound and cemetery.Greater Megiddo was thus a dual site consisting of a cultic acropolis at Tel Megiddo and the settlement at TME. With a combined size of approximately 12 hectares (ca. 30 acres, not including the marsh that separated them), EB IB Megiddo is among the largest known Early Bronze Age sites in the southern Levant, dwarfed only by later EB II-III Bet Yerah and Yarmuth.

Figure 9. Photogrammetric plan of the JVRP Excavations at TME (Area C) showing primarily elements belonging to Phase 6, the period of the Great Temple. Note the  complimentary orientations of Buildings A, B, and C. Photogrammetry by A. Prins.

Figure 9. Photogrammetric plan of the JVRP Excavations at TME (Area C) showing primarily elements belonging to Phase 6, the period of the Great Temple. Note the
complimentary orientations of Buildings A, B, and C. Photogrammetry by A. Prins.

The excavations at TME have revealed nearly 600 square meters of the settlement. Although parts of the site, particularly on the western slopes, have been greatly disturbed, our most recent season (2013) indicated that the central portion is in good condition. Four major architectural phases have so far been revealed, all dating to the EB IB, roughly parallel the four phases of the EB IB on Tel Megiddo (Levels J-2–4). The latest phase is contemporary with the Great Temple (ca. 3000 BCE).

The settlement rests on very uneven and difficult to build on limestone outcroppings (figs. 9–10). It is not surprising that the earliest architectural remains are located at the base of this bedrock (beneath Building C). Little could be discerned about the layout of the early settlement but it was unplanned and irregular. That some walls continued to be rebuilt into the latest phases suggests continuity.

Figure 10. Examples of terrace walls constructed within and upon jagged bedrock. Photographs courtesy of JVRP

Figure 10. Examples of terrace walls constructed within and upon jagged bedrock. Photographs courtesy of JVRP

Other changes indicate significant developments in the mind of the community. The latest occupational phase (Phase 6, figs. 9–12), contemporary with the Great Temple, reveals a new effort to form the uneven bedrock into usable space. Well-built terraces and foundation walls among the sharp bedrock allowed the settlement to expand upslope. This not only demonstrates significant effort but also strategic engineering and site planning, especially since at least one of the new buildings (“A”) was particularly large.

Figure 11. Plan of building “A” overlaid with a grid of 52.5cm cubits. Yellow  highlights indicate two cubit thick walls and red highlights mark increments of five  cubits. Grey features are basalt slabs. Illustration by M. J. Adams.

Figure 11. Plan of building “A” overlaid with a grid of 52.5cm cubits. Yellow highlights indicate two cubit thick walls and red highlights mark increments of five cubits. Grey features are basalt slabs. Illustration by M. J. Adams.

This partially excavated building (figs. 9; 11) is especially intriguing. It is at least 25 meters north to south and 15 meters east to west, approximately seven times larger than an average house. Two flat basalt slabs, apparently column bases, remained in situ. Despite its poor preservation, we reconstruct a large interior space defined by evenly spaced columns on basalt slabs, perhaps serving a public function.Building “A” appears to be a well-planned structure designed according to the same principles as the Great Temple.

The discoveries from the final phase at TME are significant contributions to understanding the society that built the Great Temple. First, Building A shows that the development of large-scale public architecture was present in the broader community. Second, the use of the cubit in the temple and Tel Megiddo East shows standardization was pervasive. Finally, the TME Phase 6 buildings and the fragments of others were laid out in an organized grid-like fashion despite the difficulties of constructing on jagged bedrock. This last demonstrates that a general plan existed for at least part of the site.

The results of just a few seasons at TME have demonstrated that it parallels the pattern observed on the acropolis. At both sites, substantial activity and construction suggest a prosperous mid-to-late EB IB society, culminating in the Great Temple phase, which featured monumental architecture, standardization of measurements in public and private buildings both on the acropolis and in the settlement, and planning over broad spaces. Sophisticated engineering is also indicated by the terraces supporting settlement expansion onto rough terrain and the monumental feat of constructing the temple itself.

 

The Jezreel Valley in the Late Fourth Millennium

Tel Megiddo and Tel Megiddo East reveal a community undergoing significant developments, including the ability to construct an unprecedented cultic complex. The resources necessary for these endeavors suggests access to a sizable hinterland, including building materials, food, and especially humans willing (or forced) to participate in the project.

Data from previous surveys and excavations suggest that Megiddo was part of a valley-wide phenomenon. Settlement patterns and site-size estimates suggest a dramatic population boom in the EB IB. The Megiddo Hinterland Survey in the 1990s identified more than 45 settlement sites, the most for any period before the Iron Age, with an average size over 2 hectares. Based on these figures alone, the EB IB seems to have been one of the most prosperous periods in the history of the region. The impression is of a well-integrated regional network, in which Megiddo played a central role related to its elaborate cult complex. The next project for the JVRP is a survey of the Jezreel Valley to place developments at Megiddo in a more detailed regional setting.

 

Figure 12. Photogrammetric plan of building “B” with a grid of three cubit modules overlaid. Photogrammetry by M. J. Adams.

Figure 12. Photogrammetric plan of building “B” with a grid of three cubit modules overlaid. Photogrammetry by M. J. Adams.

Epilogue: The Fall of EB I Megiddo

Despite development of unprecedented communities and monumental structures that left their mark on Megiddo and the valley, the EB I collapsed. More than half of the sites in the valley were abandoned, and nearly every surviving site was significantly reduced in size. The reasons for this, and for the emergence of new fortified towns, remain unclear. Similar changes in the in transition from EB I–II have been identified all over the southern Levant. The Jordan Valley Regional Project and Tel Megiddo expedition will be back in the field in 2014 working to address these mysteries.

 

Matthew J. Adams is the incoming Dorot Director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. Jonathan David is Assistant Professor of Classics at Gettysburg College. Robert S. Homsher is a lecturer in the Anthropology Department at San Francisco State University. Margaret E. Cohen teaches in the Religion Department at Lycoming College.

[1] The authors wish to thank field supervisors Fadi Abu Zidan, Enno Brun, Roy Liran, Maayan Shemer, Ariel Vered, and Omar Zidan for their invaluable help in the field. They are also indebted to Heeli Shechter and Erin Rice (Obsidian), Lena Brailovsky, Omry Barzilai, Hamudi Khalaily, and Ofer Marder (lithic assemblages in the field), Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai team (research of the flint assemblages), Fanny Bocquentin (physical anthropology), Nuha Agha (zooarchaeology), Dvory Namdar (residue analysis), Sorin Hermon (3D scanning), Sonia Itkis (magnetometry) and to Rivka Mishayev and Mendel Kahan (plans and sections). Thanks are also due to Yossi Yaakobi (administration), IAA northern district archaeologists and workers from Kfar Manda, Nazareth, Iblin, Shefaram, and Tiberias.

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