By: Juan Manuel Tebes, Catholic University of Argentina – University of Buenos Aires – National Research Council
Buried beneath the houses of Silwan, a small neighborhood south of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, lie the remains of four thousand years of human history. As elsewhere in the Middle East, in Silwan history is counted by ages. But the key to this site, what sets it apart most prominently from other places in this part of the world, lies in a short period of time in its history, no longer than a century, situated in the tenth century BCE.
This is the time of the United Monarchy, an era when, according to the Hebrew Bible, Israelite King David and his son Solomon reigned over a large mass of land from their capital at Jerusalem, territory which the Book of Kings eloquently describes as extending from “the (Euphrates) river to the land of the Philistines and the Egyptian border” (1 Kgs. 5:1 [4:21]). A quick glimpse into a map of the modern Middle East will reveal that this passage effectively includes the territories of the state of Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and parts of Syria and Jordan.
This was the Golden Age of the history of the ancient Israelites. The biblical authors saw David and Solomon as archetypical – but hardly perfect – monarchs. David is described as the prototype of the warrior and pious king. It was David who expanded exponentially the borders of the kingdom, transforming it from a small chiefdom based on Judah, as the highlands south of Jerusalem were known, into a supranational state.
But it was Solomon, on the whole, who benefited most from his father’s ventures. He’s remembered as the model of the wise, powerful and rich ruler that was going to become emblematic of the history of the Middle East. The point is illustrated by the visit of the Queen of Sheba, who’s said to have heard of the great wisdom of Solomon, traveling from her remote Arabian kingdom with immense riches to test him with difficult questions.
The United Monarchy story is framed in similar narratives of flourishing and decay. The biblical text relates that after the Golden Age of David and Solomon the kingdom split up, the blame laying in the secession of the northern part of the kingdom, whose people chose their own kings and rejected the predominance of the cult of Yahweh – Israel’s only god – in Jerusalem. This came to be known as the Kingdom of Israel, with Samaria as its main capital. Unsurprisingly, the biblical authors didn’t have a respectable opinion about this kingdom, for their monarchs were seen as idolatrous who departed from the Davidic dynasty, abandoning the only licit Jerusalemite cult and adopting foreign gods. To the contrary, the southern portion of the land, called the Kingdom of Judah, was seen as the “loyal” kingdom under God’s eyes, governed until its end by the successors of David and Solomon, and continuing the cultic practices at the Temple of Jerusalem.
Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem and Solomonic Gates
It’s hardly a surprise that our own memories of David and Solomon are intertwined with the modern conflicts over land, people and religion that have shaped the entire Middle East since the end of the 19th century. Modern archaeological research in the area began during the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, but took its classical form after the end of World War I, during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, between 1920 and 1948.
These years saw the flourishing of Biblical Archaeology, with several excavations unearthing the first known remains of the Iron Age, as the crucial period extending between 1200 and 586 BCE came to be known. Pioneer archaeologists such as W. Flinders Petrie and William F. Albright championed in these early ventures using methods of dig and adopting interpretations of finds that seem outdated from our own perspective, but that were revolutionary at that time. Research on the Iron Age was conducted by an almost strict adherence to the biblical text, which provided the guide for the analysis of the material remains, the dating of the layers of human occupation and even the entire construction of the chronology of that period. So much that the indictment “Bible in one hand, spade in the other” is a common cliché for describing how people dug in these early times.
It’s precisely in these decades when archaeologists began to amass a collection of material remains that seemed to confirm the biblical depiction of the great empire of David and Solomon. This view was basically built upon three pillars.
The first two pillars were based on a key biblical passage. According to the Book of Kings, King Solomon used forced labor “for the building of the Temple of Yahweh, his own palace, the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer” (1 Kgs. 9:15). What better way to start looking for the material evidences of the United Monarchy than excavating its building enterprises?
Central to the biblical account is Jerusalem, city that according to the Book of Kings housed King David’s Palace and the Temple of Yahweh, built by Solomon. Most historians believe this sanctuary, known as the “First Temple” and destroyed by the army of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, was located in what is now a trapezoidal walled compound within the Old City known by Jewish and Westerners as the “Temple Mount” and by Muslims as “Haram al-Sharif” (Noble Sanctuary).
In Jerusalem, as elsewhere in the Middle East, the construction of successive cultic complexes in one site throughout different historical eras is quite characteristic. Another sanctuary to Yahweh, the “Second Temple”, was built by the Jewish exiles returning from Babylon in the late 6th century BCE and rebuilt by King Herod the Great in the 1st century CE, to be destroyed by future Roman Emperor Titus in 70 CE. In the same spot, now considered by Sunni Muslims the third holiest place to Islam after Mecca and Medina, Muslims built in the 7h-8th centuries CE the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It’s understandable why, for obvious political and security reasons, no archaeological excavations – apart from a few underground surveys in the 19th century – have been carried out inside this compound.
Yet archaeologists have been able to excavate in areas right outside the Temple Mount’s walls. And this is where we return to Silwan, for it was in this low hill that, according to most archaeologists, the first settlement in Jerusalem was founded in the Bronze Age – also known as the “Canaanite” period. The site was still a medium-size town by the time David captured it to the local Canaanite Jebusites, and it was here where he built his palace. For this reason, this area is better known, by Israelis and Westerners, as the “City of David”, although it should be obvious that the predominantly Arab population living there isn’t fond of this name.
Silwan is one of the most excavated sites on Earth, with digs being carried out during the Ottoman era, the British Mandate, the Jordanian period and now by the Israelis. Excavating here isn’t without its problems, some methodological – the accumulation of human occupation is several meters deep – and others more logistical – the hill lies in disputed territory and is occupied by a modern settlement.
Influenced in great measure by the biblical image of David’s building enterprises, British and Israeli excavations in the site unearthed archaeological remains that were ascribed to the 10th century BCE. A great deal of debate was caused by the discovery of a narrow stone structure several meters high on the eastern side of the hill. Kathleen Kenyon, famed British archaeologist who excavated the site in the 1960s, dated this construction, so-called “Stepped Stone Structure”, to the 10th century, and argued it served as a sort of supporting structure of a large building standing uphill. Many assume it’s the “Millo” mentioned in the already cited passage of the Book of Kings, an interpretation maybe hinted by the Hebrew word from which it derives, meaning “fill”. However, much of this is speculation, because it is not possible to firmly associate the stone structure with the pottery found nearby, and pottery is, as we’ll quickly see, the backbone of dating in archaeology.
It was obvious from the beginning that, despite all the celebration the Bible does about the building frenzy of David and Solomon, Jerusalem can’t provide good material evidences of it. This left archaeologists with the other building projects mentioned by the Book of Kings: the walls of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. This is exactly what Yigael Yadin, the leading exponent of the archaeology of the nascent State of Israel, did. During the first decades of the new state, Israeli archaeology accompanied the efforts to connect the young nation to the millennia-old history of Jewish presence in Palestine, thus reaffirming the right of the modern Jewish ownership of the land. Yadin, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, was the most appropriate person to unearth the evidences of the occupation of the territory by the early Israelites and the material remains of the ancient Jewish states.
In archaeology, his name is better associated with the “Solomonic gates”. The key site was Megiddo in northern Israel, a city of tremendous historical and geographical significance in ancient times, so much that the Book of Revelation mentions it by its Greek name, Armageddon, as the place of the end of days. During the 1930s the University of Chicago excavations had discovered the remains of a large city gate complex that was ascribed, on the basis of stratigraphical evidence and the description of the Book of Kings, to the reign of Solomon. In short, the American archaeologists connected this gate with some structures identified as stables, which were readily related to the cities Solomon built “for his chariots, and the cities for his horsemen” (1 Kgs. 9:19).
During the 1950s Yadin excavated the site of Hazor, another important ancient city north of the Sea of Galilee. In 1958 Yadin found a gate with six chambers in an Iron Age layer, very similar to the one found at Megiddo. To Yadin, both gates fitted nicely into the biblical account. In the moment of such amazing discovery he wrote, “This fact not only confirms the biblical narrative (I Kings, ix, 15) that Megiddo and Hazor were both rebuilt by Solomon, but even suggests that both were built by the same architect!”
Yadin did not stop there. He started looking for the same chambered gate in the third city mentioned by the Book of Kings, Gezer, another major site located in the Judaean foothills, which had been excavated in the first decades of the 20th century by the British. And so he found it. Carefully browsing through the dig’s final report, he found a structure presumably dated to a much later period which closely resembled those found at Megiddo and Hazor. Yadin happily concluded that this structure was what survived of the original Iron Age gate, claiming with excitement that this corroborated the extent of the Solomonic building enterprises.
The Myth of King Solomon’s Mines
The third archaeological pillar of David and Solomon’s grandeur is probably the best known by the common people, although in a grossly distorted way. In 1885 English writer H. Rider Haggard published his novel King Solomon’s Mines, a story that told the journey of a group of explorers in the so far unexplored territories of inner Africa. Written at the peak of European colonialism, Haggard’s novel started a myth that has impregnated books, movies and TV shows until this day, where a few bits of reality mixed with lot of fiction. For fiction it is, since there is no mention at all to King Solomon’s Mines in the Hebrew Bible.
The Solomonic mining myth, however, was endorsed by Nelson Glueck, an American archaeologist trained as a rabbi and the pioneer of the archaeological research in the Negev desert and Jordan. During the 1930s-40s Glueck was the first to meticulously explore these remote areas, recording their most important archaeological remains and collecting hundreds of pottery sherds, thus accumulating a large amount of data that is still used by modern archaeologists.
Among the areas that were of most interest to him were the copper mines of Timna and Faynan, both located in a desolate, extremely arid valley known as the Wadi Arabah, extending from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Although today Timna is within the boundaries of Israel and Faynan in Jordan, both sites share a similar geology, best illustrated by the ubiquitous presence of copper sources, the most important metal in the Bronze Age and exploited throughout the ages.
Dozens of mines, production sites, and mounds made of industrial waste from copper smelting testify the longevity of the human presence in such inhospitable sites, at least since the 6th millennium BCE. Glueck explored extensively both regions in the 1930s and, based on the pottery he collected, argued that the local copper mines were exploited during the Iron Age by the Israelites, and that this was the source of Solomon’s extraordinary wealth.
Glueck’s efforts in unraveling the evidences of the Israelite metalworking led him to excavate another site, Tell el-Kheleifeh, close to shore of the Gulf of Aqaba and now in the Jordanian side of the border. He interpreted the site as an Israelite settlement, identifying it as biblical Ezion-Geber, used by King Solomon as a base for his maritime trade ventures in the Red Sea with Hiram King of Tyre, bringing back tons of gold (1 Kgs. 9:26-28). Glueck went even further, identifying the remains as evidence of a large copper smelter-refinery, to the extent that he nicknamed Kheleifeh as the “Pittsburg of Palestine”. “The wise ruler of Israel,” wrote Glueck with enthusiasm, “was a copper king, a shipping magnate, a merchant prince, and a great builder”.
The paradox of the “King Solomon’s Mines” myth is that it was booming with romantic images of lost words, barren landscapes and adventurous archaeology, but it suffered tremendously from lack of evidence. Despite all the fuss about Timna, the site was only excavated since the 1960s by a team directed by Beno Rothenberg, former photographer in Glueck’s excavations and self-taught field archaeologist. When Rothenberg started digging in the ancient mines and workshops were the copper was smelted, he still adhered to the dating in the 10th century advocated by Glueck. However, in 1969 Rothenberg discovered a small shrine devoted to the worship of the Egyptian goddess Hathor. The shrine was found full of Egyptian finds dated to the 13th and 12th centuries. Now we know that the shrine was established by the Ramesside pharaohs to be used jointly by the Egyptians managing the exploitation of the local mines and the desert people working under their guidance. So Timna was exploited, not by the Israelites under Solomon, but by the Egyptians two centuries earlier than assumed.
This fatal blow, which knocked down the Solomonic identification of the Timna mines, went parallel with more research on the material remains of Tell el-Kheleifeh, Glueck’s Solomonic Pittsburg. Rothenberg discovered that, among other things, Glueck’s furnace room was in reality a storage room, the alleged clay crucibles were actually handmade wares, the sulphuric discoloration was a product of the final destruction of the building and not from the industrial activities…The list could go on, but the point should be clear enough: the alleged metallurgical industry in the site was imaginary.
Although Glueck wrote some preliminary reports on the Kheleifeh excavations, he never got to publish a book presenting the complete finds. When, since the 1980s, a younger generation of scholars studied again the finds, they discovered that the pottery found at the site could not be dated before the 8th century, effectively putting the nail in the coffin of Solomonic Ezion-Geber.
The Low Chronology and Controversy
By the 1980s the foundations supporting the whole model of the great kingdom of David and Solomon were shaking. Yet few would have ventured that a complete paradigm shift was coming, one that would affect the complete history of ancient Israel.
In 1980 David Ussishkin, archaeologist of Tel Aviv University, published a challenging article titled “Was the ‘Solomonic’ Gate at Megiddo built by King Solomon?”. In a detailed study, Ussishkin presented several weaknesses in the attribution of the six-chambered gate at Megiddo to Solomon. Since 1994 Ussishkin and his Tel Aviv colleague Israel Finkelstein had the unique opportunity to test their views on the Iron Age when they began their own excavations at Megiddo. Their new chronological model was going to be known as the “Low Chronology”.
The emergence of the Low Chronology in the 1990s coincided with changes that had been occurring in the Israelite society for decades, such as the secularization of the society, the rise and posterior failure of the peace movement, and new trends in the humanities. It’s certainly no coincidence that the early chronological studies of the Tel Aviv School were contemporary with novel historical approaches towards the early years of the modern State of Israel and with more eclectic views of its “founding myths”, rapidly dubbed as the “New History”. While historians were reassessing past views on the foundations of modern Israel, archaeologists were doing the same with the ancient Israelite states.
The doyen of the new approach was Finkelstein, who by the 1990s had built a solid reputation based on his previous excavations and surveys in Cisjordan. The new data had allowed him to develop a revolutionary theory for explaining the first “Israelite” settlements in the region during the early Iron Age, proposing that these weren’t founded by people coming from other areas – such as Egypt or Jordan – but by local pastoral nomads who adopted a more agricultural way of life, for that reason establishing new sedentary sites. In the 1990s, at the same time than his excavations at Megiddo, Finkelstein started publishing a series of articles re-interpreting the chronology of the entire Iron Age and proposing new approaches towards the history of the Israelite states.
Chronology is the backbone of archaeology. But, when archaeologists dig in sites or periods with few or no inscriptions, dating can be a complicated task. And here we arrive at a basic principle of archaeology: dating by pottery. How does this method work? When pottery is retrieved from a site, it’s immediately compared with similar ceramics found elsewhere. The principle is simple: similarities in the ceramics’ features are most likely the result of their being contemporary. So, if you know the dating of a specific pottery type in a site, you can use it to date similar pottery types in other places, and by extension those same places. The only thing that can be estimated is the relative position of one pottery type with respect to another – that is to say, if it’s earlier or later. So when inscriptions are absent, chronologies have to be constructed like a puzzle, putting together the sequences of different ceramic types.
This tedious excursus serves as prelude to the complex debates on the Iron Age of Palestine, because this is precisely a time of a desperate lack of inscriptions. For several decades the “Solomonic” layers discovered by Yadin were used as chronological anchors for assigning other sites to the 10th century.
Building upon Ussishkin’s previous work, Finkelstein asserted that the “Solomonic” gate complex at Megiddo in reality dated a full century later than Yadin thought. He asserted with irony that “the key stratum is dated by the pottery. The pottery is dated by its relationship to the six-chambered gate, which is, in turn, dated according to the biblical testimony to the days of Solomon; a classical circular reasoning”. In order to test his theory Finkelstein started looking for sites with similar features than those present at “Solomonic” Megiddo, such as pottery, city gates and methods of construction.
The whole foundations of Yadin’s theory seemed to be wrong. To begin with, six-chambered gates, the key piece in Yadin’s idea of an enormous building program mastered by Solomon’s architects, were found in Iron Age sites dating way before and after the 10th century. And not only that, for places completely outside the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom also featured this type of gate. In simpler words, six-chambered gates weren’t only “Solomonic” or Israelite.
If this wasn’t enough, Finkelstein focused on two northern sites relatively close to Megiddo, Samaria and Jezreel, cities that had been built, or re-built, by the monarchs of the “rebel” Kingdom of Israel. We know from the Bible and Assyrian sources that these two sites had been established in the 9th century, one century after David and Solomon’s reigns, after the secession of the northern part of the kingdom. His team discovered that Jezreel contained pottery very similar to that found at “Solomonic” Megiddo. Remember the old principle of archaeology: similar pottery in two different sites means both sites were probably contemporary. He also noted that masons’ marks in stone blocks found at the “Solomonic” layer at Megiddo were remarkably similar to the ones found at a palace of Samaria. So, either the establishment of Jezreel and Samaria should be re-dated to the 10th century or “Solomonic” Megiddo is in fact a 9th century city.
The conclusion is, the “Solomonic” stratum of Megiddo, with its six-chambered gate and pottery, wasn’t actually Solomon’s, but belonged to the monarchs of the northern kingdom. And the city buried below the “Solomonic” layer, much more reduced in extension and with less complex buildings, was the actual 10th century level. Thus, all of a sudden the United Monarchy was deprived of “Solomonic” Megiddo, one of its most precious jewels and, instead, was given a much smaller, regional town.
This reconstruction of the Iron Age chronology led, of course, to a vast transformation in the way we see the origins of the ancient Israelite states. For what was considered the material proof of the great state founded by David and strengthened by Solomon turned out to be the earliest material evidence of the northern Kingdom of Israel. It was Israel the first to emerge as a full-blown state in the 9th century, not the southern Kingdom of Judah which only developed fully a century later. It was Israel the state that possessed a relatively high rate of urbanization, with its great cities of Samaria, Jezreel, Hazor and Megiddo, not predominantly rural Judah with capital in Jerusalem, just a local town until the late 8th century. And it was Israel’s territory the one possessing the best agricultural potential and trade connections, not semi-arid Judah with its vast semi-pastoral economy.
So, ironically, it was Israel, land of idol worshippers and monarchs rejecting the true Davidic dynasty, the one having the strongest kingdom, while Judah was only the backyard of its more powerful northern neighbor. Why does the Bible have this unexpected change of roles? At this point Finkelstein resumes centuries-old scholarship on the authorship and dating of the biblical texts that agree that the northern Israelites had little to do in the composition of the Books of Kings, our main source for the study of the Israelite states, and that most of it was written in Judah or by Judaeans.
History is written by the victors and Judah’s posthumous notoriety is probably its most twisted case. Finkelstein views most of the Book of Kings as a product of the Jerusalemite temple scribes of the 7th century, writing in a time of vast political and cultic transformations. Judaean King Josiah did a vast cultic reform that involved the centralization of cult in Jerusalem and the persecution of other deities and religious practices. It’s within this background that the Book of Kings was written, probably with a sort of political agenda aimed at exalting Josiah as a “new David”, and for which the northern kingdom of Israel was nothing more than a schismatic entity, punished by Yahweh with its destruction by the Assyrians in the year 722 BCE.
During the 1990s and 2000s it seemed that David and Solomon were going to lose the battle against their oblivion. The rise of the Tel Aviv Low Chronology coincided with, and actually benefited from, a time of rapid changes in the field of biblical studies, with scholars more prone to take more challenging approaches towards the biblical text. A specific group of scholars, known as the “Minimalist School”, shared some points of view with Finkelstein’s vision of the development of the Hebrew Bible. Although they have different ideas on how the biblical text was composed, “Minimalists” agree that the Bible should be studied just as any other ancient Near Eastern textual source, such as we do with Egyptian or Assyrian inscriptions. So every historical reference in the Bible should be taken with the most caution unless it’s confirmed by parallel, extra-biblical sources. More to the point, they usually claim very late dates for the composition of some parts of the Bible, sometimes as late as the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Although the Tel Aviv archaeologists don’t belong to this “school”, both groups have done a lot to shake off old assumptions about the United Monarchy.
Another Paradigm Shift?
Now, during the last decade the tide seems to be turning, bringing to the fore again David and Solomon’s kingdom. In reality, the United Monarchy never died, because despite its appeal, the Low Chronology has caused more frenzy than adepts, and has always been hotly rejected by many scholars. In addition, the popularity of new methods of research – particularly radiocarbon dating –, far from ending the discussions, offered more fuel to nonstop disputes. Radiocarbon dating consists in measuring the amount of Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon, in organic materials such as wood, bones or seeds. Since the quantity of Carbon-14 decays when an animal or plant dies, it’s possible to know the date of the perished remains by determining the extent of that decrease.
And here we come back to Silwan again. In 2005 Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar, member of a family of distinguished archaeologists, announced to have unearthed the remains of a large public building in her excavations in the City of David. To Mazar, this building, named the “Large Stone Structure” because it was found close to the “Stepped Stone Structure” known for decades, should be dated to the 10th century. She argued this dating was based on the pottery found in the site and claimed these were probably the remains of King David’s Palace. This announcement rocketed to the news in minutes, stirring a debate that is still going on.
Mazar’s excavations were object of harsh criticism from the beginning. Particularly, severe judgment was placed upon her interpretation of the pottery evidence attributing a 10th century date to the public building. Mazar claimed to have unearthed pottery from the early Iron Age underneath the building, clearly indicating the structure was constructed after the pottery was deposited (on the basis that the deeper the material remains are found, the earlier in time they are.) But, how much later is the building?
A key principle of field archaeology is that the dating of a structure is determined by the pottery found in a building. Not anywhere, but in the building’s floor. These ceramics are usually the last pottery to be used by the people living or working there. Finkelstein and his Tel Aviv colleagues rebutted Mazar’s arguments, pointing out that no floors were found associated with the building. Actually, they totally re-interpreted Mazar’s finds and claimed the building belongs to a much later era, the Hellenistic period.
More criticism focused on the funding of Mazar’s excavations, particularly the role of Elad, Jewish private organization that has managed to control large portions of the village of Silwan and operates the “City of David” park. Elad’s objective is to encourage awareness of the Jewish background of the Silwan area, and particularly to carry out excavations in the area in order to prove the Jewish historical “roots” of the village. Critics say that this is done at the expense of not studying properly other periods in the site’s history, such as the Islamic era.
Leaving the conflicting history of the city of Jerusalem, we move to the west. Here, in the lowlands known as the Shephelah, is located Khirbet Qeiyafa, and Iron Age walled site that has become the last step in the long history of discussions about the United Monarchy. The site was long known by archaeologists, but was only object of excavations since 2007 by a team lead by Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University. When Garfinkel began excavating the site, many expected it to be another settlement of the southern Kingdom of Judah, maybe with a material culture more mixed than in those sites in the heartland of Judah. But no one was anticipating unearthing the remains of a fortress dated to the time of King David.
Khirbet Qeiyafa was found to be a fortress with public buildings, perimetral wall and two gates. What makes it much more interesting is its date. Garfinkel announced that the ceramics and radiocarbon dates taken from the site indicated it was inhabited during the late 11th and 10th century, identifying it as a Judaean stronghold facing the threat of the Philistines, the Israelites’ greatest foe located in the coastal plain. This clearly indicated that state formation in Judah began much earlier than claimed by the proponents of the Low Chronology. Garfinkel concluded with joy that “Low Chronology is now officially dead and buried”.
This claim was rapidly followed by the announcement in 2008 of the finding of an ostracon (an inscribed pot sherd) with five lines of text in Early Alphabetic script, very hard to interpret. If the dating of the site was correct, then the ostracon may point to the existence of scribes – that is to say, professional writers – and scribal schools in Judah during the 10th century, one of the clearest indications of stateness. The icing on the cake was a press release issued in 2013 publicizing the discovery of two large buildings, identified as part of King’s David Palace.
These finds are indeed fascinating, but were sharply criticized. Finkelstein and the Tel Aviv archaeologists rapidly responded to the challenge in a 2012 paper titled “Khirbet Qeiyafa: Unsensational Archaeological and Historical Interpretation,” in which they did a thorough review of the evidence presented by Garfinkel, testing it against their own Low Chronology. They concluded that the pottery and the radiocarbon dates taken from the site in reality indicate an occupation during the 11th and the first half of the 10th century, thus having no bearing in the discussions on the beginnings of the state in Judah. The site was, actually, a northern Israelite outpost established in southwestern Palestine to face the Philistine attacks.
It’s probably in the southern desert belt of the Negev and southern Jordan where the contest on the United Monarchy will be decided. Because, believe it or not, the old debate on “King Solomon’s Mines” is alive and well.
King Solomon’s Mines…Again
Since little research was done in this area after Beno Rothenberg’s ground-breaking work at Timna, his interpretation of the local mining exploitation as largely an Egyptian affair stood the test of time for quite a while. Yet new excavations are challenging this view.
Most famous are the current excavations at Khirbet en-Nahas, a large Iron Age square fortress in the copper district of Faynan in southern Jordan, directed by Thomas E. Levy of the University of California San Diego. The UCSD team boast is that it will strip the archaeological business down to the methods that are shown to contribute directly to the chronology debate. With the use of digital field recording on a daily basis and the gathering of dozens of radiocarbon dates, Levy has tried to inaugurate a new era in the archaeology of the Middle East.
Khirbet en-Nahas (Arabic for “ruins of copper”) was initially built to control the smelting of the copper collected from the nearby mines, the high mounds of black slag (the waste of copper smelting) surrounding the site being an eloquent proof of the extent of the ancient metallurgical industry. Consensus on who did the mining and smelting and when it took place, however, remains elusive.
Levy, based on the pottery and the many radiocarbon dates from the fortress, claimed it was built and used during the 10th and 9th centuries. Following Glueck, he suggested that it was the Israelites who controlled the fortress in the 10th century, in line with several biblical passages that tell the story of David’s conquest of the land of Edom – the old name of the whole area. According to Levy’s reconstruction, there is the possibility that the fortress was abandoned after the local people, the Edomites, revolted against the Israelite oppression in the 9th century.
Not surprisingly, some scholars have concluded that the availability of more digital and radiocarbon data isn’t the secret to unraveling the chronology of the mining at Faynan. While Levy claims to have identified pottery from the 10th century, Finkelstein and other prominent experts point out the local ceramics are much later in date, probably as late as the 8th century.
Also, critics also point out the fact that the radiocarbon results can be ambiguous. In order to render good results, Carbon-14 dates should be taken from good organic samples, retrieved from well-stratified contexts and being object of minimal manipulation. Scholars questioning Levy’s dating assert that none of these points are fulfilled in the case of Khirbet en-Nahas. Because the use of wood for building construction can be very prolonged, it is not recommended the use of wood samples, as it may give dates considerably earlier than the context were they were found. Other point often raised by critics is that the radiocarbon samples retrieved at the site were taken from slag mounds, not from floors, and since the earlier are more prone to mixing, the radiocarbon dates are of no use.
A more technical aspect is that in the first reports Levy did not provide the original radiocarbon dates, but Carbon-14 dates processed through a complex mathematical analysis known as “Bayesian dating”, which basically involves the insertion of external data into the “pure” dates in order to reduce the range of probability. It turned out that the Bayesian dates were considerably earlier than the dates that weren’t processed, which raised questions on the real chronology of the site.
Thus, while Levy and this team claim that Khirbet en-Nahas is evidence of the exploitation of the Faynan mines supervised by the fortress in the 10th and 9th centuries, other scholars detach the 10th-9th century industrial smelting of copper from the fortress, about which they claim is of later, probably 7th century date.
Research in Faynan encouraged more excavations at Timna, at the other side of the border. One of these is directed by Tel Aviv University archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef, who is digging in one of the camps – known as Site 30, close to the famous shrine of Hathor – that housed the workers digging at the mines and smelting the copper extracted there. His team has collected several samples of radiocarbon dates which suggest a period of occupation during the 11th and early 10th centuries, that is to say, a couple of centuries later than the Ramesside Egyptian dates advocated decades before by Rothenberg. These dates are getting closer to the crucial date of the mid and late 10th century, King’s Solomon times.
But that’s only true for Site 30. In Site 2, a few kilometers to the northwest, precisely the opposite is the case. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority is investigating here the remains of a smelting site excavated, like Site 30, decades ago by Rothenberg. She collected pottery and several Carbon-14 samples from this site which point to dates in the 13th-12th centuries, in line with Rothenberg’s Egyptian model. It may be possible, then, that the sites of Timna were occupied at different times and at different pace during the Iron Age, and that discoveries in one place should not instantaneously disprove the finds at others.
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Does this mean that the old paradigm of David and Solomon is coming back? It’s premature to say so, because the whole picture is always changing, with more and more data being gathered all the time on the formative years of the ancient Israelite states. The worst possible outcome would be for scholars to accept only one historical model and get rid of the contending ideas before anyone can really be sure that it offers a satisfactory replacement. What is clear is that models will be always provisional, and that future consensuses will have to be built bearing in mind the modern construction of the legend of David and Solomon.
Juan Manuel Tebes is Director of the Center of Studies of Ancient Near Eastern History, Catholic University of Argentina, and Editor-in-Chief of its scholarly journal Antiguo Oriente. His research focuses on the history and archaeology of the southern arid areas of the Levant and northwestern Arabia in the Iron Age. He has published, most recently, the books Nomads at the Crossroads (Archaeopress, 2013) and Unearthing the Wilderness (Peeters, 2014).
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