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Who would have thought that a small Judean city on the western fringes of the Kingdom of Israel, facing Philistia, might provide a partial answer to the question posed in the December 2010 issue of National Geographic: 'Was the Kingdom of David and Solomon a glorious empire


Between June 13 and July 15, 2011, I worked on the archaeological excavation at Tel Zayit (Zeitah) in the Shephelah (lowlands) of Judah. The site is 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Jerusalem and situated in the Beth Guvrin Valley system. Compared to some of the larger sites in the area, at 7.5 acres, Tel Zayit is a small site. It has been identified by the excavators as the ancient city of Libnah (Josh. 15:42; Tappy 2008). The excavation was sponsored by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary under the directorship of Professor Ron E. Tappy. I was also one of the recipients of the Biblical Archaeological Society travel scholarships, for which I am very grateful.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

One of the goals for this season was to reach the 8th century BC level in Area K-20. If we reached the floor level of that period, there would be plenty of dirt to sift. I have a lot of sifting experience from working at the Temple Mount Sifting Project and on digs at Lachish and Hazor. I was also keenly interested in this period because my master's thesis was on the Hezekiah/Sennacherib chronology problem. So, one of my jobs for the summer was sifting the buckets of dirt from K-20.

We began the season at the Early Hellenistic level. A vertical probe (1 meter x 2 meters) from previous seasons was extended in an attempt to reach the Iron Age level. I sifted every bucket of dirt that came out of that probe. Early on, I found a small piece of shiny black pottery that I knew was Greek Attic ware. I showed it to Goby Barkay, and he said, 'This is bad! This Attic ware is from the Persian period.' As PFC Gomer Pyle, USMC, used to say in his southern twang, 'Surprise, surprise, surprise!!!' Instead of hitting the Late Iron Age (7th/8th century BC) as we had anticipated, we hit floors from the Persian period (6th century BC). Finding this layer came as a surprise, because prior to this discovery, no coherent Persian period stratum had been found at Tel Zayit. Reaching the Late Iron Age period level will have to wait for another season.

Last Bucket, Last Day!

One of the axioms of archaeology is that all the goodies are found on the last day. That axiom seemed to be confirmed when a large stone that had an abecedary (ancient alphabet) on it was discovered on the last day of the 2005 season (Tappy, et al. 2006). This season, one of the volunteers had to go home a week early. She was clearing a Persian period floor, and I was sifting every bucket that she handed up to me. In her last bucket at the end of her last day, I found a spiny dye-murex shell (Bolinus brandaris). This type of shell was used for dyeing red-purple cloth such as the famous Tyrian purple (Ziderman 1990).

Terracotta-Sandbag Soldiers!

Almost every excavation in Israel uses sandbags to hold up their baulks and frame the squares for final photography. This innovation was introduced in 1974 at Lachish by Dr. David Ussishkin after having observed the benefits of sandbags in a foxhole in the Jordan Valley during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A baulk, sometimes spelled balk, is the 'vertical face of the wall of soil left around a trench or between squares in an excavation (usually 0.5-1 meter wide)' (Stern 2008: 2131). The baulk gives a vertical profile of the stratigraphy.

One of my other jobs was filling sandbags for use at the end of the season. We needed sandbags to frame the 10 x 10 meter square of K-20 as well as to hold down the tarps that are used to cover all the areas for the winter. I used 'clean' dirt from the sifting area of our dump. Because the dirt had already been sifted and all pottery, coins, and other objects had been removed, there will be no chance of finding a cuneiform tablet in one of those sandbags next season, which did occur at another excavation in the past!

Over the course of three weeks, I filled over 300 burlap sandbags in preparation for the final week. I lined them up in straight rows of 20 sandbags per row. I was a bit amused to see the Sky View photographers, a team specializing in aerial photography from a blimp, taking pictures of the rows of sandbags. Dr. Zvi Lederman, the co-director of the Beth Shemesh excavation, also took pictures of the sandbags when he visited Tel Zayit. He quipped, 'They look like the terracotta-soldiers in China!' Dr. Tappy and I looked at each other and laughed. I had been calling them terracotta-sandbag soldiers all season! The terracotta soldiers were clay funerary statues found at the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who died about 210 BC. In 1974, over 8,000 clay warriors, lined up in rows, were discovered.

Pop Quiz

For all the budding archaeologists reading this article, here is a pop quiz. Why do archaeologists always look down when they are walking? Answer: Because small objects can be found on the surface. I was constantly looking on the surface for goodies. I was not disappointed. Among other things, I found half a glass bead; a bronze weight for measuring gold that might have an inscription, but we won't know for certain until it is cleaned; and a coin, possibly from the Hellenistic period.

The Answer Lies in the Baulk

Another axiom of archaeology is that the answer always lies in the baulk. This summer that axiom was proven true again in one of the baulks of O-19. The famous abecedary was found in Area O-19 and dated by Professors Ron Tappy and Kyle McCarter to the mid-tenth century BC. They concluded their publication of this important discovery by saying: 'The appearance of an abecedary in an outlying town some distance from the capital city of Jerusalem demonstrates a movement toward literacy in the extreme western frontier of the kingdom during the mid-tenth century B.C.E.' (Tappy, et al. 2006: 42). That statement has far-reaching implications for the question raised by the National Geographic article.

The leader of the minimalist school (those who deny the historicity of the Bible), Israel Finkelstein, wrote a rebuttal to Tappy's and McCarter's article and suggested that the 'Tel Zayit abecedary is a 'Philistian' inscription of the second half of the 9th century B.C.E.' (2008: 1). The challenge of the date had to be answered so Dr. Tappy decided to excavate the baulk on the side of Area O-19 in order to clarify the dating of the stratigraphy.

The baulk measured ten meters long, one meter wide, and a half meter high. Most excavations would have removed that baulk in thirty minutes or less so they could get on with their dig. Not Tel Zayit. It took four diggers two weeks to meticulously and methodically excavate the half-meter depth of the baulk! I think this will be the best-documented baulk in the archaeology of the Land of Israel, because everything was carefully recorded, drawn, and photographed. There were restorable pottery vessels from the 10th century and organic material that will be tested by Carbon-14 dating method to ascertain the date of the destruction level. When the details about this baulk are published by Dr. Tappy, the minimalists will have to seriously rethink and reconsider their position in light of the finds from this well-documented and meticulous excavation.

Shaul Junior

For the previous nine summers, I worked at Tel Hazor. One of the notable people on that dig was Shaul. He drove the van, did the shopping, prepared breakfast, maintained the tools, and did a host of other tasks. Sometimes I would accompany him and help him with his tasks. Little did I know that one day I would be doing a similar job. One of the other hats I wore at Tel Zayit was van driver. Every day I drove the diggers from Kibbutz Galon, where we were staying, to the site and back, got the breakfast and helped set out the buffet breakfast, and drove the volunteers to Kiryat Gat in order to take care of any personal business. I think I learned my job well from watching and helping Shaul. In my mind, I was Shaul Junior!

Gourmet Food

In previous years, my friend Goby Barkay had raved about the food that they ate at the Tel Zayit dig. He said they had a South African kibbutznik named Mike who was a gourmet chef and had served gourmet food at all three meals. When I was considering working at Tel Zayit, the gourmet food was a good selling point. Needless to say, I was not disappointed with Mike's cooking. The food was excellent whether you were a carnivore or a vegetarian!

Out and About

On weekends we were 'free' to do as we pleased. Dr. Tappy arranged two study tours for us. The first weekend tour was to the Negev and the Dead Sea. I passed on that trip. The second study tour was to the Galilee. I joined the group for this trip, and we visited Caesarea by the Sea, Megiddo, Beth Shean, Capernaum, and the Mount of Beatitudes on the first day. On the second day, we explored Hazor, Dan, Caesarea Philippi, Omrit, and the Arbel Cliffs.

On another weekend we visited two nearby sites: Lachish and Maresha. Toward the end of our dig we visited Tel es-Safi and got a guided tour of the site by the director, Dr. Aren Maeir. I think our visit was right before they found the important two-horned altar so we did not see it. One of our diggers asked Dr. Maeir when he was going to retire. His answer was a classic: 'Only when archaeology is not fun anymore!'

David in a Cave - Psalm 57

One of my goals for this summer was to revisit the sites in the Shephelah and to solidify in my mind the topography of that region and the Biblical stories that took place there. A friend of mine had a Nissan Largo that went anywhere and everywhere, even up the dirt roads on the side of ancient mounds!

One of the sites I wanted to revisit was the cave at Adullam. Each morning I made it a point to read Psalm 57. The superscription says, 'A Michtam of David when he fled from Saul into the cave.' The historical accounts in the Bible state that David was in a cave on at least two occasions. The first time he was in a cave was at Adullam (1 Sam. 22:1-2; 2 Sam. 23:13-17) and the second time was when he was in the area of Ein Gedi (1 Sam. 24:3-22). Most likely this psalm was composed when David was at the cave at Adullam. The preceding psalm, Psalm 56, was composed after David fled from Gath of the Philistines, just before he stopped at Adullam. One Shabbat (Saturday) I was able to get out to the site and review the geography of the area, which explains the reason David fled there in the first place. Hopefully, I will finish an essay on this psalm and post it on my website soon.

Summary and Thank You

There were no spectacular small finds at Tel Zayit this summer. The most important discovery, however, was a clearer understanding of the stratigraphy of the site. In K-20 it was the newly discovered Persian period level as well as another phase of the Roman period. In O-19 all indications point to the abecedary being clearly dated to the 10th century BC. If this date is correct, it would demonstrate that Israelites living in this out-of-the-way city were literate and, therefore, not a bunch of hillbillies living in some little cow town!

There were twenty people, including volunteers and staff, working on the excavation. It was a pleasure working with this team. Everybody worked well together, and the most commonly used phrase was 'thank you.' Even the smallest things that someone would do for another were appreciated. So 'THANK YOU' Dr. Tappy and team for a great season.


Draper, Robert 2010 Kings of Controversy. National Geographic 218/6: 66-91.

Finkelstein, Israel; Sass, Benjamin; and Singer-Avitz, Lily. 2008 Writing in Iron IIA Philistia in the Light of the Tel Zayit/Zeta Abecedary. Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palastina-Vereins 124: 1-14.

Stern, Ephraim, ed. 2008 The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Vol. 5. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society; Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society.

Tappy, Ron. 2008 Tel Zayit. Pp. 2082-2083 The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Vol. 5. Edited by E. Stern. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society; Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society.

Tappy, Ron; McCarter, P. Kyle; Lundberg, Marilyn; and Zuckerman, Bruce. 2006 An Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century B.C.E. from the Judean. Shephelah. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344: 5-46.

Ziderman, I. Irving. 1990 Seashells and Ancient Purple Dyeing. Biblical Archaeologist 53/2: 98-101.

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