The Two Tels: Armageddon For Biblical Archaeology?
A proposed revision of the
dating of remains in Israel challenges the Bible's depiction of a powerful
state ruled by Kings David and Solomon
TEL MEGIDDO AND TEL REHOV--Archaeologist
David Ussishkin pauses on the path near the top of a sprawling mound overlooking
the green fields of Israel's Jezreel Valley. It is just after 9:00 a.m., but
the summer heat is already blistering. Beneath Ussishkin's feet lies a layer
cake of consecutive settlement levels dating back more than 6000 years. During
the Bronze and Iron Ages, which in the Levant stretched roughly from 3300
B.C. to 600 B.C., this artificial hill was the site of Megiddo, a city occupied
successively by Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, and Persians.
According to the Bible, Megiddo was one of the northern strongholds of the
Israelite king Solomon and will be the site of the final battle between God
and his enemies when time comes to an end--Armageddon is derived from the
Hebrew "Mount of Megiddo."
Just off the path stands a massive stone gate that once marked the
entrance to the city. A sign placed in front of it by Israeli tourist authorities
reads "Solomonic gate, 970-930 B.C." Ussishkin looks at it and laughs.
"This is nonsense, utter nonsense," he tells a visitor. "The
gate is from 200 years later. Solomon must be turning in his grave."
For the past several years, Ussishkin, along with fellow Tel Aviv University
archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and Near Eastern historian Baruch Halpern
of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, has been co-directing an
extensive dig at Megiddo. And some of the findings have set off a battle among
archaeologists working in Israel. At issue is whether the biblical picture
of a major Israelite state in Palestine, founded by King David and greatly
expanded by Solomon, reflects the historical reality of Israelite settlement
in this region.
Finkelstein, in particular, has concluded that the conventional dating
of certain occupation levels at Megiddo is incorrect. He argues that levels
previously dated to the 10th century B.C., when many biblical scholars and
archaeologists assume that David and Solomon ruled, should be moved later,
to the 9th century B.C. This adjustment, which some archaeologists have dubbed
the "Finkelstein correction," would imply that massive fortifications
and stone palaces at Megiddo previously attributed to Solomon's reign might
really have been the work of a later ruler, such as the 9th century's King
Ahab. David and Solomon may have simply been tribal chiefs from early- or
pre-kingdom days whose reputations were greatly aggrandized by the biblical
authors, who wrote their texts hundreds of years after the events they describe;
or they may never have existed at all, as suggested by some scholars called
the "biblical minimalists" (see p. 29 of this issue).
The debate, which touches on the politically sensitive issue of Jewish
roots in Palestine, has been followed with keen interest by archaeologists
and other scholars who work in the region. So far, Finkelstein--along with
Ussishkin, who agrees with him on many points but reserves judgment on others--appears
to be in the minority. One leading opponent of the Finkelstein correction
is archaeologist Amihai Mazar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who is leading
excavations at Tel Rehov, south of the Sea of Galilee, that he believes contradict
Finkelstein's thesis. At times the controversy has become very heated. "For
archaeologists working in the biblical era, the issues are central to how
one views this period," says archaeologist Steven Rosen of the Ben-Gurion
University in Beersheva. "And for the public interested in biblical archaeology,
it affects central matters of faith." One archaeologist recently charged
in the press that Finkelstein was providing a "fig leaf to the anti-Semites"
by downgrading David and Solomon. And Finkelstein, in a debate with Mazar
over the issue in the journal Levant, accused Mazar of harboring
a "sentimental, somewhat romantic approach to the archaeology of the
The controversy swirls around complex and often esoteric archaeological
issues involving pottery, stratigraphic analysis, and the correlation of burned
occupation levels with historical events such as the sacking of cities in
ancient Palestine by Egyptians and Assyrians. The problem arises from the
fact that for roughly 450 years, during which the two Israelite kingdoms of
Israel and Judah were supposedly in their glory days, archaeologists in Palestine
have no firm chronological guideposts. This period is anchored at either end
by two firmly dated events: a battle fought in 1175 B.C. between the Egyptians
and Mediterranean raiders called the Sea Peoples during the reign of Ramses
III, recorded in detailed Egyptian inscriptions that are also linked to many
historical and astronomical events; and detailed records left by the Assyrians--chronologically
anchored to an eclipse in 763 B.C.--which recount campaigns against the Israelites
and other inhabitants of Palestine in the late 8th century B.C.
There was, however, one well-dated event in the region during this
period: Egyptian Pharaoh Shoshenq I's invasion of Palestine, reckoned from
Egyptian records at about 926 B.C.. Yet this event, which the Bible says took
place 5 years after Solomon's death, has been of limited help, because archaeologists
do not always agree about which of the numerous destruction levels at Megiddo
and the other cities Shoshenq attacked were his doing.
Hence, the most common method archaeologists use to date strata in
this period is by the pottery they contain, an approach Finkelstein thinks
needs adjustment. In particular, Finkelstein contests the traditional view
that shortly after their 1175 B.C. battle with Ramses III, one group of the
Sea Peoples, the Philistines, quickly settled on and near the coast of present-day
Israel (Science, 2 July, p. 36) and began manufacturing a characteristic
style of pottery called monochrome. The presence of this pottery has been
taken as a marker for remains from the 12th century B.C., while a later style
of Philistine pottery, called bichrome, is usually attributed to the 11th
Finkelstein argues, based on his reinterpretation of Egyptian inscriptions
and other evidence, that the Sea Peoples did not begin settling down until
40 or more years after the 1175 B.C. battle. This shift, he says, would mean
that the conventionally accepted dating of the monochrome and bichrome pottery
puts it too early. One of his key arguments is the absence of monochrome pottery
in excavations of Egyptian settlements that remained in Palestine after 1175
B.C. Given the promiscuous nature of pottery exchanges between settlements
in the Near East, Finkelstein contends that it is inconceivable that these
cities--some just a handful of kilometers from known Philistine settlements--would
not have traded with them. As a result, Finkelstein says, the key Philistine
sites used for dating the monochrome pottery could not have been established
until after Egyptian domination in Palestine totally collapsed in the late
12th century B.C..
And this redating of the monochrome pottery, Finkelstein concludes,
shifts the chronological guideposts, pushing the long-lived bichrome style--which
replaced the monochrome pottery--into the late 11th and much of the 10th century
B.C., and archaeological strata and pottery conventionally dated to the 10th
century--the supposed era of David and Solomon--down into the 9th century
B.C. As additional support for this idea, both Finkelstein and Ussishkin have
concluded from a reanalysis of the stratigraphy of the stone gate at Megiddo,
which earlier excavators had identified as Solomonic, that even under the
conventional chronology it was built a century later. The Finkelstein correction
would make it yet another 100 years later still.
Finally, Finkelstein and Ussishkin cite recent excavations in Jerusalem
that have failed to find any evidence of large-scale building in the 10th
century B.C.--despite the Bible's account that David established his capital
there and that Solomon built an enormous temple in the city. "There is
a very big problem for the traditional [dating] in Jerusalem," says archaeologist
Gideon Avni of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "We have very minimal
remains from both the 10th and 9th centuries B.C."
But many other archaeologists believe that Finkelstein has not proven
his case for altering the conventional chronology. For example, Seymour Gitin,
director of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem,
contests Finkelstein's assumption that pottery was necessarily exchanged between
neighboring contemporaneous sites. Gitin, who co-directed excavations at the
Philistine site of Ekron, says that no monochrome pottery has been found at
Gezer, a nearby Canaanite city widely agreed to have existed at the same time.
"Not one shard representing early Philistine culture has been found at
Gezer," Gitin says. "How do you explain that?"
And William Dever, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona
in Tucson, who excavated Gezer--and unearthed a stone gate of similar design
to that found at Megiddo, which he has dated to the 10th century based on
the conventional pottery scheme--says that Finkelstein is "way out on
a limb" with his chronological correction. "If anyone can prove
to me this material is all 9th century B.C. and no Solomon ever lived, I don't
care. But proof please, gentlemen, proof please!"
Dever adds that Finkelstein has given short shrift to the circumstantial
evidence left by the invasion of Shoshenq I in about 926 B.C., which he believes
supports the conventional view. Egyptian inscriptions list more than 100 cities
that Shoshenq supposedly conquered--including Megiddo and Gezer. Excavations
of more than 25 sites on the list have identified destruction layers that
many archaeologists attribute to Shoshenq's invasion. Moreover, there is a
characteristic difference in pottery styles--a shift from a hand-burnished
to a wheel-burnished finish--in settlements built before and after these destruction
layers. Dever and other archaeologists believe this hand-burnished pottery
provides a chronological marker for the 10th century B.C. Finkelstein, on
the other hand, disagrees, arguing that many of the destruction layers usually
attributed to Shoshenq should be blamed on later 9th century B.C. invaders.
Mazar says that his ongoing excavations at Tel Rehov, another site
on Shoshenq's list, support the conventional dating scheme. Although radiocarbon
dating of the Iron Age period can be treacherous, due to the wide margins
of error involved, short-lived grains of wheat, barley, and other plants can
often be dated with reasonable accuracy. At Tel Rehov there is a major destruction
layer associated with hand-burnished pottery. Radiocarbon dating of charred
grains from this layer, which Mazar believes corresponds to the Shoshenq invasion,
gave dates ranging from about 916 to 832 B.C. The older end of this range,
at least, correlates reasonably well with the timing of Shoshenq's raid, although
the later date would not. But radiocarbon dates from the beam of an elm tree
used in the construction of this occupation level came in at 1120 to 990 B.C.
This means, Mazar told Science, that even if Shoshenq did not destroy
this settlement, it was constructed no later than the 10th century B.C., and
the hand-burnished pottery found with it is rightly "diagnostic"
of the pre-Shoshenq period.
"I have no doubt that the description of David and Solomon in
the Bible is to a large extent exaggerated," says Mazar. "But this
doesn't mean you have to cancel David and Solomon as historical figures."
Finkelstein agrees that even if his hypothesis is correct, it "does not
mean that David and Solomon did not exist." On the other hand, he adds,
the nature of their realm "was very different" from that assumed
by many archaeologists and biblical scholars. Rather than making up a full-blown
state, he believes, the early Israelites may have formed a much smaller political
entity and been restricted to a much smaller territory than indicated in the
Bible. The biblical writers "told the story the way they wanted to tell
it," says Finkelstein. But if his correction is right, he concludes,
"you would have to write a new history of the Levant, of Israel, and
of the Eastern Mediterranean in the Iron Age."
Volume 287, Number 5450 Issue of
7 Jan 2000, pp. 31 - 32
©2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.