The Renewed Excavations: 1996-2002



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The Renewed Excavations: 1996-2002

Aren M. Maeir

The Institute of Archaeology

Bar Ilan University


Following the conclusion of the British excavations, for close to a century, little archaeological exploration was conducted at the site (save for limited surveys and illicit excavations). Due, to a large extent, to the belief that most of the site was covered by Medieval and modern remains which would make the excavation of earlier remains practically impossible, the site was never re-excavated, despite its apparent importance in ancient times and the ongoing controversy of its identification (see below).
Since 1996, the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project of the Institute of Archaeology, Bar Ilan University, directed by A.M. Maeir, has commenced a term research project at the site, with the aim of studying the cultural history of this fascinating site. Between 1996 and 2002, seven seasons of research, the first phase of a long-term project at the site, were conducted.

In the 1996, a preparatory season was conducted. This included a comprehensive surface survey of the site, aerial photography, photogrammetric mapping, and aerial ground penetrating remote sensing. The main objectives of this season were to determine the periods represented at the site, to ascertain as best as possible the size of the site in different periods, and to determine whether it would be possible to easily access the pre-classical periods on the site. This was to serve as a background for the planning of future excavations at the site. This was particularly important since it was clear that one of the primary reasons that so little previous research had been conducted on the site was because it was thought that large portions of the tell were covered by the ruins of the Modern village Tell es-Safi (abandoned in 1948) and its cemeteries, as well as a small Crusader period castle (Blanche Garde) on the summit of the tell, completely covering over, and possibly destroying the earlier levels.


The results of the initial season were unequivocal and very promising. It was demonstrated that the site had been settled, virtually continuously, from the Chalcolithic period until recent times. The size of the site was determined at somewhere between 40-50 hectares (as opposed to the 15-17 hectares previously thought). It was seen that large portions of the site were not covered by classical and post-classical cultural remains, making the practical possibility of excavating the Bronze and Iron Age remains a reality. The survey also enabled a more explicit periodization of the site. Although settled, virtually continuously from the Chalcolithic through Modern periods, specific period of intense settlement were recorded. This included the Early Bronze Age II-III, the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age I-IIA, the Persian period, the Crusader period, and finally, the Modern period village of Tell es-Safi. Although in subsequent seasons the Crusader remains could not be excavated, during the survey an accurate plan of the fortress was made and a Crusader period quarry was discovered (on the northwestern slope of the tell). Finally, aerial photography reconnaissance revealed the existence of a unique manmade feature surrounding the tell, most probably the remains of a siege trench (see further discussion below).
The actual excavations commenced in a trial excavation that was conducted in 1997. Based on the results of the 1996 survey, it was decided to locate the primary excavation area (Area A) on the eastern appendage of the tell, on a large, flat terrace, in a location in which few post Iron Age remains were revealed in the survey. At the very beginning of the excavations, immediately below surface, Iron Age remains were discovered. It turned out that in this part of the tell there were few later remains, and the Bronze and Iron Age levels were located near the surface in a very good state of preservation.
Following the results of the 1997 season, the primary excavations in the 1998-2002 season have been located in the same general area. Area A was subsequently expanded, and Area E, located on an adjacent lower terrace, immediately to the east, was opened as well (see Figs. 1-2). In addition, in the areas surrounding the tell, several investigations were conducted in an attempt to study the manmade mentioned above (Areas C1-6). Of particular interest is Area C6 in which manual excavation of the trench and related features revealed important information on this unique feature. In addition to the above excavations, the intensive surface survey of the tell and its vicinity was continued, as well as geomorphological soundings on the tell and its surroundings.

Preliminary Stratigraphic Chart – Areas A and E




Date (cent.

BCE)

Safi Temp. Strata

Safi

Area A

Safi

Area E

Safi

Area C

Event/Note

Miqne


Batash

Ashdod

Ashkelon

Lachish

Late 8th

3

+

-

-

Sennacherib?

II

III

VIII

+

III

Late 9th

4

+

+

+

Hazael's Conquest?

III?

Gap?

IX

?

IV

10th

5

+

-

Sherds

Hand Burnishing

IV-III

IV

X

?

V

11th

6

+

-

Sherds


Degenerate Philistine Ware

V-IV

V?

XI


+

Gap


12th

7

Sherds

+

Sherds


Bichrome Philistine Ware

VI

V

XII


+

Gap


Early 12th

"8"

Sherds

Sherds

Sherds

Myc IIIC

VII

Gap?

XIII

+

VI

Late 13th

9

Sherds

+

Sherds


Cypriote & Myc. Imports

VIIIA

VIB

XIV


+

VII

(P1)


13th

10

?

+

-




VIIIB

VIA

XV

+

VII

EBII-III

-

Sherds

+

-



















Areas A and E:

With the end of the 2002 season, over 1200 sq. m. were excavated in these two areas. Save for minimal finds dating to the modern period, all the cultural remains that have been excavated in these areas are from the Bronze and Iron Age. As can be seen in the preliminary stratigraphic chart, a virtually complete cultural sequence spanning from the end of the Late Bronze Age until the mid-8th cent. BCE (Iron IIB) has been recovered. Despite the fact that the evidence for these various phases was not always found in a single stratigraphic continuum, the existence of relevant finds in a relatively limited part of the site, enables one to reconstruct a quite robust stratigraphic sequence for the relevant periods. Although this sequence does not represent the entire cultural sequence at the site, it nevertheless does offer the first detailed information on some of the pivotal periods in the history of this site.


The earliest in-situ remains in this area date to the Early Bronze II-III. On the eastern side of Area E (in an area where the mound begins to slope strongly to east), immediately below the terminal Late Bronze Age strata (Temporary Strata 9-10), a level containing typical Early Bronze Age II-III pottery was found. This included “Abydos ware” juglets, pattern-burnished platters and large storage jars. Despite the fact that only a minimal portion of this level was uncovered, the large quantities of Early Bronze II-III sherds recovered in the survey in the vicinity of Area E, as well as in other locations in and around the tell, indicate that the site was of relatively large size during this period. It can be assumed that it can be compared to neighboring urban sites of the same period, such as Tel Yarmouth.
Although evidence dating to the periods after the Early Bronze Age II-III has been found in the survey in other parts of the site, the next period that is represented in this area is the final stages of the Late Bronze Age. In several squares in Area E, a well-defined stratum (Temporary Stratum 9, and in some cases, an additional one below it, Temporary Stratum 10) dating to the Late Bronze Age was discovered. Two or three architectural units were uncovered, with a large sample of accompanying finds. Based on a preliminary analysis of the finds from this stratum, which included local and imported pottery of the 13th cent. BCE, as well as assorted small finds (including Egyptian and Egyptianizing objects), this stratum can be compared to the terminal Late Bronze Age finds at various sites in the vicinity, such as at Lachish VII. Of particular interest is a brief Hieratic inscription, inscribed pre-firing on a locally made pottery fragment, apparently referring to the contents of a vessel. This last phase of the Late Bronze Age seems to have been destroyed in a fire -- possible evidence of the demise of Canaanite Gath in ca. 1200 BCE. It is very likely that this is the work of the newly arrived Philistines, who subsequently settled the site.
Although, in-situ, primary evidence of the initial settlement of the Philistines at the site has not yet been recovered, artifactual evidence, well known from other Philistine sites (such as Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron) serves as testimony for this stage. Sherds, and in some cases, complete vessels of the Myc. IIIC style have been found in secondary and tertiary stratigraphic contexts in the excavation (and in the survey), indicating that the initial, early Iron Age I phase of Philistine settlement is found at this site as well. Due to the relatively significant representation in a large area, it can be assumed that future excavations will confirm that the site during this phase is quite large.
Following this initial settlement phase at the site, the scope of settlement activity appears to have expanded. Both in the excavations and in the survey, finds dating from the early-mid phases of the Philistine culture are quite common. These stages, typified by the so-called “Bichrome Philistine pottery” were found in the survey over large portions of the site. In the excavations, in Area E, several architectural features, including walls, surfaces and several refuse pits were discovered. In addition, large amounts of Bichrome pottery were found in secondary contexts in the excavation. Interestingly, the decorative elements of the Bichrome pottery from the site are stylistically unique when compared to similar pottery from other Philistine sites, which might, in the future enable the differentiation between schools and styles in this pottery. In general, it appears that the site was intensely and extensively settled during this stage, analogous to the situation at nearby Tel Miqne/Ekron.
The next stage in the development of the Philistine culture occurred during towards the end of the Iron Age I (ca. 11th cent. BCE). Although there is clear evidence for the existence of this phase at the site (represented by Temporary Stratum 6), it has only been reached in very limited exposures. In Area A, under the extensive Iron Age IIA levels (Temporary Strata 3-5), several probes reached the late Iron Age I levels. The finds can be compared to contemporary levels at other sites (e.g., Miqne IV, Qasile X). The finds included “degenerated Philistine pottery”, and other finds. Noteworthy are portions of a Philistine rhyton (headcup) in the shape of a lion’s head (well known from other Philistine sites), a curved iron knife (similar to the well-known “bi-metallic” knives, but made entirely of iron) as well as vessels of an apparent cultic nature. Although the extent of exposure is quite limited, it has appeared consistently wherever the excavation went below the Iron II levels.
Two phases dating to the Iron IIA were discovered in Area A. The earlier one, Temporary Stratum 5, was exposed in a limited manner. Very little information is available about this phase, save for it being typified by pottery that is characteristic of other Early Iron Age IIA, post Iron I contexts (e.g., hand-burnished pottery). Despite the fact that so little information is available about this stratum, several noteworthy points can be mentioned. First of all, it was separated from the strata above and below it by substantial deposits (c. 50 cm). In addition, it lies below Temporary Stratum 4, an Iron Age IIA phase that is a well dated to the late 9th/early 8th cent. BCE (that apparently had an extended time span). This stratum may in the future provide important data relevant to the debate on the chronology of the Iron Age I/Iron Age IIA transition.
The next stratum, Temporary Stratum 4, was discovered in almost all of the squares that were excavated in Area A, and in many cases, immediately below the surface. Over the last several seasons, portions of several architectural units from this stratum have been uncovered, all with a very similar contextual narrative. Most of the buildings appear to be of domestic and/or industrial nature, and all appear to have a more than ephemeral existence. In many cases, several architectural and stratigraphic phases could be discerned. This entire stratum was completely destroyed and all the edifices that were uncovered had collapsed, and extensive evidence of an all-encompassing fire was found. As a result of this collapse, the entire contents of these houses were buried in situ, including everything from the roofs to the floors. An extremely rich and well-preserved assemblage of finds was discovered in this layer. This includes: a wide range of pottery types (over 500 complete vessels), including vessels for cooking, serving, food preparation and storage (including the newly defined “pre-LMLK” jars, precursors of the well-known LMLK jars of the late 8th cent. BCE), as well as imported wares (including Cypro-Phoenician), local decorated vessels (including the so-called “Ashdod ware”) and various “cultic” vessels (decorated chalices and fragments of stands). In addition, a wide range of other objects were found, including glyptics, metal, stone (ground and chipped), bone, etc. Of particular note is a small group of brief Semitic inscriptions (1-3 letters only) and a decorated, anepigraphic bulla.
The typological study of the artifacts from this level and their on the comparison to finds from adjacent sites (e.g., Lachish, Miqne, Batash, Ashkelon, Ashdod), indicates that it can be dated to somewhere between the late Iron Age I and the 2nd half of the 8th century BCE. In fact, it can be relatively closely dated to the very end of the 9th cent. BCE, or the very beginning of the 8th cent. BCE, more or less parallel to Lachish, stratum V-IV. Although several 14C samples were submitted, they have not yet provided a clear radiometric dating.
The importance of the finds from this stratum, and their apparent dating, cannot be underestimated. Several conspicuous aspects can be mentioned: 1) At most of the adjacent Iron Age sites, strata representing the early Iron Age IIA are missing or poorly represented. Thus, this rich assemblage fills in a lacuna in the knowledge about the cultural sequence of Philistia and the Shephela during the Iron Age IIA. As such, it may be of paramount importance in the ongoing debate on Iron Age chronology; 2) The assemblage offers an unprecedented opportunity to study the middle stage of the development of Philistine culture, poorly known from other Philistine sites. This will offer new insights into the developmental trajectory of the Philistine culture during the Iron Age; 3) If this destruction level can be connected to a known historical event (see below), it may serve as an robust archaeological/historical datum line for the Iron Age II of the southern Levant, ca. 100 years earlier than the presently earliest one available today (e.g., Lachish III, Sennacherib’s destruction in 701 BCE).
The survey results (as well as the finds from the illicit excavations conducted by M. Dayan at other portions of the site) indicate that during this phase (Temporary Stratum 4) the site was of extensive size (ca. 50 hectare), and that the destruction was a site-wide phenomenon. Although, as of yet we cannot state without doubt what is the cause for this destruction, the site-wide destruction, the suggested dating (late 9th/early 8th cent. BCE), as well as the remains of a siege outside the city (see below, description of Area C), leads us to assume that the destruction was caused by a large-scale conquest of the city. The conquest of Gath by Hazael, King of Aram Damascus (e.g., II Kings 12:18) in the late 9th cent. BCE, seems the most likely (and to a large extent, only likely) scenario to explain this event.
In Area A, above the impressive remains of Temporary Stratum 4, patchy remains dating to a later phase of the Iron Age II were found. This level, Temporary Stratum 3, is the final Iron Age phase in this part of the site. These remains most probably represent the late 8th cent. BCE occupation on the tell, discovered as well in the earlier British excavations. Based on the regional characteristics of the finds, as well as the LMLK stamps found in the earlier excavations, it appears that during the late 8th cent. BCE, after the destruction of Philistine Gath, the site was occupied by the Judeans. Although later Iron Age remains were not found in Areas A and E, the finds from the survey indicate that there was limited activity on the site during the 7th cent. BCE (including 2 “Rosette” handles). The fact that after the mid-8th cent. BCE the site is sparsely occupied during the Iron Age, conforms well with the lack of reference to Gath in the biblical and extra-biblical sources during the 8th-6th cent. BCE. Apparently, following the destruction of Philistne Gath, as witnessed in the dramatic remains in Temporary Stratum 4, remains the Philistine city never recovered. This close match between the archaeological data from the tell and the historical sources that mention Gath, serves as an excellent line of reasoning for the identification of Tell es-Safi as Philistine Gath.
Above Temporary Stratum 3, Temporary Strata 1-2 represent minimal activities in this area dating to the Early Modern and Modern periods.
Area C:

As already above, during the 1996 season, on the basis of aerial photography and subsequently the surface survey, a unique feature was noticed in the vicinity of the tell. This feature, which is more than 2 km long, surrounds the site from the eastern, southern and western sides. Immediately after its discovery it was suggested that it was the remains of an as yet unparalleled siege trench – a feature dug by the besiegers to enclose the city, similar in function to the Roman circumvallation (as known, for example at Masada in Judea and Alesia in Gaul). Since then, an intense effort has been made to study this unique feature. At first, a manual probe was excavated in Area C1. This demonstrated that the trench was not a modern feature since it was covered by a pre-modern road (most probably of Medieval date, though possibly earlier). Subsequently, several probes at different points along the trench (C2-5) were excavated by mechanical means, to determine the depth of the feature (in all cases, more than 3 meters deep).


In the 1999 season, a manual excavation was commenced on the eastern side of the trench, in Area C6. This last excavation, incorporating both the archaeological finds as well as a geomorphological analysis of the relevant deposits, demonstrated several critical points: 1) The trench had been manually excavated in antiquity; 2) In the area that was excavated, it is ca. 5 m deep and 4 m wide at the bottom; 3) The initial refill of the trench, after it went out of use, could be dated to no earlier, but at the same time, no later, than the Iron Age II; 4) The material that had been originally excavated from the trench had been dumped consistently by the original excavators on the side of the trench that was away from the tell, forming a “berm”; 5) The material from this “berm” covers deposits dating no later than the early Iron Age II (parallel to Temporary Stratum 4 on the tell).
Based on this evidence, the following conclusions can be reached regarding the function of this feature: 1) It was manually excavated and subsequently went out of use during the Iron Age IIA; 2) The only logical function that can be suggested (due to its topographic location, dating and overall size) is that it served as part of a large scale siege of the site, serving as but one of the physical components of a larger system; 3) The material that had been excavated from the trench was purposefully poured on the outer side of the trench, in order to create a berm (earthwork), which supplemented the physical barrier that the trench provided; 4) It is most likely that there are additional components of this system (such as camps and fortified points) that have yet to be discovered (although there are hints to their existence).
Based on the dating of this feature to the early Iron Age II, a connection with the similarly dated large-scale destruction level on the site itself (Temporary Stratum 4) is compelling. If one takes into account the suggestion (above) that Hazael of Aram was behind this destruction, it is interesting to note that in the Zakur inscription from northern Syria, Hazael’s son, Birhadad, is credited with digging a siege moat (and a circumvallation wall) during the siege of the city of Hadrach. If so, one might have evidence of a similar “Aramean” siege method at Tell es-Safi as well.
Summary:

All told, the results of the initial phase of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project have revealed a rich, if only partial sequence of the cultural history of this site. Asides from demonstrating that the earlier, pre-Modern levels at the site were accessible to modern archaeological research, the immense size of the site during the Iron Age was revealed as well. The finds from the Iron Age levels, representing almost all (save for the last) stages of the development of the Philistine culture indicate that the suggested identification as Gath of the Philistine, one of the five cities of the Philistine Pentapolis, is justified. This but strengthens previous arguments for this identification that were based on textual and geographic analyses. Finally, the well-preserved destruction level, most probably dating to the late 9th cent. BCE, may represent an important datum line for the archaeological/historical scheme of the Iron Age II.

Illustrations:


  1. Plan of the site and main features

  2. General aerial photograph of the site with main features marked

  3. Closeup aerial view (looking south) of Area A (right) and Area E (left)

  4. Group of finds from the destruction level, Temporary Stratum 4

  5. View of excavated portion of siege trench in Area C6

  6. Isometric reconstruction of the siege trench in Area C6

Bibliography:



Project Bibliography:

* Ackermann, O., Bruins, H.J. and Maeir, A.M., 2003. A unique human-made trench at Tell es-Safi/Gath: anthropogenic impact and landscape response. Geoarchaeology.

* Boas, A. & Maeir, A.M. 1998. “The renewed excavations at Tell
e-Safi/Gath”, in Ackermann, O. (ed.), The Judaean Shephelah – Man, Nature
and Landscape. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference of the Martin
(Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies
, 31-37. Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan
University (in Hebrew).

* ------. In press. "Blanche Garde/Tell es-Safi: A case study of the effect of


Frankish Castle-building on the Late Medieval and Modern settlement pattern
of the southern Levant". Crusaders.

* Boas, A., Maeir, A.M. & Schneider T. 1998. "The 1996 survey at T.


e-Safi". Hadashot Archeologiot 108:156 (in Hebrew).

* Maeir, A.M. 2000. "Tel Zafit - 1998". Hadashot Archeologiot 112:122-123, 97*-98*.

* ------. 2001. The Philistine Culture in Transformation: A Current Perspective Based on the Results of the First Seasons of Excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath (In Hebrew). Pp. 111-29 in Settlement, Civilization and Culture: Proceedings of the Conference in Memory of David Alon, eds. A. Maeir and E. Baruch. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University.

* ------. In press. Philistia Transforming: Fresh Evidence from Tell es-Sâfi/Gath on the Transformation Trajectory of the Philistine Culture. In The Philistines and Other Sea Peoples, eds. A. Killebrew, G. Lehmann and M. Artzy.

* ------. In press b. Canaanites and Philistines: Recent Excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, Israel (1996-2001). In: P. de-Miroschedji, J.C. Margueron and J.P. Thalmann (Editors), The Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, May, Paris, 2002. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake.

* ------. In press. A Late Bronze Age, Syrian-style figurine from Tell es-Sâfi/Gath. In Festschrift S. Moussaieff, ed. R. Deutsch. Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Maeir, A.M., & Boas, A.J. 1998. "Archaeology in Israel: Tell e-Safi".
American Journal of Archaeology 102:785-786.

* ------. 1999. Tel Zafit - 1997". Hadashot Archeologiot 110:68.

Maeir, Aren M. & Ehrlich, Carl. 2000. "Tel Zafit - 1999". Hadashot
Archeologiot
112:121-122, 96*-97*.

* ------. 2001. Excavating Philistine Gath: Have We Found Goliath’s Hometown? Biblical Archaeology Review 27(6): 22-31.

* Schneider, T.J. 1997. New project: Tel Safi, Israel. Biblical Archaeologist 60/4:250.

* Uziel, J. 2002. The Tell es-Safi Archaeological Survey (Unpublished Master’s Thesis). Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University.



Related Bibliography:

Bentley, J. and Schneider, T.J. 2001. Statistics and archaeology in Israel. Computational Statistics and Data Analysis 32/3-4: 465-483.

Dagan, Y. 2002. Survey in the region of Tel Zafit. Hadashot Archeologiot 114:102-103.

Schniedewind, W. 1998. The Geopolitical History of Philistine Gath. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 309: 69-77.



Shai, I., and Maeir, A.M. In press. The Pre-LMLK Jars: A New Class of Storage Jars of the Iron Age IIA. Tel Aviv.


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