Wednesday, November 21, 2007

ASOR 2007 (p. 6)

Saar Ganor, Archaeologist/Inspector for the Israel Antiquities Authority (it says so on the business card he gave me during our private discussion after his lecture), began the next lecture entitled simply "Khirbet Kiafa: Biblical Azekah?" (the spelling in their promotional literature is "Qeiyafa"). I found this title intriguing, & was curious to see what evidence they'd present, especially since Tell Zakariya--where Bliss & Macalister found 17 LMLK handles (including the first positively identifiable HBRN specimen)--has long been accepted as the location for Azekah.

So here's the abstract:

"The site of Khirbet Kiafa is located on the northern hills that border the Elah Valley, the vicinity of David and Goliath’s encounter. This is a strategic location in the biblical kingdom of Judah since this was the main road from Philistia and the Coastal Plain to the hill country, to Jerusalem and Hebron. Even without any excavations one can see on the site a lower city of ca. 10 hectares and an upper city of ca. 3 hectares surrounded by a massive wall. At the center of the upper city is a large rectangular enclosure, with massive rooms on the south. Such large rectangular enclosures are known from royal cities of the Bible such as Samaria, Lachish and Ramat Rachel. The site is partly covered by occupation debris from the Roman-Byzantine era, but this latter activity is rather limited. On the southern slope, outside the city, there are Iron Age rock-cut tombs. To date no historical identification has been suggested for this site, and it has been neglected by archaeologists and biblical scholars. It is possible that it should be identified with biblical Azekah instead of the site traditionally identified as such since ca. 1900. The site of Khirbet Kiafa has never been excavated, but in the summer of 2007 the first season of excavations will be [sic] take place. This expedition will be headed by Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor. The results of the first season will be presented in the lecture."

Architecture "known from royal cities"? " Neglect[ful] scholars?" I'm all ears!

After Mr. Ganor gave a 7-minute overview of the project featuring a survey map by Yehuda Dagan, LMLK VIP-professor Yosef Garfinkel (who published a landmark corpus of 1,198 in 1988, simultaneously placing a lid on Nadav Na'aman's notion regarding Rehoboam's cities in 2Chronicles 11) provided 15 minutes' worth of details.

This past summer, in only 2 weeks (8/12 - 8/26) with 10 people, they excavated 2 areas dubbed A & B.

Area A extended 5x5 meters & consisted of 2 major layers: Hellenistic (on top as expected) & Iron II. Area B contained 4 squares, which were about 2.5 meters deep from top-soil to bedrock, with the same 2 obvious layers. Aside from these 2 strata, he also noted that they found some "small Bronze Age sherds".

He emphasized the obviously distinct appearance of the strata by showing some interesting photos of the site's walls, which today stand about 2-4 meters tall. Earlier he had explained that a "tel" typically consists of a large heap of dirt covering ruins, but this site's name began with "khirbet" because it was a visibly "ruined place" as you could see these walls before their excavation season began.

The Hellenistic/upper portion of the wall was built with "small rocks", & the Iron-II/lower portion consisted of "big boulders". Furthermore, the Iron-II wall was of the casemate type--resembling a sort of zigzag pattern making it easier to defend:

Amazingly, in this first brief season, his team found 3 restorable vessels from a street locus. Due to the ongoing study of the finds, he openly admitted that it was too early to tell how much of the Iron-II period this site spans--the 9th, 8th, &/or 7th centuries.

Then he showed photos of a spot he described as a "plastered floor of a gate", & baited the attendees with an enticing promo: "Anyone who would like to excavate an Iron Age gate, join us next season!"

Some of the rocks where the wall meets this city-gate are estimated at 5 tons! He unabashedly described Kiafa/Qeiyafa as "one of the largest Iron Age sites in Judah" based on its massive fortification system containing these megalithic stones. To put it in perspective, Lachish is 7 hectares, Beth Shemesh is 4 hectares, but Kiafa is 14 hectares. How a site this immense with walls above ground could have gone without this kind of publicity for a century is amazing! Reports out-of-the-blue like this provide a firm foundation for me to ignore anti-Bible atheists who insist that there's no (or not enough) evidence to support people & events mentioned therein.

For those unfamiliar with his other corpus of work, Garfinkel's expertise for 20 years has been with the so-called Neolithic & Chalcolithic sites (considered by the general public to be of little historical significance since they can't be associated with anything obvious in the Bible, with the possible exception of cave dwellers banished from society mentioned in Job 30:3-8). He told a humorous anecdote about Joseph Aviram (long-time leader of the Israel Exploration Society, who graciously granted permission for me to publish many of their photos on the LMLK Research site some years ago). Like a prodigal son regaining his sanity & coming home, when Aviram heard that Prof. Garfinkel had finally decided to excavate a site that may have an important connection to the Biblical kingdom of Judah, he had "tears in his eyes"!

He concluded his portion of the lecture by emphasizing that he had only spent 2 weeks excavating the site, & had still not had time to analyze & categorize all the artifacts, so the identification of the site was tentative/hypothetical. And he mentioned that 2 other people at the conference had suggested 2 other possibilities to him. One was Ephes Dammim, but he stated that it would have been a mere settlement--not an established/fortified city such as Kiafa. The other was MMST (pronounced by him as "Mam-shawt"; I did not remember to ask him afterwards who made this wild stab-in-the-dark guess--too many fireworks in my brain by then). His final remark was that it may take many years before any positive ID could be made for the site with an inscription, noting that one was found at Tell Dan only "after 20 years" of work.

Personally, I found his lecture intriguing & persuasive. However, another VIP I discussed it with described the possibility as "nonsense" (they declined to be quoted for my blog, so that's why I'm keeping it anonymous, but couldn't resist mentioning it to illustrate the contrast). The same anonymous person said that Kiafa might not actually be as big as Zakariya, which I found absolutely shocking. I hope one of these scholars will publish side-by-side same-scale aerial photos of the 2 sites, so we can settle this relatively simple issue before tackling the bigger one of deciding which (if either) is the real Azekah!

For this reason, I'm going to break my chronological sequence in this blog & skip to the Q&A session for it, which came after the subsequent lecture (this entire session was arranged in 2 pairs, each followed by its own Q&A as described in my previous blog entry).

25 minutes later, Shlomo Bunimovitz & Zvi Lederman, who had been seated next to Garfinkel & Ganor, expressed what can only be described as academic outrage over the mere suggestion that Kiafa could be Azekah. After having only been exposed to this sort of forum for 4 hours, it left me dazzled! You had to be there to feel the aggression, & though the entire argument lasted about 8 minutes, I was only able to jot down about 5 lines of notes.

Dr. Bunimovitz stated that if you they were to draw 3 columns listing Finds, Biblical Texts, & External Sources, & compare the evidence in support of this site being Azekah, it would obviously be "groundless". He rattled off a list of rhetorical questions including "[If it were an important Iron Age city,] where are the LMLK jars?" He passionately compared their 17 seasons at Beth Shemesh & [I'm paraphrasing in this instance], "You have the nerve to make this suggestion after only 2 weeks with only a small part of a LMLK jar in only 1 casemate!?!"

The only quote I captured from Zvi Lederman was also rhetorical, asking "Isn't it a little bit early [to be making such a speculation]?"

Dale Manor was extremely cautious & handled the closing as delicate as possible. At times while the VIPs were arguing, he attempted to gingerly ask if anyone else in attendance had questions, but then the VIPs would flare up again among themselves. Whenever the Kiafa team had an opportunity to defend their position, they reiterated that it was only a suggestion & that maybe 5 years or 20 years hence at a future ASOR conference, the accumulated evidence would lead them to make an alternate suggestion.

And please don't get me wrong, it was not a violent or hostile sort of argument; the Beth Shemesh VIPs simply disagreed 100% with what they heard, & expressed their opinions in no uncertain terms. In hindsight, it's amazing that they were able to hold their peace as long as they did throughout the Kiafa & subsequent lecture.

After Manor formally concluded the session, they still continued arguing as I waited patiently to get my copy of BAR v23 #1 autographed, though now they switched from English to Hebrew so that I remained completely innocent to what they were saying. After the dust had settled for the most part, Mr. Ganor confided in me that they really did have more evidence to support their claim, but they simply did not have time to prepare it all for this brief lecture.

The bottom line on this memorable confrontation is that it's a clear case of 2 scholars looking at the exact same evidence & forming totally different opinions of it. Just like geology. Just like biology. As with the confrontation during Chang-Ho Ji's Q&A, we'll see this scene played out again later in the conferences on 3 more occasions (2 involving me personally), albeit with less drama. Besides, you don't want no drama; no, no drama; no, no, no, no drama.

G.M. Grena

P.S. This morning I created a Wikipedia entry for this site. Also, the excavators passed out some brochures, & encouraged me to distribute them, so here's a lo-res thumbnail of 1 side of it--an excellent aerial view--to help you get a better idea of the overall shape of the exposed remains, particularly of the wall(s):

The back side of the brochure shows the same promo-photo of the person standing in one of the casemates that I included above, along with a shot of 2 team members excavating one of the restorable jars. If anyone would like hi-res versions of these to help learn about the site & promote its awareness, feel free to request copies offline (each of my photos for the front & back of the brochure are about 2.5Mb, so be sure your E-mail can handle it).


Peter said...

Dear George,

That is really very fascinating news re the new site. Naturally it is far too early to argue pros and cons re whether or not this new site may be the real Azekah or else MMSHT or not. But I think once one gets an impression of whether or not the site near the Elah valley was significant during the Iron Age or not, it is totally legitimate to make a suggestion re its possible identification (also if only a mere speculation), just to show that very often we simply do not have enough evidence to prove the exact identification on a site one against the other. The reaction by the Beth Shemesh scholars is not acceptable in the light of openminded academic discussion. Nevertheless - as you state correctly - it happens in every field of research. Still it is not right. Quite to the contrary the new excavations which only started this summer are a fascinating new development within Iron Age Judahite studies and I can't wait hearing more about it. It does not matter whether this site is Azekah, it surely was of some importance and that makes the thing so fascinating!

Owen Chesnut said...

I would just like to respond to Peter. It is not the Beth Shemesh scholars reaction that is unacceptable it is the bold statement of Garfinkel. Yes speculation and "openminded discussion" is all well and good, but it is academically irresponsible to claim such a site id based on almost no evidence. Part of the reason why Lederman and Bunimovitz (not to mention many other scholars I talked to) take issue is not just the lack of evidence but also making such a large claim based on two weeks of excavation makes it seem as if the Kiafa team is just looking for some easy publicity for their dig. For example the site of Tell es-Safi has been excavated since 96 and there was already a good amount of scholarship published on the Safi=Gath but they were cautious to state in scholarly forums that the site was Gath. There are still some (ie Stager) who would disagree (incorrectly I might add), but the weight of 11 seasons of excavation is on their side not to mention the majority of scholarship.
At the same time I have seen this site while working on my masters thesis and was surprised that I didn't know it and that no one had excavated it. So I am very much looking forward to further reports on the site.


Peter said...

Dear Owen,

I fully appreciate your comments. And indeed you are right that it often takes many years before one may get some confirmation about the identity of a site. Tell es-Safi is a good example, indeed. Others would include Tell el-Ful or Jeba as the ancient site of Gibeah of Saul. And there are many other examples that would readily come to mind, such as Tell Beit-Mirsim or Khirbet Rabud for Debir.

You may well be right that Prof. Garfinkel and his team only wanted to make wide publicity for their dig and raise the necessary financial support for it. Indeed this is well possible, but not knowing Prof. Garfinkel's true motives, I would not dear to go that far with my assumptions. He must decide for himself.

Still I maintain my opinion that it is not wrong to suggest alternative identifications, even if the evidence for it is still meagre or even very meagre as with this particular case. The same was done with Tell Nebi Samwil, which some believe is ancient Mizpah even though the weight of evidence really seems to tip the balance in favour of Tell en-Nasbeh. So what? At Ramat Rachel we don't really know whether the site is ancient Bethhakerem, Mamshit, the Inn of Chincham, or some other place. There are many theories. So what? It does not hurt. It will only stir discussion. It does not bother us, we want to learn from each other. New suggestions and criticisms of older theories (whether or not they can stand the test of time) make you rethink your older views and will help to deepen our knowledge about the facts. If the new idea is wrong, then the old view will stand firmer than ever before.

Best wishes

Owen Chesnut said...

Fair enough Peter, perhaps if the site id would have been a suggestion within the lecture or a separate part of the lecture with full historical geographical background (seeing as the archaeological evidence is limited at this point) myself and likely the Beth-shemesh team would be more accepting.

G.M. Grena said...

Owen, thanks for posting your opinion! I'd just like to emphasize that the scheduled time for this lecture was a mere 20 minutes. As this was the very first report of the very first excavations at this site, & the site itself was not known by most of the attendees, the bulk of the material presented was an overview, & it was presented at a swift pace. The context of the lecture was an introduction to a site that may be Azekah (note the question mark in the title); it was not intended to be--"Here's Our Proof that this IS Azekah".