A 3,400-year-old mystery: Who burned the palace of Canaanite Hatzor?
Archaeologists take on the Bible during Tel Hatzor excavations, when disagreements arise over the destroyer of the city.
Israeli archaeologists have recently unearthed a palace at the Tel Hatzor National Park in Upper Galilee, revealing rare findings – jugs containing scorched wheat from some 3,400 years ago.
The find provides still more tangible evidence of the destruction of Canaanite city of Hatzor, an event dated at the mid-13th century B.C.E.
The jugs were found during the excavation of storerooms in what archaeologists say was a palace. In addition to the jugs, many other artifacts found at the site testify to a large fire that raged through the palace – sooty walls, bricks that burned and became rock-hard from the extreme heat, a ceiling that collapsed and burnt cedar wood beams.
The excavations are being conducted by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, headed by Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman.
“We’re talking about a very exciting discovery. This is a rare find, something very uncommon,” said Ben-Tor, who has been working at Tel Hatzor since 1958, when he joined a team headed by Yigael Yadin since 1956.
“The archaeology of the land of Israel was born of an effort to confront and verify the biblical narrative with the findings in the field,” he said. “One of the biggest stories is the story of the [Jews’] conquest and settlement of the land. That’s a seminal story and that’s why Yadin came here, to check the story.”
The story of Hatzor’s destruction is told in Joshua 11:10-11: “At that time Joshua turned back and captured Hatzor and put its king to the sword. Hatzor had been the head of all these kingdoms. Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone, and he burned Hatzor itself.”
This battle was important because it cleared the way for the Israelites to settle the land from the Arava in the south to Mount Hermon in the north, as described a few verses later.
“If there was an incredible destruction at Hatzor, then we’ve gotten to it,” Ben-Tor continued. “There was a huge blaze here that turned the bricks into concrete and melted ceramic vessels. According to various tests, the heat of the fire reached 1,300 degrees Centigrade (2,372 degrees Farenheit). Three factors contributed to this – the quantity of wood used in the palace’s construction, the large stocks of oil that were stored here and the area’s very strong winds.”
Ben-Tor added that “when one tries to confront the biblical story with archaeology in the field, there are a lot of disagreements. I claim this destruction was carried out by nomads or semi-nomadic tribes that were later called Israelites.” He reached this conclusion after eliminating other possible invaders, such as the Egyptians or the Philistines or the residents of another city.
Zuckerman, Ben-Tor’s excavation partner, has a different theory. She attributes the destruction to internal tensions that were plaguing the town.
“It turns out that there’s a 100-150 year gap between the destruction of Hatzor and the settlement of the Israelites. Whoever destroyed this city abandoned it and the Israelites settled there only later,” she says.
She believes that the destruction of Hatzor “came at the end of a period of deterioration; some of the public buildings had been abandoned before the destruction while others were partially uprooted and in the end there was no ruler here.
“From what I’ve found it seems that the rulers, the elite, invested in large-scale construction and accumulating great wealth at the expense of the other residents. The ordinary people paid taxes and built the city; they paid the price for glorifying the rulers.”
Zuckerman claims the destruction occurred only in the public buildings, as evidenced by what she found when she excavated a private house in the lower city two years ago. It showed no signs of destruction or fire and “even looked as if the residents of the house had time to seal it before leaving it,” she says.
“The difference between a huge conflagration that focused on the public buildings and the orderly abandonment of the city by the simple folk indicates that we’re talking about something other than conquest.”
The huge building now being excavated joins another palace thought to be used for ceremonies that had already been uncovered in the upper city. It is believed that the palace now being investigated was used for administrative purposes, as it is located at the edge of the city that covered 800 dunams (around 200 acres) and was home to 18,000-20,000 people.
This palace was initially uncovered in the 1990s, but at first it wasn’t clear what it was. As the digging progressed, what emerged was a monumental structure made of large chiseled stones with cedar wood used in its walls.
“This is undoubtedly a royal building. It’s not a plain building and it’s not a residential building,” said Zuckerman.
Hatzor flourished during the Middle Canaanite Period (1750 B.C.E.) and during the Israelite period (the 9th century B.C.E.), when it constituted the largest fortified complex in the land of Israel. An important city along the Fertile Crescent, Hatzor had trade links with cities in Babylonia and Syria, and received large volumes of tin for its bronze industry.
The most significant digs at Hatzor were done during the 1950s and ’60s by Yigael Yadin, one of Israel’s pre-eminent archaeologists during its early years, who was also responsible for important discoveries at Masada, Megiddo and other locations.
The ongoing excavations have put Tel Hatzor on the world archaeology map and are one of the reasons it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005, along the biblical tells at Megiddo and Be’er Sheva.
The discovery of the 13 500-liter jugs has proven to be the high point of this dig. “The seeds of grain were burned and obviously it’s impossible to sprout them or do much with them, but we can estimate how old they are by carbon-14 dating,” said Ben-Tor.
“From this we can start sketching out the city’s plan and learn a lot about the way of life in Hatzor of the 13th and 14th centuries B.C.E., until its destruction,” Zuckerman said.
The jugs will be brought to conservation and restoration labs before the site is covered up to await the next excavation season.
The archaeologists pledge to continue to excavate the building, of which they’ve only uncovered a small portion. “I hope we’ll unearth other interesting findings, like sculptures,” Ben-Tor said.