Canaanite Palace Built 3,700 Years Ago Over a Fault Was Destroyed by Quake

Archaeological evidence of ancient earthquakes is shaky but here a ‘trench’ running though the palace at Tel Kabri turned out to be ground zero

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The smoking gun: Wall fallen into the trench. Note the three layers of bricks
The smoking gun:Segment of wall fallen into the trench. Note the three layers of bricksCredit: Eric Cline

A palace built by the Canaanite inhabitants of coastal Israel 3,900 years ago was only used for a couple of centuries before being abandoned. Yet what happened to this edifice where the elites threw lavish banquets remained a mystery – until now.

It turns out that the unfortunate Canaanites had built the thing smack on one of the many fault lines riddling the Land of Israel, archaeologists say, based on new evidence found in 2019.

Israel is earthquake-prone. Naturally when the ground shook in the past, the ancients blamed god: “Thou hast made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it: heal the breaches thereof; for it shaketh,” King David (perhaps) begged Yahweh in Psalms. Now we know better but archaeological evidence of long-ago geological events is just as shaky as the land. The masonry of ancient walls often got repurposed, or were made of mud to begin with.

Yet in the case of this palace which was built in around 1,900 B.C.E. from mud bricks placed on stone foundations – the cause is finally clear, the Israeli and American archaeologists reported in PLOS ONE last week. The mud bricks are mostly gone (though not a few lie on the poor wine jars) but the stone foundations remain – if not exactly in the forms one might expect.

This is the second major team to work at Kabri. The tell (layered archaeological site), which contains a Canaanite city and the palace (dated by organic remains and hallmark pottery), has been under archaeological excavation since 1986. Strange things had been noticed over the years, says Prof. Eric Cline of George Washington University, co-director at the site with Prof. Assaf Yasur-Landau of Haifa University since 2005.

Wine jars found at KabriCredit: Eric H. Cline

A key breakthrough was the discovery that a “trench” containing some debris, which had been observed in in earlier excavations and had been assumed to be modern, was not. It wasn’t from World War II or Israel’s war of Independence in 1948. It wasn’t even a work dug by humans. It was the fault itself.

Spring of life and death

If one man wasn’t surprised, it was Dr. Michael Lazar, the study’s lead author. Called in for a consultation in 2013 when the first wine cellar was found at Kabri, Lazar suggested earthquake to explain the positioning of the ancient jars. Having excavated much of the trench, the archaeologists now know it isn’t one, and that this particular crack in the earth runs about 100 meters. It’s filled with debris from the palace that collapsed into it, Yasur-Landau tells Haaretz. It runs from one side of the palace to the other, he adds.

“It really looks like the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of it fell in,” Cline said. “It’s unlikely that the destruction was caused by violent human activity because there are no visible signs of fire, no weapons such as arrows that would indicate a battle, nor any unburied bodies related to combat. We could also see some unexpected things in other rooms of the palace, including in and around the wine cellar that we excavated a few years ago.”

Moreover, the “trench” is oriented exactly along a fault line. And finally, Yasur-Landau and Cline tell Haaretz, the three springs in the area are all along that active fault too. It could well be that a spring, a precious source of water even in the relatively lush Galilee, was the very reason why the Canaanites built that palace there, Yasur-Landau says. As such, this bringer of life could also have been the bearer of death and destruction.

Orthostat Bldg looking south with trench across itCredit: Eric Cline

The last aurochs

“Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.” – Isaiah 13:13

The Middle Bronze Age site at Kabri is a hefty 75 acres in area, is the third largest tell in all of Israel, the other two being Hazor (Hatzor) and Ashkelon. Large tells from the Canaanite Middle Bronze Age are quite rare, Cline explains, though littler ones are not. Anyway, at this one, the Canaanites built a large palace that turned out, during multiple excavations seasons, to have not one large wine cellar but at least four. A fifth cellar with jars was found in 2019, but what the jars contained – wine, olive oil, other – remains to be elucidated. (No seals or other written evidence has been found there.)

We can add that the jars in the storage cellars had been covered by debris, Cline says. Asked why the Canaanites stored that much fine wine – over 70 jars have been found, he suggests the palace economy involved a great deal of entertainment and banqueting. That could be how the inhabitants consolidated political power within the city, with heads of the big families, and with neighboring polities and possibly even ambassadors coming from far away.

“At any given day they could have held a small banquet in which they had wine,” Cline says. Which leads to the obvious question, what were they eating?

Wine cellar room emptied with wave visible in far wallCredit: Eric Cline

“A lot of sheep and goats,” he answers. Asked specifically, there is no evidence they ate pigs, he says – but they did apparently, once, eat an aurochs. Asked when that wild bovid went extinct in these parts, Cline goes there and says – “They may have killed the last one.”

Message from Minoans?

The Canaanite city at Kabri may not have been extraordinary for its time, but it had extraordinary floors. Painted with Aegean, possibly Minoan, motifs, the floors featuring squares outlined in red and containing lotuses, irises and other flowers, as reported by the original Kabri team led by Alon Kapinsky and Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier.

In 2019 the second team discovered a previously unknown floor. Of which they have exposed 10 centimeters, but it counts. Asked if that clearly indicates Aegean influence, Cline explains that it’s hard to say. “Maybe there were Aegean people at Kabri – certainly it shows connections. There are very few sites that have that,” he says. So there are four known sites featuring mid-Bronze Age Aegean-style frescoes and floor art: Qatna in Syria, Dabha in Egypt, Allalat in Turkey and now Kabri.

That level of investment in and of itself begged the question even more urgently, why this fine palace with its Aegean style art was deserted and its ruins left forlorn for evermore. In fact the archaeologists began to suspect the truth back during the 2011 excavation season, Cline tells Haaretz. They were digging up the “orthostat” building (which may have been a feast hall) and noticed some “weird things going on in the walls and floor that we couldn’t explain,” he says. A flat floor would suddenly dip for say 20 centimeters over half a meter. A wall would have a sudden rise, tilt or warp.

Aerial view of Canaanite palace at Tel KabriCredit: Griffin Aerial

In 2019 a huge threshold block was found in that trench – and then the excavators found the smoking gun: a portion of a whole wall with three levels of stones, that had clearly toppled over and fallen into the crack in the earth.

And once earthquake comes to mind, suddenly all the other weirdness at the site made sense, Cline sums up.

Further support for the earthquake theory comes from University of Haifa graduate student Roey Nickelsberg, who dug up the part of the palace slammed by the quake. He wrote in his M.A. thesis how the debris show quick collapse, that wouldn’t have been characteristic of abandonment or say conflagration, he explains.

“You put everything together – no fire, quick collapse, no gradual disintegration of the roof – this is equal to a violent event that caused the collapse and that big crack cutting through the palace in the orientation of the fissure,” says Yasur-Landau. “You don’t need to be Sherlock in order to deduce that this was the result of a geological event.

Jars found at one of the Kabri storage cellars in 2015Credit: Eric H. Cline
Jars and floor that fell into the trench Credit: Eric Cline
Overhead of orthostat building with trench through it at right 2011Credit: Griffin Aerial