Unearthing clues hidden in the earth for thousands of years is something akin to magic. Now imagine excavating an entire city, and your job is to tell its story.
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What is this city? Who lived there and what did they do? And, who ruled it? Recreating the narrative of an ancient city whose antecedents are lost in time is a serious task, because your interpretation shapes the way others view their history.
“There is a certain distance in archaeology between finds and interpretation,” Says Professor Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University. Never was this truer than the case of Khirbet Qeiyafa, one of the most discussed and argued about archaeological finds in Israel today.
The site is situated on a hilltop overlooking the Elah Valley in the Judean hills, where according to the Bible, David and Goliath held their legendary battle. The excavators, Yossi Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, have identified Khirbet Qeiyafa as the biblical town of Shaarayim, and after completing their final excavation season this summer, they announced the discovery of a palace.
Not just any palace: they attribute the ruins to none other than King David himself.
Asked about Garfinkel and Ganor's claims, Finkelstein first affirms commonalities: “The first and most important thing for us as archaeologists to agree on the finds. And I think that regarding Qeyiafa we all agree that it is a very well fortified site which dates back to the 10th century BCE."
Archaeologists also agree that a site that well-fortified is unique to this region at that time period. They agree that no pig bones were found at the site, a fact the excavators underscore in attributing the site to Judah. They also agree on the cultic finds, most notably of three portable shrines, common to the Levantine region at that time. Nor is there a dispute over the ceramics. The clay vessels used by the people are very much like those used by the people inhabiting nearby sites.
Ultimately archaeology is, at the end of the day, a way to reconstruct history, Finkelstein explains: "I see myself as a historian practicing archaeology." In this case, a good starting place is to decide on the territorial affiliations of the site.
There are presently three theories for that.
"The first is Yossi Garfinkel’s - that it was a Judahite city. That's a possibility. It is indeed close to the west of Jerusalem, and located in an area which was later a part of Judah," says Finkelstein.
But a very different theory, from Prof. Emeritus of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, Nadav Na’aman and Ido Koch, a Ph.D. candidate in Archaeology and Biblical History at Tel Aviv University, is that the ruins are Canaanite. Finkelstein himself generously suggests that it’s a strong possibility: a very similar layer, with almost exact pottery types and other finds hinting in this direction, was found in the nearby Canaanite dig in Bet Shemesh directed by Prof. Shlomo Bonimovitz and Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University.
The third theory is his, constructed together with Alexander Fantalkin, assistant professor at Tel Aviv University, and published in 2012: They support Yossi Garfinkel in the sense that they agree the site is associated with hill country. But who were the people? Here Finkelstein and Fantalkin disagree with Garfinkel: "We think the strongest possibility is that the site is affiliated with a North Israelite entity," he says.
Basing interpretation on the Bible
Theories are based on finds, but in the U.S. and Israel they are also often based on the Bible. Thus the excavators identified the site with the biblical town of Shaarayim, due to its location and the (somewhat disputed) discovery of two gates - which is the literal meaning of the town's name in Hebrew.
“This would demonstrate a literal reading of the Bible,” points out Finkelstein, who questions how the author of Joshua 15, who lived in the 7th century BCE, had the information on a city inhabited over three centuries before his time. He points out that Megiddo also had two gates at this time, as did several other ancient towns in the region.
In reality it is quite possible that this particular hilltop site had nothing to do with the Bible at all.
So what about the claim that the ruins at Khirbet Qeiyafa are King David’s palace?
“This reminds me of the fairy tale of the little girl who cried wolf," says Finkelstein. "Yesterday they found King David's Palace in Jerusalem, today it’s in Qeiyafa, tomorrow they'll find it ... who knows where. Such statements exhaust the public’s attention.”
A certain jadedness can be seen in responses to the spate of "King David's Palace found" articles: even believers are starting to question all the finds ostensibly proving the bible's veracity. For his part, Finkelstein questions how scholars, in this day and age, with so many scientific advances in the field, believe in such a literal interpretation of the Bible, an approach that had begun to go out of fashion with the skeptic philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century.
Dabbling in Disneyland archaeology
Finkelstein regards himself as an Israeli patriot and feels that it is especially important for Israel, which receives more prestigious scientific grants per capita than most other countries, to exhibit especially rigorous scientific standards in the discipline of archaeology as well.
So why have we been hearing such sensationalist claims?
Simple. Prof. Jacob L. Wright, a participant in recent discussions on the subject and author of a book on King David scheduled to appear this fall, observes: “The most certain way to create a buzz is to claim that you’ve found something related to the reign of King David."
Attempts to link all kinds of finds to King David demonstrate an impoverishment of the historical imagination, as if there weren’t many other kings and warlords in the 10th century B.C.E. highlands, Wright says.
“Careful research on both the biblical materials and the archaeological record reveals a much greater diversity of polities, which gradually coalesced into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Khirbet Qeiyafah is an important site, but it is likely part of a smaller local polity,” he says.
Archaeology is a lucky discipline, in that the public is interested in it, especially in the history of the Land of Israel. Just look at how many shows there are on the subject on National Geographic television, the History Channel, Discovery and the like. People like hearing about what we find and learning about the ancient cultures that once inhabited this land as well as others.
Of course, they also yearn for finds to prove the Bible. They are fascinated that there were illicit shrines and nude female figurines in most of the sites of Judah during the late monarchic period. They want to know what implications these finds have for their understanding of the Bible. All this adds up to powerful proof that the public will continue to support archaeological research without any need to cry wolf, nor King David.