Who Really Transformed Jerusalem From Hilltop Village Into Fortified City?

Bone fragment, coal chip and a seed dating to 3000 B.C.E., 1,000 years later than expected, reignite academic brawl.

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Illustration: The First Temple in Jerusalem, including walls and fortifications.
Illustration: The First Temple in Jerusalem, including walls and fortifications.Credit: Elad - The City of David foundation

Was it the Canaanites who transformed a hilltop village into the fortified city of Jerusalem, as had been thought until now — or was it Judean kings? New findings raise this possibility, which challenges long-held dogmas.

A bit of coal, a wild legume seed and a bone fragment excavated from beneath fortifications surrounding the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem have rekindled the debate over the city’s early days — and the question of who exactly fortified it, turning it into the walled city of Jerusalem as we know it.

The findings also raise questions about the science behind archaeology, and reignited another early argument over where the ancient city actually lay.

These tiny organic findings were excavated two years ago, coming from beneath the foundation stones of a gigantic fortified tower that had been erected near Gihon Spring, at the bottom of the City of David, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

The tower was uncovered more than 10 years ago by Prof. Ronny Reich and by Eli Shukron, and was dated by them and by all other archaeologists since then to the Middle Bronze Age, namely 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.

At that time, what lay between the spring and the Temple Mount was the Canaanite city of Yevus (Jebus). According to the Bible, Yevus was conquered by King David 3,000 years ago.

The tower was built using very large stone blocks, and according to current understanding, it is the largest structure built in Jerusalem before King Herod’s time. It was designed to protect the spring, which was critical to the city’s survival.

The dating of the tower to the Bronze Age had been undisputed, based on pottery found near the fortifications and on the style of construction, the architecture and the resemblance of these fortifications to others in Israel from that period, such as at Tel Gezer and Tel Rumeida (in Hebron).

New research by Johanna Regev and Elisabetta Boaretto of the Weizmann Institute of Science, together with Nachshon Zanton and Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority, set out to determine the tower’s date of construction using carbon 14 dating.

Excavations in Ir David, November 2016. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Though archaeologists have relied on carbon 14 dating (which is based on the breakdown rate of this radioactive isotope of carbon) to analyze organic material for decades, the method has not been widely used in Jerusalem.

The researchers sent the small items from the earth under one of the tower’s walls for testing.

“We thought we were narrowing down the dating to the Middle Bronze period, with 50 years in each direction, but we were in for a big surprise,” says Uziel.

A radical theory of ancient Jerusalem

Based on the lab results, the coal fragment, the seed and the bone date to the ninth century B.C.E., meaning they are younger than 3,000 years.

It is almost 1,000 years later than the Middle Bronze Age.

According to biblical chronology, this is the period of the Judean kings, after the united kingdom of David and Solomon had split.

Could it be that it wasn’t the Canaanites but the kings of Judea who built the spring’s fortifications, turning Jerusalem from a small, unwalled city into a large fortified one, stretching from the Temple Mount to the Gihon Spring?

If indeed the spring was not protected until the ninth century B.C.E. but lay far outside the city, this could support a radical theory — that ancient Jerusalem is still buried behind the walls of the Temple Mount. Meaning, all the large excavations that have excited researchers for a century have been done on the ancient city’s outskirts.

The researchers suggest two possibilities. One is that the tower was indeed built only in the ninth century B.C.E., reflecting a strong centralized government with an efficient administrative system that could mobilize the required manpower for such a large venture.

The other possibility is that the tower was first built in the Bronze Age and was renovated in the ninth century B.C.E., and that the new findings come from the later period. This possibility accounts for the structure’s dating based on accepted archaeological methods: the architecture, the way the stones were carved and the method of construction.

“We present both options,” says Uziel. “If we’d investigated this at ten different locations and they all told the same story, we’d have to relinquish the Bronze Age idea, but at this stage, caution is due.”

Reich, who excavated the tower, disputes the findings. In a conference on new findings in the archaeology of Jerusalem two weeks ago, Reich said there was an alternative explanation for the findings: A stream of water could have swept the small organic items under the stones from another location, after the tower was already in place.

“I can’t argue with the results obtained at the Weizmann Institute but I do take issue with the context,” Reich explains. “Anyone who came to the Kidron Valley after the Six-Day War could still see water in the stream. For thousands of years water flowed there every winter and we don’t know what it carried along with it or what it deposited.”

Classic archaeological methods challenged

In any event, this results of the study challenges classic archaeological methods, which include observing the findings while trying to date them in relation to other ones, comparing them to findings in other locations. 

Scientific methods are constantly getting more accurate, providing precise dating based on chemistry and physics, which can challenge long-held theories.

“Every structure we’ve found so far from the Iron Age was built with small or midsize stones, which one or two people could handle,” says Reich. “The tower reflects an entirely different style. All these facts need to be explained — it’s not enough to state that it was built in the ninth century B.C.E.”

Even before this research was published, Prof. David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University had proposed that Jerusalem’s fortifications were built only in the eighth century B.C.E., and that the city was unfortified until then.

The carbon dating doesn’t rule out his theory, say the researchers, but they reject this hypothesis based on other findings around the tower. They believe that whether this was new construction or a renovation, Jerusalem became a large fortified city in the ninth century B.C.E., with a well-developed administrative system and a strong centralized government which could carry out such projects.

Ancient city disappeared

The study and its unusual results have also rekindled another controversial issue, regarding the location of Jerusalem during the Bronze and Iron Ages. For decades, the accepted dogma has been that the City of David, the hillside extension running from the Old City Walls to the Gihon Spring, is the historic mound of the city (as proclaimed in the advertising slogan of the Elad organization which runs the national park and excavations there – “the place where it all began."

However, in an article published two years ago by Prof. Israel Finkelstein, Prof. Oded Lipschitz and Prof. Ido Koch, they argue that the ancient mound of Jerusalem, the city center, was on the site of the Temple Mount, above the hilly extension. According to this theory, when King Herod built the Second Temple 2,000 years ago and expanded and flattened the mountain top he in fact covered the ancient city.

This is the reason why very few artifacts from the Bronze or Iron Age have been found in the City of David itself even though it is known from ancient Egyptian writings that Jerusalem was a relatively large city, at least for some of the relevant periods, they say. Resolving this riddle once and for all, however, will require excavating on the Temple Mount. And that is not about to happen.