It was a Saturday afternoon and ancient bones and pottery were sent flying again as amateur motorcyclists raced over the dirt paths crisscrossing Tel Shimron, a hill in northern Israel. Little did these weekend racers know (or perhaps care) that they were riding over the stratified remains of towns and villages that had been built atop one another for more than 4,000 years, from before the time of the biblical conquest by Joshua up until the early years of the modern state of Israel.
“We had to do some quick salvage work over there, where they are spinning their wheels, because the bikes were turning up bones and materials from the Bronze Age,” says Daniel Master, an archaeologist from Wheaton College, near Chicago, Illinois.
To limit the damage, archaeologists covered and reburied the most vulnerable parts of the site. A natural reserve, Tel Shimron is surrounded by a fence which regularly gets torn down by bikers and other trespassers, Master explained during a visit to the site last week.
Shimron is one of the last major biblical sites yet to be properly explored by archaeologists. Now the tel, a mound formed by subsequent levels of human habitation, has become the focus of a major expedition. The archaeologists have already turned up the remains of a large Canaanite city from the Middle Bronze Age; a prosperous Hellenistic town with international connections; and a Jewish village from the Roman era.
Researchers hope the site will help answer key questions about the historicity of the Bible, including, possibly, whether the Israelite conquest narrated in the Book of Joshua actually happened.
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How could a large site clearly dating back thousands of years, and possibly crucial to the biblical narrative of the Israelites, be ignored for so long?
One reason for the scientific snub may be that the site was more or less continuously inhabited up to the 1950s, when it housed a transit camp for newly-arrived immigrants to Israel, explains Master. Also, a dig that spans so many periods requires a large team with experts in multiple fields committed to working on the site for decades - and lot of money, he says.
That last part has been taken care of by a sponsorship from the Museum of the Bible, the Washington D.C. museum established by the Green family, Evangelical billionaire owners of the Hobby Lobby crafts chain. Since opening last year, the museum has been criticized by some scholars for allegedly pushing a religious reading of the Bible rather than one based in science and archaeology, and lately because its collection apparently included forged antiquities.
Asked whether such sponsors might attempt to influence the direction or the conclusions of the Tel Shimron dig, Master said the archaeologists made sure their agreements with the museum grant them full academic independence. “Until now it has worked very well, I don’t have any fear that anybody will put pressure on us to pursue a less scientific approach,” says Mario Martin, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University who co-directs the dig with Master. “That’s just not an option. If there were such pressure one day, I would probably get up and go away.”
Although small surveys have been conducted in the past, including one in 1982, archaeologists of the joint project by Wheaton College and Tel Aviv University only began digging at Shimron in earnest in 2017 and plan to return for a second season in the summer of 2019.
Joshua was here. Or not
To understand the wealth of discoveries that may be awaiting archaeologists, just consider that Tel Shimron, sprawling over 16-18 hectares, is about three times larger than Megiddo, which is just 15 kilometers to the south.
Megiddo is the site of epic battles described in the Bible, and is the spot Christian tradition identifies as Armageddon. In keeping with its importance to biblical narratives, Megiddo has been intensively investigated, since the early 20th century. Archaeologists have found spectacular palaces and gates from the Bronze Age and Iron Age, and have argued ever since whether some of these remains constitute proof of the existence of the biblical kingdom of David and Solomon.
Shimron too appears in the Bible, as one of the main allies of the King of Hazor in opposing the Israelite invasion of Canaan (Joshua 11:1); and when the Hebrews vanquish their enemies, the town becomes part of the territory of the tribe of Zebulon (Joshua 19:15).The archaeologists are looking for signs of destruction datable to the 13th century B.C.E., when Joshua is supposed to have lived.
Exactly such a layer has been found in the Canaanite city of Hazor (also known as Hatzor), in the upper Galilee: some archaeologists have hailed it as evidence of conquest by Israelite tribes. But other researchers consider it merely the result of internal strife.
Whether or not signs of destruction appear at Shimron is unlikely to settle that debate, but archaeologists would still like to figure out how this particular town ended up in the biblical text, Master says.
Most scholars agree that the Book of Joshua is part of what has been dubbed the Deuteronomistic history, a chronicle compiled in the late Iron Age, probably starting around the 7th century B.C.E. In other words, it was apparently written half a millennium after the supposed events narrated in Joshua.
“The fact that Iron Age biblical scribes picked cities like Hazor and Shimron to be part of the story suggests they must have known there were large Bronze Age cities there,” Master says.
Ground zero in the Galilee
One possible explanation for this knowledge lies in the fact that even today, atop Tel Shimron is the ruin of a large public building from the Middle Bronze Age. Its walls can still be seen peeking through just under the surface.
This suggests that nothing was built atop the site after the building was destroyed, an unusual choice, since in most ancient cities the highest point in town, the acropolis, was the most prestigious and defensible area.
A similar situation occurs at Hazor, where the destroyed Bronze Age palace was not built over for centuries and was kept as “a kind of Ground Zero monument,” notes Martin. “So this is something that can definitely influence later writers, even if they are writing 400 or 500 years later.”
Why people in the Iron Age Levant chose to preserve remains from previous, ancient settlements, we may never know, but what seems certain is that the glory days of Shimron predate the biblical period by hundreds of years.
While there are signs of habitation going back as far at the Neolithic, the site likely reached its peak extension as a Canaanite city in the 17th century B.C.E., when large earthen ramparts were raised around it, and it would have had a population of around 4,000 people, Master says.
The town would have been a major agricultural settlement but possibly also an important trading and administrative post. It was smack on the main route through the Jezreel Valley that connected the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley and from there on to distant lands including Syria and Mesopotamia.
Shimron's cosmopolitan nature is attested by recent finds such as Egyptian scarabs and a fine cylindrical seal, probably from Syria, the archaeologists say. It is also why the town is mentioned in multiple Egyptian documents from the second millennium B.C.E.
When and how this prosperous Bronze Age settlement came to an end, and whether the Israelites had anything to do with it, is still unclear.
“We don’t know exactly when the Israelites are here, so another interesting question will be to see if their presence can be distinguished and how the different influences of the surrounding people, the Israelites, the Phoenicians, the Assyrians played off each other,” Master says.
Saved by Josephus?
After the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E. at the hands of the Assyrians, Shimron appears to have been mostly abandoned, until the Persian and Hellenistic periods.
In the 3rd and 2nd century B.C.E. a new settlement arose that had a clearly international bent, featuring refined pottery and faience imported from places as far as Rhodes and Egypt.
The two directors of the project are veteran archaeologists: Master worked for 25 years at the Philistine city of Ashkelon while Martin dug for the last two decades at Megiddo.
They say they were attracted to the site because they wanted to compare a coastal town like Ashkelon to an inland settlement such as Shimron.
Over the centuries, the town seemed to see-saw between Mediterranean influences and the predominance of local cultures. Around the 1st century C.E., the Hellenistic settlement was replaced by a typical Galilean Jewish village: archaeologists have found remains of a mikveh - a ritual bath - and stone vessels, which were preferred by Roman-era Jews for matters of ritual purity.
During this phase, the village was called Simonias, and played a key role in Jewish history. It is mentioned in the Talmud and the Mishna, and it also appears in the autobiography of Josephus Flavius, the Jewish general and historian charged with defending the Galilee during the Great Revolt of 66-70 C.E.
It was at Simonias, Josephus tells us, that he won a victory against the Romans, temporarily halting their advance in the region. Josephus would eventually switch over to the Romans after being captured, but perhaps it is a testament to his early military prowess that the Jewish village at Simonias appears to have endured well into the 4th century.
After that, the history of Tel Shimron stretches on into the Byzantine and Islamic eras, the Crusades and then the Mameluk and Ottoman empires. “For however long I dig here, there will still be more to find,” says Master. “It will take generations to uncover it all.”