Did King David even exist, let alone his fabled son, the wise King Solomon? And if they existed, did they rule over a powerful, united Jewish kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem? The truth is that to this day, no categorical proof of either the kings or the great kingdom has ever been found, leaving aside one suggestive engraving that some believe says "House of David." Also, the interpretation of archaeological findings from their purported era, the 10th century B.C.E. has been controversial, to put it politely.
Now the discovery of a second monumental building confidently dated to the Davidic period has been announced, in a Canaanite town that apparently had allied with a powerful Judahite kingdom. The discovery was made with the help of naked mole rats, little burrowing rodents endemic to the region.
Skeptics claim that no fortifications, public works or signs of statehood have been found in the region of Judah from the Davidic era. Now, claim Bar-Ilan University archaeologists excavating a monumental structure at Tel ‘Eton, near the Hebron hills in the central Israeli lowlands – they have.
They believe that structures dated to later times, may have actually originated earlier. The Bar-Ilan team argues that they found evidence of that very thing, with the help of a system they developed – mapping by mole rat.
Their work on rodent-assisted surveying was published in 2016 by the Cambridge University Press.
Signs of David
The argument perennially raging over the existence of a United Kingdom under David and Solomon is really about whether the bible and Jewish tradition are historical, have grains of truth, or are folk tales.
Skeptics say that no monumental constructs have been discovered in Jerusalem or nearby that date to the 10th century B.C.E.
Archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University has been postulating for some years that Khirbet Qeiyafa is that very thing - some believe the edifice was even the palace of King David himself. Perched on a hilltop about 30 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem, Qeiyafa was a strategically located town with a military fortress featuring massive fortifications built of gigantic stones that has been connected to the kingdom ruled from Jerusalem. Though its dating is controversial, Garfinkel believes Qeiyafa dates to the early 10th century B.C.E.
Now the Bar Ilan people say, in their article in Cambridge's journal Carbon, that Tel 'Eton, 20 kilometers south of Qeiyafa, contains another such edifice.
There is a snag. The vast majority of the findings in the house date to a couple of hundred years later, the 8th century B.C.E. But Prof. Avraham Faust and Yair Sapir of Bar-Ilan University suspect its foundations date from the period of the United Monarchy.
The big house, which they dubbed the “governor’s residency” (though it could have been something entirely different) may exemplify what they call the "old-house effect": a building or settlement that existed for generations, but only left significant remains from its final drama.
What the mole rat says
Faust has been excavating Tel 'Eton for a decade, and published the mole rat survey paper two years ago. One can dig up the whole tell with the hallmark patience and delicacy required of archaeology. Or one can pick digging locations by first sifting the back-dirt hills piled up by burrowing mole rats, whether the naked mole rat or the Palestine mole rat.
The naked mole rat is a remarkable animal, not attractive by most standards unless one is into wrinkled pink skin, beady, practically vestigial black eyes and yellow fangs. That isn't acne on their cheeks, it's follicles for their sparse whiskers. Among the extraordinary features of the mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is resistance to pain and cancer, the ability to survive up to 18 minutes without oxygen – a useful trait for underground dwellers.
Weirdest of all, mole rats have some sort of resistance to aging, a euphemism for living much longer than most rodents of their diminutive size. A mouse in the house won't live more than a few years, three or four if you feed it properly. A mole rat can live 30 years and counting. Unlike every other mammal known, their risk of death doesn't go up as they grow older, scientists marveled just this January. For us, the risk of death doubles roughly every eight years after age 30.
Anyway, when these marvels of nature burrow, they conveniently toss out earth complete with little artifacts buried up to a meter deep. If the rodent piles contain lots of pottery sherds, the area had been settled. If not, not.
“The mole rat told us that there is a small settlement in a place where nobody thought a settlement had existed,” Faust explains. And thus, with the inadvertent help of the rats, they found a whole lower city that had existed around the citadel. The rodents could even help mark its boundaries: outside the city limits, no sherds were found in the mole rat hills.
Mole rat archaeology even helped find what seems to be a metal industry at the site, because the soil in the piles had been colored by slag – the refuse of smelting.
Eyes fixed on the flames
Mole rat archaeology may even have helped find where the city at Tel 'Eton came to its end, destroyed by King Sennacherib and the Assyrians as they swept over the land in around 701 B.C.E. The archaeologists noticed another burrow-free strip on the tell's southern slope. Subterranean structures connected with the titanic struggle between the Judahites and Assyrians apparently deterred the subterranean rodent.
It is clear that the governor's house, the monumental structure atop the hill, had been destroyed by the Assyrians, he says: they found the arrowheads in the courtyard. Based on where they were found, the archaeologists could surmise whence the arrows were shot: precisely the place bereft of mole-rat activity, Faust says – like defense walls.
A similar rat-free strip on the tell's slope toward the ridge evidently hides the Assyrian siege rampart, built of rocks.
The city's destruction is unmistakable, from the marks of conflagration in the ruins – and the otherwise inexplicable abandonment of hundreds of serviceable vessels. In the hilltop manse, which is being studied with the help of the National Science Foundation in collaboration with Dr. Chaya Katz, they discovered about 200 intact pottery vessels and hundreds of other artifacts. They also found bones and seeds, and storage rooms with remains of wheat, grapes, lentils and more.
The sheer richness of findings from the house's fiery demise creates a bizarre problem, Faust explains: as in other places, this wealth of material distracts from earlier stages of the building’s existence and skews the research discussion. Dating original construction becomes harder, and the vestiges from the early stages are sparse at best. Later layers, especially of destruction, soaking up all the attention is one of the reasons for the paucity of findings from the period of the United Monarchy.
Borrowing a Canaanite practice
In support of a powerful central kingdom is the fact that the governor’s house atop Tel ‘Eton couldn't have been built by some backwater. It contains ashlar stones, the earliest such use found yet, and was built on deep foundations, using quality building materials. Such investment in construction would be hallmarks of a complex society and a strong political entity.
The first hint that the structure is far older than its destroyed top layer was the discovery of a deposit in the foundations, probably a protective offering to the gods. In this case, the deposit was a pottery bowl. Foundation deposits were a thing mainly in the Canaanite Bronze Age and early Iron Age.
Also, a similar foundational offering was recently found in Tel Beit Shemesh dating to the period of the United Monarchy. These foundation deposits could have been made in towns that originated as Canaanite but joined the evolving Judahite kingdom.
Definitely dated to Davidic era
Radiocarbon samples from a foundation deposit and olive pits and coal found on the floor indicate that the Tel 'Eton house was first built in the late 11th century B.C.E. or the 10th century. "This has bearings on the date in which social complexity evolved in Judah, on the debate regarding the historicity of the kingdom of David and Solomon," Faust and Sapir write.
Over-representation of the final destruction is almost inevitable when a settlement ends in drama – like the Assyrians burning down Tel 'Eton. The transition from the United Monarchy to the Judean Kingdom was not accompanied by destruction, and therefore left few findings.
Paradoxically, precisely because the Assyrians dramatically crushed most of the Judean Kingdom (with the weird exception of Jerusalem), thanks to this very violence – the Judean is the kingdom stands out in the archaeological record, while the United Monarchy does not. That also explains the paucity of United Monarchy-era structures in Jerusalem, says Faust. The city's continuation without a destruction phase between the United Monarchy and the Judean Kingdom caused evidence of the first kingdom to disappear.
Archaeological research tends to discover more about the end of things than the beginning, Faust concludes.
The bottom line: Factoring in the monumental building in Tel ‘Eton and Khirbet Qeiyafa, far from Jerusalem, and the 10th-century B.C.E. fortification of towns like Beit Shemesh, and construction of new towns such as Lachish, Tel Zayit and Tel Burna - Faust thinks the 10th century B.C.E. kingdom in Jerusalem gradually expanded toward the lowlands, a buffer zone between the hilly kingdom and the powerful Philistines on the coastal plain. During that period Canaanite cities and villages joined forces with the Jerusalem kingdom.
“Qeiyafa was the first Judahite attempt to gain a foothold in the lowlands," says Faust, speculating that they deliberately chose to build on their fort on a small hill to avoid provoking the Philistines. “During this stage new settlements were established and the older ones became part of the kingdom, and at the same time Philistia became weaker. The Shfela in effect underwent a process of colonization by the kingdom on the hill, and there is mounting evidence that this kingdom had influence over large areas.”
Skeptics like Prof. Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University, who is excavating Tel Beit Shemesh, say you can't date a whole town based on two olive pits from the foundations of a house: the context is insufficient.
Dr. Ido Koch, also of TAU, accepts the dating but not the link of the site to the kingdom in Jerusalem: “I think that what we see in the Shfela is that the Canaanite culture reached the hills, rather than vice versa. If we have to seek a strong political entity during this period in the Shfela, it’s the Philistine city of Gath, and it’s possible that ‘Eton had an alliance with Gath rather than with Jerusalem. In findings from the 10th century there’s nothing with ‘Jerusalem’ written on it, and as long as no signs of Judean-style administration or writing – connecting 'Eton and Jerusalem is pure speculation."