A newly discovered massive layer of fiery destruction confirms Pharaoh Merneptah's boast that he “seized Gezer,” say archaeologists concluding their tenth season of excavations in the ancient Canaanite city - and report finding actual human remains there for the first time: two adults and a child, the latter still wearing earrings.
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The ancient Egyptians may not have originally set out to destroy the royal city. The purpose of given military campaigns was to establish control, not necessarily to destroy: they preferred that vanquished inhabitants survive, farm the land and pay taxes. That said:
“The heavy destruction suggests that the Egyptian pharaoh encountered much resistance from the Gezerites," remarks Professor Steven Ortiz of the Tandy Institute for Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who is directing the excavations together with Dr. Sam Wolff from the Israel Antiquity Authority.
Earlier excavations had found the meter-thick destruction layer of ash and mud-brick debris at the city's west. The building with two of the bodies, an adult and the child, was in Gezer's south, one of the city's weaker spots.
The remains were too badly damaged in the conflagration for the archaeologists to easily tell today whether they were Egyptian, Canaanite or somebody else entirely – just that they were an adult and a child.
Kings worth their wages in gold
The ancient city of Gezer certainly played a prominent role in the geopolitics of the Canaanite city-states in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. and is frequently mentioned in Egyptian records. Pharaoh Thutmose III recorded its capture on the walls of the temple at Karnak. Gezer was prominent in the Amarna period, in the late 18th Dynasty (when the king moved to Akhetaten, in what is now Amarna). The city was mentioned by name at least nine times in the Amarna Tablets, those being diplomatic correspondence on clay tablets from vassal princes in Canaan to the Pharaoh.
This was due to Gezer's key strategic location on a great highway connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia, for trade and military purposes, over thousands of years.
Some scholars have postulated that Gezer also contained an Egyptian governor’s residence.
Gezer also lay near another vital trade route, the east-west one leading from Jaffa on the sea to Jerusalem and Jericho. Its elevated position on a ridge gave it command of the intersection of these two important trading routes.
“We know from the Amarna Tablets that the [Canaanite] kings of Gezer were major players in the region during the 14th century B.C.E. Egypt would have been keen on the great agricultural land in the vicinity, ” Ortiz told Haaretz.
A victor leaves his mark
But in the 13th century B.C.E., Gezer met with a violent end, and was reduced to a heap of smoking ruins at the hands of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah.
At the end of the 19th Dynasty, the pharaoh clearly wanted to reestablish control over the southern Levant, says Ortiz. "Naturally Gezer would have been a prime target. We can assume that by the time of Merneptah, Gezer was exercising more independence, and this is why it was one of the cities conquered."
The famous Merneptah Stela, also known as the Israel Stele because it bears the earliest known explicit mention of "Israel," is a granite victory stela commemorating a victory over the Libyans but also mentions a battle in Canaan. The last two lines read: "Canaan is plundered with every hardship. Ashkelon is taken, Gezer captured, [and] Yano‘am reduced to nothing. Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more."
Another inscription of Merneptah from Amada also states that the pharaoh was the subduer of Gezer. Because of Merneptah's boasting as “the subduer” of Gezer, some scholars have suggested that Gezer in fact led this rebellion.
A violent end (Room 1)
The skeletons were discovered inside a building that had been vast in size, 20 by 15 meters, which had been divided into several impressive rooms.
The destruction debris found inside a building shows the fire was so intense that the ceiling of one of the rooms collapsed, burying an adult and a child in a meter-thick layer of ash and burnt bricks and leaving the archaeologists with a snapshot of their final, traumatic hours.
The adult was so badly burned that sex could not be determined by the remnants of pelvic or torso bones.
The skeletal remains had been reduced mostly to powdery charred dust.
"The adult was lying on its back with arms above its head. The child, who was wearing earrings, was next to the adult, to the left. This room was filled with ash and collapsed mud brick,” says Ortiz. “We can only guess what they were doing in the building on the eve of destruction. Were they hiding? Were they fleeing the Egyptian soldiers? Did they go back into the building to retrieve valuables?”
In this room the excavators also found several installations: a table, a rooking stone, a large grinding stone, several storage jars and a large pithoi, leading the excavators to speculate that the room had been a workshop.
Jewels and a body in the rubble (Room 2)
North of this room, the excavators found the remains of a particularly intriguing rectangular room with a supporting wall and two pillars in its center.
In this room, which had been finely plastered, a third body was found, also telling a tale of gruesome death. This person, 1.72 centimeters tall, was found beneath a jumble of collapsed stones that ironically helped to preserve the skeletal remains.
“This individual attests to the violent nature of the destruction, as it is clear he experienced the trauma of the event,” Ortiz says.
Inside the room, aside from the body, the archaeologists found scarabs and cylinder seals and several precious faience and turquoise objects – including a particularly noteworthy amulet.
That amulet is a 13th century B.C.E. faience bifacial rectangular plaque with a barrel-shaped top, bearing a Thutmose III cartouche flanked by a truth feather on each side. The base contains the name of Ramesses II. It is a typical XIX Dynasty product commemorating the names of the great pharaohs of the XVIII and XIX Dynasties.
Anomalous governor's domain, or Canaanite prince's home?
But who actually owned this magnificent home over four thousand years ago?
Originally the excavators thought the building was the Egyptian governor's residence. However, while well-designed, the building is not robust like other Egyptian residencies and some believe it more likely to have belonged to a Canaanite prince. If there was an Egyptian governor at Gezer at some point, he would probably have lived on the acropolis, the second camp argues.
Based on the treasures found in the pillared room, Ortiz, for one, postulates that the domicile was a courtyard house where the Canaanite jarls gathered to feast in the pillared room.
“This building was probably a typical Late Bronze Age patrician house," Ortiz told Haaretz. "Some rooms were used for household industry and others served other purposes. Hopefully DNA tests will help determine if these individuals were related to one another."
It does bear adding that DNA, let alone usable, may not be obtainable from the charred ancient bones.
Wolff thinks the jury is out on who lived there, and more research has to be done before making postulations.
Whatever the case, the massive destruction suggests that the Egyptian pharaoh encountered heavy resistance. Plausibly, the chieftain may have gathered precious items inside the hall before its final destruction.
War of Reshef
Another impressive find in the second room was a cylinder seal showing a complex war scene commanded by the god Reshef.
Reshef was originally a Levantine deity depicted with a gazelle head. He "migrated" and was also worshipped in Egypt during the New Kingdom era (around 1550 B.C.E. to 712 B.C.E.)
The scene depicts Reshef drawing his bow toward twelve enemies in varying degrees of collapse, and two kneeling, bound captives. Some have pointed beards, a feature typical of Asiatics in Egyptian iconography.
To the east of this building was a cobbled courtyard with a rectangular bin, measuring about one meter by half a meter. That in turn contained fragments of storage jars, bowls, and kraters (mixing vessels), as well as a spinning bowl used for weaving.
The Tel Gezer Project, directed by Steve Ortiz of the Tandy Institute for Archaeology and Sam Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority, had its last field season this summer and will now enter an aggressive research and publication phase. Ortiz: “All the artifacts and the remains have been taken up to our lab in Jerusalem. We are looking forward to the post-excavation analysis and obtaining the results from the various experts.