A land in possession of a rich and complex history, Israel has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and travellers for millennia. For those who are fascinated by the ancient world, Israel will forever remain a place of great interest. From the crusader castle of Acco in the north, to the prehistoric excavations of the south, Israel continues to be a place of interest for lovers of history, adventure seekers, and those especially interested in the Biblical times.
A land bridge between Africa and the remaining Near East, Israels unique positioning and continued role as the central pillar for a multitude of faiths, has ensured its enduring popularity among scholars, students, and pilgrims. Yet what is indeed rare in the Judeo-Christian study of the Southern Levant, is the relationship between Biblical text and archaeology. For it is here in Israel, that text and archaeology collide. It is here where one can stand atop the Elah Valley and read the biblical tales of boy David and Giant Goliath, or venture north, to the ancient kingdom of Israel in Samaria.
The ever-increasing academic interest in the archaeology and biblical history of Israel created a demand for a unique International Masters program. Headed by Prof. Oded Lipschits, the Tel Aviv University international masters program enables students across the world to study and experience the archaeology and history of the Land of the Bible in the Land of the Bible. The program provides courses in archaeological and biblical theory, as well as archaeological fieldwork classes at significant sites e.g., Jerusalem, Masada, Tel Azekah, Tel Megiddo, Caesarea, Tel Beit Shemesh, Ashdod-Yam, Timna, and more.
Though several sites in Israel have been excavated and explored, many remain, silently waiting for the next generation of scholars and students to unearth their contributions to history. Sites such as Timna (home of King Solomons Mines) and Kiryat-jearim (biblically, once home to the Ark of the Covenant) continue to shed light on the history of the region, and on the biblical narratives. Alongside them are the excavations of Tel Azekah, the great Judean stronghold of the Shephelah lowlands. Detailed in the victory annals of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, Tel Azekah stood like the eagles nest, with towers that project into the sky like swords.
Referenced in the biblical narratives, Tel Azekah set the stage for several iconic biblical events: Jeremiahs retelling of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem mentions that following it, only Azekah and Lachish remained. In Samuel is the tale of David, a young and untempted shepherd boy, fighting and succeeding against a giant Philistine Goliath.
For decades Tel Azekah remained unexcavated, as the wider archaeological community simply assumed that it had been previously excavated and explored extensively by Bliss and Macalister. Yet this was not the case. Rather, it was Prof. Oded Lipschits, along with Dr. Yuval Gadot (Tel Aviv University) and Prof. Manfred Oeming (Heidelberg University), who championed the notion that Tel Azekah should be further excavated and explored. To prove their case the excavation directors had to travel to a nearer past, in a nearer West: to the archives of the Palestinian Exploration Fund, in London, England. It was there that the three directors discovered that the Bliss and Macalister excavations were far more limited than many had mistakenly assumed. Only small parts of the site were explored and most of the area was never excavated.
Underexplored and undisturbed, Tel Azekah promised exciting discoveries ready to be unearthed by aspiring archaeologists: and so it delivered. Launched in 2012, The Lautenschlger Azekah Expedition attracted over 100 volunteers each summer from 2012 – 2016, from universities and communities from across the globe. The project aspires to not only enrich our collective understanding of the past, but to unite and bond people from around the world in the present.
Since its inception, the Tel Azekah expedition had produced a number of discoveries and research projects, which have shaped our understanding of the Late Bronze Age (1500-100 BCE) in the Near East, side by side with discoveries from the Early Bronze Age (mainly the end of the 3rd Millennium BCE) the Middle bronze Age (1800-1500 BCE), the Iron Age (=the Biblical Period, 900-600 BCE) and the Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods (500-200 BCE).
The International M.A. Program has successfully launched the careers of several young archaeologists at Tel Azekah. One of Tel Azekahs greatest discoveries to date, the Late Bronze Age destruction atop the mound, was led by 2013 M.A. alum, Ms. Sabine Kleiman (Germany). As assistant and later Supervisor of Area T2, Sabine led the meticulous excavation of a Late Bronze Age building, its courtyard and pillars still visible. The structure stood on the very top of the Tel, and was destroyed in an instant during an enormous Late Bronze Age fire. The study offered a unique insight in the last moments of the destruction, as well as possible industries at the site.
Another graduate of the M.A. program, Lyndelle Webster (Australia), completed her research on radiocarbon dating (14C) of the Late Bronze Age levels of Tel Azekah. Her results testify to the long and prosperous occupation of the site during this period, commencing at least in Late Bronze Age IIA and ending with a severe destruction at the close of Late Bronze Age III (ca. 1400-1130 BCE).
Finally, working across the interdisciplinary fields of archeology and science is M.A. alum Vanessa Linares (USA), (current Tel Aviv University Ph.D. candidate). Vanessa has broadened her initial M.A. research to three different sites (Tel Azekah, Tel Megiddo and Tel Shadud), examining the remains of organic residue with the aim of developing a greater understanding of the cultural practices of the local inhabitants, and possible trade networks, within the Southern Levant. So far, 12 MA theses have been written about Azekah, - all by students from the International Masters program and Israeli students of Archaeology. Just as the past is rich at Tel Azekah, so too is its future, as scholars and students from around the world continue to excavate and study with Tel Aviv University.
Exploring the past, while bonding in the present, has become central to the archaeological landscape in Israel. As Tel Azekah readies for its next excavation season, July 21 – August 16 2018, the International Masters of Archaeology program will soon accept new applicants for the 2018/19 year. Together with the wider archaeological community, we look forward to the new faces and research the future will bring.