Israel’s mini-Pompeii Captures the Moment Civilization Collapsed 3,000 Years Ago

Frozen in time, the destruction of the Canaanite town of Azekah wasn't wrought by a volcano but by humans, and paints a vivid picture of horror at the end of the Bronze Age

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Remains of the young woman that was found with the artisan kit
Remains of the young woman who was found with the artisan kit Credit: Benjamin Sitzmann/Lautenschlge
Ariel David
Ariel David

One young woman crouched in a corner to escape the fire and smoke, but evidently suffocated to death while clutching her family heirlooms. Another victim was found frozen with her arms outstretched, trying to protect herself as the building’s roof collapsed and crushed her.

These are some of the dramatic scenes that archaeologists have uncovered in the ancient Canaanite settlement of Azekah, in today’s southern Israel, which was destroyed in a raging conflagration more than 3,100 years ago.

Researchers excavating the site over the last decade are hailing the finds there as a “small Pompeii.” Much like the Roman city that was buried in ash and frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E., Azekah is delivering rich and well-preserved finds that tell us much about the daily lives of ancient people, as well as gruesome remains of residents killed in what appears to have been a sudden disaster.

But unlike Pompeii, this once-prosperous Canaanite town was not wrecked by a volcano or other natural catastrophe, but by human hands, experts believe.

The city’s destruction around 1130 B.C.E. was so complete that the site lay deserted for some 300 years. Its devastation is seen as part of the much broader strife that accompanied the so-called Bronze Age Collapse in the 12th century B.C.E. This was a time of instability, possibly triggered by climate change, which led to the roughly simultaneous collapse of major civilizations across the Mediterranean and the Near East, including the Myceneans of Greece, the Hittite empire based in Anatolia, the Egyptian empire and many Canaanite city-states.

So far researchers have only excavated small sections of Late Bronze Age Azekah. But everywhere they do so, they find signs of the city-wide destruction, says Sabine Kleiman, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University and a researcher in theology at Tubingen University in Germany.

Tell AzekahCredit: Lautenschlger Azekah Expedition

Though they’re only digging small areas, Kleiman tells Haaretz, “sadly wherever we dig we find bodies.”

Over the last decade, archaeologists have invested great efforts in uncovering one particular building, a large workshop where four victims were recovered along with a huge trove of hundreds of ancient artifacts, including large storage jars, a variety of tools and cultic objects. Last month, the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology published a study of the four bodies which applied forensic techniques used in modern fires to determine how the victims died and what was the strength and cause of the blaze.

“Like at Pompeii or other destruction sites in the Mediterranean, these people seem to be frozen in what they were doing in their last moments,” says Karl Berendt, an anthropologist from the University of Alberta in Canada who is the lead author on the study.

“The artifacts at the site are arranged in a way that suggests they were dropped in place as they were being used, which is one of the reasons why we think this was a pretty sudden disaster: people had to stop what they were doing to try to escape but they couldn’t get out of the building.”

Hotter than fire

Three of the dead – a man in his 20s, a woman aged 35 to 45 and a teenager of indeterminate sex – were found near the exit of the building. Their bones exhibit burns and signs of severe blunt force trauma. These fractures were likely caused when the ceiling collapsed, killing the victims, which also explains the defensive postures in which they were found, Berendt and colleagues explain.

These three bodies were also covered in pieces of large jars that had evidently been stored on the roof, a common practice at the time, which probably contributed to the deadliness of the roof’s collapse.

Storage jars from the compoundCredit: Sasha Flit/Institute of Archaeology Tel Aviv University

The fourth victim, a girl aged 15 to 17, was found semi-prone near a wall. She was the only one not killed by the crashing roof but probably succumbed to smoke inhalation, Berendt concludes.

One curious aspect is that heat damage done to the victims’ bones indicates the fire burned at a temperature of up to 940 degrees, much higher than what occurs in a normal domestic blaze, the study says. Those killer storage jars may have had something to do with this as well.

Residue analysis conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Vanessa Linares on dozens of these containers, and some other ceramics, showed they contained mainly olive oil, palm oil and other vegetable and animal fats. These flammable materials likely helped the fire burn hotter and spread quicker, Berendt notes.

Egyptian Blue and a perfume factory

Archaeologists have struggled to decipher the function of this 160-square-meter compound, which may have served as a multi-purpose workshop.

In addition to the massive storage jars, the excavators also uncovered dozens of mortars and grinding stones, as well as small juglets that are usually found in funerary contexts.

These juglets often contained perfumed balsam that was used in the embalming process or as an offering to the dead, Kleiman says. This leads her to suggests that the building was mainly a perfume factory, with the large jars used to store the oils used in the production of the balsams and the grinding stones used to crush aromatics or the oil-producing plants.

Artistic reconstruction of the workshop at Canaanite Azekah: Note jars stored on the roofCredit: Ronnie Avidov/Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition
Scarabs and amulets found in the Azekah compound Credit: Credit: Sasha Flit / Institute of Archaeology Tel Aviv University

Other finds at the site point to an additional function. The teenage girl was found clutching a pair of calf horns, the significance of which is unclear – they may have functioned as tools or as protective amulets. She was also carrying an artisan’s kit, which included grinding tools and pigments identified as red-yellow ochre, hematite and Egyptian Blue. This last material, as the name suggests, was not available locally and would have been very precious. This suggests the kit was an important family heirloom and could suggest the girl was attempting to salvage it from the fire.

Egyptian Blue was used to decorate beads, scarabs and amulets, many of which have been found in the workshop. In addition to scarabs inscribed with hieroglyphs, archaeologists found statuettes of the Egyptian protective gods Amun and Bes, all attesting to the major Egyptian influence on the local culture. This is not surprising, as Egypt controlled Canaan for centuries until it withdrew from the region a few decades before the destruction of Azekah as the entire Mediterranean was engulfed in the chaos of the Bronze Age Collapse.

Given that such cultic objects were often used in tombs, it is possible that this large workshop was a sort of one-stop-shop for producing grave goods: balsam to embalm the dead, and amulets to protect them on their journey to the afterlife.

A 3,000-year-old whodunnit

Whatever their activity, these artisans were probably not members of the local elites. Their bones show that most of the four led an active life and had strong musculature, perhaps developed by lugging around those heavy storage jars, Berendt says.

Most of the four skeletons also displayed signs that these individuals had suffered malnutrition at different points in their lives, both in infancy and adulthood. Whether this is a sign of prevailing hardships during the period of the Late Bronze Age crisis or simply the sad reality that most non-elite individuals had to face throughout antiquity is hard to say, the anthropologist notes.

Decorated flask from the compound in AzekahCredit: Sasha Flit/Institute of Archaeology Tel Aviv University

Be that as it may, the bodies don’t display direct signs of violence, but most researchers believe that the fire that consumed this building and the rest of Canaanite Azekah was not caused by an accident or a natural disaster, Kleiman says. Arrowheads and spearpoints are found throughout the site and the fact that the city was not rebuilt for centuries after the destruction also points to a human-made catastrophe, the archaeologist says.

“Even when a really bad fire or earthquake happen, people tend to return and rebuild, or at least they come back for the dead or to scavenge for stuff,” Kleiman notes. “Here it seems like someone [or something] prevented them from coming back for a very long time.”

The identity of that someone remains an open question, says Oded Lipschits, a professor of archaeology at Tel University who leads the Azekah expedition.

Traditionally, the Bronze Age Collapse had been largely blamed on the Sea Peoples, an enigmatic coalition of seafarers who is recorded as having attacked Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean. However, recent research has painted a more nuanced picture, suggesting that a prolonged period of drought and famine sparked by climate change may have been the deeper cause for wars and large population movements that destabilized the major civilizations of the era. Prof. Eric Cline of George Washington University in Washington, DC, encapsulates the cascade of events as a “perfect storm”, fatally weakening the great empires and enabling the rise and spread of the Sea Peoples.

On a local level, the fortunes of settlements across southern Canaan varied wildly during the crisis, Lipschits says. Some, like Lachish, another major Canaanite town a few kilometers to the south, were destroyed roughly at the same time as Azekah. Others, such as Tel Yarmuth, which is just four kilometers east of Azekah, were spared. So it doesn’t look like a large-scale invasion happened, but rather that the pinpoint destructions were the result of small conflicts between local tribes or even internal social strife within certain towns, Lipschits suggests.

One key suspect in the destruction of Azekah are the neighboring Philistines. Identified as one of the fearsome Sea Peoples, they had just started to expand across the coastal plain that today spans southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. Two of their major city-states, Ekron and Gath, were particularly close to Azekah, which may have been perceived as a threat to their expansion.

The artisan kit from the compound Credit: Sasha Flit/Institute of Archaeology Tel Aviv University

Azekah, which would later become the setting for the biblical duel between David and the Philistine giant Goliath, occupies a strategic location on a ridge overlooking Gath. Even if they were not responsible for its destruction, the Philistines likely had an interest in ensuring that the commanding high ground above them remained unoccupied by potential enemies, Lipschits theorizes.

Bodies in the temple

It may not be a coincidence that Azekah only rose from its ashes at the end of the 9th century B.C.E., just after Gath itself was destroyed in an invasion by the Aramean king Hazael. The newly resettled Azekah was eventually incorporated into another rising regional power, the Kingdom of Judah, and became one of the major strongholds for the kings of Jerusalem.

In the following centuries, the strategically-located town was destroyed multiple times by invading armies: by the Assyrians in 701 B.C.E. and the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. It was rebuilt each time and remained populated until the Byzantine period, but never again did the site reach the size and prosperity that it displayed in the Bronze Age, Lipschits tells Haaretz.

Archaeologists are continuing to investigate the Canaanite incarnation of Azekah and its demise. Last summer, the team unearthed a temple from that period, which also contained four more victims of the town’s destruction, he says.

“Finding all these bodies can be a difficult experience,” Kleiman adds. “But on the other hand it’s a chance to give these people a voice. They were once forgotten, but they are not forgotten anymore.”

Remains of the young woman that was found with the artisan kitCredit: Benjamin Sitzmann/Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition

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