Iron Age Fort in the Middle of Nowhere Sheds Light on Israel’s ‘Dark Age’

New analysis of Iron Age stronghold in the heart of Israel's mountainous Upper Galilee explains who may have built it, why it was built and why it didn’t last long

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The view from Mount Adir in northern Israel.
The view from Mount Adir in northern Israel. Credit: Shahaf Retter / SPNI
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the 1970s, a rather large fortified structure was found atop Mount Adir in northern Israel. This stronghold caused mighty bafflement in archaeological circles. It was tentatively dated from somewhere between the early Iron Age, a time of regional upheavals, and the late Iron Age IIA, the time of the Omride dynasty.

In northern and central Israel, this “dark age” of turmoil was characterized by small settlements. So this stronghold seemed completely out of context, and its affiliation was a mystery too. Who built it? Could it have been the outpost of a mighty empire?

It was not. It was the stronghold of a local chiefdom that could arise, however briefly, in the political vacuum left by the implosion of the local powers, posit Dr. Hayah Katz of the Kinneret College, Prof. Yuval Goren of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Yarden Pagelson in a recent paper in the journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Actually, the ruins of the fortress were discovered decades ago by bulldozer, as so often happens in the Levant. One breaks ground for a new road or neighborhood, and wind up with a salvage excavation. Mount Adir underwent its salvage exploration in the ’70s. The structure was tentatively dated to the Iron Age – roughly between the 11th to ninth centuries B.C.E. – and there the matter rested, in the sense that little was done for decades to pursue the archaeological investigation of that and other Upper Galilean sites, Katz explains.

Why would archaeologists ignore a lush and beautiful region in semi-arid Israel, through which hominins and then people have been passing for over 1.5 million years and probably more?

This was partly because the Upper Galilee was sparsely populated in antiquity, because it is just too hilly, and is otherwise geographically inhospitable to human prosperity and multiplication. That led archaeologists to route their efforts to the lowlands that are more suitable for settlement and, therefore, were more densely populated areas in the past, Katz explains.

The black obelisk of Shalmaneser, which claims that one of the five subdued kings there is Yaua (Jehu) of the house of the Omrides.Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP

In the case of Mount Adir, it was archaeologically ignored also partly because ultra-Orthodox elements protesting the construction of a trans-Israel highway, which they claimed was overrunning ancient burial sites, burned down the Israel Antiquities Authority structure that housed written records of Mount Adir, she adds. So the original excavators never did write up the discoveries at the site. Out of site, out of mind.

Anyway, recently archaeological excavation of the site resumed and, finally, an analysis of it was published.

Building a fort in the middle of nowhere

A key goal of the research was to date the stronghold as accurately as possible. Katz’s analysis of pottery dates the fort to the Iron Age I B period – which means, after the Great Bronze Age Collapse, and during the “settlement period” before the time of the Israelite kingdom in northern Israel.

“Some thought the fort might be later, because why would such a big stronghold be in the middle of the hilly Upper Galilee during the settlement period? Some hoped it would belong to the House of Omri, the Kingdom of Israel,” Katz says.

Apparently it didn’t. But an Iron Age I B date of the fort – which, at 50 meters (165 feet) by 50 meters in area, is big – definitely makes it anomalous not only for the sparsely populated region but for the time, she says.

An observatory on Mount Adir. Why was the site abandoned despite offering peerless views of advancing armies? Credit: Gil Eliahu

The early Iron Age was a time of regional upheaval and geopolitical shifts, characterized by the fall of local powers and appearance of new local polities. Some of these new polities seemingly vanished shortly after they popped up; others would develop into regional powers but hadn’t yet when the fort arose.

So what did we have? People too weakened or too dead to need, let alone build, a fort like that in the middle of nowhere – though it had a beautiful and mainly a strategic view of the surroundings.

This mayhem in early Iron Age Israel was directly related to the great Bronze Age Collapse of 3,200 years ago, Katz clarifies. The Bronze Age Collapse had profound implications for the region: the Hittite empire in Anatolia and the Levant fell; Mycenaea and Greece reeled into the “Greek Dark Ages” involving tiny settlements rather than grand palaces; and the ancient Egyptian empire imploded and withdrew its forces back to Egypt.

Meanwhile, as nature and society abhor a vacuum, the Sea Peoples, whoever they were, waxed great. Among the survivors were the Phoenicians on the Levantine coast who made out like bandits, becoming a superpower of trade and colonization in the terms of the time.

Could the fort have been built by the Phoenicians? Petrographic analysis by Goren shows that some of the pottery found there came from Phoenicia and some even came from Cyprus, but most had been made locally.

How does one identify a 3,000-plus-year-old pot as Cypriot or Phoenician? Based on its raw materials, Goren explains, i.e., geology. “Cypriot geology is very different,” he observes. “Troodos, the huge mountain occupying half the island, is the result of geology that exists only in southern Turkey. And also style. The Cypriot style is very particular.”

The Mesha Stele, telling in Phoenician alphabet how Moab was subjugated to Israel and mentioning the House of Omri.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

True, that Cypriot style was imitated but the geological signals in the clay speak for themselves, and there is a long history of trading ties between Cyprus and the Levant, Goren adds. “It was a dark age in Cyprus and here, but people continued to sail the seas and things did arrive.”

What is special to Phoenician pottery? Again, one aspect is style but mainly, Goren says, again they checked the origin of the raw material and concluded that it was the Lebanese coast, which was Phoenician territory.

No, that doesn’t mean the fort was built or occupied by Phoenicians or Cypriots. “Pots are not people,” he observes. “Pots can come from various places, but if pots were Phoenician it doesn’t mean the town was Phoenician. The research shows ties, but doesn’t identify the ethnicity of the inhabitants.”

His surmise is that the people who did built and live in the fort had strong ties with the Phoenicians, possibly both culture and economic, and possibly with Cyprus as well.

As for what he means by most of the pots being made locally, he explains this usually means not a pinpoint spot but a small radius – say, of 10 kilometers (6 miles) or so.

Mount Adir in northern Israel. Note the army installation on topCredit: Avi1111 / dr. avishai teicher

So what we have is a mysterious stronghold in the middle of nowhere in a time of turmoil, after the great collapse of civilizations around the Mediterranean, but before the rise of the kingdoms.

King of no-man’s-land

Yet the team thinks it has solved the puzzle of this fort out of place and time. They believe it was the (fortified) administrative center of a local chiefdom, who ruled over a small polity that arose in the vacuum as the powers that had been fell apart.

There are any number of examples in modern history that when a central government or power falls apart, local warlords get cocky. They may only last until the next power rises, though. And that Early Iron Age polity atop Mount Adir probably didn’t last long either, maybe a century or so, Katz believe.

Stronger entities took form, such as Tyre to the northwest – and the Israelites and Aramaeans to the east and south – also leaping into the void. And as they rose, the small local world in the mountainous Upper Galilee fell apart, Katz thinks.

Pithoi at Tel Hazor: The settlement at Mt. Adir could have taken in people fleeing the destruction of this biblical cityCredit: Gil Eliyahu

“This is my interpretation,” she says. “The Upper Galilee consisted of three geographical subareas. At the edges, nearer the northern shore and near the Hula Valley, the land was more convenient to cultivate, and certainly I believe that in the Late Bronze Age, it belonged to the lowland city states: Tyre or Acre in the west, and the Kingdom of Hazor in the east. But the central Upper Galilee, including the Meron mountain ridges and Adir, is hilly and not convenient for settlement. In the Late Bronze Age, that area was populated mainly by nomads who had no affiliation with the political systems of Hazor and Acre, or anyone else. It was a sort of no-man’s-land.”

So, after the city-states were destroyed in the end of the Late Bronze Age – Hazor razed, Acre weakened – it opened a door for lesser forces in the Upper Galilee, which consolidated too and created a political entity, building the fort on Mount Adir.

And then the Kings period began (Iron Age II A) in the second half of the 10th century B.C.E.; new forces arose, including rebounding Tyre. The Phoenicians were no slouches either, in the west; the Israelites and Aramaeans grew mighty in the east; and this small polity’s time came to an end.

Katz thinks the people in this polity were a mix of local nomads or semi-settled people who lived in the area in the previous period, joined by people fleeing the collapsing urban centers.

“In the Late Bronze Age, Hazor had 15,000 people! At any rate, certainly thousands. Where did they go when Hazor was destroyed? Some died, sure, but some may have wound up here. Acre, too. The system of cities in Acre and the valleys declined, and where did the people go? Some probably arrived at the mountainous region and became part of the new entity that included Mount Adir.”

The mystery of the ax

Though kingdoms would arise out of the very same void that birthed this peewee polity, it seems they didn’t bother to destroy the fort – though the truth is, we don’t know much for sure. The ultra-Orthodox protesters destroyed all records of the initial excavation there, the original excavator is dead, and now the site is occupied by an army base and a bird-watching observatory - which also appreciate the strategic view.

But Katz thinks that if the original diggers had found a destruction layer, that would have made waves. Revisiting what remains of the site now, they found no signs of ruin and violence, and she believes it was simply abandoned.

“Why wouldn’t somebody else take it over? Keep in mind that it has a terrific view in all directions, which is exactly why the Israeli army is there today, and also a bird-watching observatory, built in memory of Second Lebanon War casualties,” she says. But living there? It seems that nobody ever did again. It reverted to being no-man’s-land, with one unsolved mystery.

One thing we know the excavators in the ’70s found was an ancient iron pickax beneath the most ancient layer of the fort, which they dated to the early Iron Age I.

“The snag is that we don’t know of any other such pickaxes, made of iron, from that period. A review of the literature finds nothing like it: it’s big, relatively impressive, and of great quality,” Katz says. “So the question is, how to interpret it? With all respect to Mount Adir, it’s hard to assume that the only place in the ancient East to have an iron pickax from the 12th century B.C.E. is there.”

One possibility is that the ax is from a much later period, the Byzantine, when such axes were common. If so, how did it find itself beneath archaeological layers over a thousand years earlier? Dating anomalies in archaeology are more usually decades, not millennia. Maybe it was a Byzantine farmer ensconcing his precious ax in a pit rather than lug it about.

One snag with that theory is there’s no evidence that anybody dug a hole there. And no, there are no artifacts or pottery at Mount Adir from the Byzantine age. Nary one.

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