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Ron E. Tappy, Project Director and Principal Investigator
G. Albert Shoemaker Associate Professor of Bible and Archaeology
Director, James L. Kelso Bible Lands Museum
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

The Zeitah Excavations launched its inaugural season during the summer of 1999 with a 55-member international team of professional staff and volunteers (pic). Under the direction of Professor Ron E. Tappy, G. Albert Shoemaker Professor of Bible and Archaeology and director of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s James L. Kelso Bible Lands Museum, volunteers unearthed remains dating mostly from the Ottoman and Crusader periods during the first year of digging. The project concentrated on the Iron Age II (Old Testament period) levels lying directly beneath on the acropolis and down the site’s eastern slope during June and July 2000 (pic).

One of the major goals of the project consists in clarifying our understanding of life in a local, town setting in ancient Israel. Since nearly all archaeological work throughout Israel has concentrated on large, urban sites, our current view of the lives of the majority of ancient Israel’s population is scant and skewed. As a strategically located “outlying” town, Zeitah (Hebrew “Zayit”) presents a unique opportunity to correct this situation for a number of reasons (pic). Lying in the Beth Guvrin Valley, roughly halfway between the Israelite city of Lachish and Tell es Safi (Philistine Gath), Tel Zayit is ideal for archaeological exploration, both from the standpoint of pursuing proper field methodology and a focused research design:

  1. Its manageable size allows for maximum exposure of the occupational debris buried there. (The mound itself consists in 32 10x10-meter squares, or roughly .8 acre, above the 172-meter elevation level; the acropolis and lower settlement cover approximately 30 dunams, or 7.5 acres (pic).)
  2. A preliminary surface survey (directed by Professor Tappy during the summer of 1998) indicated that the site was settled at least as early as the Late Bronze Age and that uninterrupted occupation continued through the Iron Age, with later periods being represented as well.
  3. In addition, the site’s location in the strategic foothills southwest of Jerusalem places it precisely at a geographical and cultural interface. Important ancient roadways that connected the highland cultures of Judah with those in the lowlands and coastal centers, as well as with the main highway to and from Egypt, converge near the site.
  4. Finally, the entire site is intact; it has no history of prior excavations that would have left areas exposed to the elements and would have resulted in damage.
The First Two Seasons: 1999-2000

From June to July 1999, excavation participants opened 600 square meters of area distributed at different locations on the acropolis and in the lower settlement. We also began work on a step-trench that now extends down the steep eastern slope of the acropolis (pic 1) (pic 2). Very promising results came from these efforts almost immediately during the first season. On just the second day out, student volunteers on the acropolis came upon the tops of 2.25-meter-thick, stone-built walls. Though analysis remains preliminary, it seems that this impressively built structure served as a fortress guarding the entrance to the strategic valley lying immediately east of the site. The building appears to have been constructed originally during the Late Roman period and to have lasted possibly even through the time of the Crusades (pic). Several probes made near the end of the season beneath its basal layers indicate that it currently rests on deposits dating from the Iron Age II Period.

A student volunteer also discovered the project’s first ostracon (a pottery sherd with writing on it) while working in the step-trench. A rare and therefore exciting find, this valuable artifact dates from the mid eighth century BCE, i.e., the time just prior to King Hezekiah, the prophet Isaiah, and the rise of Assyrian influence in the region.

In June and July, 2000, the Zeitah team expanded the area of exposure in the trench on the steep eastern slope of the site while continuing to excavate on the site's acropolis (pic). The season's principal discoveries included two significant destruction levels stemming from separate military assaults against the ancient city. Excavators located the first deposit of debris in the trench on the eastern side of the site. Over 4 meters of material dating to the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (or roughly 1300-1200 BCE) appeared here during the course of the work and these layers represent at least three major phases of occupation at the site during this period (pic 1) (pic 2) (pic 3). Sometime around 1200 BCE, a major military assault against the city seems to have occurred, resulting in the destruction of the town by fire. Excavations in 2000 showed that the accumulation of burned debris is at least 2.25 meters thick in the area of the trench but did not clearly identify the perpetrators of this event. Following this destruction the city recovered and thrived once again during the Iron Age (the Old Testament period proper), only to be destroyed again sometime after the transition from the Iron Age I period to Iron Age II (very late tenth or ninth century BCE) (pic).

Some Results from Later Seasons

The 10 m x 10 m area of Square O20 is situated at the very top of the long trench that extends down the eastern slope of the site (pic). This excavation square became a very important area of our excavation during the 2000 season, when we began to expose a destruction layer here that dates to sometime during the 9th century BCE. From the layers discovered thus far, we believe that someone attacked and destroyed this city around 50 years after the reign of Solomon. Though many questions still surround the identity of the perpetrator, we have reason to think that it was probably an Aramaean king from Damascus-either one of the Ben Hadads mentioned in the Old Testament or King Hazael who ruled in Damascus during the latter half of the 9th century. A similar destruction level with a comparable ceramic repertoire has now surfaced at another site in the region. Our combined work will help shed new light on the history of this important region during the period following the collapse of the United Monarchy in Jerusalem.

In the photos from our 2001 Season (pic), you can see the outlines of walls are beginning to appear in O20 as well as the grey-black ashy deposits left from the destruction of the ancient building defined by these walls. Inside the building, we discovered two important pits (Nos. 1476 and 1477) that were incorporated into the floors of the rooms and that contained a great deal of diagnostic pottery. We believe that these two pits served as cellars for the storage of various products that were being made in this public building. When our volunteers reached the bottom of Pit 1477, they found nearly 20 perforated clay balls. Inside and around the perforations on these items we could see the imprint of woven cloth. This observation likely indicates that these balls were used as stoppers that were placed in the mouths of jars and stuffed with cloth to assist in the controlled release of gases during the process of fermentation. In Pit 1476, we even found one of the stoppers still in the bottom of a broken jar. It seems, therefore, that the ancient inhabitants of Zeitah were producing wine, vinegar, and other similar commodities in these rooms.

The upper levels of Square N20 (situated immediately west of Square O20 mentioned above) proved to be quite disturbed by many intrusive pits and other late building projects. Generally, materials found in such areas are said to belong to a "secondary context." But during the 2001 Season, the Zeitah volunteers recovered a section of intact floor that ran against the western face of a truncated wall. Features such as this partial surface are very important to archaeologists because they seal whatever material culture lies beneath them. That means that, since their original deposition here in antiquity, these sub-floor materials have enjoyed the protection provided by the floor that covered them. As a result, they are in situ and belong to a "primary context."

When the volunteers removed the floor, they discovered a cache of amphorae and a large, globular jar sealed beneath it (pic). Though the sheer weight of the overlying soil had cracked the shoulders and necks of several of these vessels, all of them were complete and have now been restored to their full shape. This style of ovoid/oval shaped jar, with its sharp shoulder break, very short neck (probably designed to receive a lid), and two large, vertical handles placed immediately below the juncture of the upper body and shoulder (pic), are well known in Israel and Phoenicia during the Iron Age II period. Their chronological range actually extends from the late 9th century into the Persian period. These vessels constitute a valuable find since they fall under the classification of amphorae (vs. routine storage jars). Unlike other jars, amphorae were used to transport rather than merely store the commodities they contained. At Tel Zayit, these shipping vessels fit nicely with the evidence presented above and indicate once again that our site produced various commodities that were marketed within a trade network that linked the southern hills of Judah with Phoenicia and other areas during the days of the Hebrew kings in Jerusalem.

Because of the unexpected size of Tel Zayit, its far-reaching commercial ties, its close proximity to Gath of the Philistines, and many other important data that have come to light as a result of our work, it is possible that this city may represent either ancient Libnah (Joshua 10; 2 Kings 19:8; et passim) or Ziklag (1 Samuel 27-30). Both towns appear in well-known biblical traditions.

The 2009 Season

During the 2009 season of excavations, the team excavated layers down to the early ninth century BCE in Square O19. The fieldwork concentrated on the western half of that square, i.e., just west of the area that yielded the well known Tel Zayit Abecedary. This season's results confirmed that the tenth century layers were covered and sealed by a least two substantial floor levels dating to the early ninth century, two sub-phases of pavings from the mid ninth century, and a heavily striated floor from the late ninth century. All these deposits originally ran over and sealed the structure that suffered destruction by fire at the close of the tenth century BCE, thereby making the provenance of the abecedary a primary findspot.

In addition, the work this year also defined a significant destruction layer dating to the late eighth century BCE. This deposit, which extends across the entire 300-square-meter area of exposure on the eastern shoulder of the tell, likely relates to the third campaign of Sennacherib in 701 BCE.

The excavation at Tel Zayit, then, is helping to clarify the historical picture for the borderland region between Judah and Philistia during the Iron Age IIA-B periods. Stratigraphically connected remains have emerged from the tenth through the eighth centuries BCE, and during this 300-year period the site was destroyed by fire near the end of each century. For more information, see the The Tel Zayit Abecedary.

The Zeitah Excavations incorporates a full-scale program of field exploration and study. Besides their daily work on-site with internationally-known professional archaeologists, volunteers also participate in an educational curriculum that addresses specific aspects of archaeological work, as well as more general themes related to the study of life in ancient Israel (such as historical geography). Special lectures by leading American and Israeli archaeologists, as well as biblical scholars, supplement practical field work, and guided field trips to major regions of the country help open the world of the Bible as never before for students from all educational backgrounds.

In addition to providing training in archaeological field methods, the program fosters a greater understanding of the literature of the Bible and a more intimate knowledge of Israel’s historic past. Beyond this, students’ familiarity with modern Israel is enhanced through personal interaction with the residents of the kibbutz that houses the team of excavators. In this way, volunteers gain a first-hand introduction to kibbutz life and philosophy as part of this valuable cross-cultural experience.

Students may earn up to 6 transferable quarter credits through Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for their participation in the excavations and field school. Alternatively, students may arrange to receive academic credit through their home institutions. For further information regarding sponsorships and participation in the excavations, contact Professor Tappy.


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Ron E. Tappy, Project Director
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Sponsor
616 North Highland Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15206

E-mail tappy@fyi.net     Phone: 412-924-1427    Fax: 412-924-1428

The Zeitah Excavations
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