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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

Historical and Biblical Connections
Historical Connections

In keeping with its long-standing commitment to archaeological field research and teaching, dating back to 1926, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has recently sponsored a new program of field exploration at the biblical site of Tel Zayit (Arabic, Zeitah, or "olive tree"), Israel (pic). Project director and principal investigator, Professor Ron E. Tappy, became interested in the site in 1996 and surveyed it in 1998. The Zeitah Excavations launched its inaugural season of excavations during the summer of 1999 with a 55-member international team of professional staff and volunteers, including a number of students and staff from Pittsburgh Seminary.

The site of Tel Zayit, roughly 7.5 acres in size, lies in the strategic Beth Guvrin Valley and is located approximately 15 miles east of Ashkelon and 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem (pic). Though a relatively small mound, Zeitah rises quickly from the ground surrounding it. While the highest point of the summit reaches 176 meters above sea level, the lowest measurement taken in the Guvrin streambed rests at the 150.733 contour level (pic). Archaeological exploration indicates that 17-20 meters of the mound's thickness represent remains from the various cultural groups that occupied the site over at least a 3,000 year period. The sides of the mound descend gradually toward the north and west but remain quite steep on both the southern and eastern slopes, thereby providing a better natural defense toward those directions (pic). The trunk and tributary channels of the Nahal Guvrin, which drains the area immediately east of the mound before passing across its north side, would have provided at least a seasonal water supply for the ancient occupants. Sources indicate that the water table in the area of the nahal, or wadi (a non-perennial stream), rises close to the surface and that artesian wells dug near the stream gave access to drinking water for more recent settlers at the site (pic).

Prior to the Zeitah Excavations, neither the site of Tel Zayit nor the valley in which it lies received significant archaeological attention. When the British surveyors C. Conder and H. H. Kitchener encountered the site in their March 1875 surveys of Western Palestine, they recorded seeing only “a little hamlet of mud in a valley, with low hills on either side” and “a well to the north.” The direct ancestor of this modern village may have established itself on the southern bank of Nahal Guvrin as early as the late sixteenth century CE, when records indicate that a town of 165 inhabitants stood under the political jurisdiction of Gaza and paid taxes consisting in various grains, goats, and beehives. Because stagnant waters in the nearby wadi spawned disease-carrying insects, the villagers relocated their town during the Mandate period from its position on the southern bank of the drainage system to a point lying at a slightly higher elevation and approximately 1.5 km. to the north. At least on the surface of the original site, virtually no trace remains today of the adobe brick village visited by Conder and Kitchener.

Beneath this erstwhile Arab village, however, lie the remains of a succession of ancient towns that, at various periods, claimed this strategic position at the entrance of a principal access to the hill country. Following a short visit to the area in 1954, two Israeli archaeologists recorded a small but relatively high mound of ruins situated immediately south of the Nahal Guvrin. According to their notes, the mound itself rose up in two stages as it extended southward from the wadi. Our 1998 survey confirmed the existence of both a lower and upper settlement at the site during antiquity (pic 1) (pic 2). The sample of ceramic fragments collected during the 1998 survey spanned the time period from the Middle Bronze Age (roughly 1800 BCE) straight through to the Ottoman period (1517-1917 CE), with very few breaks or occupational gaps in the long sequence.

Biblical Connections

Tel Zayit represents an ancient Judahite settlement situated on the border of Philistia, an area which received its name from the fact that the biblical Philistines settled there. One of the major goals of The Zeitah Excavations seeks to clarify 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 of Zeitah presents a unique opportunity to correct this situation for a number of reasons. 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.

A primary interest of The Zeitah Excavations focuses on the physical location of Tel Zayit near the border between Israelite Judah and the Philistine coastal plain. As earlier regional survey data have shown, at least three principal north-south and three east-west roadways through the lowlands of Judah converged or ran by this site during various phases of the Iron Age. The longitudinal roads connected Egypt and the northern Sinai Peninsula with the southernmost Philistine capital at Gaza and the lowland area of biblical Judah. The laterally oriented routes linked coastal centers such as Ashkelon with the interior hill country by way of three main valley systems that drain the southern highlands. By following the courses of three drainage systems that accommodate the runoff on the seaward slopes of the hill country, these east-west accesses to the highlands exploited the natural landscape of the country. Tel Zayit lies at the western entrance to the central arena.

This convergence of geological and archaeological history appears to correlate well with the outline given in Joshua 15:33-44 of districts and cities belonging to the biblical tribe of Judah. Here, the settlements of the Shephelah, or ‘lowland’, area are organized into three geographical groups that follow roughly the Elah (vv. 33-36), Lachish (vv. 37-41), and Guvrin (vv. 42-44) systems. In each instance, the text seems to identify the natural and political regime first by the major municipality in that area and then by a list of satellite sites associated with that center. The biblical historian names nine towns in the Nahal Guvrin area, with Libnah apparently representing the main city here. While we initially believed that the ancient identification of Tel Zayit may lie obscured in this sub-listing of villages (vv. 42-44), the impressive results from five years of excavation now indicate that it may turn out to be Libnah itself.

Many of the cities and towns outlined in Joshua 15 for the Elah-Guvrin-Lachish systems served in Rehoboam’s defensive network of fortresses (see 2 Chron 11:5-12; see the discussion in Aharoni, 1979:330-33 and Map. 25). Commentators have usually understood the inclusion of districts associated with Philistine Ekron (vv. 45-46), Ashdod (v. 47a), and Gaza (v. 47b) – but somewhat curiously neither Gath nor Ashkelon – as a late, secondary expansion of the original list. While these verses may well postdate the inceptive list, they might easily have arisen out of events unfolding in the late eighth century or in a seventh century application of an older roster. As such, they appear to relate directly to the Assyrian claim that Judahite cities and towns taken from Hezekiah were subsequently placed under the authority of local rulers in Ekron, Ashdod, and Gaza specifically. These same three centers also apparently dispatched and maintained official envoys or “ambassadors” in the palace at Nimrud. While this practice began for certain Israelite cities (Samaria and Dan, for example) already during the reigns of Adad-nirari III and Shalmaneser IV, the neo-Philistine cities of Ashdod, Gaza, and possibly Ekron established such contact with Assyria only in the later half of the eighth century BCE, during the reigns of Tiglath-pileser III and Sargon II, when unnamed officials from these places appear as recipients on wine lists recovered from Nimrud.

Rather than admit the recent loss of cities in Judah’s “Lowland District” to a foreign power that in turn gave them to its puppet rulers in the region, it seems that the author-redactor of the Joshua account simply brought the Philistine centers involved under the fictitious jurisdiction of Judah. While the Elah and Lachish systems have 14 and 16 cities assigned to them, respectively, the Nahal Guvrin region receives only 9 listings, with Libnah (Tel Zayit-?) apparently representing the main city in this area. (Unlike the roster of lead cities in the districts of Judah, the three Philistine centers just mentioned stand alone in the list; i.e., no smaller cities, towns, or villages are ascribed to them by name.)

Students may earn up to 6 quarter credits through Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for their participation in the excavations and field school, or they may complete the program for credit through their own 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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