Another View: The Disappearance of Two Royal Burials
In the July/August issue of BAR, Norma Franklin describes in detail how she managed to identify two royal Israelite tombs cut into the rock beneath the monumental palace built by King Omri in Samaria in the ninth century B.C.E.a The palace and the alleged tombs were excavated nearly a hundred years ago by the famous Harvard archaeologist George A. Reisner, who was ably aided by the highly regarded excavation architect Clarence S. Fisher. The two alleged royal tombs are identical in shape, size and orientation. Franklin labels the first one Tomb A; she assigns this to King Omri himself. The second she labels Tomb B and assigns it to Omri’s wife or to Omri’s son King Ahab.
The fact is that Franklin’s Tomb B is a phantom: It simply does not exist. It is a totally imaginary creation. Its identification results from Franklin’s misinterpretation of a cross-section drawing published in the original excavation report. As to Franklin’s Tomb A, many of its characteristics indicate that this rock-cut cave is not a tomb at all. It lacks any features that would indicate it is a tomb.
Our starting point—both Franklin’s and mine—must be Reisner and Fisher’s excavation report.1 It is a comprehensive and exemplary report in the modern sense of the word. Not without reason, Reisner was praised by Harvard’s G. Ernest Wright as “one of the greatest geniuses which field archaeology has produced in modern times.”2 All the plans and section drawings published in the report were meticulously and scrupulously drawn by Fisher.
The plan of Franklin’s “Tomb” A is shown on the published ground plan of Omri’s palace. In the plan it is unmarked, but in the text of the excavation report, it is described as “Cistern No. 7.” A vertical cross-section drawing of Omri’s palace was also published by the excavators. It is oriented from east to west, and its line crosses the palace a few meters south of “Cistern No. 7, ” Franklin’s “Tomb” A. This is clear from the dotted line marked G-H on the plan of the palace (highlighted in blue). In other words, the tomb/cistern on the plan is north of the section line G-H. The section-drawing also notes at the bottom that it is drawn “on line G-H.” The cross-section shows all the remains situated along this line, including all the later remains accumulated in later periods above the palace. However, naturally many important elements do not lie on this line. Those features not situated exactly along the G-H section line are drawn, as is customary, with a dotted line. Among these off-line features is “Rock ‘Tomb’ 7, ” highlighted in green.
Fisher thus added to his section drawing a cross-section of his “Rock ‘Tomb’ 7, ” which was situated a short distance to the north of the G-H section line (as can be seen on the plan). It is marked on the section-drawing by lines of dots.
In her BAR article, Franklin misinterpreted this cross-section drawing. She wrongly believed that “Rock ‘Tomb’ 0697, ” shown as a line of dots, represents a second rock-cut chamber, believing it to be different from the feature on the plan (in green) and described in the text of the excavation report as “Cistern No. 7.” Thus she unhesitatingly and without reservation reconstructed the plan of a second tomb—her “Tomb B.”
However, this is all wrong. Significantly, Reisner and Fisher’s comprehensive and detailed excavation report nowhere mentions a second rock-cut cave of this kind, nor hints at its existence, nor are two caves shown on any plan or section drawing. Franklin’s second cave simply does not exist.
Franklin presents another argument, however, to prove the existence of her supposed Tomb B. The entrance tunnel of her Tomb A as shown on the plan opens onto the rock scarp extending along the western façade of Omri’s palace. Accordingly, the theoretical entrance tunnel of her Tomb B must also have opened onto this rock scarp but farther south. Franklin visited the site and claims to have identified the opening of her Tomb B in the rock scarp a short distance south of the opening of her Tomb A. This tunnel can still be easily identified in the vertical face of the rock scarp, she tells us. This, in her eyes, is the final proof that her Tomb B does indeed exist.
Alas! As can be easily proven, the cavity or depression in the face of the rock scarp presented by Franklin as the opening of her Tomb B is located a few meters south of the place where it should have been if she were correct; her alleged tunnel represents a different rock-cut feature, as can be seen in the very photograph Franklin provided BAR as a picture of the tunnel opening. Above the alleged tunnel opening, in the photograph we clearly see three courses of massive ashlar blocks that still stand. Now look on the excavators’ plan, where you see this wall segment (marked on the palace plan in pink). This is the wall in front of which Franklin stands in the photo. However, this wall is located, as seen on the plan, south of the line of the section drawing G-H (colored in blue on the plan). The rock feature presented by Franklin as the opening of her Tomb B is situated near the south end of this wall segment. Hence, beyond any doubt, this so-called tomb opening has nothing to do with a cave opening situated along the section line G-H.
Having demonstrated that there is only one cave/tomb/cistern under Omri’s palace, the next question is whether or not it is a tomb, as Franklin contends. She depends solely on the excavators’ designation of it as “Rock ‘Tomb’ 7” on the section drawing (it is also marked this way on another section drawing). We will come back to this designation of the excavators.
The excavators’ “Rock ‘Tomb’ 7” (Franklin’s Tomb A) is documented in detail in the original excavation report of Reisner and Fisher.3 The huge rock-cut chamber is nearly 15 feet by almost 20 feet as seen on the plan and more than 13 feet high as seen on the section drawing.
The cave has none of the characteristics of a tomb. Tombs have a single entrance, either a shaft or a tunnel. This has both, which makes no sense for a tomb. Moreover, the threshold of the entrance tunnel is almost 5 feet above the floor of the cave. In rock-cut tombs, the entrance tunnel is either level with the floor of the chamber or slightly above it. I am not familiar with any rock-cut tomb chamber in which the entrance is located so high above the floor! Moreover, the cave has no resting-place for the body of the deceased, such as a niche, rock-cut shelf, trough or sarcophagus. Finally, nothing associated with burials and their paraphernalia, such as human bones and pottery vessels, was found here. Even if the assumed tomb was robbed at a later period, we would expect to find some remains of the original burials and their associated artifacts, worthless to a tomb robber.
Now, what about the section drawings that label this feature as “Rock ‘Tomb’ 7”? Significantly, Fisher labeled it “tomb,” written with quotation marks; he apparently recognized the resemblance of this rock-cut cave to a tomb but reached the conclusion that it was not a tomb. Observing that it was not a regular cistern either, Reisner and Fisher concluded that it was “never used as a cistern” and that “the room served some purpose in the palace of Ahab … perhaps a treasure chamber or, less probably, a prison.”4 Admittedly, these suggestions are not convincing, but it is clear that the excavators never identified the cave as a tomb.
It is difficult to offer an explanation for the function of this cave. As noted by Franklin, it differs from the round cisterns that form the majority of the rock-cut caveson the summit of Samaria. Other rectangular rock-cut caves or installations do exist at the site, however. Many of the rock-cut caves antedate the foundation of the Israelite capital at Samaria, and this may well have been the case with this cave that lies beneath Omri’s palace.
Alas, it appears that we shall have to look elsewhere for the royal tombs of Omri, his wife and their son Ahab. Personally, I am deeply disappointed. I have spent a good many years excavating Queen Jezebel’s famous stronghold in Jezreel (2 Kings 9). (I am preparing an article on Jezreel for BAR readers.) I would very much have liked to have seen the tombs of Jezebel’s husband Ahab and her parents-in-law! But I’m afraid they have yet to be found.
In the July/August issue of BAR, Norma Franklin describes in detail how she managed to identify two royal Israelite tombs cut into the rock beneath the monumental palace built by King Omri in Samaria in the ninth century B.C.E.a The palace and the alleged tombs were excavated nearly a hundred years ago by the famous Harvard archaeologist George A. Reisner, who was ably aided by the highly regarded excavation architect Clarence S. Fisher. The two alleged royal tombs are identical in shape, size and orientation. Franklin labels the first one Tomb A; she assigns this to King Omri himself. […]