There is a song you may remember from the early 1980s—“One Thing Leads to Another.” The concept often plays out in archaeology—as we saw at our Tel Gezer Water System Project excavations, carried out by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Liberty University’s School of Divinity. By simply following the trail, we made significant findings near a water system that appears to be the largest and oldest in the ancient Near East.
We have now been clearing the monumental water system at Tel Gezer for seven years. After removing more than 550 tons of thick black mud—with boulders in almost every shovelful—we are currently at a depth of about 145 feet. Even after all this mudslinging, we still lack answers to some of our fundamental questions: How much deeper to the bottom of this water system? When was this monumental work hewn?
R.A.S. Macalister, the Director of Excavations for the Palestinian Exploration Fund, discovered the system in the early 1900s and dated it to between 2000 and 1800 B.C.E. Since then, dating suggestions have been all over the place.
Although we have solid evidence for when the system went out of use, how do we solve the mystery of its origin? We could wait until all the fill has been removed from the system (possibly 550 more tons) and then use pottery from the bottom of the system to determine the earliest time the event may have happened, but that may never occur. Even if we were to use this dating method, we cannot be sure that it would produce a firm date for the water system. Because the system is so enormous (the opening of its shaft being 26 ft high and 15 ft wide) and because it has lain exposed for so many years, pottery sherds from later—or earlier—periods may have worked themselves into the system, which could contaminate the dating.
We recently began to look for answers outside the water system, wondering whether the massive structures surrounding it were constructed at the same time or possibly even earlier.
Our major focus concerned the large Canaanite gate and the adjacent courtyards and storerooms, which had been dated to the Middle Bronze Age IIC (c. 1650–1550 B.C.E.) by Joe D. Seger of Mississippi State University’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology, who led excavations at Tel Gezer in the 1970s.
Although the gate lies only about 35 feet southeast of the water system, no one had previously thought to compare the level of the gate entrance with the level of the entrance into the water system. When we finally did, we realized that they are at about the same level. If one were to walk through the gate, he or she would not miss the water system almost directly in front of him or her. In addition, both the water system and the gate went out of use at the same time—the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.E.), when the water system became a refuse pit. This is significant because there was no other major water source at the site. These observations make us suspect that there is a connection between the gate and the water system.
To verify our assumption, we first had to removea major obstacle—Macalister’s excavation backfill. We thus removed tons of debris from the north face of the gate, which would have been inside the ancient city, reaching bedrock in several places about 10 feet deep. Our goal was to restore the original ground level, thereby allowing one to walk through the gate and directly over to the water system. (A stairway leading into the water system is scheduled for installation after excavation is completed—similar to the accessible water systems at Hazor and Megiddo.) Several nice objects, including a huge stone vat, came from within this fill.
After removing Macalister’s debris, we sunk a probe along the northeastern corner of the gate’s southern tower. To our surprise, two walls appeared at a depth of about 3 feet below the foundations of the gate. In the 1970s, Seger had sunk a probe more than 9 feet deep in the center of the gate and found nothing, but when we moved the probe about 10 feet to the north, we detected these walls running east–west.
The ceramics found within the fill between the two walls all securely date to the Middle Bronze Age IIB (c. 1750–1650 B.C.E.) and thus predate the gate by 200 years or more. This finding carries significant implications not only for our understanding of the development of the gate area but also of the site itself and of its fortifications, and it can prove similarly consequential for other contemporary coastal plain sites, such as Aphek. What were the functions of these walls anyway? Their quality and stone size suggest they were not part of a gate, but they could be part of a massive leveling operation to support the city’s fortifications.
In addition, we also uncovered a burial containing infant remains. The grave cut right into one of the walls. Stratigraphically, this suggests the bodywas interred after the walls were built, thus representing another phase before the construction of the gate.
As it stands now—in broad outline—we have discovered two previously unknown elements that predate the Canaanite gate: the two walls and the burial. The actual mudbrick gate with its foundations was constructed after these.
The gate passageway is flanked on either side by three large cut stones, which may have been added later. Since the walls appeared in the last few days of our excavations in 2016, we may uncover even more phases when we return next season.
We further probed the storerooms and courtyards adjacent to the southern tower, hoping to find evidence of earlier construction. Sure enough, two more walls appeared in our courtyard probe to the west of the storerooms. We date these walls to the Middle Bronze Age IIB (c. 1750–1650 B.C.E.) as well, but their function eludes us.
To date, we have not reached bedrock in any of these probes. This opens many new questions to explore, and we need to prioritize which of these we pursue next.
Although our probe in the northeastern storeroom has not yet yielded any material from the Middle Bronze Age IIB, it produced a different surprise: a foundation deposit in the northeastern corner. Foundation deposits were used to ensure blessings on the house. Considering that these are the highest walls from the Canaanite period preserved standing anywhere in Israel, it seemsthat this particular foundation deposit worked! The items it contains support Seger’s conclusion that the storerooms were built in the Middle Bronze Age IIC (c. 1650–1550 B.C.E.). Sitting in their own little pottery box (pyxis) with a lid, a glob of metal and a scarab were found.
The scarab has a golden band and was likely used as a signet ring. Daphna Ben-Tor of the Israel Museum has dated it to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 B.C.E.). Only one other scarab of this design has ever been found, and that one also came from Gezer!
When we first laid eyes on the metal glob, we thought it looked like a bull. Then Yelena Kupershmidt of the IAA began to clean the glob, and four silver objects emerged: a pendant or disk, a lunate (crescent object), a possible ring and an arrowhead-shaped pendant. Several more lumps of silver from the hoard have not yet been identified.
The pendant consists of a disc with a crescent on top. The disc measures 1.5 inches in diameter and is embossed with an eight-pointed star—a well-attested symbol associated with the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, Ishtar. The crescent fits well with the Mesopotamian moon god, Sin. The material (mainly silver) is being currently analyzed to assess its origin, but we already know that it has cloth welded in it. Only a few other examples from Israel are known of this type of pendant, none of which is as completely preserved as this one.
While there is still more work to be done, we can put forth some preliminary conclusions. So far, it appears that the Canaanite gate and water system were abandoned during the same period and—we dare to say—also built during the same period. The unexpected discovery of earlier walls under the gate can date the water system as early as the Middle Bronze Age IIA (c. 2000–1750 B.C.E.; Middle Bronze Age IIA pottery was found in the water system), while the latest possible date is the Middle Bronze Age IIB (c. 1750–1650 B.C.E.). Also, it now seems likely that there is an earlier gate associated with the water system yet to be exposed!
Our revised dating fits better with the early development of other coastal plain settlements, such as Aphek and Tell el-Ifshar, and it makes the Gezer water system the largest and oldest of its kind in the ancient Near East.