Books in Brief
Picking Up the Threads: A Continuing Review of Excavations at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan
Edited by Gerrit van der Kooij and M. M. Ibrahim
(Leiden: Univ of Leiden Archaeological Center, 1989) 112 pp. $29.50 Dutch guilders, paper
If there is a single class of artifacts that is responsible for putting Deir ‘Alla on the “archaeological map,” it is the inscriptions. The most sensational discovery at this site in Jordan was a plaster-wall inscription, dating to about 800 B.C.E.,a that contained a prophecy by Balaam, the son of Beor, apparently the same individual mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 22–24).b Obviously, the importance of this inscription for both Biblical and linguistic studies is tremendous. For instance, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the scholarly literature about the identity of both the script and the language of this inscription. Was the script Aramaic, Ammonite or something else? Was the language, which is clearly Semitic, from the Aramaic or Canaanite branch? In this volume the authors take the position that “the language or the dialect of the text has never been found before … ” Therefore, “it is better to acknowledge that between the ‘true’ Canaanite and the ‘true’ Aramaic languages, there was a group of languages or dialects which cannot be ascribed to either … ” (p. 69). While parts of the text are difficult to translate, the inscription does give some important insights into the local religion. For example, Balaam the Seer’s unique access to the Divine Council echoes the experiences described for the neighboring Hebrew prophets (see Jeremiah 23:18–22; 1 Kings 22:19–23).
Almost as intriguing are the 12 enigmatic clay tablets that were found here in a Late Bronze Age sanctuary. Scholars have still not arrived at a consensus on identifying the script, let alone on translating the texts.
The work on the inscriptions is just one example of how the Deir ‘Alla expeditionc has utilized many specialties not only to illuminate the history of the site, but to provide a dynamic view of the entire human experience in this important region of the Jordan Valley. Indeed, the Deir ‘Alla expedition deserves credit for being one of the first multidisciplinary archaeological projects in Jordan. Their approach is clearly reflected in the chapters of this attractive volume, which is offered as an interim guide to the work here. Although the intended audience appears to be the general public, the volume will also provide the serious student of archaeology with a convenient summary of the major finds and their significance.
Chapter 1 appropriately sets the stage by describing the current physical setting and the historical background of the Deir ‘Alla region. It also includes descriptions of current tribal groups and their lifestyle. These give useful insights into what life was like in the past.
The second chapter reviews the surveys and excavations of the Deir ‘Alla region, from Charles W. M. van de Velde, a Dutch engineering captain who explored the area fairly extensively in the early 1850s, to the current expedition. Of special interest to the layperson and student will be the discussion of the field methods employed by the Deir ‘Alla expedition.
Readers of BAR, who are undoubtedly aware of how important pottery is to the archaeologist, may be a bit surprised by the discussion of ceramics. Rather than the usual typological descriptions and chronological analysis, Henk Franken shows how certain technical studies of the pottery can lead to insights about production methods, production organizations, specific pottery functions and trade relationships. Through his technological approach to ceramics, 006Franken proposes to go beyond merely comparing pottery shapes to recognizing specific craft traditions. The technical analysis of pottery includes: (1) the reconstruction of the shapes, decoration and firing technique; and (2) the analysis of the raw materials used. Franken’s work is also unique in that he actually tries to replicate the ancient pots by utilizing local clays and imitating the local technologies. His approaches to pottery analysis have attracted the attention of many archaeologists who are anxiously awaiting final publication of his material so that they can more fully judge the merits of his new ideas.
A fine overview of ancient metallurgical practices includes the production of tin-bronze, arsenic-bronze and brass and discusses how various environments affect different metals and how archaeologists work with these materials. Unfortunately, apart from an interesting and informative analytical discussion of fibulaed production at Deir ‘Alla, no examples are given of how modern analytical techniques are being applied to the Deir ‘Alla material.
The chapter on textiles gives a useful description of ancient textile production, nicely illustrated with contemporary drawings and photographs. Preliminary analysis of material remains from Deir ‘Alla confirms that at least four textile fibers were utilized during the Iron Age: wool, goat’s hair, flax and hemp, the latter being one of the unexpected discoveries of Deir ‘Alla. A curious discovery was the presence of a pierced murex shell (Murex brandaris), typical of those found at sites along the northern coast of modern Israel and Lebanon, where the purple-dye industry prevailed.
Also interesting is the use of contemporaneous Iron Age statuary and figurines to illustrate possible clothing styles of Iron Age Deir ‘Alla.
The chapter on carbon-14 dating begins by explaining how the method works, a question that is often raised by laypersons. Tests of carbonized seeds from Deir ‘Alla phase IX yield a calibrated date of about 800 B.C.E., which would place this phase in the middle of the Iron Age II B period (c. 900–750 B.C.E.). This corresponds nicely with the material culture of that phase (examples of which are pictured on pages 94–103).
The penultimate chapter provides a synthesis of the specialized results already discussed and uses it to reconstruct Deir ‘Alla’s history. Cultural, social and historical perspectives are included. Some interesting and important thoughts are offered with regard to Deir ‘Alla’s identity with Biblical Succoth. Specifically, while many scholars have equated Deir ‘Alla with Biblical Succoth, one of the problems with this identification is that the Biblical text fails to mention the presence of a sanctuary at the site or even in this region (a fairly serious omission). However, the archaeological evidence from Deir ‘Alla (the room where the famous Balaam text was found) suggests the presence of a sanctuary (although exactly what constitutes a sanctuary is, itself, a debatable topic). To alleviate this concern, the authors point out that although nearby Qumran was an important religious community, it was totally neglected by Biblical writers. Therefore, they argue, important religious sites are not always mentioned in religious textual traditions.
The authors then go on to note the evidence for exotic objects at Deir ‘Alla (such as cylinder seals from North Syria, Mycenaean pottery, and faience amulets and scarabs from Egypt). This suggests to the authors that the sanctuary was a “trading sanctuary,” although the trading activity, itself, probably did not take place there. Rather, exchanges took place on the nearby plain, where temporary sheds or booths were set up. This latter activity could be responsible for the region’s common name (succoth, or “booths”). Trading compacts, however, would be ratified at the sanctuary, where appropriate gifts would be deposited. This would explain the large number of imported goods at Deir ‘Alla.
Obviously the above arguments are not conclusive, and there could be other ways of interpreting the data, but there is no doubt that Deir ‘Alla was located on an important trade route, and the authors have constructed an interesting hypothesis on how Biblical Succoth obtained its name.
The last chapter catalogues the major finds of Deir ‘Alla from the Middle Bronze Age times to the 15th century C.E. (the Arab period). Each entry includes the name of the object, its registration number, its material and dimensions, a brief description and its publication reference (if applicable). Most of the objects are illustrated by good black-and-white photographs.
Since this book is not intended as a specialist’s report, it would be unfair to critique it in that light. It has, however, a few shortcomings that a general audience will want to be aware of. Figures with multiple illustrations are not always clearly labeled. The book also needed a single editor with fluency in English. In some chapters, sentences are often awkward and convoluted, and words hyphenated in the middle of a syllable are distracting (for example, “so-me” on p. 56, “si-te” on p. 60, etc.). To spare readers the hunt for the table of contents, I will note that it is tucked into an unusual place on the next to last page of the book (p. 111), between the bibliographical references and the acknowledgments.
On the other hand, the illustrations are well drawn and easy to understand, the photographs are of good quality and the layout is generally well organized.
This book will not only provide the layperson with an excellent picture of what a modern archaeological dig is all about, it will provide the trained archaeologist with a useful interim summary of the work at Deir ‘Alla. The Deir ‘Alla staff deserves credit not only for the excellent fieldwork they are doing and the important finds they have made, but also) for their efforts in getting this information out to both laypersons and scholars.
Megiddo: A City-State and Royal Centre in North Israel
(Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1991) 262 pp., 14 plans DM 118
Few archaeological sites in the land of the Bible have attracted as much scholarly attention as Tel Megiddo, a huge ancient city mound located in the western Jezreel Valley, about 15 miles southeast of modern Haifa. Situated on the international trade route known as the Via Maris (Way of the Sea), the Canaanite city-state and royal Israelite city of Megiddo was one of the most prosperous and strategically important cities in early Israel. Both Egyptian and Assyrian sources mentioned its rulers repeatedly, and the books of 1 and 2 Kings record its rebuilding by King Solomon and some of its subsequent history. No less important is its New Testament association. In the Book of Revelation, the final battle at Armageddon—a Greek variant of the Hebrew name Har Megiddon, “the hill of Megiddo”—preserves a memory of the great conflicts that took place there over the centuries between armies of Egyptians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Arameans and Israelites.
Aharon Kempinski, one of Israel’s most experienced and innovative archaeologists, here provides a useful compendium of the archaeological information gathered at Megiddo over the past 90 years. During that time, three major expeditions (the Deutscher Palästina-Verein, 1903–1905; the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1925–1939; and the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University, 1960–1972), uncovered 26 superimposed city levels, extending from the Neolithic (c. 6000 B.C.E.) to the Byzantine period (fourth-sixth centuries C.E.). Kempinski has sifted through the fragmentary and often inconsistent evidence to offer a reconstruction of each stratum. Particularly useful in this regard is the inclusion of 14 foldout plans that combine and correlate the results of the various excavations and graphically show the extent of the documented remains of each city level.
Kempinski’s archaeological analysis of Megiddo is not limited to the direct correlation of the various strata with events of Biblical or ancient Near Eastern history. He provides special sections on the changing patterns of the city’s economic activities, population and social structure. He also offers an overview of the cult and burial customs of the city’s inhabitants—as reflected in the design and iconography of Megiddo’s temples and tombs. A brief essay draws together the archaeological and literary evidence and gives a thought-provoking synopsis of the city’s material transformations. An appendix describes the condition and location of the most important architectural remains still visible at the site.
The archaeological investigation of Tel Megiddo has reflected in microcosm the wider developments of a century of Biblical archaeology. Each scholar who has studied the history and material culture of the site has tended to stress certain aspects—whether temples, fortifications, administrative buildings or palaces—in a clear manifestation of the cultural preoccupations of his or her particular time. That is unavoidable. Today’s turn toward a more statistically based, environmentally oriented archaeology is as much a commentary on the mindset of scholars of the late 20th century as it is a refinement of techniques of recovering the past. Kempinski’s great service here is to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the evidence already gathered as a prologue for the decades of research still to come. (Megiddo is to be the subject of a new excavation by Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin.) Although not intended for a general audience, his clear style—refreshingly uncluttered with technical jargon—makes this a work that belongs on the shelf of any serious student of the ancient Near East. It is essential for anyone specifically interested in Megiddo’s history and archaeology.
Tell el-Hesi: The Site and the Expedition
Edited by Bruce T. Dahlberg and Kevin G. O’Connell
(Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989) 243 pp., $42.50
In 1890, Sir Flinders Petrie and the Palestine Exploration Fund made history by initiating the first major excavation of a Palestinian tell, at Tell el-Hesi, located 15 miles east of Gaza in southern Israel. This volume introduces the new work done during the first four field seasons (1970–1975) of the more recent Joint American Expedition to the site under the sponsorship of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
Hesi was already an important and well-fortified settlement in Early Bronze III (2600–2300 B.C.E.) and was reoccupied in a substantial way in the Iron Age II period (after c. 900 B.C.E.). During the period of Persian domination, between 540 and 332 B.C.E., it became a major storage center. Emulating the principles of the New Archaeology—a more rigorous application of scientific methodology to cultural systems, which emerged in the 1960s—the renewed American investigations have added greatly to our understanding of the significance of this ancient site.
While the report under review is published as volume four in the joint expedition’s report series, it in fact serves as the introductory volume for the project’s Phase One publications. While it has been 20 years since the start of the new project’s work, this volume appeared less than ten years after the close of its Phase Two field work in 1983. Along with the three previously published volumes,e it offers testimony to the dedicated spirit of the Hesi team, and it is a tribute to their will to put down the pick and take up the pen before planning further field efforts.
The book is divided into four parts. Part 1, “The Site,” reviews Tell el-Hesi’s geomorphology and geographical setting and summarizes the history of its excavation in the early 1890s by Sir Flinders Petrie and Frederick Bliss. Part 2, “Formative Influences,” focuses on the archaeological methods and theories that helped promote and guide the joint expedition’s work. It also describes the related educational aspects of the project’s efforts. A season-by-season overview of the digging efforts and a summary of the stratigraphic phases uncovered at the site appear in part 3, “The Expedition’s Work in Phase One.” The last section, “Particular Reports,” presents a series of special subjects, including “Chalcolithic Remains in Field III” by Michael David Coogan, “Archaeobotanic Studies at Tell el-Hesi” by Robert B. Stewart and “An Israelite Bulla from Tell el-Hesi” by Kevin G. O’Connell, S.J. It also includes an extensive Tell el-Hesi bibliography. Along with these special studies, the summary of site stratigraphy by Lawrence E. Toombs in chapter 7 and the study of the methodology of the so-called New Archaeology by D. Glenn Rose in chapter 4 will be of greatest interest to most scholars. The latter represents one of only a few places where the methods and theory of New Archaeology as practiced in the context of Syro-Palestinian work is discussed and evaluated in a deliberate way.
Although this is a technical volume, it is well organized and quite readable. It also provides a useful memoir for all those who worked as staff and as students at Hesi in the early 1970s. Moreover, it is a necessary guide for all who are interested in studying the results of the Hesi project’s work, whether in the three reports already published or in those planned for the future. Overall the volume is highly recommended to all serious students and scholars interested in the background and modern history of archaeological work at the site.
Picking Up the Threads: A Continuing Review of Excavations at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan