The location of Biblical sites is sometimes not easy to establish and considerable debate still rages among scholars on the identification of some archaeological sites. That’s not entirely surprising. Normally we don’t dig up the sign at the city entrance with the city’s name displayed in large letters. And for thousands of years the Holy Land has been occupied by Muslim peasants who were struggling to survive and not interested to preserve memories of the past. Yes, the land has drawn pilgrims over thousands of years. But they mainly wanted to see places associated with significant events in the life of Jesus, or the tomb of some famous saint or – if they were Jews – rabbi. Churches and shrines, the appearance of the holy, were more important than the actual location of where things happened.
In 1837 two Americans – Edward Robinson and Eli Smith – travelled through Palestine trying to locate the ancient cities. Trained in Biblical Literature, Arabic and other modern and ancient languages, and with a knowledge in geography, they were able to provide the first modern – some might call it scientific – geography of Israel. One of the main tools was the use of current names – mostly Arabic – to link ancient and modern places. And many of their identifications have been confirmed.
Sometimes the modern name – though it may have been passed down through centuries – is not always a clue to what ancient settlement once stood at a place. A well-known example is Um-Lakis. Keen to find inscriptions in the Holy Land, the Palestine Exploration Fund sent the successful archaeologist W.M.F. Petrie to excavate the site (which coincidentally is just across from Khirbet Summeily). After a few days of excavations in 1890, Petrie realized that the pottery at Um-Lakis was mostly Roman or later and that this small mound could never have been the biblical city of Lachish. He therefore moved to the largest tell in the surrounding area: Tell Hesi. He assumed that Um-Lakis really meant “my mother is Lachish”, and the little hill he initially dug up was a later satellite settlement of the great city.
But again the suppositions of a great archaeologist were proved wrong. When Starkey excavated Tell ed-Duweir in the 1930s, he was soon able to argue that this site fitted the description of Lachish far better. Its size, its location, the finds, all indicated that this was indeed Lachish. The final confirmation came when the “Lachish letters” were found in the guardroom of the ancient city. Here was written evidence.
As more and more sites have been identified, it is easier to deduce the names of other sites related to them. Now we can use other sources, such as the work by Bishop Eusebius of Ceasearea, describing the cities of the Bible and their relative location in the 4th century AD, to help us in locating ancient cities on modern maps. The map of Ancient Israel can be drawn ever more accurately, though debates will continue.