The aesthetics of scholarship

“I know archaeology is not always exciting, but does it have to get that boring?”, I often ask myself when reading through another archaeological article. The language is stilted, the sentences dry, the concepts uninspiring. Yes, I do understand that you want to avoid all sensationalism. Yes, you do want to be scholarly, maybe even scientific. But does scholarship have to be ugly to be counted as such? It seems that many scholars regard complicated, dense language as more learned. In part, no doubt, that is in an effort to sound more scientific, to move away from any language that may appear to be emotional.


In some disciplines dense language may be appropriate. It may be more concise, may convey the most important thoughts without embellishments. But often ugly articles are not concise, rather they put the few simple thoughts in complicated language that few people can follow, but that sounds more impressive. And while the concepts may sound more sophisticated, they move further away from any reality to which they are connected.

I believe that how we write matters, that aesthetics is part of good scholarship. We have to write beautifully. We have to write clearly. We can use rhetoric and emotional speech. Of course, we need to be restrained, should not make the art of writing more important than the subject itself. But if we cannot convey our enthusiasm, if we cannot convey that our research is worthwhile, aren’t we wasting our time and the time of our readers?

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Assyrians on the Mediterranean Coast

The discussion and articles on the Assyrian presence in the Levant keep coming. The latest is by Yifat Thareani and is entitled The Empire and the “Upper Sea”: Assyrian Control Strategies along the Southern Levantine Coast, published in BASOR 375 (2016):77-102. She does not explicitly refer to the discussion, but rather provides an alternative viewpoint, taking into account some of the previous studies. By developing a clear methodical approach, she can categorise some of the events more clearly, but is also limited in what she takes into account, and may lose some of the nuances of the historical reality. She uses the work of Bradley Parker to come up with four different control strategies the Assyrians used in their empire. There was direct rule either through annexation of the territory as Assyrian province or through military control with the establishment of garrison. Assyrians also used indirect rule either through subjugation, normally by creating client situations with local kings, or through collaboration with local proxies, which mainly took the form of treaties with and incentives for tribal leaders.

She concludes that Assyrians directly annexed Akko and also Dor, though its exact imperial status cannot be ascertained. Ashdod also was annexed, though it had a somewhat irregular rule with an Assyrian governor ruling beside a local king. But the Assyrian policy towards Ashdod was reversed and a local king soon ruled there again.
Assyria controlled the area south of Dor to the Yarkon directly through military forts.
The Philistine cities and the Phoenicians further north were subjugated, becoming Assyrian client kingdoms. Cities such as Tyre, Ashkelon, Gaza and Raphiah became trade intermediaries and also provided a buffer to hostile territories,
Assyria had some influence in the Arabian trade routes through collaboration with desert tribes.

Imperial imprints in the southernmost coastal strip
can be discerned in the archaeological record, mainly in
the form of Assyrian emporia (at Gaza [Al-Bilakhiyya]
and Tell er-Ruqeish). The exotic goods that found their
way to these emporia and the vibrant commercial activity
that took place in such outlying settlements—the latter
playing host to Assyrians, Arabs, Egyptians, Phoenicians,
traders, caravaners, and functionaries—was the driving
force of these multicultural hubs. In this way, desert frontier
dwellers became the beneficiaries of the pax Assyriaca.

The clarity of the analysis is able to draw a distinct picture of Assyrian control in the region, but also is a simplification of the historical reality. In particular, it changes the definition of the term pax Assyriaca from a centrally administered economic and trading policy to that of controlling trade of the subjugated people, even though Assyrian emporia (karu) may have encouraged it.

I am not so sure about the author’s insistence to treat the coast separately from its immediate hinterland. Studies have shown the connection between the port cities and their hinterland, not only during the Assyrian period, but also specifically then. While some of the forts in the Philistine area and further north could be regarded as Assyrian, the clearest indication for Assyrian forts is on the border to Egypt, and there not just immediately at the coast. Historical documents also indicate that there was political interaction between the coastal cities and the kingdoms in the highlands.

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Summer 2016 at Tell Halif

I am not in Israel this summer, but there’s something happening at Tell Halif. A team are excavating at the northern end of Field V and establishing the connection between Fields IV and V. They are finding some good stuff.
Below some late (probably Roman) walls and floors, the team came upon an Iron Age destruction layer with lots of pottery and some interesting features.

The pillars of the pillared house can be clearly seen. Beside the upper pillar is a dark area, where a hearth was probably located. Also interesting is the grinding stone against the wall in the left of the picture, with small installation around it to catch the flour. There even was a small holemouth jar still standing beside the installation, indicating that it was used in the process of grinding grain to flour.

For a more detailed account of the finds, go to the project website

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The Assyrian century: interpretations of texts and ruins

The debate about the economic impacts of the Assyrian rule of the Levant is continuing. As discussed in previous posts about the Pax Assyriaca and the trade through Mediterranean ports, there are diverging views on the extent to which the Assyrians were involved and directed the local economy and the effect this had on the local population. I want to discuss two recent articles in this debate, which also give a clue about the interpretive framework of their authors.

The Assyrian Economic Impact on the Southern Levant in the Light of Recent Study was written by K. Lawson Younger, Jr. and published in The Israel Exploration Journal volume 65:2 (2015). It asserts that the Assyrians were involved and facilitated trade to a greater extent than scholars such as Avi Faust and J. David Schloen, but in particular A.K. Grayson (who I haven’t discussed), gave credit for. He suggests that the Assyrians were encouraging trade in the conquered territories. His argument proceeds on the basis of several Assyrian documents.
At the very outset he suggests that other scholars have been excessively influenced by Assyrian royal inscriptions and palace reliefs. He suggests that they have fallen victim to Assyrian propaganda. The Assyrians gloried in war, but there were also other, more pragmatic considerations in the administration of the empire, which are expressed in less glamorous texts.

K. Lawson Younger then goes on to consider several texts, both Assyrian documents, and inscriptions from subject people, to make his case that Assyrians were involved in trade. The documents make a good case that the Assyrians had an eye on trade, that trade happened within the Assyrian Empire, that there were officials at the courts of client kings, who were also responsible for collecting taxes on trade, but I do not think that the documents support the full argument of the author. They do not show that the trade in the southern Levant was mainly conducted within the Assyrian Empire, rather that taxes were levied on the trade of the Phoenicians, which continued to be with the people beyond the Empire. They do not show much concern for the local economy beyond a concern for sufficient food for troops to pass through.
K. Lawson Younger also draws conclusions from some documents that seem to show an ignorance of ancient realities. He lists several documents in which vassal kings refer to the Assyrian kings as father (in one case even “father and mother”). He concludes that

[the] metaphors of ‘father and mother’ that are used to describe the Assyrian ‘king’ and ‘the house of Assyria’ paint a rich image, quite the opposite of brutal, oppressive overlords.

A quick look at the wider literature of the Ancient Near East and a considered reading of J. David Schloen’s book would make it clear that these references do not necessarily mean that the Assyrian kings cared for these vassal kings and had the best interest of these vassals or their kingdoms at heart. Rather, it is the usual terminology (and ideology) in which those vassal relationships were expressed. It does not mean that those kings decided to join or continue in a benevolent kingdom because they desired to be in such pleasant company or because trade would blossom. The greatest motivation to enter and continue in such a father-son relationship was still the threat of violence by the Assyrians. And some of the documents used by K. Lawson Younger clearly show this, as do the actions of smaller kingdoms throughout the Assyrian centuries.

What I did notice in this discussion was that the authors who interpreted the documents and archaeology to paint a picture of Assyrian oppression and little Assyrian involvement in the economy of vassal states in the Southern Levant beyond tribute, taxes and some oversight of trade, these authors also tended to see the history of Israel more along the story-line as told by the Bible. Others tended to project a picture of the world that is quite different from a first impression of the ancient literature, instead taking hints and particular textual expressions, along with emphasis on some very particular archaeological finds, to come up with models that are often based in modern structuralist thought or anthropological theories. The split, therefore, seems to be not so much whether we use the Bible in our historical interpretation, but whether we give credence to ancient texts in general or rather see them as propaganda and posit our own particular models as a basis for historical reality. Maybe we can even go so far as to distinguish two major opposing approaches to history, one based on narrative, the other on theory. Of course, readers of this blog will know that I do favour giving ancient texts their weight, that I prefer narrative approaches to history and that I think that truth is often distorted through approaches based on modern models and particular theories.

I should mention another recent article on the issue of Assyrian rule in the Southern Levant. Avi Faust published the article Settlement, Economy, and Demography under Assyrian Rule in the West: The Territories of the Former Kingdom of Israel as a Test Case in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, volume 135 (2015). In it he examines many sites in the territory of the former Israel and particularly their extent during the 7th century. His conclusion is that

[all] in all, and before going into a regional analysis, we may observe that the territories of the former kingdom of Israel experienced a drastic decline following the Assyrian conquest. Almost all sites show signs of destruction, damage, and decline, and most did not recover at all.

While the overall population was clearly decimated, there were some pockets, where the population recovered during Assyrian administration. Around Megiddo and Gezer, the population during the 7th century was not as small as in other areas. Particularly around Gezer it seems that exiles from other parts of the Assyrian Empire were settled.
Faust’s overall assessment of Assyrian policy in Israel is:

The data presented here shows that the Assyrians did not really care about the fate of the areas they conquered. They carried off whatever they could and their investment was minimal. The remaining population, including the newly settled exiles, produced some surplus
for limited taxation. The local administration was interested solely in immediate extraction
of wealth and not in encouraging long-term benefits.

Overall, his argument proceeds on a close examination of the archaeological evidence. In contrast to some of his other work, he hardly draws on texts. But he does discuss the evidence within a narrative approach and does not rely on modern models for interpretation.

In the kingdoms of the Ancient Near East there was a debate on how to respond to the Assyrians. It seems that we still debate on how we should deal with them, but now it is not a matter of life and death, just a matter of interpreting history.

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Maritime trade in the Eastern Mediterranean under Assyrian rule

In a previous post I discussed the description of the Assyrian presence in the Levant during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE as the Pax Assyriaca – this peaceful, prosperous period of trade. I suggested that there are serious problems in seeing the historical period that way.


Further evidence about trade in that period comes from the Philistine port cities. The main port of the Philistine cities in the 7th century was Ashkelon. It was the gateway for produce from the entire region (Master 2003; Faust and Weiss 2005). Master petrographically analyzed pottery at Ashkelon taken from 7th century layers. Local clays predominated, followed by those from the Shephelah, Phoenicia and the Negev. Other pottery came from the Aegean, Cyprus and the Nile area. On my reading of the data, there may also have been some pottery from the Judean or Samarian highlands (also terra rossa soils). The pottery evidence clearly shows the orientation of long-distance trade to the West with produce being drawn from its immediate hinterland to the East. This continues past trading patterns. Master is even able to state that “were it not for the overwhelming textual evidence demonstrating the dominance of Assyrian military power, there would be little if any evidence that a Mesopotamian empire, was in control of the region of Philistia.” (Master 2003:56). I would argue that we do have evidence of Assyrian military presence through the fortifications on the border to Egypt, but little evidence of trade with the more distant East.
I would suggest that exchange of goods did occur with Assyria, but more in the nature of high value goods, especially tribute.

Wheat from the Judaean Mountains was identified in the destruction of Ashkelon of 604 BCE. Faust and Weiss believe that this is indicative of a wheat trade with Judaea that was already initiated under the Assyrian Empire (Faust and Weiss 2005). I would suggest that rather than being evidence for a trade system administered by the Assyrians, it is evidence of the continued trade through the coastal cities, a trade that persisted through the period of Assyrian rule and continued after it.

The main drive for the export-oriented development of Ashkelon would have been the Phoenician trading network throughout the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians operated as middlemen moving goods anywhere in the Mediterranean (Master 2003:57). They created a lucrative and flexible economy. The Levant was part of that network as producers of commodities and importers of luxuries, which were paid to the Assyrians.

Master concludes that most of the Levant continued under the Assyrian empire as before: small-scale subsistence agriculture with some surplus (Master 2009:313). Some of that surplus was traded. The trade of commodities mainly was oriented towards the West.

A bibliography:
Bienkowski, P. and E van der Steen
2001 Tribes, Trade, and Towns: A New Framework for the Late Iron Age in Southern Jordan and the Negev. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 323:21–47.

Blakely, Jeffrey and James Hardin
2002 Southwestern Judah in the Late Eighth Century B.C.E. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 326:11-64.

Bunimovitz, Shlomo, and Zvi Lederman
2003 The Final Destruction of Beth Shemesh and the Pax Assyriaca in the Judean Shephelah. Tel Aviv 30(1):3–26.

Elat, Moshe
1978. The Economic Relations of the Neo-Assyrian Empire with Egypt. Journal of the American Oriental Society 98(1):20–34.

Fantalkin, Alexander
2004 The final destruction of Beth Shemesh and the Pax Assyriaca in the Judahite Shephelah: An alternative view. Tel Aviv 31:245–259.

Faust, Avraham
2008 Settlement and Demography in Seventh-Century Judah and the Extent and Intensity of Sennacherib’s Campaign. Israel Exploration Journal 140(3):168–194.

Faust, Avraham and Ehud Weiss
2005 Judah, Philistia, and the Mediterranean World: Reconstructing the Economic System of the Seventh Century B.C.E. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 338:71–92.

Finkelstein, Israel and Nadav Na’aman
2004 The Judahite Shephelah in the Late 8th and Early 7th Centuries BCE. Tel Aviv 31:60–79.

Gitin, Seymour
1995 Tel Miqne-Ekron in the 7th Century BCE: The Impact of Economic Innovation and Foreign Cultural Influences on a Neo-Assyrian Vassal City-State. in S. Gitin ed. Recent Excavations in Israel: A View to the West. Reports on Kabri, Nami, Miqne-Ekron, Dor and Ashkelon. Archaeological Institute of America Colloquia & Conference Papers, No. 1, Dubuque, Ohio: Kendall/Hunt:61–79.
1997 The Neo-Assyrian Empire and its Western Periphery: The Levant, with a Focus on Philistine Ekron. in S. Parpola and R.M. Whiting eds. Assyria 1995. Proceedings of the 10th Anniversary Symposium of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project. Helsinki:77–103.
2003 Neo-Assyrian and Egyptian Hegemony over Ekron in the Seventh Century BCE: A response to Lawrence E. Stager. Eretz Israel (Tadmor Festschrift) 27:56–61.

Knauf, Ernst-Axel
2003 701: Sennacherib at the Berezina. L.L. Grabbe ed., ‘Like a Bird in a Cage’. The Invasion of Sennacherib in 701 BCE. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic. 141-149.

Kuan, Jeffrey Kah-jin
1995 Neo-Assyrian Historical Inscriptions and Syria-Palestine. Hong Kong: Alliance Bible Seminary.

Master, Daniel M.
2003 Trade and Politics: Ashkelon’s Balancing Act in the Seventh Century B.C.E. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 330:47–64.
2009 From the Buqeah to Ashkelon. in J. David Schloen ed. Exploring the Longue Durée: Essays in Honor of Lawrence E. Stager. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

Mazar, B., Trude Dothan and I. Dunayevsky.
1966. En-Gedi: The First and Second Seasons of Excvations 1961–1962. Jerusalem: The Department of Antiquities and Museums.

Na’aman, Nadav
1979 The Brook of Egypt and Assyrian Policy on the Border of Egypt. Tel Aviv 6:68–90.
2003 Ekron under the Assyrian and Egyptian Empires. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 332:81–91.
2009 Ashkelon under the Assyrian Empire. in J. David Schloen ed. Exploring the Longue Durée: Essays in Honor of Lawrence E. Stager. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. 351–359.

O’Connell, Robert L.
1997 Ride of the Second Horseman: the Birth and Death of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oded, B.
1970 Observations on Methods of Assyrian Rule in Transjordan after the Palestinian Campaign of Tiglath-Pileser III. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 29:177–186.
1992 War, Peace and Empire: Justifications for War in Assyrian Royal Inscriptions. Wiesbaden: Reichert.

Parker, Bradley J.
2001 The Mechanics of Empire: The Northern Frontier of Assyria as a Case Study in Imperial Dynamics. Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project.

Postgate, J.N.
1992 The Land of Assur and the Yoke of Assur. World Archaeology 23(3):247–263.

Shai, Itzhaq, Aren M. Maeir, David Ilan, Joe Uziel
2011 The Iron Age Remains at Tel Nagila. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 363:25–43.

Stager, Lawrence
1975 Ancient Agriculture in the Judaean Desert: a Case Study of the Buqeah Valley in the Iron Age. PhD Dissertation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Stern, Ephraim
1993 The new encyclopedia of archaeological excavations in the Holy Land. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society.

Tadmor, H.
1966 Philistia under Assyrian Rule. Biblical Archaeologist 29:86–102.

Thareani, Yifat
2011 Tel ‘Aroer. Jerusalem: Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, Hebrew Union College.

Posted in Archaeology, Assyria, excavations, Judah | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Pax Assyriaca

Once upon a time on the eastern shores of the sea there were many little kingdoms fighting for dominance, trying to exert control over each other. The frequent raids into the territories of neighbours made life uncertain. The enmity stifled trade. People remained poor. But then a new military power swept over these shores. It united the people. It built centres of industrial production, encouraged trade between the people and to the many parts of the empire. Prosperity came to the shores. Peace reigned.

That is the store often told about the Pax Assyriaca, the military-enforced peace by the Assyrian empire. It came to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, to the ancient areas of Israel, Judah, Phoenicia and Philistia and incorporated them into its empire. After the devastating campaign of Sennacherib in 701 BCE, the Assyrians controlled the eastern Mediterranean, ushering in 70 years of unparalleled growth and development, and an international trading network which spanned the Mediterranean (Gitin 1995:61). It stimulated the Phoenician trade and colonization in the West, brought about the industrialization of the Philistine cities, and the integration of the previously small-scale economy of Judah into the wider trade network.

The same notion can be seen in the Israel Museum.

I want to present a somewhat different view of the possible historical reality at that time. I have previously lectured on this topic, but on this blog my thoughts will have to be in condensed form.

The standard picture painted of the effect of Assyrian rule relies heavily, even if only implicitly, on our understanding of the Roman Empire – even the name given to this narrative echoes the Pax Romana. Behind it is an assumption that empires across the ages function similarly.
The phrase and concept was particularly pushed ahead by Sy Gitin, the excavator of Tel Miqne/Ekron. Tel Miqne has been identified with Ekron. The city grew to a size of 85 acres in the 7th century, eight times the size of the 8th century city (Gitin 1997:84). Excavations and surveys uncovered 115 olive oil processing installations, significantly more than in other city in the area. It became a huge olive oil industrial center (Gitin 1997:84). Comparing the olive oil installations in Judahite cities of the Shephelah, Gitin concludes that there is a clear shift visible from an olive oil producing cottage industry in the 8th century in Judah to the mass production of olive oil in the 7th century, which was concentrated in one city (Gitin 1995:69). He sees Ekron as “a prime example of the innovative Assyrian policy of industrial specialization and mass production which concentrated large-scale industrial activity in one center” (Gitin 1995:69). Furthermore, Gitin also sees textile production being centralized in Ekron (Gitin 1997:90). This leads him to the conclusion that “Ekron was apparently chosen as a focus of Assyrian economic activity because of its geographic and topographic advantages” (Gitin 1995:63), so that it achieved a “new status as international industrial center within the Neo-Assyrian empire” (Gitin 1997:91).


Bunimovitz and Lederman, the excavators of Beth-Shemesh, suggest that due to Assyrian policy, populations from small settlements in the Shephelah were forcibly removed to the industrial centres by the Assyrians to increase industrial production. While the pax Assyriaca brought trade and prosperity to the Philistine cities, it preserved the devastation of the Judaean Shephelah (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:23). The main Iron Age settlement at Beth-Shemesh is thought to have been destroyed by Sennacherib (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:5). An underground water reservoir was excavated from 1993 onwards. The vessels in the reservoir are typical of the 7th century BCE. The excavators therefore propose that the reservoir was re-used in the 7th century by Judahites. Judahites must have resettled here. On the basis of the relative frequencies of some pottery types, Bunimovitz and Lederman conclude that the reservoir would have been in use only early in the 7th century, a relatively short occupation (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20). The reservoir was intentionally blocked with fill from nearby structures, making it unusable. It would have been the end of the renewed settlement. Bunimovitz and Lederman attribute this action to Philistine opposition to the renewed settlement (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20–23).

The increase of settlement in the Buqe’ah (a desert area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea) and the Negev (desert area in the south) has also been linked to the Pax Assyriaca, as more land was brought into production for trade and new trade routes were opened.

The presence of several archaeological sites in Philistia that clearly show signs of Assyrian influence and may even be Assyrian administrative centres further strengthened the case for direct Assyrian control in this area. The Assyrian royal texts also tell us that Assyrian kings encouraged trade between subjects.

But a closer reading of the Assyrian texts and a reconsideration of the evidence brings me to a very different picture. The Assyrian empire grew and was maintained by armed force. Trade and the advancement of economic interests are never given as reasons for going to war by Assyrian scribes. Rather, they cite divine command as the primary reason for conquering other peoples (Oded 1992:9). That may be because the enemies are plotting against Assyria (Oded 1992:46–52), threaten an ally (Oded 1992:61–68), have usurped power (Oded 1992:69–81), sinned against the gods (Oded 1992:121–157), or have broken the peace (Oded 1992:101–120). Of course, the gravest offense against all divine principles is the violation of a loath of loyalty by an Assyrian vassal (Oded 1992:83–94). In other words, the Assyrians conquered and punished the nations to keep order and peace in the world. This was the charge of the Assyrian kings. Only later did some kings also justify bellicose action as a demonstration of force and glory and a path to world domination (Oded 1992:145–196).

Economic considerations can nevertheless be implied through the tribute lists and the overall pattern of Assyrian war and resource control. The Assyrians did not exact basic commodities from its vassals as tribute payment, but metals and war horses, as well as some luxury goods (Postgate 1992:254). Many of these resources were re-invested in the Assyrian war machine.

Postgate emphasizes the differences between Assyrian provinces and vassal states (Postgate 1992). Assyrian provinces were regarded as part of the Assyrian state. They did not pay tribute. Instead, they contributed corvée labor to the king and food offerings to the temple of Ashur (Postgate 1992:251+257). The vassal kings paid tribute and at times also provided building materials for imperial projects (Na’aman 2003:83–84). The vassal kings, at times appointed from amongst the local population by the Assyrians, governed their territory largely independently, as long as they fulfilled their obligations to the Assyrians, including aid during times of war.
These kingdoms continued to exist, because they continued to co-operate with Assyria and provided tribute. Indeed, I would argue that the incorporation of some territories into the provincial system was at times a measure of last resort, when the local population became unmanageably rebellious, or the territory had been bled so dry that vassals could raise little tribute. In the northern frontier areas, no intensification of agriculture seems to have followed Assyrian influence, though it is unclear whether these areas were vassal states or buffer zones (Parker 2001:270). Once a territory was incorporated into the provincial system, major changes took place. The local population was often replaced by exiles deported from other parts of the empire as a result of military action (Parker 2001:262–263). Indeed, Parker speaks of a rapid population influx in the case of the Cizre Plain and the Upper Tigris Valley, once they became incorporated into the Assyrian provincial system (Parker 2001:269).

Now to some of the points:
While recognizing the growth of Ekron and its significant industry in the 7th century, Na’aman criticizes the conclusions drawn by Gitin (Na’aman 2003). “We may conclude that the prosperity of certain western vassals arose from the stability produced by the pax Assyriaca and from the new economic opportunities created by the empire—rather than the result of a deliberate imperial policy of economic development of these states.” (Na’aman 2003:87).
David Schloen also considered the case of Ekron and points out that many of the oil presses appear to be in domestic buildings. Also, many seemed to have been used for a relatively short perod, while others continued in service for a longer time-span. He suggests that the social networks that enabled the sharing of agricultural installations broke down through the military activity and that many of the inhabitants were indeed refugees from elsewhere in the area. Over time these relationships became established again, so that the use of installations was shared. Ekron was not so much an industrialised city as a very inefficient city.

The main Iron Age settlement at Beth-Shemesh is thought to have been destroyed by Sennacherib (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:5). An underground water reservoir was excavated from 1993 onwards. The vessels in the reservoir are typical of the 7th century BCE. The excavators therefore propose that the reservoir was re-used in the 7th century by Judahites. Judahites must have resettled here. On the basis of the relative frequencies of some pottery types, Bunimovitz and Lederman conclude that the reservoir would have been in use only early in the 7th century (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20). The reservoir was intentionally blocked with fill from nearby structures, making it unusable. It would have been the end of the renewed settlement. Bunimovitz and Lederman attribute this action to Philistine opposition to the renewed settlement (Bunimovitz and Lederman 2003:20–23).
Fantalkin has re-analyzed the pottery assemblage and concluded that the frequencies of pottery types are mainly related to the function of the reservoir (Fantalkin 2004:250). Mainly vessels to draw water would be expected in a reservoir. And this is indeed so. Fantalkin also shows that some of cooking pots found in the reservoir are similar to pots found in destruction layers associated with the Babylonian conquest ( Fantalkin 2004:249). He attributes the blocking of the water reservoir to the Babylonian campaigns to Judah (Fantalkin 2004:253).

A closer examination of the sites in the Buqe’ah and northern Negev indicates that the settlers there probably mainly were involved in agriculture for subsistence purposes. They very likely also were involved in trade, with the remains of a caravanserai excavated at Tel `Aroer. These trading posts mainly served the trade in luxury items, not a commodities trade. And they were in marginal areas, where the authority of the Assyrians was not strong. Such trade in luxury items was required, for the cities of the Levant had little access to the sort of resources that Assyria exacted as tribute. It is therefore puzzling that many archaeologists link the establishment of these remote trading posts with the Pax Assyriaca.

The sites with the clearest remains of Assyrian provenance in the Levant were all located in the very south of Philistia. Namely they area Tell Jemmeh, Tel Sera’ and Tel Haror. All these sites are on a line along Nahal Besor and Nahal Gerar. I would suggest that this is the Brook of Egypt, the border to Egypt. These forts therefore safeguarded more the border to another empire and were staging points in the various invasions of Egypt, rather than a direct administration of vassals.

It is also clear that even after Sennacherib’s campaign peace did not reign in the area. The Assyrians campaigned repeatedly to punish rebellion, especially in Ashkelon.

Trade did continue under Assyrian dominance, but there was probably little “economic development” in the area by the Assyrians to encourage trade within the empire. Assyria exacted tribute, assistance in war and in other projects.
I’ll discuss more evidence in subsequent posts and will also come to the more recent articles debating the different views.

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Remembering the past


In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four the main character works in the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. He revises old newspaper reports so that the historical record always supports the party line. Because of the revision, nobody is certain what actually happened in the past. They do not know how events developed, apart from the falsified and ever-changing narrative supplied by the party. There is one passage that sums it up nicely, when the main character explains the situation to his girl friend:

Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? If it survives anywhere, it’s in a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like that lump of glass there. Already we know almost literally nothing about the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been re-painted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. I know, of course, that the past is falsified, but it would never be possible for me to prove it, even when I did the falsification myself. (p. 169)

We do know that many regimes have fed their subjects with highly skewed versions of history. But I don’t think it has ever gotten to the stage described in the novel. This is not just revision of history, but as the character says, the establishment of an endless present. While we are far from the institutional presentism portrayed in 1984, this is the danger I also see in current Western society. There is no party machine rewriting newspaper articles, no glorified narrative of the past, but there is an ideology that overemphasizes the present and decouples it from history. And there is a narrative that relegates everything old to the Middle Ages or beyond, certainly some time when life was short, nasty and brute, and from which we have now progressed.

Maybe it is when we see the past destroyed that we realize how important the past is. It situates us in life, in some sense is part of us. And it has actually happened, unlike the theories we spin about principles and the predictions we make about the future.

When reading the novel I also had to think that maybe some modern Biblical scholars had been reading similar genres too closely, so that they developed a suspicion of fraud at every corner. It seems that some scholars assume that the Bible was such a revision of old documents, heavily altered and edited to support the line of the religious hierarchy. And so they reconstruct the history of Israel based on their own models, trying to circumvent and possibly purposefully contradict the Bible.


While it may be healthy to approach ancient writings with a certain hermeneutic of suspicion, some of the theories are similar to conspiracy theories based on a deep aversion of current Biblical thinking. It is clear that the Bible was edited and that later scribes preferred some readings over others, but even a preliminary reading of the Bible shows the variety of voices represented, the variety of time periods and the attempt to record a history that was at times embarassing and confusing to the writers. They tried to explain history, to find reasons, but that does not equate with falsification. Rather, it is an engagement with history we need to make to attempt to understand it. Today we come from other worldviews than the writers, editors and scribes of the Biblical books. We see different connections. But their interpretation of historical events needs to be taken into account, if we want to understand the past about which the Bible tells.

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