Saturday, March 1, 2014

Northern Exposure: Launching Excavations at Tell Abil el-Qameḥ (Abel Beth Maacah). By Nava Panitz-Cohen et al.

Tel Abel Beth Maacah looking east from the main road

Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Bichrites assembled, and followed him inside. Joab’s forces came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah; they threw up a siege-ramp against the city, and it stood against the rampart. Joab’s forces were battering the wall to break it down. Then a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab, ‘Come here, I want to speak to you.’” He came near her; and the woman said, “Are you Joab?” He answered, “I am.” Then she said to him, “Listen to the words of your servant.” He answered, “I am listening.” Then she said, “They used to say in the old days, ‘Let them inquire at Abel’; and so they would settle a matter. I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel; you seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel; why will you swallow up the heritage of the Lord?” Joab answered, “Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy! That is not the case! But a man of the hill country of Ephraim, called Sheba son of Bichri, has lifted up his hand against King David; give him up alone, and I will withdraw from the city.” The woman said to Joab, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.” Then the woman went to all the people with her wise plan. And they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri, and threw it out to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, and all went to their homes, while Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king.

– 2  Samuel 20: 14-22.

Northern Exposure: Launching Excavations at Tell Abil el-Qame (Abel Beth Maacah). By Nava Panitz-Cohen, Robert Mullins, and Ruhama Bonfil. STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, Vol. 31 (2013). Also here.


Tell Abil el-Qameḥ, identified with the Biblical site of Abel Beth Maakah, is an imposing site strategically located on the farthest northern border of Israel, a border in antiquity as well as today. In the Iron Age, this boundary separated - and joined - Israelites, Phoenicians and Arameans. In the Bronze Age, it served as a springboard for relations with the great kingdoms in Syria and Mesopotamia. Despite its prominence and strategic importance, the site had never been excavated. Following a survey in 2012 led by the authors, excavation began in the summer of 2013. Iron Age remains exist just under the topsoil in the two areas explored this first season. In the center of the eastern slope (Area A) a series of Iron Age occupation levels were found and in the southern end of the lower mound (Area F) there was a large stone structure that might be a fortification overlooking the Huleh Valley.

Report: Survey at Tel Abel Beth Maacah – May 2012. By Nava Panitz-Cohen, Ruhama Bonfil, and Robert Mullins. Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations.

Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations website.

Abel Beth Maacah Facebook page.

Breaking Ground at Tel Abel Beth Maacah—Why Dig at the Gateway to the Arameans. By Robert Mullins and Nava Panitz-Cohen. ASOR Blog.

Mullins and Panitz-Cohen:

Abel Beth Maacah is an imposing 35-acre mound controlling one of the most strategic passes in northern Israel and has the honor of being the northernmost site in Israel (running neck-and-neck with nearby Tel Dan, but winning by a nostril). It was also ancient Israel’s northern gateway to the Aramean world.
But this summer, a team of 40 led by Robert Mullins of Azusa Pacific University and Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in collaboration with Cornell University, began excavations at the largest site in Israel yet to be touched by the archaeologist’s spade.
The identification of Tell Abil el-Qame with Abel Beth Maacah (1 Kings 15:20; 2 Kings 15:29; 2 Chronicles 16:4) has been accepted by most scholars, beginning with Edward Robinson and Victor Guerrin in the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century with W. F. Albright, Y. Aharoni, W. G. Dever, and others. But remarkably, despite the site’s size and obvious importance, it has never been excavated.
What are we looking for? For one thing, there is Abel’s Aramean connection. References to a political entity called “Aram Maacah” (1 Chronicles 19:6) and to the “king of Maacah” (2 Samuel 10:6, 8) evoke possibilities of Aramean presence at the site, allowing us to examine such an entity in relation to other presumed Aramean sites like Bethsaida, Tel Hadar, and En Gev. Even though the Arameans are specifically mentioned in ancient records, we know very little about them “on the ground,” especially within the borders of modern Israel. Can they be defined in terms of a distinct material culture? The location of Abel Beth Maacah on the northern borders of Israel (then and now) makes this site a viable candidate for the study of Aramean cultural and political influences.
Passages in the Hebrew Bible suggest that Abel Beth Maacah became an Israelite town during David’s reign, and it apparently remained so until its destruction by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III in 733 BCE. In the story of the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20:14-22), the city is enigmatically referred to as “a mother in Israel.” Her power and influence is apparent in that she directly negotiates the surrender of the Benjaminite rebel Sheba ben Bichri with Joab, David’s military commander.
The Abel Beth Maacah project is also intent on pursuing Phoenician connections in Iron Age II. The city’s location on a branch road of the International Highway leading north to Ijon (Tell ed-Dibbin) in Lebanon’s Marj Ayyun Valley, and roads leading west to Tyre and Sidon, will enable us to study cross-cultural ties with coastal Lebanon during the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
A modern illustration of the proximity of Tel Abel Beth Maacah to the Phoenician coast can be found in an exhibit in the local museum at nearby Metulla. An advertisement from the 1930’s invites one to spend their summer vacation in lovely, cool Metulla. According to the ad, the easiest way to get there from Tel Aviv is to take a boat to Tyre and then a carriage from there to Metulla, 35 kilometers away! We dream of the day when we too can take such a ride.
Scattered ruins of the small Arab village of Abil el-Qame from 1948 are visible on parts of the tell, particularly on the upper mound. While not part of our immediate research agenda, the remains of the Arab village and the associated strata dating to Late Antiquity are slated for exploration in the future as an integral part of the occupation sequence of the site, emphasizing the longue durée of human occupation on this prominent mound.
If the tell is so impressive, important, intriguing, and full of potential, why has it never been excavated? The answer may lie precisely in the element that made the site so important throughout history – location, location, location. The geopolitical situation that drew Canaanites, Arameans, Israelites, Phoenicians, and Assyrians to this “bottleneck” between the verdant Huleh Valley to the south and the lush Lebanese Beq’a Valley to the north also placed it a sensitive zone in modern times – it lies less than one kilometer from the Israel-Lebanon border. Archaeologists may have also shied away from the site due to the extensive excavations at nearby Dan and Hazor.
Whatever the explanation, we are extremely fortunate to be the team who has accepted the challenge of this great site, made possible by friends and alumni of Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, with additional contributions from Cornell University, made possible by Professors Chris and Lauren Monroe. We have also started a fruitful new partnership with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and its enthusiastic group of Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology and Language students led by Professor John Monson. A Harris Fund grant allowed us to purchase a much-needed digital camera. Our excavation has also been granted ASOR affiliation, and academic guidance is provided by Amihai Mazar, Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Lawson Younger of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Ruhama Bonfil, veteran of Hazor and chief surveyor in the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is our surveyor and expert field adviser.
Following a preliminary survey in May 2012, we conducted a four-week season in June and July 2013. We focused on two areas – Area F on the southern end of the lower mound and Area A on the eastern end of the connection between the upper and lower mounds.
Our choice of areas was guided by finds made during our preliminary survey, including an intact late Iron Age I ring flask at the foot of Area A and three very large stones visible in topsoil in Area F. We were greatly rewarded by a dense Iron Age I domestic occupation in Area A, whose finds included numerous collared-rim jar fragments. We also found an intriguing structure built of massive stones that might be part of a tower in Area F.
The date of this structure is yet to be determined. But our prize find in Area F was a small jug containing a silver hoard that sat on a floor abutting the structure. We have tentatively attributed this to very late Late Bronze-early Iron Age I. Much work still needs to be done to better understand our first season’s finds, but the beginning is extremely promising and exciting.
Standing on top of this lofty mound, bounded on the west, north, and east by the hills and valleys of modern Lebanon, and the imposing Lebanese/Syrian Hermon massif majestically dominating the scenery on the east, and the expansive Huleh Valley opening up to the south, one has the feeling of being transported to a different land and time. We saw early morning fog rising from the peaceful Lebanese village of Aadaisse to the west, sleepy UN patrols slowly climbing the road on the east, and farmers from Metulla and the nearby kibbutzim working in the fruit orchards surrounding the tell. Horses and cows grazed on the summit, and herons flew low and nonchalantly as they effortlessly crossed the border alongside pink and gray clouds that drifted by. And here we were, this small dedicated group, digging even further to find another link in this chain of everyday life that took place in the shadow of portentous events – just like today. We cannot wait to continue excavating this amazing site and fulfill our research goals – as well as dreams of peaceful coexistence in this border zone.

Abel Beth Maacah: Beneath the Surface of Israel. By Robert Mullins. Azusa Pacific University, September 25, 2012.

’Abel-Beth-Ma‘acah: “Northern Gateway of Ancient Israel.” By William G. Dever. The Archaeology of Jordan and Other Studies. Presented to Siegfried H. Horn. Edited by Lawrence T. Geraty and Larry G. Herr. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1986. Pp. 207-223. Also here.

The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel. By Israel Finkelstein. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013. Also here.

Abel Beth Maacah Excavations Uncover Silver Hoard at an Ancient Crossroads. By Noah Wiener. Bible History Daily, February 26, 2014.


The city of Abel Beth Maacah was located at an important juncture between several ancient Near Eastern cultures. During the Bronze Age, it was a threshold between the Levant and the major empires of Syria and Mesopotamia. In the Iron Age, the Biblical city of Abel Beth Maacah was a crossroads between Israel, Phoenicia and Syria, and it may have served as the capital of the Aramean kingdom of Maacah (Joshua 12:5; 2 Samuel 10:8).
The site features an extensive Bronze Age occupation centuries before it became a prominent Hebrew Bible-era city. In 2 Samuel 20:14-22, Sheba son of Bichri took refuge in the city after calling for revolt against King David. Joab’s negotiations with a “wise woman” of the city resulted in Sheba’s beheading. Abel Beth Maacah (referred to as Abel Maim in 2 Chronicles 16:4) was later conquered by Ben Hadad of Aram-Damascus (1 Kings 15:20) and by Tiglath-pileser III in 733/32 BCE (2 Kings 15:29).
Despite its early identification as Abel Beth Maacah in the 19th century, Tell Abil el-Qame was never excavated until 2013. Yigael Yadin planned to dig the tell in the 1950s, but opted to investigate Hazor instead. Last summer’s inaugural excavations at Israel’s northernmost site not only uncovered Bronze and Iron Age architectural remains, but also a silver hoard, including five hoop earrings and hacksilber ingots—valued pieces of silver in the pre-coinage era. The precious metal was wrapped in fibrous material inside a small 13th-century B.C.E. jug, though the silver may have been shaped at a later date–the early Iron Age–based on comparisons with other hacksilber finds in the region. While the establishment of an exact chronology at the site will require more than a single excavation season, the 2013 excavation material will surely shed light on the Bronze Age, the period of the Bronze Age collapse and the early Iron Age from the second millennium B.C.E. into the first millennium–an understudied era in what is now northern Israel.
Excavations at Abel Beth Maacah are conducted by Hebrew University professor Nava Panitz-Cohen and Azusa Pacific University professor Robert Mullins in conjunction with Cornell University professors Lauren Monroe and Christopher Monroe. The 2013 excavations have already been published by Robert Mullins, Nava Panitz-Cohen and Ruhama Bonfil in the journal Strata. Additional photos of the finds are available on the project’s Facebook page.

3,300-year-old silver earrings found at biblical site. By Ilan Ben Zion. The Times of Israel, February 25, 2014.

The Rebellion of Sheba. 2 Samuel 20.

In Focus: Abel Beth Maacah. Video. Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations. YouTube.

Robert Mullins: The Emergence of Israel in Retrospect. Video. Bible History Daily, February 1, 2014. YouTube.