We are standing in the middle of Israel on a quiet hill overlooking a fertile green valley.
Some 3,000 years ago, this peaceful place was right at the center of conflict, says archaeologist Shlomo Bunimovitz.
“The border lies somewhere between here and there,” he says, pointing to the west. He is co-leading excavations which have found the remains of a temple which was later desecrated and used as animal pens.
This is Tel Beth-Shemesh, the ancient meeting point of the Canaanites, Philistines and Israelites. The Bible describes it as the northern border of the Tribe of Judah. The area also features in the story of the return of the Ark of the Covenant, earlier captured by the Philistines. King Solomon ruled the district and it was the site of the battle between Joash and Amaziah, the respective kings of Israel and Judah.
“We are looking for evidence that this was a border, tangible evidence in the material culture that reflects this,” says Bunimovitz, from Tel Aviv University.
The excavation, just outside the modern Israeli town now called Beit Shemesh, is investigating the extent of Philistine dominance some 3,000 years ago and the impact its culture had on the indigenous Canaanites.
Tel Aviv University started excavating in the early 1990s. Bunimovitz says that Beth-Shemesh may have been the first line of resistance against the Philistines, the seafaring people who began to settle there.
He produces plastic-covered charts that show how as excavations moved eastward, there were less remains of decorative Philistine pottery and a complete disappearance of pig bones.
“The Philistines wanted this fertile valley,” Bunimovitz says, “but had this pain in the neck here at Beth Shemesh.”
Before the Philistines settled, the Canaanites did eat a little pork, he says. Then they seemed to want to set themselves apart from newcomers and maintain a distinct culture.
“There is a modern example of this, in the wearing of keffiyehs (headscarf),” he says. “Israelis always wore them until Yasser Arafat adopted it. Now you won’t see any Israelis with it. Suddenly the keffiyeh becomes an ethnic marker.”
His team has uncovered the outer wall of what they say is an ancient temple, with a row of three flat stones. One was surrounded by chalices and goblets, another surrounded by bones -- evidence of offerings to the gods or sacrificial slaughter.
Most interesting to Bunimovitz is the black lines that run through the hill along the temple that has yet to be uncovered.
“Normally I would say these are destruction layers, there was a temple, it was destroyed, and that’s it,” Bunovitz says. “But we ran chemical checks on this and found out that what caused the lines was animal dung. Someone came and used the place after the temple was destroyed for animal pens. We surmise it must have been their enemies. If you want to overcome resistance you desecrate a temple.”
There is a possibility that the Canaanites living in Beth Shemesh may have further evolved into being part of the Israelite people, he says. “We see a process of becoming something not eating pig that will later become an identity marker of the Israeli monarchy. This may or may not be an evolution into being Israelites or part of the Israelites.”
Beth Shemesh later became part of the Israelite monarchy, although the Bible never calls the people there Israelites, only the people of Beth Shemesh, he says.
Neil Silberman, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, cautions against reading too much into archaeological findings. The absence of pig bones may be an environmental issue, such as the climate no longer being conducive to the raising of the animals.
“What is interesting about Beth Shemesh is the concept of it not only being a border town between the Philistines and the kingdom of Judah, but also of the inevitable tension between the two,” he says by telephone. “Archaeology is sort of like Sherlock Holmes at a crime site: Unfortunately in archaeology there isn’t an end to the process.”
Silberman co-wrote “The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts.”
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