Cover image for Ashkelon 6: The Middle Bronze Age Ramparts and Gates of the North Slope and Later Fortifications Edited by Lawrence E. Stager, J. David Schloen, and Ross J. Voss

Ashkelon 6

The Middle Bronze Age Ramparts and Gates of the North Slope and Later Fortifications

Edited by Lawrence E. Stager, J. David Schloen, and Ross J. Voss


$149.50 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-1-57506-980-7

656 pages
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Final Reports of The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Ashkelon 6

The Middle Bronze Age Ramparts and Gates of the North Slope and Later Fortifications

Edited by Lawrence E. Stager, J. David Schloen, and Ross J. Voss

The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon continues its final report series with a study of the fortifications of the North Slope.


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The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon continues its final report series with a study of the fortifications of the North Slope.

From the first gate and rampart in the Middle Bronze Age through mud-brick towers from the Iron Age, these defenses are evidence of how the seaport of Ashkelon was both a political force in the southern Levant and an economic power in the eastern Mediterranean. This volume includes the monumental mud-brick gate of Ashkelon, the shrine of the silver calf, and towers from the time of the Philistines. Since each ancient fortification phase was also a massive earth-moving project, the detritus of the entire city found its way to the North Slope. Within the extensive fill, excavators uncovered indications of connections with Crete, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Egypt, while also collecting evidence of local Bronze Age agriculture and animal husbandry in an urban center.

An indispensable resource for scholars interested in the history of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean, Ashkelon 6 spans twenty-five chapters with more than 500 full-color pages and a number of foldout plans. The architecture, stratigraphy, pottery, and other finds are presented in detail, shedding new light on this important period in the history of ancient Canaan.

J. David Schloen is Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the Oriental Institute and Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago.

Lawrence E. Stager was Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard Semitic Museum.

Ross J. Voss is a field archaeologist and was Grid Supervisor of Ashkelon’s North Slope for seven years.

From the Introduction: Ashkelon in the Middle Bronze Age

by Lawrence E. Stager

This volume deals mainly with the monumental architecture of the Middle Bronze Age II (i.e., earthen ramparts and mudbrick gates) excavated at Ashkelon by the Leon Levy Expedition on the North Slope of the site in Grid 2 (see figure 1.1). The following chapters discuss stratigraphy, pottery, and other finds—most notably, a group of clay sealings dating to the early Thirteenth Dynasty of Egypt, which provide important evidence of Canaanite-Egyptian relations in this period. This introductory chapter gives an overview of these discoveries and places them in a broader framework, in terms of what they tell us about Ashkelon’s economic role and the type of kingdom that was dominated by this ancient city.

In the Middle Bronze Age, and for many centuries thereafter, the seaport of Ashkelon was the center of a compact commercial kingdom, a coastal city-state of a kind that should be distinguished structurally from the agrarian kingdoms of the Levantine hinterland. The structural contrast between premodern commercial kingdoms and agrarian kingdoms is well described by Edward Whiting Fox in his highly original study of medieval France, History in Geographic Perspective, published in 1971. In the present chapter, the archaeological discoveries pertaining to MB Ashkelon will be viewed in light of this illuminating dichotomy.

The Prelude to Reurbanization in the Middle Bronze Age Southern Levant

The first half of the second millennium b.c. is designated the Middle Bronze Age (MB) throughout the Levant. The preceding period is called the Early Bronze Age (EB). The MB corresponds roughly to the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate (Hyksos) Period in Egypt. The subdivisions of MB used in this volume follow the terminology of W. F. Albright rather than more recent terminology. Thus, our MB II corresponds to MB I, II, and III in the newer terminology, and we refer to MB IIA instead of MB I; MB IIB instead of MB II; and MB IIC instead of MB III. Our MB I is equivalent to EB IV in the newer terminology and is here called EB IV/MB I. We prefer to use the old terminology because of the close synchronization between the stratigraphy of MB Ashkelon and that of Tell el-Dab’a, ancient Avaris in the Nile Delta, which was excavated for many years under the direction of Manfred Bietak, whose publications make use of the older terminology (see Bietak et al. 2008).

There is a connection between the MB IIA pottery, architecture, and massive earthen ramparts found in the southern Levant and the pottery, architecture, and ramparts of sites in the northern Levant (western Syria and Lebanon) that date to the preceding EB IV/MB I period in the late third millennium b.c. In the northern Levant, there was neither desertion due to desiccation nor a rural or pastoral interlude, as there was in most of the south. In the north, there was an “unbroken cultural sequence” from EB III through EB IV and into the early second millennium b.c. (Cohen 2002:14; for the pottery, see already Albright 1938). The northern “Amorite” culture was a prelude to the culture that emerged in the reurbanized southern Levant in MB IIA (for both versions of the old, mostly discarded, Amorite Hypothesis and their difficulties, see Gerstenblith 1983:123 and Cohen 2002:15–16). It was the advance of West Semitic Amorite cultures along the Fertile Crescent over the centuries of the late third and early second millennia b.c. that introduced several architectural innovations into Canaan, such as arches (both bonded and radial), rabbeted facades, and free-standing earthen ramparts with dry moats.

In contrast to the EB IV/MB I period (also known as the Intermediate Bronze Age), sizable fortified settlements existed in the southern Levant in MB IIA, especially along the coastal plain and in adjacent valleys (Cohen 2002:123–128, esp. fig. 26). Settlements, both urban and rural, continued to grow and spread inland in MB IIB. The total number of settlements and their aggregate population increased in this period to their highest levels before the Roman-Byzantine era. Many MB IIA towns and rulers in the Levant were cursed by name in the Egyptian Execration Texts. The names were painted on saucers in the earlier group of texts (published by Sethe) and on anthropoid statuettes in the later group (published by Posener). All of the personal names in these Execration Texts are Semitic, and more specifically Northwest Semitic. The names and their theophoric components reflect the Amorite language and pantheon, which are known to us, to some extent, from contemporary cuneiform texts found in Mesopotamia and North Syria (Rainey and Notley 2006:52–53, 58).

Anson Rainey dates the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe to the urbanized MB IIA rather than the preceding EB IV/MB I period, to which Albright and others had dated it (Rainey and Notley 2006:53f.). This tale describes the journey of an Egyptian named Sinuhe to the Levant. It mentions a fruitful land called ’-r-r (Araru?), which is described as follows: “Figs were in it as well as vines; more abundant was its wine than water. Its honey was plentiful, its olives profuse. Every fruit was on its trees. Barley was there along with emmer wheat. There was no limit to all its cattle.”

Rainey (p. 54) points out that: “This picture of multifaceted agriculture with intensive cultivation of fruit plantations and vineyards in addition to the traditional cereal crops and extensive herds and flocks, can by no means be applied to the Intermediate Bronze Age [EB IV/MB I]. Even the recent evidence of a humble farming community in Naḥal Rephaim . . . alongside the many granary pits at Tell Iktanu . . . do not radically alter the picture. One can hardly envisage those settlements as venues for Egyptian expatriates or . . .Egyptian diplomats.”

Susan Cohen (2002:132) places the Tale of Sinuhe in EB IV/MB I (the Intermediate Bronze Age) on the grounds that Pharaoh Senwoseret I’s reign, during which the tale is set, fell mainly in this period, before MB IIA, according to her chronological reconstruction. Rainey dismisses this idea, emphasizing the fact that the thriving horticulture and agriculture described in the Tale of Sinuhe are much more likely to have existed in MB IIA. We can reconcile these two views if we assume that the region of Upper Retenu described in the tale, to which Sinuhe traveled, and in particular the “land of Ya’a,” lay near Byblos. Not far south of Byblos was Sidon, another seaport. Recent excavations there have revealed an amethyst scarab inscribed to “Prince Zedek, beloved of Baal, the lord of Ya-a (?).” (I thank Manfred Bietak for this reference.) It seems most likely that the land of Ya’a was located in the urbanized northern Levant and not in the largely pastoral southern Levant. An abundance of figs, grapes, olives, and “every kind of fruit” is to be expected in EB IV in northern Lebanon and western Syria.

As for Ashkelon on the southern coast of the southern Levant, the pottery evidence indicates that it existed as a seaport already in EB III, a period of walled towns that now seems to have ended quite early in the third millennium, around 2500 b.c., according to recent radiocarbon studies (Regev et al. 2012). This means that the EB IV/MB I period of deurbanized pastoralism, in the vicinity of Ashkelon and throughout the southern Levant, lasted for more than five hundred years. Byblos was the oil, resin, and timber emporium during much of the third millennium b.c. It was the leading seaport of Syria, lending its name to a type of merchantman known in Egypt as the “Byblos” ship, which transported goods, animals, and people between Egypt and the Levant. In EB III, as later in MB II, Ashkelon was undoubtedly a port of call on the Byblos run from the Nile Delta to Byblos and beyond. In the EB III pottery repertoire found at Ashkelon are several examples of Combed Ware separator vats for olive oil production and Metallic Combed Ware amphoras for maritime commerce (Stager 1992:40–41; Stager 2002). But if the deurbanized EB IV/MB I began three centuries earlier than was once thought, the EB III did not last until the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt and the pottery synchronisms between Egypt and the southern Levant once claimed on the basis of Metallic Combed Ware found in tombs from the reign of Pepi II are not valid. This pottery, which must be dated to ca. 2250 b.c., may therefore reflect trade between Egypt and the northern Levant via seaports such as Byblos, which continued to exist and continued EB III pottery traditions into the EB IV.

Not a scrap of EB IV/MB I pottery has been found among millions of potsherds excavated at the tell of Ashkelon. To find pottery of this period, one must travel a couple of kilometers north of Tel Ashkelon to a 4-ha unwalled village site (today in Barnea) that had no connections with maritime trade (Israel 1995). It seems clear that Ashkelon ceased to be a seaport for a half-millennium or more, though the shipping lanes from Egypt to the north were still open until the end of the Sixth Dynasty around 2250 b.c. Maritime trade may then have declined during the First Intermediate Period in Egypt, which corresponds to the latter part of the EB IV/MB I in Canaan and Syria and was a period of decentralization. The Admonitions of Ipuwer lament a shortage of oil for embalming and “pine trees for our mummies,” which were no longer supplied from the Levant (Lichtheim 1973:152). It was a time when “none indeed sail north to Byblos” (ibid.). But all this changed in the early second millennium b.c., when maritime commerce began to flourish again in MB IIA and thereafter, and when Ashkelon was refounded as a thriving seaport.

Excavations on the North Slope of Ashkelon

John Garstang, who dug at Ashkelon in the early 1920s, surmised that the great arc of earthworks visible around the site, which were more than 2.2 km long and enclosed an area of some 60 ha, might date as early as the second millennium b.c., although he also recognized that the same contours continued to be refortified well into the Crusader period. Garstang was right about the early date of the earthworks, but he was wrong about their function. He believed that

Ashkelon’s earthworks, like those of the “Lower City” of Hazor, surrounded, not a city, but a huge chariot park. Such a park would require open spaces for horses, chariots, and equipment within the protected confines of an artificial enclosure. The inhabited part of Ashkelon, Garstang thought, was confined to the small 6-ha mound known as “el-Khadra,” in the west-central portion of the 60-ha site (centered on our Grid 44; see figure 1.1).

One of our goals during the first season of excavations in 1985 was to determine the date and function of the artificial enclosure. To do that, we laid out a trench against the inner face of the substantial medieval ramparts (once thought to have been built by the Crusaders, now known to have been built during the Fatimid period) that are preserved in Grids 34 and 41. Very soon, we came down upon a basilica whose apse was built into the rampart. We had discovered a little Byzantine church, which was situated just inside and to the south of the Jerusalem Gate on the east site of the city (see Ashkelon 1 , chapter 21 [Stager, Schloen, and Master 2008]). Had there been earlier earthworks there, they were completely obliterated by this building and by the medieval fortifications.

In the following season we moved to the North Slope, where the latest walls along the crest of the enclosure appeared to be quite thin and the slope of the embankment is quite steep. At the bottom of the outer slope in Grid 1, where a bulldozer had clandestinely scooped out some sand and kurkar sandstone during the previous winter to level up floors being built in the nearby Club Mediterranée, I recognized in the tailings sherds of red-slipped carinated bowls and other MB IIA pottery types and wondered whether this could be an ancient glacis. Pursuing this lead, the North Slope area of Ashkelon was excavated from 1986 to 1998, both on the inside and the outside of the embankment, and also within the great enclosure (figure 1.2). A sequence of four gates and revetted embankments was found, all belonging to the MB II period (figure 1.3). The excavations in this area occurred mainly in Grid 2.

The circuit of the enclosure walls forms an arc of more than 2.2 km, with its chord along the sandstone cliffs above the beach. A merchant or a soldier approaching the Canaanite city from the Mediterranean on the road leading up from the sea would have been dwarfed by the imposing earthworks and towering fortifications on the North Slope of Ashkelon. About 150 m along his ascent up the roadway from the sea, he would have turned right to enter this vast metropolis through the city gate on the north.

(Excerpt ends here.)