Canaanite palace may have been destroyed in earthquake

“It’s very exciting when your work comes to fruition,” Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau the Post. “And this research could be very influential in how we look for signs of earthquakes in archaeology."

Overhead photo shows excavations (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
Overhead photo shows excavations
(photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
Scientists try hard to predict the next big earthquake and a team of Israeli and American researchers funded by the National Geographic Society and the Israel Science Foundation has uncovered new evidence about an earthquake that may have caused the destruction and abandonment of a flourishing Canaanite palace about 3,700 years ago, which has implications for both the past and the future.
The findings were published Friday in the journal PLOS ONE. The National Geographic Society, the Israel Science Foundation, George Washington University, the University of Haifa and private donations provided funding for the research.
The group, codirected by Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau, a professor of Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Haifa, and Dr. Eric H. Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University, made the discovery at the 75-acre site of Tel Kabri in Israel, which contains the ruins of a Canaanite palace and city that dates back to approximately 1900-1700 B.C. The excavations are located on land belonging to Kibbutz Kabri in the western Galilee.
“It’s very exciting when your work comes to fruition,” Yasur-Landau told The Jerusalem Post. “And this research could be very influential in how we look for signs of earthquakes in archaeology.”
Yasur-Landau said, “We wondered for several years what had caused the sudden destruction and abandonment of the palace and the site, after centuries of flourishing occupation. A few seasons ago, we began to uncover a trench which runs through part of the palace, but initial indications suggested that it was modern, perhaps dug within the past few decades or a century or two at most. But then, in 2019, we opened up a new area and found that the trench continued for at least 30 meters, with an entire section of a wall that had fallen into it in antiquity, and with other walls and floors tipping into it on either side.”
According to Dr. Michael Lazar, lead author on the study, recognizing past earthquakes can be extremely challenging, especially at sites where there is little stone masonry and where degradable construction materials such as sun-dried mudbricks and a wattle and daub framework of woven rods and twigs covered and plastered with clay were used instead.
At Kabri, however, the team found both stone foundations for the bottom part of the walls and mudbrick superstructures above.
“Our studies show the importance of combining macro- and micro-archaeological methods for the identification of ancient earthquakes,” Lazar said. “We also needed to evaluate alternative scenarios, including climatic, environmental and economic collapse, as well as warfare, before we were confident in proposing a seismic-event scenario.”
It was clear to the researchers that plaster floors appeared warped, walls had tilted or been displaced and that mudbricks from the walls and ceilings had fallen in, burying dozens of large jars in some spots.
“It really looks like the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of it fell in,” Cline said. “It’s unlikely that the destruction was caused by violent human activity because there are no visible signs of fire, no weapons such as arrows that would indicate a battle, nor any unburied bodies related to combat. We could also see some unexpected things in other rooms of the palace, including in and around the wine cellar that we excavated a few years ago.”
In an expedition also sponsored by the National Geographic Society in 2013, the team discovered 40 jars in one storage room of the palace. The jars had held wine, according to an organic residue analysis, and this find was heralded as the oldest and largest wine cellar found in the Near East up till then. Since then, the team has found four more such storage rooms and at least 70 more jars, all buried in the palace.
“The floor deposits imply a rapid collapse rather than a slow accumulation of degraded mudbricks from standing walls or ceilings of an abandoned structure,” Ruth Shahack-Gross, a professor of geoarchaeology at the University of Haifa and a coauthor on the paper, said.
“The rapid collapse, and the quick burial, combined with the geological setting of Tel Kabri, raises the possibility that one or more earthquakes could have destroyed the walls and the roof of the palace without setting it on fire.”
Roey Nickelsberg, a Ph.D. student at the University of Haifa, who excavated the area of the palace impacted by the earthquake, said, “My MA thesis showed that the collapse on top of the floor was rapid, and did not result from abandonment, or fire damage. It worked very well with the evidence for collapse and destruction in the rooms of the palace.”
The researchers are hopeful that their approach can be applied at other archaeological sites, where it may shed light on cases of possible earthquake damage and destruction.
Yasur-Landau pointed to three ways in which this research is likely to have a lasting effect going forward. The first is that it points to specific elements to look at to identify whether there was “quick abandonment” of a site, for example, the jars still filled with wine, that show that people had to leave in a hurry.
Another is the earthquake’s “impact on social resilience... This society was flourishing for 200 years and then it just fragments overnight.” People did not return to the site, he said, presumably out of fear of another catastrophe, even though it was an attractive location in many ways, with a spring running through the Tel.
The third is that, “Ancient hazards can help predict modern risk.” He compared the find to discovering the site of a dormant volcano that could become active someday. “The research could have implications for engineering and construction,” he said.