Archaeological site could cast light on life of Biblical villain Sisera

The Bronze Age site of el Ahwat may have been the fortress of the Canaanite commander Sisera, whose death at the hands of Jael is recorded in the Book of Judges.

'Yael and Sisera' painting on canvas by Jacopo Amigoni (photo credit: CA' REZZONICO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
'Yael and Sisera' painting on canvas by Jacopo Amigoni
An unusual archaeological site in northern Israel may shed some light on the lives of Biblical figures, if digging is allowed to resume there next year.
While a number of sites in Israel are known for their association to Biblical heroes, el Ahwat, discovered by the late Prof. Adam Zertal of the University of Haifa, is unusual for being linked to a villain.
Thanks to its unusual features, more commonly associated with the Shardana tribe of Sardinia, Zertal believed it to be the biblical site known as Harosheth Hagoyim, or Smithy of the Nations, a fortress described in the Book of Judges as the fortress or cavalry base of Sisera.
Commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, Sisera was defeated by the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, under the command of Barak and Deborah, before being killed by Jael, who drove a tent peg through his temple.
The Governor's House is one of the main attractions of the site. Artifacts discovered there previously include a chariot lynch-pin, which suggests the site may have been used as a military base.
"What we found in the foundation is a rare corpus of glyptic finds," Dr. Shai Bar, an archaeologist at Haifa University, told i24 News. "We found here more than ten scarabs and seals that date to the 13th and 12th century BCE, including some very unique finds. We have here an ibex ivory head, very rare, that is usually found only in places that are in direct contact with the Pharaonic sites in Egypt."
The site gained international interest when similarities were noted between its layout and late Bronze Age structures known to have been created by the Shardana tribe on Sardinia, one of the groups of Sea Peoples. The first definite mention of the tribe is found in the records of Ramses II, who defeated them in his second year when they attempted to raid the Egyptian coast lands. Shardana captives were used by the pharaoh in his bodyguard.
"All city wall lines in Levantine architecture are usually straight," Bar said. "Here we have something that is bending – that is like a circular line of a city wall."
Inside the walls, Bar noted, the site features "these very strange corridor phenomenons," also not commonly found in the Levant. Rather, they are reminiscent of sites in Sardinia and Corsica.
"When you look at plans of sites of the Shardana in Sardinia, in the second millennium BCE, throughout this entire period, you can see wavy walls, you can see corridors... you can see high heaps of stones, which were developed into the classical nuraghic culture of Sardinia. The only good architectural parallels are found in Sardinia and the Shardana culture."
The site is also noted as the location of one of the earliest, if not the earliest iron smelting location in the region. The nearby mountain range is known to contain meteorite rock, which provided inhabitants with a source of iron.
"By smelting it, hitting it, and then working with an anvil and a hammer, they could extract the iron and make weapons, daily tools etc.," Bar said.
Despite its significance, locals are now concerned that the site, which is not a national park, could be under threat by plans to develop the local village of Ar'ara.
Tour guide Udi Vulchman said: "The fact that we live next to a very ancient site is very significant for us, even though we are not sure whether the people who lived here were Israelites. The fact that there is a theory that they were mentioned in the Bible and in Egyptian inscriptions in the area is very important, to know that this area was very vivid and had the culture."
Sharon Halpern, head of the Katzir local union concurred. "We think that Ar'ara will be established and developed, but we don't want any interference to this place, which is a very important place to the Arab community."
If the bulldozers do move in, Bar hopes he can revisit the site with a new dig beforehand, hopefully in 2022.
"As we can still see here, 15 years after the excavation, we still have iron age pottery; iron age finds scattered on the floor. So although the site [and] the structure was partly excavated, there is still a lot to do here."