Digging up treasures

What is thought to be the ancient city of Libnah is being awakened from a 3,000-year sleep as excavations reveal findings from the First Temple and Canaanite periods.

The nose piece from a Canaanite facemask found at the site (photo credit: Courtesy)
The nose piece from a Canaanite facemask found at the site
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The residents of the Shfela, which extends from Latrun in the North to Kiryat Gat in the South, are well aware of the historical significance of the area in which they live. The vast excavations at Beit Guvrin that open a window to the Bar Kochba revolt in Second Temple times and the Eila Valley where David slew Goliath, a stone’s throw from Beit Shemesh, are just two of the historical treasures.
It is here, perhaps unbeknown to locals that an archeologist licensed from Bar-Ilan University is almost certain that he has uncovered the biblical stronghold of Libnah.
It was originally a Canaanite city conquered by Joshua upon entering the Land of Israel and bequeathed to the Levites. Perhaps Libnah’s main claim to fame is that of its first lady, Hamutal, mentioned in the Book of Kings as the queen to King Josiah, who reigned in Judah from 640 to 609 BCE. Born to Jeremiah of Libnah, Hamutal was the mother of kings Hezekiah and Jehoahaz.
Tel Burna, so named from the Arabic describing its hat-like appearance, has been raising eyebrows since the 1920s when illustrious American archeologist William Foxwell Albright noted the visible remains of fortifications protruding from the side of the hill and his belief that the site was that of Libnah. With Lachish, the largest Judean city outside Jerusalem to the south, and Gath, the Philistine capital to the north, the site would have made Libnah a crucial strategic outpost. But until now, that had remained pure speculation.
In 2009, a team of archeologists led by Itzik Shai and Joe Uziel, both lecturers at Bar-Ilan University, got to work tracing the thick meter-deep defensive walls on the hilltop and later calculating the center of the 70x70m. fortified area, which is where digging began. A complete survey, including the foot of the hill, measured three hectares, which Shai estimates would have housed a population of around 3,000.
Thus far, the dig has centered on three main areas: two at the top of the hill, which date back to 1000 to 550 BCE, around the First Temple period, and a site at the foot of the hill with remains of an earlier Canaanite city dating back to 1300 BCE.
Shai and Uziel had originally worked together for 12 years excavating the site of Tel Tzafit, 15 kilometers north of Kiryat Gat and now accepted to be the remains of the Philistine capital city of Gath. After years of seeing how the Philistines lived, the pair crossed into ancient Judea to look for differences or similarities in the culture and daily life of the two civilizations. A year ago, Uziel was lured away by an opportunity to join the Israel Antiquities Authority at a dig at the City of David. Meanwhile, Shai, now in a new teaching post at Ariel University, has taken on sole leadership of the project.
MEETING IN the shopping mall of Shai’s hometown of Modi’in, we scan through the images of the impressive collection of ancient artifacts stored on his laptop. First he calls up an image of a 2x1-centimeter Egyptian pendent emblazoned with a goose on one side and a lion on the other found at Tel Burna, dating back to around 1300 BCE.
“It’s a piece of jewelry, similar to those that have been found across the country, that harks back to the days when Egyptian culture and practice was dominant in this area,” says Shai.
The item is from one corner of the Canaanite dig that has yielded strong evidence of cultish religious practice.
The dig also includes the remains of a ceremonial cup and saucer, the nose piece from a ceramic face mask and an assortment of figurines and jewelry associated with common pagan practice. One piece of particular interest is a plaque with a pair of pregnant women carrying twins, the image of the woman believed to be a pagan goddess of fertility.
Shai, wearing a brown sun-bleached leather safari hat over a crocheted kippa, says, “I find it all interesting. It all helps to understand the country and who walked here before us. That said, there is something special when you know you are digging at a biblical site.”
Last year saw a stunning breakthrough at the top of the hill with the discovery of fragments from a 70-cm.- high storage jar bearing a stamp dating to the time of King Hezekiah with the address “To Ezer son of Haggai.”
Although there is conjecture, Shai believes the man to be a senior clerk of the monarchy, with the container used to store produce paid as taxes to the king. The find was of great significance, as it gives a clear indication that the site was Judean.
“After catching my breath and celebrating with the team,” Shai recalls, “I called my wife to tell her all about it.”
The presence of text is as good as it gets, but there have been some other useful indicators as well, such as 30 weights from a typical Judean loom also found at the top of the hill.
SHAI IS responsible for finding funding for the project, which runs about $50,000 every year. Among the expenses and complementing more traditional digging methods is the use of a ground penetration radar that helps locate underground walls and inform which direction the dig should progress, as well as a 25-cm.-wide drill that reaches several meters into the ground, with the resulting hole offering a snapshot of the various layers that make up the site.
The project receives donations from private donors and from those who come to the digs, but it’s not always enough to cover the costs.
“If we fall short, the project slows down,” says Shai.
Actual digging takes place only one month a year, with the other 11 spent analyzing what has been unearthed.
The choice month is May, when archeology students in Israel have finished their studies for the term and are looking to take part in digs for their own interest, as well as the professional hands-on value.
Financial and manpower challenges have led Shai to open up the project to volunteers from all over the world to roll up their sleeves and join for a day, week or even just a few hours, giving the dig a somewhat unique feel.
Over the four years since the project began, the site has been dug by volunteers of all ages and nationalities, such as the US, Canada, South Korea, China, Sri Lanka, Norway, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands.
“After a little training and some clear red lines, we get going. There are always questions about running a dig with inexperienced volunteers; but here, benefits outweigh the risks,” he says. “The social aspect is also very important and has provided an opportunity for visitors to Israel to step off the tourist trail and meet with Israelis in a meaningful way rooted in the history of the land.”
It’s not only the digging that has an international presence. Shai has also put together an international network of experts. The bones he digs up are analyzed at Cambridge University in the UK, botanical finds are shipped to Tübingen in Germany, and any text or inscriptions are read by a specialist at Maryland University in the US.
In Israel, the remains of any of the containers found are sent to Dvori Namder for residue analysis at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shai has a long list of items awaiting testing, including a rare Cypriot vessel with three conjoined spice pots. Identifying what is inside the pots could shed light on Canaanite practices and where they bought their spices.
ARCHEOLOGY IS a career for the patient. Shai estimates at least another 15 years of digging at the site to make further discoveries and expose all the fortifications.
Following the completion of excavations, he hopes to conserve the site for people to visit, with a plan to collaborate with modern media technology experts at Ariel University to fit out the site with explanatory media that can be activated by mobile phone.
In the last episode of the story of ancient Libnah, the city was destroyed by the Assyrian King Sennacherib on his way to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. The Book of Kings details how the conquering army laid assault to the great city of Lachish before turning westward towards the fortress outpost. Later, the king led a failed siege of Jerusalem, leaving it to Nebuchadnezzar to destroy the Temple in 586 BCE.
Even though Shai is 99 percent sure about the site, he still has some questions, such as the lack of evidence of destruction, although it’s possible that such will yet be found or that the residents surrendered without a major battle.
Either way, today Libnah, if it really is, has been awakened from a 3,000-year sleep to a new set of neighbors, with fast-growing modern cities in every direction.
Shai and his team also discovered modern Israeli trenches and bullets from the War of Independence, as soldiers of the newly born Jewish state returned to the site, once again making use of its strategic advantage to reclaim the land long after Sennacherib and his men have come and gone.