Pre-Season Interview with Israel Finkelstein

Why Kiriath-Jearim? 

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Well, to put it jokingly – because it’s there… From my personal standpoint, after so many years at Megiddo, which is all about Israel, the Northern Kingdom, I have a desire to return to the central hill country and now to Judah. With the problems we face today regarding excavations in Jerusalem, Kiriath-Jearim is the best, stress-free alternative there is.

Furthermore, although there have been surveys and a small salvage excavation there, we have to remember that Kiriath-Jearim is the only large tell site in the central hill country that has never been fully investigated – “a new frontier”.

When we visit the site today, and look at the aerial photos, there is so much more to the site than you can imagine. Even the mere size of it, which I approximate to be about 5 hectares – there are hardly any other 5 hectare tell-sites in the central hill country. Other than Jerusalem, where we aren’t really sure about the size of the ancient mound, Shechem is about 3-4 hectares in size, which means that Kiriath-Jearim is in the “big tell” league.

We really want to understand what happened at this site throughout the Iron Age, which ultimately brought it to be mentioned in important biblical texts such as the Ark Narrative. If we leave naivety aside, Kiriath-Jearim must have been mentioned in the ark narrative in 1 and 2 Samuel for a reason. The authors of the text must have had a specific message in mind when they referred to Kiriath-Jearim. What does this biblical narrative actually tell us? In order to answer we must first study the settlement history of the site in the Iron Age.

From the biblical text, it seems obvious that there was a temple at Kiriath-Jearim. Diving into the logic of the story, we can’t imagine a situation in which the ark was placed in any location other than a temple.  This should also be evaluated against what may be interpreted as polemic against Kiriath-Jearim, called Kiraith-Baal in the Book of Joshua. The Jerusalem scribes seem to accuse the people of Kiriath-Jearim for worshiping Baal, which again circles back to the conclusion that a temple must have existed there during the Iron Age.  In the eyes of the Jerusalem scribes, the mere existence of any temple at Kiriath-Jearim in late-monarchic times was equivalent to the worship of Baal.

There aren’t a lot of other sites in Israel that have such an interesting biblical narrative related to worship. The question is, whether the dig will shed new light on this issue.

What would you consider a good first season?

I understand the difficulties of excavating such a site, for instance, the fact that we can’t really explore the top of the tell. So, I’ve devised a scale: on the one hand “minimum success” would be obtaining a clear understanding regarding the settlement history of the site, even if it’s just based on the ceramic evidence. “Good success” – I would consider a season in which not only do we better understand the settlement history of the site, but also gather data regarding its layout in the Iron Age. For instance, verifying the hypothesis that there was a large podium at the top of the tell, which held a large structure of some sort, will be seen as great success. If we are very lucky, maybe we will find evidence for some cultic activity in the dumps and fills on the slopes of the tell.

How is the excavation at Kiriath-Jearim different than the one at Megiddo?

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They are two very different excavations. Megiddo is a well-stratified site, with layers that pretty much sit one on top of each other; of course, it takes great expertise to separate them from one another, but it is all there in one enclosed location, which encompasses all aspects of life. Megiddo is rich in artifacts and there are clear destruction layers that help establish the stratigraphic profile of the site. Kiriath-Jearim is an entirely different story. I’ve already conducted an excavation in the central hill country, so I think I am aware of some of the difficulties we are going to face. If we are used to seeing things laying one on top of each other, at Kiriath-jearim different terraces on the slopes can give us distinctive results from different periods. In other words, we may find remains preserved in “pockets” across the site. This is very typical of hill sites, because the top of the mound is usually eroded, which is evident in the case of Kiriath-jearim, where one sees bedrock inside the church at the summit. Therefore, archaeologically speaking, the top of the tell is not the best location to dig, something I learned and remember from digging at Shiloh. However, the slopes of the tell, where the soil gets “trapped” behind terraces, is where I expect to find better-preserved remains.

But honestly, it has been more than 30 years since Shiloh, so I believe it will take me a few days to do the mental switch.

What was your first excavation? And how is archaeology different today than it was back then?

My first excavation was the field school which I did in Beer Sheba with Yohanan Aharoni in 1971 (don’t do the math, that’ll reveal how young I am). I was a student back then, and though I learned a lot, I don’t think I understood things beyond the spot where I was assigned to work. I then took part in many projects in the Negev and Sinai. But my first “real” excavation, at a stratified tell site from the Bronze an Iron Ages was at Aphek (1973-1978) under Moshe Kochavi and Pirhiya Beck, where I was a staff member and therefore close to the decision making. In 1976, Kochavi gave me the reins for the excavation at Izbet Zartah and I ran it practically by myself. In 1977, I directed a salvage excavation for the Antiquity Authority at the ancient tell of Benei Berak, a site which was settled continuously from the Middle Bronze Age until medieval times. That was a wonderful learning experience. Later came Tel Ira in the Negev, and, of course, Shiloh and other sites in the highlands.

And if you asked me what changed over this time? Well, everything changed. The field techniques and methodologies are only seemingly the same, but they are actually completely different. We still work with a trowel, pickaxes and buckets. But the kind of information we can retrieve from a site, the way we approach stratigraphy and chronology, the method of documentation — everything, changed dramatically. Even in recent years I’ve seen changes in archaeology. When I look at the first seasons at Megiddo and compare them to what we do today, we’ve come a long way. Not to mention the integration of the exact and life sciences, which has taken us to new directions. There are also great changes in the way we reconstruct history, the way we approach textual sources, and relate them to archaeology. There have been true revolutions in archaeology over the last thirty years and as much as possible we wish to implement the new methods and techniques at Kiriath-jearim.

 

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