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From Stone to Bronze

Introduction to Biblical Archaeology 2:
From Stone to Bronze

by Joel Ng (2003)

The Grand Narrative

With a brief understanding of how biblical archaeology developed and its methods, we can move on to a journey through time. Before I get to the bit where I can step on the toes in presenting the story, some explanation is in order. Underdetermination of data (that is, the theory that for any given body of empirical data, multiple theories can be constructed to account for it) is a particular problem.

Further, the underdetermination theory states that theory choice (that is, the grounds for making a decision to adhere to one of the competing theories) is subjective.

This is tied in with the idea of incommensurability—that is, that theories cannot be evaluated as "better" or "worse" because they either have different rules of evidence, or draw on different interpretations of evidence altogether. Lack of consensus in almost every archaeological matter seems to give much credence to these theories. As I quoted Gottwald in the earlier introduction, I reiterate that archaeological interpretation is a subjective field for which little remains conclusive for long.

In some sense, this can be circumvented by avoiding the historiographical implications of the Bible and archaeology, but this defeats the purpose of many who work in the field. They want to know not just how ancient people lived, but how accurately they wrote their historical works. They want to know the religions of these people, but also how closely and when the biblical account of the development of Jewish and Israelite religion follows "reality." Secondly, rules which everyone can agree upon as to what constitutes "evidence" needs to be more thoroughly debated—that is, the rules of methodology and epistemology. This is unfortunately a problem with this field, which is why many have claimed that it is still a "young" science. So what exactly do archaeologists agree on?

Rocks of Ages

The various ages embedded in sediment follow what you'd expect: There's the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and so on. When exactly these came about is disputed, some by fractional amounts, and others by thousands of years. We will follow the story of the rise of Israel from what we can gather of these periods, and compare it with the Biblical account where possible. Here I defer to the Archaeological Encyclopaedia of the Holy Land (eds. A. Negev & S. Gibson, 2001, New York: Continuum). Roughly, the identified ages are (and potentially useful in pub quizzes if nothing else):

Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age)1,400,000 - 17,000 B.C.E. 
Epipalaeolithic/Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age)  17,000 - 8500 B.C.E. 
Neolithic (New Stone Age)   
    Pre-Pottery Neolithic A8500 - 7000 B.C.E. 
    Pre-Pottery Neolithic B7000 - 6000 B.C.E. 
    Pottery Neolithic6000 - 4500 B.C.E. 
Chalcolithic (Copper Stone Age)4500 - 3500 B.C.E. 
Early Bronze (EB) Age  
    EB IA3500 - 3300 B.C.E. 
    EB IB3300 - 3050 B.C.E. 
    EB II3050 - 2700 B.C.E. 
    EB III2700 - 2350 B.C.E. 
Intermediate Bronze Age  
    (EB IV/MB I)2350 - 2000 B.C.E. 
Middle Bronze (MB) Age  
    MB IIA2000 - 1800 B.C.E.  the Patriarchs?
    MB IIB1800 - 1550 B.C.E.  Hyksos in Egypt
Late Bronze (LB) Age  
    LB I1550 - 1400 B.C.E. 
    LB II (Amarna Age)1400 - 1300 B.C.E.  slavery in Egypt?  
    LB IIB1300 - 1200 B.C.E.  the Exodus?
Iron Age  
    Iron IA1200 - 1150 B.C.E.  Conquest & Judges?  
    Iron IB1150 - 1000 B.C.E.  Period of the Judges?  
    Iron IIA1000 - 900 B.C.E.  United Monarchy?
    Iron IIB900 - 700 B.C.E.  Divided Monarchy
    Iron IIC700 - 586 B.C.E.  Judah
Babylonian/Persian Period586 - 332 B.C.E. 
Early Hellenistic332 - 167 B.C.E. 
Late Hellenistic167 - 37 B.C.E. 
Early Roman37 B.C.E. - 135 C.E. 
Late Roman135 - 325 C.E. 

As immediately becomes apparent, the rise of civilisation is a slow and steady one, in which no invocations of deities or aliens should be necessary. The second important feature is that the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, dated to 587 or 586 B.C.E. is a seminal moment in history (and a point where we can confidently correlate some Biblical accounts with archaeological excavations). Archaeology does not like long peaceful periods of thumb twiddling and making hay. Indeed, the easiest way to identify a layer is if there is a ubiquitous level of carbon and ash—in short, the razing of a city or town.

A Prehistorical Journey

Archaeology, however, can do far more. Let us forget the Bible for a moment, and journey back into the dawn of history (the timeline above may help). It is now evident that man has inhabited the Ancient Near East and Nile Regions for hundreds of thousands of years, and shared this land with our relatives Homo erectus and Neanderthal man. Here we shall take a brief glimpse at some of the major changes along the way. Recent discoveries in Israel have pointed to the possibility of the first use of controlled fire by humans being found here, almost 800,000 years ago. Similarly, we know some of our earliest ancestors walked through the Levant as Oldowan tools (around 2 million years old) made their way from Africa into Georgia.

Crude pear-shaped axes have been discovered (and are classified as belonging to the "Acheullian" stone age culture and probably the products of H. erectus) from the early Ice Ages. Mousterian, another stone age culture, is responsible for tools that, from evidence outside of the Near East, were the products of Neanderthals. Intriguingly, another "first" may also have occurred here, as evidence for grain milling and baking has been discovered at Ohalo, southwest of the Sea of Galilee—agriculture must then have predated agricultural civilisations considerably. This sleepy time came to a close with the end of the last great ice age some 20,000 years ago. After this, the tools grew in variety—blade making and polishing, cultural expression, and composite tools make their appearance.

Middle Stone Age

In the Epipalaeolithic, the Sebilian culture in Egypt is the witness to this transition—they seem to have got the basics of animal domestication, and have become semisedentary, that is, they are no longer permanent nomads like other hunter gatherers (because they are fortunate enough to live in the rich valley of the Nile). In Palestine, the Natufian culture has emerged, with larger social organisation (living in groups of up to 150).

There are permanent bases, from which hunters would move out to seasonal hunting grounds. They are technologically superior to their forebears in the Old Stone Age—having made good use of flint, bone, and stone to create specialised tools. At about 9000 B.C.E. our time machine blacks out, and we are left with an infuriating darkness—archaeologists do not know when the crucial transition from hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural societies takes place.

New Stone Age and Pottery

But when we emerge, we have reached the Neolithic (New Stone Age). Here we see a mix of agricultural techniques. Some argue that it was introduced from elsewhere, and the composite of advanced methods of farming and basic hunter gatherer lifestyles show an uneasy reception to these new techniques. Humans have not yet discovered pottery, but Jericho is already a city, built with enormous walls 3 metres wide and 4 metres tall. Defense seems to be the priority. A look at ancient words can give us a clue as to the process of sedentarisation (the process of making permanent settlements): ├ólu in Akkadian has its linguistic roots in the plural for "tent" while other terms for settlement are linguistically equivalent to our modern "fort." Some burial customs point to the emergence of religious belief—"skull plastering" is done over the dead to recreate lifelike human features. Perhaps we have some sort of belief in the afterlife.

Then, sometime late in the seventh millennium B.C.E., pottery is discovered. Amihai Mazar argues that it developed first through the use of clay for flooring or depressions used as basins, and perhaps a chance fire hardened it and so pottery is "discovered" rather than "invented." Laughlin (wrongly) states that Mazar attributes it to plastered fireplaces. Older theories may imagine an early human sitting down at a fire and tossing clay figurines into the fire to see what happens, and thus we could call pottery an "invention."

Whatever the case, once people discover that portable containers can be created out of this hard substance, it revolutionises our way of life. Not only that, but people decorate their new inventions with innovative cultural symbols, though we can still see interrelationships between the types of pottery, and thus early people have inadvertently taken a major step forward in helping us to understand them.

Chalcolithic Innovation

Things accelerate, and by the fifth millennium, the technology to produce copper emerges, although stone tools are not completely replaced (hence "Chalco"—copper, "lithic"—stone). The main culture of this time is called "Ghassulian" culture. It produces a flurry of copper crafts—the best example being a "Cave of Treasure" at Nahal Mishmar (just west of the Dead Sea) was discovered in 1961 where a cache of over 400 copper objects were discovered, preserved by the dry Judean desert.

Here, we have all variety of tools, advanced metalwork is evident using lost wax casting and combinations of other metals from far afield (probably Armenia). We can conclude that specialists have arrived on the scene—no longer are people just hunter-gatherers or farmers, but a new class of artisans has emerged, capable of skillfully creating figures of ivory, bone, metal, flint, and stone.

At Teleilat Ghassul (from which the name "Ghassulian" comes), settlement patterns show signs of planning with houses built along straight narrow streets. North of Nahal Mishmar is a Chalcolithic temple at En Gedi (from where it is speculated the treasure comes), which has its own inner chamber (like a "Holy of Holies" in the Biblical temple), courtyard, and possibly a living quarter. Again, another sort of specialised class—priests—have emerged, as has a religious institution alongside them.

The Bronze Age

Early Bronze I and the Coming of Cities

We could explore this region much more, but we have to move on. With earlier experimenting of mixing metals, the key breakthrough of melting tin and copper together lead to harder and more useful metals. There is a slight break in continuity between the Early Bronze I (EB I) and the previous Chalcolithic in Palestine, which has led some to conclude that EB I peoples were foreign invaders. For example, oval houses are found in several locations in the north, where the previous period favoured rectangular layouts.

However, growing consensus is that there is an evolutionary connection in pottery style between the ages, and Egyptian contact and development of the agropastoral community is enough to account for the changes in between. Perhaps imported features from Syria, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia had a great influence as well. Whether Egyptian pottery discovered in Palestine represents Egyptian trade, colonisation, or conquest is difficult to tell. However, this period ended by EB II.

Settlements in the south seem to decrease dramatically, and Israel Finkelstein suggests that there were economic advantages of living in highlands, while others theorise a population explosion. At Hartuv, standing stones known as massebot have been discovered, which figure in Canaanite and Israelite religion. Lack of iconographic evidence (that is, religious or cultural figurines) makes it difficult to confidently ascertain their use, and in fact, temples of this period are not identified with too much certainty either.

Early Bronze II-III and Disaster

The first cities arise in the Early Bronze, most of it in EB II-III. Egypt's first dynasty, Sumer's early dynastic period, and Akkadian civilisation are all in the ascent at this point. Of course, these civilisations did not just pop out of thin air, but material conditions (agriculture, trade, etc.) made the construction and habitation of cities possible. For Egypt, a colossus is rising, and its organisational structure changes to accommodate the transition into a nation. Couriers, residents, transporters, retainers, hosts, dependents, headmen, producers and purveyors of food, and service providers are all necessary, and Egypt rises to the challenge with a fundamentally new means of organisation.

Egypt's access to Palestine is largely through the port of Byblos, where Lebanese wood is much sought after. Sumer meanwhile is influential in Syria and in particular by EB III, Ebla (Tel Mardikh) is the centre of literacy and writing. Ebla has its own unique language and writing system, and is the oldest West Semitic language known. It is a precursor to the Ugaritic language, which in turn is a precursor to ancient Hebrew. Akkad plays an influence in this region which will cause the end of the EB III.

Many prominent cities of the Bible emerge during this time, either being rebuilt (Tel Dan (Laish), Megiddo, Ai, Beth Shan, Jericho) or founded (Bethel, Beth-Shemesh, Tell Beit Mirsim, Hazor). Large fortifications are built at major cities—if there is any doubt about Jericho in the Neolithic, there is no such doubt about the purpose of fortifications at Megiddo (25 feet thick), Arad (3800 feet long), and Jericho (repaired 17 times, according to Kathleen Kenyon). Yet by the end of EB III, "the fears that led to such massive fortifications were realized." (Laughlin, p. 50) These fortifications and cities were either abandoned or destroyed by 2300 B.C.E., throughout Palestine and beyond (Ebla fell in 2250 B.C.E. to Naram Sin of Akkad).

Intermediate Bronze Age

With the destruction of these large cities, we lapse back to a quieter time in Palestine—the transition from EB IV to the Middle Bronze. Settlements are sparse, and much of what we can know about this time comes from cemeteries. The most numerous sites from EB IV are at Negev and Sinai are very small and have been called "open air museums" because of the excellent preservation.

Settlement patterns are slightly similar to EB II sites, but also resemble Neolithic sites. The sites uncovered seem to be out of touch of trade routes. Only in some regions around the Transjordan (east of the Dead Sea and Jordan River) do we see much connection with EB III pottery and culture, particularly at Khirbet Iskander where large fortifications and monumental architecture remains.

The whole period seems to be something of a mystery. It has been proposed that Syrian tribes known as the Amurru (Sumerian MAR.TU) or Amorites were the invaders (or perhaps just filled the empty space) and in fact initiated the move to the Middle Bronze. Ilan argues that connections could be found with the north in terms of sun-dried mud bricks (useful in Syria, prone to erosion in Palestine), new burial practices, multiple populations, and pottery similarities.

Another theory argued that these people were Indo-Europeans, based on the similarity in copper torques (necklaces) found in graves in Ras Shamra and Europe. Still another theory reached the same conclusion based on studies of tumuli (burial mounds) and dolmens (also tombs where a stone is laid horizontally over upright stones, and made famous in the Asterix comics), which were peculiar to Europe at this time.

William Dever's views, which are also the dominant view, is that these EB IV/MB I sites (particularly the Negev and Sinai sites) are merely continuations of indigenous culture and not a product of any foreign invasions or migrations. The urbanisation in EB III were extreme, and perhaps these rural settlements preserved their way of life from much earlier times better than most. We can at least confidently state that these people were both sedentary and nomadic. Certainly, a different mix of factors was at work here, and much work remains to be done.

The Middle Bronze Age

However, recovery from the desolation and abandonment at the end of EB III soon comes as we enter the MB II. Again, the dates for the start of MB II are hotly contested, though not particularly exciting, so I should state that the 2000 B.C.E. date (per the timeline above) is considered a "high" chronology, and perhaps a bit conservative. It is here that Albright tries to place the time of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and it is the first period where a comparison with the Biblical account might be possible (it would be rather silly to try to fit the Tower of Babel into EB IV/MB I or even a local Noachian deluge (Noah's flood) into EB II/III where the Bible places them).

Again, as in EB III, large structures and fortifications are being built throughout Palestine and illustrate the rise of Canaanite city-states. Some texts written on Egyptian artifacts dated to the twentieth century B.C.E. attest (by name) to the cities of Beth Shan, Jerusalem, Laish (Tel Dan), Shechem, Hazor, and Beth-Shemesh which we have already noticed in EB II. Palaces, temples, defensive gates, and residential buildings are all identifiable in this period, some of them, such as at Megiddo, would continue to be used into the Late Bronze Age. Some 400 sites have been identified in this period, and is clearly a thriving region in contrast to the Intermediate Age before. At Mari (Tell Hariri), the discovery of over 25,000 tablets describing trade records and legal and diplomatic letters shed dramatic light on this region, and we shall hear more about it later.

The Hyksos in Egypt

An important change also takes place in Egypt. The Fifteenth Dynasty is established by a West Semitic people known as the Hyksos, who reign from the 17th to 16th centuries B.C.E.. The Egyptian writer Manetho, in the third century B.C.E. mentions them invading from the north, and he is quoted (and thereby preserved) by the first century CE Jewish historian Josephus (in Contra Apion 1.74, Josephus states that they are the ancestors of the Jews).

They controlled Egypt, and perhaps reached as far as Syria and Baghdad, and introduced such revolutionary weapons as the war chariot and composite bow. Their dominance also helps explain the organisation of Canaanite city-states, where the connections are clear: Palestinian and Phoenician pottery are strikingly similar to those of the Hyksos'. It is possible that because Egypt had a large foreign population, they took over peacefully with the weakening of the royal authority in Egypt. Surely a candidate for the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt?

Well not really. The Hyksos left behind no writings of their own (hence their name is taken from Manetho's description of them). Donald Redford notes that Kamose of Thebes, the Egyptian ruler who rebelled and eventually defeated them considered them destroyers, as did Hatsheput (who referred to them as nomads), about 50 years later. We have evidence of large scale destruction of Egyptian monuments that speak of a violent takeover and victorious reprisals. Their religion also differed from the Biblical Hebrews. They featured Anat, the bloodthirsty consort of Canaanite Ba'al, and a male mountain deity (hr) probably identifiable with Ba'al.

Whatever the case, Kamose laid siege to their capital Avaris, and defeated them (but then dies suddenly). The Hyksos fled to Sharuhen (Tell el-Ajjul), a fort south of the Gaza strip (not quite an Exodus) but Kamose's brother Ah-mose finished the defeat and established the Eighteenth Dynasty in Egypt. A long period of Egyptian domination of Palestine would follow soon after.

The Patriarchs in the Middle Bronze?

The Biblical chronology contains two contradictory accounts. If we are to take the Exodus as correlating to a destruction layer found around Jericho, 'Ai and other cities in the 13th century, then the 17th century fits the Hyksos period and Joseph's rule quite nicely (see Exodus 12:40, where the Israelites emerge from Egypt 400 years after arriving). 1 Kings 6:1, however, states that Solomon built his temple 480 years after the Exodus, which means that we require a 15th century date for the Exodus (and therefore, Albright's older age for the period of patriarchs in the turn of the second millennium). Elsewhere, the combined ages of the Judges conflict with the chronology given in 1 Kings. This problem is generally ignored, and dates are assigned as convenient to the debate.

Here we meet our first argument between maximalists and minimalists. Maximalists would generally assign the date for the patriarchal narratives in Genesis to the time of Solomon (10th century B.C.E.), while minimalists would probably push it further back, possibly as late as the Persian period (and of course, arguments have been made for just about every date in between as well). Much of the argument is linguistic, which we will have to leave till we study Genesis itself later in the series. The connection with archaeology is unclear, but I have included it out of possible interest of the reader. Note that nobody here is crediting the authorship to Moses.

Amihai Mazar (as a sample maximalist) argues that the similarities between MB II culture and Genesis are too close to be ignored, and that the traditions in Genesis are extremely old, having passed through oral transmission. He further draws attention to many dissimilarities between MB II and the time of Solomon, and that these could not be simply made up.

John Van Seters (sample minimalist) dates these stories to the exilic and post-exilic periods (6th-5th centuries B.C.E.). He compares them to historiographical work (or antiquities/genealogies) of Greece and Rome that write of the earliest humans and its relation to the rise of nationhood as we see in Genesis. The influence of Mesopotamian, Phoenician and Canaanite myths on Genesis raise large doubts about the age of the stories.

It is clear that establishing a plausible setting in the MB II does not necessitate its placement there. Many scholars have shown that while a story may be consistent with a certain age, it may also be consistent with a whole range of other dates. On the other hand, a late date need not mean that the stories are entirely fictional. The Bible itself lists numerous lost books from which stories have been drawn. Mazar expects too much from the correlations he has drawn, while Van Seters has no way of establishing the originals beneath the layers are late—he has no clear way of denying a pre-tenth century date for the original stories. This debate continues...

The End of the Middle Bronze

After the defeat of the Hyksos at Sharuhen, reprisals continued into Palestine, and J.M. Weinstein and many others conclude that a destruction layer found around several MB sites is limited to those under Hyksos rule, and probably carried out by Egyptians. Donald Redford, on the other hand, concludes that the experience at Avaris and Sharuhen showed that the Egyptians were largely incompetent at laying a seige (Avaris held out for several decades, and Sharuhen for 3 years). Although Redford notes the absence of Egyptian artifacts or governors in ancient lists, this may be explained by the theory that Egypt was not going in search of imperial conquests, but merely carrying out reprisals.

Redford theorises that a new Hurrian nation-state called "Mitanni" may be responsible for this destruction. It rises rapidly in the 16th century, while Babylon, lacking leadership after the demise of Hammurabi is waning, and grows to lead Hurrian culture and dominate Assyria. In fact, Kadesh on the Orontes dominates Palestine, and its rulers bear Mitanni names.

Whatever the case, the fall of the Hyksos, and a consistent destruction layer around 1500 B.C.E. mark the end of the Middle Bronze. Some cities such as Shechem show several destruction layers, and this is a tumultuous time for the inhabitants. With so many cities sacked during this period some would not return for several centuries (Jericho) or never again (Ai). However, northern cities such as Megiddo and Hazor would survive for a while later. Unlike the destruction at the end of EB III, there would be a continuity in Canaanite culture.

We will cover the Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age, and the rise of Israel in the next episode. Stay tuned.


[1] I particularly like Larry Laudan's description of Imre Lakatos's position that, "any theory can be made to look good, provided enough bright people commit their talents to it." What Lakatos really writes is, "A brilliant school of scholars (backed by a rich society to finance a few well-planned tests) might succeed in pushing any fantastic programme [however 'absurd] ahead, or, alternatively, if so inclined, in overthrowing any arbitrarily chosen pillar of 'established knowledge.'" in Lakatos & Musgrave Criticism of the Growth of Knowledge, pp.187-8; taken from Laudan, 1996, Beyond Positivism and Relativism Westview Press, p. 19 and 249 n.31. One need only look at the usual fallguys like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany to see that such is possible. The problems of underdetermination, however, are a problem for epistemology and the philosophy of science (see for example, Hugo's introductory series), so I must leave the debate with only the note that archaeologists can (and do) disagree about any and every thing.

[2] Others, however, argue that the enormous stone walls at Jericho were built to stop flooding or sedimentation. It is striking that Jericho would need such strong defense against enemies with primitive weapons amounting to little more than spears and clubs (and certainly no siege weapons of any sort had yet been developed).

[3] Strictly, bronze is made of copper and tin, but copper, in various combinations with tin, lead, or zinc may all be refered to as "bronzes" or "brasses" depending on the alloy content.

[4] Egyptian chronology (dates) follows according to its dynasty of kings. There is little agreement on when exactly the first dynasty (Narmer) emerged, but it is usually between 3200 and 2900 B.C.E. (with the most accepted date around 3100 B.C.E.). If you assign an earlier date, you would be assigning a "high" chronology, while if you assign a later date, you would call it a "low" chronology. The problems of this sort of dating are difficult. For example, the end of EB II follows the end of the Second Dynasty, so depending on your chronology, EB II can fluctuate accordingly, but the general consensus would be around 2700 B.C.E..

Carbon dating is used to calibrate this analysis, but there are several problems: Firstly, carbon dating has a small margin of error, which is sometimes too big for the archaeologists to be satisfied with (particularly when it comes to the emergence of the Israelite kingdom). Secondly, whether an object is EB I or II or III is sometimes a matter of interpretation—delineating the strata is difficult where there are few clear lines. Thus carbon dating may be of no use if it gives a date that allows for either period (and where the competing theories require it to be in one or the other period, the arguments can get quite acrimonious).

[5] A note for the confused here: EB IV = MB I, so the Middle Bronze Age starts here. Where MB I is used in the Intermediate Bronze, then the Middle Bronze actually starts at MB II. So don't be shocked if you read that Bietak is arguing for a MB I age starting around 1900 B.C.E.. What he is referring to is what I call here the MB II. The terminology I'm using follows Albright's older demarcation.

[6] More notes for the confused: Egyptian dynasties are a mishmash of overlapping kings and rulers. So while the 16th dynasty ruled a part of Egypt (Thebes) not controlled by the Hyksos, and were replaced by the 17th dynasty, also in Thebes. Seqenenre Ta'o, the penultimate ruler of the Seventeenth dynasty, died in combat against the Hyksos, and his recovered mummy showed damage from spears and arrows and finally an axe crushing his skull. Kamose was the last king of the 17th dynasty, and therefore Ah-mose (sometimes Ahmosis) "logically" is the one to set up the 18th dynasty. I'm no Egyptologist, so perhaps someone else can explain it better than I can.

[7] It doesn't take much effort to realise that the long ages of the patriarchs is also problematic, considering that all burial sites show a life expectancy of roughly 50 years during the EB and MB. More problems with chronology will become clear as we deal with the Late Bronze Age.

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