A Century of Excavations in the Judean Shephelah

The Four Mound Project

Tell Zakariya (Azekah), along with Tell eṣ-Ṣafi (Hebrew: Tel Zafit – Philistine Gath), Tell el-Judeideh (Tel Goded) and Tell Ṣandahana (Mareshah), all situated within a 10 km (6 miles) radius in the Judean Shephelah, are four of the earliest excavation projects ever conducted in the Holy Land. In 1898 the British archaeologist, F.J. Bliss, assisted by R.A.S. Macalister, requested and received permission from the Ottoman regime to explore these four neighbouring sites in the Judean lowlands. The two men made history in their excavations, and their methodology set standards that are followed by archaeologists to this very day.

Bliss and Macalister investigated Azekah for four seasons, during 1898 and 1899. They published their activities and findings in four preliminary reports and in the final publication of the excavations of all the four sites (1902).

Bliss and Macalister had their own method of excavation. For example, they entirely unearthed Mareshah according to the architecture of the Hellenistic town; they excavated Tel Goded in pits; and at Azekah they dug in two methods: they excavated the upper surface in the southeastern part of the mound (1/8 of the mound) as a whole, while they excavated the lower surface in trenches. Based on the published plans and sections of the excavation, Bliss and Macalister’s investigations can be located on modern plans. However, according to the Ottoman law of that period, the excavation in each trench was refilled, using the dumps of the nearby newly opened trench. Thus, the plans of Bliss and Macalister’s excavations in the lower surface should be used as a warning, saying – “We have been here before you.” Even so, much of the sections in this part of the mound remain unexcavated, waiting to be explored.

As for the upper surface, Bliss and Macalister unearthed a citadel that encompasses the entire southeastern sector of the mound. This heavily fortified building has five strong walls, abutted with towers, and the excavation was carried out in accordance with their outline. The excavators believed this Citadel was built by King Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 11), destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, later rebuilt, and destroyed again by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

Reassessment of the excavations by Y. Dagan has shown that the Citadel was constructed hundreds of years later, in the late-Hellenistic period (2nd century BCE), and that its destruction should be associated with the emerging Hasmonean state in the days of John Hyrcanus I.

And yet, according to Bliss and Macalister’s plans and sections of, there is another level beneath the Citadel waiting to be explored; unlike the exploration on the lower surface, the one on the upper surface did not reach bedrock, and thus it did not unearth all the finds in this strategic location.

The Importance of Bliss and Macalister’s Exploration

As mentioned above, Bliss and Macalister were part of the founding generation of archaeological investigations in the Holy Land. Their distinctive excavation methods provide basic keys and fundamental conclusions regarding the manner in which archaeology should be conducted. Furthermore, after each season of excavation, sometimes-just weeks after the season ended, Blisss published a preliminary report, and more important – the final publication was available for every scholar just three years after the last season. Although scholars have not always agreed with the excavators’ conclusions, they were “on the table of discussion” at a very early stage.

The third important contribution of the “Excavation of the four sites project” was its regional character. The excavation of four neighbouring sites allowed the archaeologists (and the scholars who read their publication) a better understanding of the region’s geography, archaeology, and history. Although the excavation methods and techniques of the late 19th century have already been abandoned, the idea of a regional investigation still has its value, but from a modern point of view, and by using scientific methods of exploration.


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