BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

A Canaanite Corbelled Vault

Early example of vaulted architecture found at Shimron

Corbelled vault

Detail of the corbelled vault at Tel Shimron. Courtesy Eyecon, Tel Shimron Excavation.

During excavations at the site of Tel Shimron in northern Israel, archaeologists were shocked to discover the earliest example of a corbelled vault ever discovered in the Levant. The vaulted chamber dates to around 1800 BCE, a time when this style of mudbrick construction was well known in Mesopotamia but not yet common in the lands of Canaan.

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Excavating Shimron’s Corbelled Vault

The corbelled vault—an architectural technique where layered bricks are progressively stepped inward to create a gradually narrowing ceiling—was built into a large tower on the southern side of the ancient city’s royal acropolis. The center of the structure contained a narrow corridor leading to the vaulted mudbrick passageway, which was more than 6 feet long and led into the city via mudbrick stairs. The corbelled vault was made of unfired mudbrick adorned with stripes of white chalk.

“Corbelling is used on small tomb cysts at various sites in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BCE), both in Canaan and the Egyptian Delta,” said Mario Martin, co-director of the Tel Shimron excavation. “Yet, a fully preserved mudbrick-built passageway with this type of corbelled vault is without parallel. Such structures, made of unfired mudbrick, almost never survive.” This particular corbelled vault survived because it was completely covered over shortly after it was constructed. Future excavations will focus on trying to determine where the vaulted passageway leads.

Corbelled vault

Daniel Master, co-director of the site, standing by the corbelled vault. Courtesy Eyecon, Tel Shimron Excavation.

The passageway “fills an important gap in the history of architecture in this region,” added Daniel Master, the excavation’s other co-director. “The vault is an ancestor to the mudbrick radial arch in the gate at Tel Dan and is an extraordinary example of Mesopotamian mudbrick technology.”

During the Middle Bronze Age, Tel Shimron was the center of the powerful Canaanite kingdom of Sham-anu. The city had massive architecture, including the recently excavated tower complex. Constructed of more than 9,000 well-preserved mudbricks and standing over 16 feet high, it exemplifies the massive fortifications and elite buildings typical of the large cities of the Bronze Age. The city’s acropolis also had stone foundations and mudbrick constructions that created an artificial platform more than 13 feet high.

Situated in the Jezreel Valley, along an important trade route connecting the Mediterranean to the Arabian Desert, Tel Shimron was an important site for thousands of years. First mentioned in Egyptian texts from the early second millennium BCE, the site is also later referenced it the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah.

Tel Shimron

Aerial view showing the stone-covered plaza and the passageway with the corbelled vault. Courtesy Eyecon, Tel Shimron Excavation.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Digging In: Tel Shimron

Canaan’s Earliest City Gate

Read more in the BAS Library:

Launching Excavations at Tel Shimron

Eternal Architecture

Jezreel—Where Jezebel Was Thrown to the Dogs

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