Akko’s Total Archaeology Experience

5 Questions for Ann Killebrew

Aerial view of Tel Akko

Aerial view of Tel Akko, looking southwest. Area A appears in the foreground, to the right of Napoleon’s statue. Photo: Michal Artzy, courtesy of the Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project.

A harbor on the Mediterranean Sea, the city of Akko functioned as a major maritime and economic hub for the region throughout its long history. At various times, Canaanites, Sea Peoples, and Phoenicians all called it home. People lived at the site from the Early Bronze through the Hellenistic periods—from the third through the first millennia B.C.E. At that time the city moved west toward the bay, where the current “old city” is located. Known also as Ptolemais during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and by its European name, Acre, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts the best-preserved Crusader city in the world. Akko is well attested in ancient Egyptian and Assyrian historic documents and appears once in the Bible (Judges 1:31).

During their 2019 dig season, I visited Tel Akko and sat down with Ann Killebrew of The Pennsylvania State University, who directs excavations at the site with Michal Artzy of the University of Haifa.

Megan Sauter (BAR): How long has this excavation been underway?

Ann Killebrew: There have been two archaeological expeditions at Tel Akko. The first series of excavations were directed by Moshe Dothan from 1973 until 1989. They were very extensive but remain largely unpublished. The second expedition, co-directed by Michal Artzy and me, began in 2010. We have been working every summer since then, and 2019 marks our tenth season.

MS: Congratulations! What caused you to choose this site?

Killebrew: That’s a fun question. Between 1979–1983, I worked with Moshe Dothan at Tel Akko, one year as an archaeologist in the field and then for three seasons as the registrar. During this time, I fell in love with the site as well as with the people of Akko and the excavation team, many of whom are still my close friends. I always dreamed of going back to Akko. The opportunity arose when I accepted a position at Penn State in 2001. I immediately began to plan my return. For a number of years there was a ban on bringing students to Israel. In 2009, Penn State finally said, “Ok, you can take students to Israel.” In 2010, I began the excavations here with my team.

Archaeologists with late Iron Age juglets

Marissa Scott and Caitlin Donahue of Penn State University pose with juglets from the Late Iron Age (eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E.) at Tel Akko. Photo: Jane C. Skinner, courtesy of the Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project.

That was the emotional connection. I should also say a bit about our research questions and excavation philosophy.

MS: Oh yes, please do.

Killebrew: My research questions really deal with the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron I Age (c. 1200 B.C.E.), where you see a great deal of regionality because the end of the Late Bronze Age affects different areas very differently. I worked for four decades on the Philistines in the south, and I became very interested in what was happening along the northern coast of Israel, where you have a very different phenomenon than you have in the south. Akko, being the only major settlement in the Phoenician heartland that’s open to excavation, without a modern city on top of it, was the ideal place to begin investigating southern Phoenicia.

My colleague, Michal Artzy, is researching the ancient coastlines and environment of Tel Akko, with an emphasis on locating the Bronze, Iron Age, and Persian period anchorages and harbors.

Another major component of our project is our field school, which we are very proud of. In addition to daily excavation, we work with students to design their own academic experience. They can select from landscape archaeology, survey, geographic information science, photogrammetry/3D documentation, archaeological sciences (archaeozoology, archaeometallurgy, and archaeobotany), ceramic analysis, conservation, and community outreach/public archaeology. The training of archaeologists for the 21st century is part of our “Total Archaeology” philosophy that archaeology is not only about uncovering the past. It is also about the present and the future, especially the role of Akko’s heritage in the community today and the importance of preserving Akko’s heritage for future generations.

MS: What have you found at Akko so far?

Killebrew: To my astonishment, something I never expected! But before I answer that question, I should provide a bit of background information. First of all, we felt a moral obligation to publish the results from Moshe Dothan’s old excavations. To implement our research goals, we selected Area A, which had been extensively excavated by Dothan. We collected his records, which were scattered throughout Israel. So, besides excavating the tell, we also “excavated” Dothan.

MS: Two excavations for the price of one!

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Killebrew: Before we started, we spent several years collecting materials, organizing the documentation and photos, and processing the artifacts. In fact, just a few months ago, we found the photos from 1973, which we’ve been looking for during the past decade. Recently, an office was being renovated at the University of Haifa, and the negatives from 1973 turned up. We’re very excited about that! We thought it would take only a few years to integrate all of Moshe Dothan’s results into our GIS and our database, but we’re still working on that project.

A complete Persian period amphora

Professor Gary Gilbert of Claremont McKenna College holds a complete Persian period (sixth–fourth centuries B.C.E.) amphora Photo: Ann E. Killebrew, courtesy of the Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project.

What came as a total surprise to us was the discovery of a massive Phoenician iron smithing industrial area dating to the Persian period (sixth – fourth centuries B.C.E.). When we went through Dothan’s notes, we could see the bits and pieces of the iron smithy that he had partially excavated, but he never had connected the dots and realized the extent and importance of the massive amounts of slag that are documented in the field notes.

MS: Do the findings here impact our understanding of the Bible?

Killebrew: Yes, certainly. Akko is a key and pivotal site for our understanding of the Phoenicians and one of our most important primary sources of information for this group is the Bible. Akko is mentioned in Judges 1:31 as a location not conquered by the tribe of Asher and being outside the borders of the Land of Israel. From a biblical and archaeological point of view, it’s very interesting to compare the material culture of a people that are considered as the “other”—very much like the Philistines—with what we know about the world of ancient Israel.

I would add one more thing that is nice about Tel Akko. Because it’s not a major biblical site, you don’t really have all the modern political issues that plague many places in this region. As a result, we’ve been able to implement an outreach program each year, where we bring community members from different backgrounds—Arab and Jew; Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—to a site that is neutral. No one is saying, “This is mine because my ancestors were here.”

MS: Besides the opportunity to interact with a diverse community, why should readers visit or dig at your site?

Killebrew: From the archaeological perspective, Akko is the most significant Phoenician port city situated within the borders of the modern state of Israel. There are other Phoenician sites in the Plain of Akko, such as Keisan and Achzib, but they are satellite settlements. At times, Dor in the Sharon Plain was also part of the Phoenician sphere of influence. However, Akko, located on one of the few natural harbors along with Levantine coast, served as the major maritime center in southern Phoenicia for millennia.

No less important are our 5-star living conditions. We have wonderful accommodations at the Akko Nautical College situated on the sea where the old and new cities meet. We are also fortunate to have the UNESCO World Heritage Site Old City of Acre and the new city of Akko as our playgrounds in the evening.

MS: That is pretty nice!

Excavating in Tel Akko's late Iron Age pit

Donald Kane excavates in Tel Akko’s late Iron Age pit containing massive amounts of pottery from the late seventh–early sixth century B.C.E. Photo: Jennifer Munro, courtesy of the Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project.

Killebrew: There’s a lot of wonderful restaurants and places to go sit on the beach in the evening. We really try to give back to our team members who are contributing so much to our understanding of Akko’s past and its preservation. Unlike the very gruesome description of what the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal did to the people of Akko in the 640s B.C.E. and his devastation of the city, we would like to leave a positive mark on Tel Akko and the residents living today in this town. It is also my hope that the dig participants will have a transformative experience. If you visit the blog page on our website, you can read about the impact it has had on our students.

There are numerous staff who have been with us from the beginning. The archaeology and Tel Akko are certainly a major reason why they return, but they also come back because of the team members. As I like to say, “We’re here and working hard, but we should also enjoy ourselves.” I owe our participants a great deal of gratitude. It’s very important to me that people feel appreciated, gain some real knowledge, and have been changed in a positive way by this experience.

MS: Those are all of my questions. Thank you for letting me visit your lovely site.

Read Biblical Archaeology Society’s January/February 2020 Dig Issue today.

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More on the Southern Levant in Bible History Daily:

Adornment in the Southern Levant Josephine Verduci examines the jewelry and costumes worn by the Sea Peoples, which highlight the cross-cultural relationships developed in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age southern Levant.

Oldest Metal Object from the Southern Levant Discovered A 7,000-year-old copper awl—the oldest metal object found thus far in the southern Levant—was discovered during excavations at Tel Tsaf in Israel’s Jordan Valley.

Early Jewish Bread Stamp Found Near Akko Excavators. have unearthed a 1,500-year-old Jewish bread stamp from a small Byzantine settlement near the ancient port city of Akko. The sixth-century clay stamp, excavated from the small site of Horbat Uza just east of Akko, bears an image of the seven-branched Temple menorah.

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