Digging Deep at Tel Shimron

5 Questions for the Directors of Tel Shimron

Tel Shimron is the largest archaeological site in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. This valley for millennia served as an important thoroughfare—and it still does today! I had a chance to sit with the site’s directors, Daniel Master of Wheaton College and Mario Martin of Tel Aviv University. They have completed one season of survey (2016) and two seasons of excavation (2017 and 2019). Here they share the inside scoop on their site and some exciting discoveries.

Megan Sauter (BAR): What caused you to choose this site?

Daniel Master: After having excavated for 25 years at Ashkelon, which is a coastal city in the south of Israel, I was looking for a way to understand the cultures of this region in a different light. I wanted a city that was slightly farther inland and farther to the north, so that I could see the differences and similarities across this area of the southern Levant by comparing and contrasting it with Ashkelon. I also was looking for a site that had the same rough chronological spread as Ashkelon, that is, from the Bronze Age through the Crusades—because we wanted to make those comparisons between coastal and inland, north and south, and across the various periods we might encounter. That’s my answer.

Martee Hawthorn of Texas A&M University assists Kali Wade of Boston University with the flotation machine at Tel Shimron. Once a soil sample is dumped into the flotation tank, gently stirring the dirt by hand and agitating the water helps carbonized plant remains float to the top by releasing them from the soil that surrounds them. Photo: Courtesy of the Tel Shimron Excavations, Photographer Melissa Aja.

Mario Martin: And mine is a more regional answer because I have been working at Megiddo for the last 20 years. I wanted to work on another site in the Jezreel Valley and to compare what I’ve learned at Megiddo with this other site. Shimron was the perfect match for this. The periods are similar. We can even compare them, at least in the earlier times.

Of interest was also how the Jezreel Valley works in terms of its geographical features. There’s a dividing river in the middle, and so there was actually only one route that leads over this river and connects Megiddo to Shimron. The question was: Did Shimron work in the same system as Megiddo, or did it work in a different system? So my question was more localized in that sense. Megiddo is treated as the most important site in the Jezreel Valley and beyond, but Shimron is the biggest site in the Jezreel Valley, so this was also something to examine.

MS: What have you found so far?

Master: Because of the way Tel Shimron is laid out and because of its size, we have been able to touch and excavate the entire history of the site in just a few short seasons. That isn’t to say that we know everything about the history of the site by any means; we’re just beginning. But we’ve at least been able to examine something from every period in which the site was inhabited, and that has started to give us the big picture from a chronological standpoint and started to help us understand, period by period, the questions that Shimron will ultimately be able to answer and the ways in which we’ll be able to contribute to the region’s history.

Some of the highlights have been our ability to excavate domestic structures from the Middle Bronze Age, houses from the Roman period, and monumental structures on the acropolis of the site.

Martin: And structures that are connected to fortification.

Tess De Pretis of Wheaton College holds a juglet from the Middle Bronze Age. Photo: Courtesy of the Tel Shimron Excavations, Photographer Melissa Aja.


MS: Have there been any surprises?

Master: Yes, the biggest surprise is a big picture idea that we had. Because the site sits between the Galilean hills and the Jezreel Valley, and it slopes from one to the other, we thought it would be a meeting place of cultures. In many periods, life in the hills and life in the valley is different. This is true in the Roman period; this is true in the early Iron Age and in a number of different periods. We thought Tel Shimron would be a meeting place between those different cultural spheres, but what we’re finding in our excavations is that the site seems to belong firmly to one side or the other. It either seems to be a valley site that looks like a lot of other sites around it in the valley, or it looks like a hill country site that looks like a lot of other hill country sites. We haven’t seen it as a meeting place as much as we’ve seen it as a hill country or a valley site, and it’s alternating between these two through time.

Martin: I think there are a good number of specific surprises, such as our results on the acropolis. Basically, there is no occupation there—as of now—later than the Middle Bronze Age. We were also surprised by the extent of the Early Bronze Age. Even though we haven’t excavated it yet, it is clear to us that it was sitting both on the acropolis and in the lower city. We were somewhat surprised by how early Shimron was actually settled. We are now even seeing evidence of the Neolithic period.

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MS: How do your findings here potentially impact our understanding of the Bible?

Master: Well, we’re trying to understand the way in which the Canaanite city was organized socially; we have elite areas and non-elite areas. We’re getting to see a wide swath of this Canaanite culture, and I think the culture of the Bronze Age very much informs the culture of the Iron Age. There’s a fair number of things—including ideas and even in terms of social organization, subsistence, and family structure—that carry on from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. That continuity helps us get a sense of the general patterns of life in this region, which are reflected in the biblical text. We haven’t yet gotten to the Iron Age, so we haven’t been able to find the first appearance of the Iron Age or find the destruction of the Iron Age by the Assyrians. We know it’s going to be there, but we haven’t gotten to it yet. So in terms of some of those event-level things, we haven’t had as many connections yet.

If we continue a bit forward and look at the Christian New Testament, by understanding a Jewish village near Nazareth in the first century, we contribute to the understanding of how Jewish life functioned both in the time of the New Testament and in the slightly later time of the writing of the Mishnah. In that sense we are uncovering things in those periods that are directly relevant to the cultures and times that produced Christian texts and then later Jewish texts, like the Mishnah.

Martin: That covers it.


Chase Starling of Moody College proudly displays an oil lamp from the Roman period. Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Hoffman.

MS: Final question: Would you like to highlight any volunteer on this project?

Master: We have been really fortunate to have so many dedicated volunteers who have made this possible. I think many people don’t realize that without the contribution by people coming every day and volunteering their time and their effort, there wouldn’t be an excavation like Tel Shimron. Everything we do is really a credit to the volunteers who show up. We have been grateful for every single person who has been willing to help us.

MS: Thank you so much for your time!

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

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More on the Jezreel Valley in Bible History Daily:

St. Nicholas Ring Unearthed in Jezreel Valley Garden

Jewelry from the Time of the Judges Found at Megiddo

Elite Canaanite Burial Discovered in the Jezreel Valley

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