How to Tell a Tell

Uncovering buried cities of the biblical world

The mound (tell) of Beth Shean in the Jordan Valley. In the foreground are the remains of the later Roman city. עומר מרקובסקי, Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When you look at a map of the Middle East, you may notice many place names that include as their element the word “tell.” You can find names beginning with “tell” in Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. In Arabic and Hebrew, the word “tell” means “a mound, a ruin-heap, a hill on which a city stood”—an ancient buried city. When the Arabic word is written in English it is spelled “tell”; the Hebrew word is spelled “tel” in English.

Most of the “tells” are mounds with steep slopes and a flat top. From a distance, tells are especially noticeable particularly when they are situated in a valley.

A visitor to a “tell” is immediately struck by the vast amounts of broken pottery lying on the ground—evidence of ancient occupation. Sometimes it is even possible to detect wall lines and other architectural features.

How is a “tell” formed?

A “tell” consists of a succession of cities built on top of one another. Usually the first occupation of the site was on a low hill overlooking the surrounding area. Each successive city was built on the ruins of the previous one. Each city came to an end, however, destroyed by an invading army or, sometimes, abandoned because of changing climatic or political conditions. Each city left a layer of deposit on top of which the next city was built. Archaeologists use the term stratum for each of these layers (strata, is the plural). The result of this build-up resembles a multi-layered chocolate cake, each layer representing a destroyed or abandoned city.

The section drawing illustrates the various layers (strata) excavated by archaeologists digging at the site of Tel Arad in southern Israel.

The same reasons which led to the building of the first city on the site—such as a nearby water source, availability of rich agricultural land and other natural resources which would support the economy, a strategic defensive position, or close proximity to trade routes—lead also to the founding of a new city on the same old site.

The special shape of a “tell” results from now buried fortifications which encircled the cities—city walls and gates, or a sloping rampart which archaeologists call a glacis. The buried walls and glacis of a destroyed city protect the slopes from erosion and serve as a “girdle” to hold the mound together. For this reason, the sides of a tell are usually much steeper than a natural hill.

The archaeologist’s task is to separate the different strata, to determine the date of each one. While this may sound quite simple, it is really very complicated, especially when the occupation of a site during a certain period was of long duration and the inhabitants were continuously modifying and reshaping the structures they used. Another complication is that when people built massive structures, they tended to level previous ones or to reuse and incorporate them into their own buildings. Sometimes, when they wanted to have a solid foundation they dug foundation trenches into earlier layers, thus disturbing the earlier layer and planting a later layer into an earlier one.

Constructing a picture of what happened at the site during each period of occupation is like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle with pieces coming from different parts of the tell. When all the jigsaw puzzles are put in chronological order, the history of the tell unfolds. It is an exciting adventure.



Oded Borowski is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Archaeology and Hebrew at Emory University. He is the director of the Lahav Research Project, Phase IV, in southern Israel.


A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 1981 issue of BAR.


Read more in the BAS Library:

Tell-ing It Like It Is

Excavations at Tell Mevorakh Are Prelude to Tell Dor Dig

Archaeology or Archeology? Tell or Tel?

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