A Hilltop Fortress and the Origins of Ancient Israel

Examining the archaeology of Mt. Adir’s ancient fortress

Mt. Adir in the Galilee

View of Mt. Adir in the Upper Galilee. Credit: Avi1111 Dr. Avishai Teicher, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A lonely and little-known hilltop fortress in northern Galilee offers archaeologists a unique opportunity to gaze into the origins of ancient Israel. First excavated in the mid-1970s, the fortress is located on Mt. Adir, a region that historically was sparsely populated and a challenge for states and empires to control. Yet during the early Iron Age (twelfth–ninth centuries B.C.E.), Adir was the location of a major fortress, which scholars have associated with the Phoenicians, the United Monarchy of David and Solomon, or Israel’s Omride dynasty. However, a study published in Archaeological and Anthropological Science suggests that this fortress was instead the base of a small upstart chiefdom that researchers believe might provide valuable insights into the origins of ancient Israel.

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The Iron Age I (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.) has often been described as a “dark age.” With the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 B.C.E., many of the previously powerful kingdoms and empires either completely vanished or retreated to their traditional borders. Yet, this period also witnessed a large increase in settlements in the mountainous Upper Galilee, possibly fueled by immigrants and refugees fleeing the weakened and destroyed Canaanite city-states. This was the period during which the hilltop fortress of Mt. Adir was established. Despite past suggestions that Adir was a small outpost of a larger political force, such as Phoenicia or Israel, the recent study has shown this to be unlikely.

Instead, they argue that the vacuum left behind by the older regional powers paved the way for a local chieftain to establish political control over this isolated region. This likewise helps contextualize the origins of ancient Israel and the rise of several other kingdoms, such as Aram-Damascus in the north, the kingdom of Geshur around the Sea of Galilee, and the brief dynasty of King Saul in the hill country of Benjamin. It was not long, however, before these kingdoms began to compete with one another and larger empires, such as the Assyrians, once again returned to the area.


The Archaeology of the Mt. Adir Fortress

The site of Mt. Adir was first excavated in 1975 by the Israel Department of Antiquities (now the Israel Antiquities Authority). The initial excavations revealed the remnants of a large fortress, commanding an impressive view of the surrounding area. The fortress, which was protected by a casemate wall, covered an area of roughly 27,000 square feet. The original excavations dated the fortress from the eleventh to ninth centuries, generally coinciding with the very beginning of ancient Israel. This, in turn, led to a wide array of interpretations of the site, most of which could not be confirmed because of a fire that destroyed the excavation’s storehouse and records. Thus, in 2019, a team from Kinneret College in Israel returned to Mt. Adir to reexamine the site. Their excavation was able to securely date the site to the Iron Age IB (c. 1100–1000 B.C.E.), a century before the rise of Israel’s United Monarchy.

In addition, the site’s pottery showed that while several luxury ceramics were imported from the Phoenician coast, the majority of the pottery—especially cookware and storage jars—was locally made. The study concluded, therefore, that although the fortress had trade relations with Phoenicia, it was almost surely the base of a local chief whose political power did not extend far beyond the site’s immediate agricultural hinterland. Although this situation would have been out of place in preceding or subsequent periods, it fits in perfectly with the highly local forms of authority that characterized the Iron Age I. However, as mentioned by the researchers, “It seems that this spell of independent power was fleeting. Maybe not even enough for our warlord to bequeath it to his heirs.” Thus, within about a century, the fortress was abandoned and left largely untouched until modern times.

Read more in Biblical Archaeology Daily:

Daily Life in Ancient Israel

Judean Refugees in Galilee?

Who Were the Phoenicians?


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

First Person: Did the Kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon Actually Exist?

Archaeological Views: Carbon 14—The Solution to Dating David and Solomon?

Biblical Views: How a People Forms

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