New evidence suggests Middle Bronze Age date at Tel Gezer
New evidence indicates that the water system at Tel Gezer, located in the western Shephelah in Israel, may have been built by Canaanites in the Middle Bronze Age (MBA) (c. 2000–1500 B.C.). The evidence was discovered during the 2015 excavation season by archaeologists with the Tel Gezer Water System Project, according to an article in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) publication The Gatekeeper. NOBTS cosponsors the project.1
Gezer is mentioned in a well-known passage in the Hebrew Bible that states that Solomon used forced labor “to build the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, [and] Gezer” (1 Kings 9:15).2 Archaeologists disagree as to the precise dating of the fortifications at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer that likely inspired this Biblical reference, but most of the structures clearly belong to the Iron Age.
In contrast, the water system at Tel Gezer has now been dated by project archaeologists to a much earlier period—the MBA—with a date as early as 2000 B.C. In fact, this should not be surprising, since Gezer is also the site of massive fortifications and other structures dating to the MBA—in addition to the Iron Age monumental architecture of Biblical fame.
According to a report by Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff, codirectors of the Tel Gezer Excavation and Publication Project (a consortium of institutions excavating at Gezer, of which the Water System Project is a part), the site of Tel Gezer includes two hills, east and west, with a low point called the “saddle” between them. Gezer was originally inhabited in about 3500 B.C. but remained a small settlement until the MBA, when massive fortifications were constructed throughout the site, including stone walls, possibly several stone towers, a glacis and a large gate on the south side of the west hill.3 In addition, ten massive standing stones, deemed a “high place,” were put in place, possibly for cultic purposes or for use as an altar or perhaps to memorialize a treaty among tribes.4 The MBA “walled city” was destroyed in about 1500 B.C. at the end of the MBA.
According to Dan Warner, Associate Professor of Old Testament and Archaeology at NOBTS and codirector of the Tel Gezer Water System Project, “The [MBA water] system fits well with other [Canaanite] features in close proximity: to the south the massive gate and stone tower and to the northeast the large standing stones.”
The water system at Tel Gezer was meant to provide a safe means of getting water to Gezer’s inhabitants within the city walls. According to the NOBTS Gatekeeper article, the system includes three parts: (1) a “keyhole-shaped entrance,” measuring 12 feet across and 24 feet high, (2) a sloping shaft running 138 feet downward at a 38° angle to the collection basin, and (3) the collection basin, which extended on to a nearby cavern.
The Gezer water system was first excavated from 1902–1905 and 1907–1909 by Irish archaeologist R.A.S. Macalister.5 Macalister had reached the same conclusion as the current Water System Project—that the water system was built by Canaanites in the MBA. Macalister’s conclusions were not widely accepted, however, because of his poor methodology and serious errors in dating other structures at the site.
When excavation of the Gezer water system resumed a few years ago, William G. Dever, long-time director of excavations at Tel Gezer beginning in the 1960s and a towering figure in his field, suggested that the water system dated to the Late Bronze Age (LBA) or the Iron Age. However, the current Water System Project archaeologists maintain that the system dates to the MBA: Pottery found by the archaeologists during the 2015 season seems to support the MBA dating. The project’s pottery specialist noticed “a clear transition from Late Bronze Age pottery to Middle Bronze Age pottery dating between 1800 and 1500 B.C.,” and codirector Dan Warner says, “The pottery retrieved from the system this past season appears to date either from the end of the Middle Bronze Age or the beginning of the Late Bronze Age.” According to Warner, the water system must have been built before the pottery could be deposited in it. Therefore, the water system must be dated no later than the MBA, because it must have been built before the date of the pottery and hence before the end of the MBA or the start of the LBA.
During Macalister’s excavations in the early 20th century, he built a causeway of rocks across the basin to the cavern beyond. After his excavations had concluded, a retaining wall collapsed, filling the water system with debris. The causeway had the unintended effect of protecting the basin when the retaining wall collapsed so that much of what was in it, including quantities of datable pottery, was preserved until the current Water System Project team began excavating in the area of the collapse.
According to Warner, the water system was cut through rock using bronze and flint tools, and this may have been done as far back as 2000 B.C.
A Solomonic gate stands at Gezer—or does it? Read more on the excavations at Tel Gezer in Bible History Daily >>
After its destruction at the end of the MBA, Gezer was reconstructed in the LBA and came under Egypt’s control. According to the Hebrew Bible, Gezer was defeated by Joshua (Joshua 10:31–33) but continued to be held by Canaanites until the time of Solomon (the 10th century B.C.), when it was destroyed by an Egyptian pharaoh (possibly the 21st dynasty pharaoh Siamun) (1 Kings 9:16). The city was then given to pharaoh’s daughter as a dowry when she married Solomon, and at that time, “Solomon rebuilt Gezer” (1 Kings 9:16, 17).6
In the Iron Age, a six-chambered gate was built at the low point—on the south side of the saddle. Some archaeologists—most notably Yigael Yadin—have affirmed the Biblical account, attributing the six-chambered gates and certain other fortifications at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer to Solomon in the 10th century B.C.7 However, other archaeologists, following a “low chronology,” have re-dated the gates and certain other massive structures to later dates—the ninth and the eighth centuries B.C.8 Nevertheless, Tel Gezer Excavation and Publication Project codirectors Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff maintain that the six-chambered gate at Gezer dates to Solomon, as Yadin said, although in the summer of 2015, they said that they are holding to this position “for now,” suggesting that discoveries at the site may change their view.9
In fact, the water systems at Hazor and Megiddo have been dated to the Iron Age and the ninth century B.C., centuries later than the MBA, and in light of this, the dating of the Gezer water system to the MBA may seem somewhat surprising.10 However, in a recent post, Dr. Norma Franklin, a longtime expert on Megiddo and former member of the Megiddo Expedition team, wrote that only Phase 3 of the Megiddo system (the masonry stairs in a rock-cut shaft) should be dated to the late ninth or early eighth century B.C. She says that Yadin showed that the inhabitants of Megiddo reached the underground source of the water through a cave at the base of the mound as early as the MBA. As for Hazor, it has similarly been noted that the complex ninth century B.C. system likely evolved from a simpler reservoir system used for irrigation in the Bronze Age.11
In any event, the evidence discovered by Tel Gezer Water System Project archaeologists seems to indicate that the Gezer water system was built in the MBA, and this dating is similar to the MBA dating for the “Canaanite tunnel” in the City of David, Jerusalem, a tunnel which some scholars say is the “water shaft” mentioned in the account in 2 Samuel of David’s capture of the city from the Canaanite Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6-9).12
Henry Curtis Pelgrift received his M.A. in Mediterranean archaeology from University College London in 2014 and his B.A. in archaeology from The George Washington University in 2012. He has excavated at Tel Kabri and Tel Megiddo in alternate summers since 2009 and has also dug in Italy, Jordan and Cyprus. Henry’s picture appeared on the cover of the January/February 2014 “Dig” issue of BAR. He is currently an intern in the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
1. The Tel Gezer Water System Project is sponsored jointly by the Moskau Institute for Archaeology at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
2. In fact, the Hebrew Bible contains numerous references to Gezer, including the following, collected and explained in Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, “Guarding the Border to Jerusalem: The Iron Age City of Gezer,” Near Eastern Archaeology 75 (2012), p. 5: Joshua 10:33, Joshua 16:10, Joshua 16:3, Joshua 21:21, Judges 1:29, 2 Samuel 5:25; 1 Chronicles 20:4, 1 Kings 9:15–17. See also Hershel Shanks, “The Sad Case of Tell Gezer,” BAR, July/August 1983.
3. Ortiz and Wolff, “Guarding the Border,” pp. 5, 10, 11; The Tel Gezer Excavation and Publication Project is jointly sponsored by the Tandy Institute for Archaeology at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
4. Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), p. 26. R.A.S. Macalister, the first excavator of Gezer, suggested that the “high place” was used for infant sacrifice, citing evidence of infant burials nearby. However, William G. Dever recently rejected this view because the infant remains and the standing stones were found in different strata. Dever suggested that the stones commemorated an important person or event, perhaps a treaty among ten tribes. See “Commemorating a Covenant,” BAR, January/February 2015.
5. Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology, p. 25.
6. Ortiz and Wolff, “Guarding the Border,” pp. 4, 5, 12.
7. Yigael Yadin, “Megiddo of the Kings of Israel,” Biblical Archaeologist 33 (1970), pp. 66–68; Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), pp. 137–140.
8. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, pp. 141–142, 183, 186–189, 342–344; Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology, pp. 63–65.
9. Ortiz and Wolff, “Guarding the Border,” pp. 7, 10, 16, 18; Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, “Archaeological Views: In the Shadow of Solomon (and Everyone Else),” BAR July/August 2015.
10. Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, pp. 184–186.
11. Gabriel Barkay, “The Iron Age II–III,” in Amnon Ben-Tor, ed., translated by R. Greenberg, The Archaeology of Ancient Israel (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press; Tel Aviv, Open University of Israel, 1992), p. 334.
12. There is considerable debate about whether David actually captured Jerusalem as related in the Biblical accounts, and if so, whether a tunnel was used (as 2 Samuel 5:6–9 has been translated to say), and, if so, what tunnel it was. However, if the story is historically accurate, the “water shaft” used must have been the “Canaanite tunnel,” which has been dated to the MBA—about 1700 B.C. Other accounts of the capture appear in 1 Chronicles 11:4–8 and the writings of Josephus. The various accounts and the issues they raise are discussed in Eric H. Cline, Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004), pp. 21–29.
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