Deir el-Balah

Uncovering an Egyptian Outpost in Canaan from the Time of the Exodus

by Trude Dothan

Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2008, 168 pp.
$44.59 (paperback)

Reviewed by Carol A. Redmount

The critical clue was the yellow sand. But for the grains of fine yellow sand clinging to the clay coffin lid, the source of the stunning finds—carnelian and gold jewelry, scarabs, alabaster vessels, Canaanite, Cypriot and Mycenaean pottery, anthropoid clay coffins—flooding the antiquities market in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War might never have been discovered, or discovered too late for the scientific excavation needed to illuminate the cultural and historical context of the artifacts. Without such excavation, the origin and date of the finds would forever remain guesswork, and it would be impossible to understand the true importance of the objects. It was the yellow grains of sand still on the sarcophagi reaching the antiquities market that eventually led Trude Dothan, under Israeli army escort, to the Gaza Strip site of Deir el-Balah.

Dothan’s Deir el-Balah: Uncovering an Egyptian Outpost in Canaan from the Time of the Exodus is part memoir, part excavation report and part object catalogue (of artifacts she did not herself excavate). Ultimately it satisfies as none of these, but is nevertheless an enjoyable read and an important volume from a grande dame of Israeli archaeology. The “Exodus” in the title is a sop: Only one paragraph in the book mentions the Exodus or, for that matter, the Bible.

Because Deir el-Balah was located in occupied territory, the salvage excavations took four years to arrange after Dothan’s first brief 1968 visit. Between 1972 and 1982, Dothan was able to excavate what turned out to be a unique Egyptian settlement, outpost and cemetery complex providing a fascinating glimpse of cosmopolitan life on the Egyptian-Canaanite frontier of the 14th–12th centuries B.C.E. The bulk of Dothan’s excavation synopsis rightly concentrates on these Late Bronze Age/New Kingdom discoveries. A mere two pages are devoted to the minimal later finds from the site—evidently Philistine, Israelite and Byzantine pottery and little else.

Beginning work in the looted Ramesside cemetery, Dothan’s archaeological team succeeded in uncovering several intact burials with magnificent finds. In 1976, having deduced that an accompanying settlement must lie under nearby dunes, Dothan supervised the removal (and sale) of 193,000 tons of dune sand overlying a 2,400-square-yard area. Subsequent excavation revealed six settlement strata crucial to understanding the site. Dothan traces the development of the settlement strata from an Amarna-age (c. 14th century B.C.E.) Egyptian-style settlement with an elite residency, to a fortress with pool that she identifies as the terminal military bastion along the Way of Horus (the military road between Egypt and Canaan) contemporary with Seti I, to a final Ramesside-era artisan’s village contemporaneous with the cemetery that produced coffins and grave goods for the burials.

Canaanite and Egyptian pottery as well as Cypriot, Mycenaean and Minoan vessels and other prestige goods reflected the cosmopolitan, international character of the time and its rich international trade networks, which Dothan refers to as “the Mediterranean Maritime Common Market.”

Equally compelling and just as fascinating as the archaeology in the first part of Dothan’s volume is the human component of the discovery and investigation of Deir el-Balah. Dothan begins her tale of the tell as a memoir, touching on her childhood memories of Jerusalem and recounting her first amazed exposure to finds from the site, her subsequent detective work, and her various struggles first with the Department of Antiquities and then ultimately with Moshe Dayan, the “charismatic and controversial” minister of defense. Despite her reservations about and frustrations with Dayan, it was he, as she notes, who gained her entrée to the site, who kept a watchful eye over the work, and who advised on the practical necessity of reaching an understanding with the local work foreman in order to ensure new discoveries in the cemetery. Woven throughout the story are opposing tensions and creative accommodations: Israelis and Arabs, civilians and military personnel, archaeologists and tomb robbers all take each other’s measure and nevertheless manage to work together creatively and constructively.

The second part of Dothan’s volume is an important but, from a scholarly perspective, inadequate catalogue of artifacts from Deir el-Balah in the Israel Museum pillaged from the Ramesside cemetery prior to Dothan’s excavations. Entries in the catalogue can be incomplete, inconsistent or unclear, and no template seems to have been used to ensure consistency of material included within or across categories. Sometimes manufacturing details are included, sometimes not; sometimes fabric information is given, sometimes not; sometimes feet measurements are included, sometimes not. For ceramics, height and diameter are included, but it is not clear if it is the rim diameter or the maximum diameter. The beer bottle on page 138 is described as having a flat, string cut base, but the picture shows a pointed base. And so forth.

The catalogued items from Deir el-Balah in the Israel Museum were classified and dated (to the time of Ramesses II) by comparison to the excavated material. The catalogue includes numerous clay coffins and coffin lids (categorized according to a simplistic and inadequate typology) as well as a variety of imported ceramics and local imitations, Egyptian alabaster vessels, bronze mirrors and knives, female figurines, dazzling gold and carnelian jewelry, and four Egyptian funerary stelae.

Today vegetable gardens and fruit orchards cover the former Deir el-Balah excavations. Massive yellow sand dunes still conceal what remains of the settlement; Dothan believes that her discoveries are the equivalent of a small window offering only a tantalizing glimpse of a much larger whole. The same may be said of her book.



Carol A. Redmount is associate professor and chair of the Near Eastern Studies Department and curator of Egyptian Archaeology at the P.A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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