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Sardinians in Central Israel? The Excavator of El-Ahwat Makes His Final Case

THE UNPRECEDENTED INTERCONNECTIVITY in the Late Bronze Age (LBA) Eastern Mediterranean has been the subject of a great deal of study in recent years.  Colloquia, conferences, articles, and monographs have dealt in depth with the diplomacy, balance of power, and widespread trade that marked this period and the migrations and collapses that marked the transition to the Early Iron Age.  However, if one archaeologist’s interpretation is correct, a small site in northern Israel could not only fill remaining gaps in our knowledge of Late Bronze–Early Iron communication and migration in the Mediterranean, but turn some of what we think we know on its head.

The site in question is el–Ahwat, a 7.5–acre “city” near Nahal ‘Iron in northern Israel, and the archaeologist is the University of Haifa’s Adam Zertal.  A scholar whose previous accomplishments include the exhaustive two–volume, 1,400–page Manasseh Hill Country Survey publication (Brill, 2004, 2007), Zertal’s most recent work has the paradoxical status of being both long–awaited and almost entirely unheralded.  Since 2001, the author has written in various publications about his belief that el–Ahwat housed a community of Sherden, a ‘Sea Peoples’ group known primarily from 13th to 11th century Egyptian records (as well as from some 14th century Ugaritic texts) which are believed by some to have originated on the island of Sardinia in the central Mediterranean.

If correct, this interpretation of el–Ahwat would provide direct evidence for a number of firsts in LBA Mediterranean scholarship.  One example of many is el–Ahwat’s potential status as the first testament to direct contact between the central Mediterranean and the Levant during this period (based on current evidence, the exchange that did take place between eastern and central Mediterranean was likely facilitated by Cypriot or Mycenaean seafarers).  Another is el–Ahwat’s potential to serve as the only confirmed site of non-Philistine ‘Sea Peoples’ settlement in the Levant, while striking a blow against the prevailing scholarly views that the ‘Sea Peoples’ were largely Aegeo-Anatolian in culture and origin, and that they settled in coastal areas that allowed for access to the Mediterranean Sea.  However, Zertal’s theories about the site’s significance and its inhabitants’ origin have either been largely ignored, or viewed with a detached skepticism until the full results of the excavation were published.

With El–Ahwat: A Fortified Site from the Early Iron Age Near Nahal ‘Iron, Israel (Brill, 2011), the full results of the seven–season excavation are now available, and the site can be independently studied – as can Zertal’s theories about its inhabitants and its significance.  The methodically-organized, 27-chapter publication contains over 200 figures, and is comprised of four parts: Stratigraphy, Architecture, and Chronology; The Finds; Economy and Environment; and Conclusions.  Though each of the former three contains a valuable detailed review of finds and conclusions related to its subject matter, these portions of the work sometimes feel as though as though they are serving in large part to lay the defensive groundwork for Part Four, wherein Zertal uses the fully published site information to defend the conclusions about the site that he has been writing about for the last decade.

EL–AHWAT IS LOCATED on the flat shoulder of a ridge ¾ mi. south of the Nahal ‘Iron (Egyptian Arunah, the ancient route between Egypt and the heavily contested Jezreel Valley in northern Israel), where it overlooks the Sharon plain, the Carmel range, and the western Samarian hills.  Established on virgin soil, the view to the north, west, and south provided by el–Ahwat’s location may have provided a strategic benefit that outweighed poor resources like a lack of water sources and arable soil (pp. 25, 428).  The site has two strata, a late Roman and Byzantine period in which el–Ahwat was used as a farmstead (p. 41), and a brief (50 to 60 years in duration [p. 262]) second stratum which the excavator dates from the late 13th to the early 12th centuries based on pottery, seals and scarabs (Ch. 14; pp. 233–263, and an beautiful ivory ibex head (Ch. 16; pp. 288–294).  His terminus ante quem for the site’s inhabitation is a scarab bearing the royal title of the 20th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses III (1183–1152 BC [p. 53]); the eight other scarabs found at the site date to the 19th Egyptian Dynasty (1298–1187 BC).  The chronology of the site will be dealt with in greater detail below.

The site yielded few restorable ceramic finds (Ch. 12), a fact which for which the excavator credits both the abandonment of el–Ahwat by its Stratum II inhabitants, and the leveling of that lower stratum for Roman-Byzantine  use (p. 181).  However, though lacking in volume, the site’s ceramic assemblage contained several forms, including bowls (open, straight-sided, and open carinated), kraters, jugs, cooking bowls and jugs, jars, beer jugs, collared-rim pithoi (which may have been used for storing water gathered from the nearest source 1/2 km. away[pp. 424, 428]), as well as chalices, one incense burner and one oil lamp.  All of the pottery at el-Ahwat has parallels in the Levant, though in Ch. 14, Baruch Brandl notes that el-Ahwat is only the third site in the Carmel Ridge where collared-rim jars have been found together with New Kingdom scarabs (p. 263).  The bell-shaped bowls (p. 186), a form associated with Late Helladic pottery and with the intrusive Philistine culture, were of the locally-made, northern Phoenician variety; likewise, the pierced loomweights found at the site (p. 200) follow in the standard Levantine tradition, rather than being of the rolled and unbaked style associated with the Cypro-Aegean Philistines and other ‘Sea Peoples’.

El–Ahwat is architecturally divided into four Areas, or “quarters,” A through E (A and B are portions of the same “quarter), with “quarter walls” running between each section.  Area A contained the city’s gate (a small, thin door mounted on a doorpost [p. 62]), a terrace with an administrative complex (Complex 100 [p. 79]), and a unique isosceles triangle-shaped “approach” to the city gate, which Zertal and chapter co-author Ron Be’eri reconstruct as having a  small opening to the outside at the base of the left leg, then allowing traffic to widen within the approach before funneling into the gated entrance at the triangle’s pinnacle (pp. 62-64).  Area C contained a 510 sq m residential complex (which chapter author Nivrit Lavie–Alon notes is “among the largest continuous quarters exposed by Israeli archaeology” [p. 124]), within which two oil presses were found in addition to valuable small finds, including several scarabs.  A furnace, possibly for iron forging (p. 383) was found in Area D, along with two free-standing corbeled-roof “huts” or silos, which chapter author Amit Romano suggests may indicate its status as “the center for an industrial craft or some sort of metal processing” (p. 157).  Due to a lack of material finds other than walls, chapter author Lavrie–Alon suggests that Area E was used as an enclosure for livestock (p. 161).

It is the architectural perimeter of the site that has most contributed to the excavator’s conclusions about its purpose and its inhabitants.  El–Ahwat is quite irregular in shape, with an “undulating” (p. 32), somewhat–ovular “city wall” encircling it in wavy fashion.  This wall contains several large rock mounds that the author refers to as “towers” despite their unclear function (p. 38) and the likelihood that few actually served as such (save perhaps T1 and T2, which sit outside the wall to the west, and T53, which is built into the eastern portion of Area D), and has built into its structure four of what Zertal identifies as “corridors” (p. 412).  In addition to these corridors, several “igloo-like stone huts” which the author identifies as “false-domed tholoi” are either free-standing constructions or are built into the wall itself (such as U409 in Tower 53 [Area D], which is entered by one of the “corridors” [p. 413]).  For Zertal, these corridors and tholoi combine with the outer wall to give el–Ahwat its greatest uniqueness and significance.

IF PARTS 1–3 OF this volume lay the groundwork for Zertal’s defense of his theories about the site, Part Four does not disappoint, as the author uses the majority of the final section to argue for Sardinian influence on, and Sherden inhabitation at, el–Ahwat.  To the author’s eye, “the plan of el–Ahwat differs from anything known elsewhere in the Levant.  Judging by its design and unique features, the architects of el–Ahwat seem to have planned the site according to a master plan based on earlier architectural traditions” (p. 28).  It is the location the author sees as being the origin of these “earlier architectural traditions,” and the conclusions he draws from it, that make el–Ahwat a controversial site, and this final report a controversial publication.

Zertal compares the site’s “undulating” wall, corridors, tholoi, inner dividing walls, and free-standing corbeled stone “huts” (U409 and U461), to the proto–nuraghe of Bronze Age Sardinia and the 13th century BC Toreenic Culture of neighboring Corsica (pp. 415–423), and suggests that this architectural style was brought to the Levant by immigrants from the central Mediterranean.  The corrid Though he has previously stipulated that a lack of other diagnostic finds, such as Sardinian pottery, means the journey was likely circuitous and time–consuming enough that it resulted in acculturation to some degree along the way, this remains an issue for Zertal’s conclusions, as the material culture of el–Ahwat is entirely Canaanite in nature (with Egyptian small finds included), blending hill country and lowland traditions in a site that, save for the meandering outer wall with its corridors, is largely typical of northern Canaan in the Iron I.  This stands in marked contrast to the Philistine material culture footprint (to date, the only known ‘Sea Peoples’ material culture), which consists not only of site architecture, but of intrusive ceramic, cultic, and domestic traditions that prove beyond doubt the presence of an intrusive culture at their major sites.

The wall itself is another question.  While it may be that Zertal is correct, and the site’s 600 m long, 6 m high, and 5 m thick wall may have served, along with its “towers,” as massive fortifications, he acknowledges that it appears to have been “built in ‘patches’ and ‘sections'” (p. 412), a possible indicator that this structure is neither as cohesive nor as temporally constrained as the author imagines it to be.  As the remains of the city wall rise above the entirety of the site’s second (Iron Age) stratum, it is possible that what appears now to be the remnant of a massive fortification was constructed as a retaining wall or terrace during the Roman-Byzantine occupation in Stratum I, and the awkward contouring of rooms to the wall lacks the appearance of planned construction.  This can particularly be seen on the western edge of Area C1, where a small unnamed and evidently unused gap appears north of W4313, and where L3328 appears to be a much larger gap between the area’s architecture and the wall.  In the western portion of Area D, “quarter wall” 3410 appears to intrude on the area’s architecture (cf. p. 47), and the unique “approach” in Area A2 seems too awkward – and too likely to have caused logjams between the outer and inner entrances – to have been a planned feature of the Iron Age city.  Further, Tel Aviv archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has pointed out that the “corridors” in the wall are comparable to well–known highland field towers used for storage and for habitation (IEJ 52: 189).

The issue of the Sherden is more theoretical in nature (their association with Sardinia is itself solely the result of linguistic resemblance), but Zertal dedicates a portion of Part Four to reviewing some of the evidence for their presence and activity in the Near East at this time.  Unfortunately, he provides an incomplete selection and a selective interpretation of that evidence, choosing to read it in the way that best supports his theory while ignoring those portions that detract from his point.  On p. 431 he references the Papyrus Harris I, which lists the Sherden among the invading ‘Sea Peoples’ defeated by Ramesses III and supposedly settled in Egyptian fortresses at home or in Canaan.  However, P. Harris I is a much later account of the Year 8 invasion, and the inscription at Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, which was written at least twenty years earlier (and only a few years after the event itself) contains no mention of the Sherden among the sea or land invaders.

On pp. 432–433, Zertal references the Onomasticon of Amenope, an 1100 BC list of peoples and places in the Near East that mentions three Philistine cities followed by three ‘Sea Peoples’ groups (Sherden, Sikil, and Philistines), as evidence that Ramesses III had settled the Sherden to the north of Philistia and of the port city of Dor, which the contemporary Tale of Wen–Amon refers to as the “Harbor of the Sikil.”  However, the Onomasticon is a cryptic text which is filled with lacunae, and which contains almost no context regarding the orientation or ordering of its toponyms and ethnika, thus making any attempt to use it as a map of ‘Sea Peoples’ settlements a risky endeavor at best.  Any effort to securely place non–Philistine ‘Sea Peoples’ anywhere in Canaan is difficult at best, as no material culture template is currently available for the other members of this seafaring coalition.  The Sherden are no different; the centuries of evidence for their presence in Egypt are complemented by an almost total lack of evidence for their presence in Canaan, aside from three possible mentions in letters from the 14th century.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF the site, as noted above, is also problematic – a fact Zertal et al address directly.  Though the authors of this volume put the ceramic and glyptic evidence from el–Ahwat firmly in the late 13th and early 12th centuries, recent radiocarbon analysis of olive pits from the site returned a date range of 1057–952 BC, suggesting that the dates of inhabitation should be lowered by two hundred years.  Even if the early date of 1057 is considered as the final year of the site’s inhabitation, the 50–60 year duration of the site’s inhabitation proposed by Zertal et al would put el–Ahwat’s founding in the final quarter of the 12th century – at least a half century short of the author’s proposed terminus ante quem for the site.

In Ch. 3, Zertal argues that the 14C dates should be ignored on the basis of what he sees as a close correlation between the material finds and corresponding Egyptian archaeology, as the latter is firmly enough known to be impervious to radiocarbon results from a small site in central Israel.  In doing so, he rejects the possibility that the Egyptian objects found at the site, which date to the 14th–12th centuries, were brought to el–Ahwat at a later date as amulets or objects of other perceived value (though even if the site was founded in the late 13th century, some of the Egyptian objects found there would already have been a century old or more at the time of their arrival).  Instead, he argues – on the basis of continue olive cultivation in the vicinity after inhabitation had ceased – that the olive pits selected for testing “could have been introduced there at any time after the site was abandoned in the 12th century BCE” (p. 53).

El–Ahwat’s potential Sardinian connection brings with it another chronological problem.  While the construction of hybrid, “Canaanized” proto–nuraghe could have been carried out by individuals who had traveled to Sardinia in the Late Bronze II and brought that “template” back with them to the Levant, Zertal argues that the small number of sites fitting el–Ahwat’s mold makes this unlikely, writing that “this…possibility is much less plausible for the simple reason that their presence is limited to only four or five sites in 13th–12th century Canaan.  Such limited influence is better explained by ‘colonies’ of immigrants, who brought with them some of their old traditions, rather than by influence derived through trade” (p. 423).  However, proto–nuraghe of the type that Zertal suggests el–Ahwat’s fortifications were patterned after date to the 18th–16th centuries BC; following this time, in the early–middle Nuragic period, there is little evidence on Sardinia of foreign contacts.  While communication with the wider Mediterranean, including the Aegean and Cyprus, grew rapidly in the LB II, Sardinians traveling abroad at this time who sought to build settlements similar to the nuraghe of their home island would likely have constructed the corbel–vaulted nuragic type dwellings which were being made in Sardinia at that time, rather than the “false–domed tholoi” Zertal suggests were built at el–Ahwat.

Interestingly absent from this volume is any discussion of Zertal’s theory that el–Ahwat was the biblical Harosheth Haggoyim, the base of the Canaanite King Jabin’s nine–hundred–strong chariotry under the command of Sisera in the biblical story of Deborah (Judges 4–5).  In a 2010 press release, Zertal championed the possible identification of a chariot linchpin fragment from Area A3 as “[proof] that chariots belonging to high-ranking individuals were found” at el–Ahwat, despite its remote, rugged location, and as evidence “that this was Sisera’s city of residence and that it was from there that the chariots set out on their way to the battle against the Israelite tribes.”

In this site report, by contrast, the only mentions of chariots in the entire volume (by my count) were made in Ch. 17, which deals with the possible linchpin fragment.  The bronze shard in the shape of a female head, which at 2 cm high, 1.6 cm wide, and only 3 mm thick is far thinner, if only slightly smaller in surface area, than the 10 mm thick chariot linchpins from 11th- and 10th-century Ekron and Ashdod that chapter author Oren Cohen uses as comparanda.  As a result of this fragment’s relative frailty, Cohen writes, “it is difficult to establish whether the linchpin…was used for a full-scale chariot or was part of a smaller, cultic feature” (p. 300).  In all, this volume deals with Zertal’s theories about el–Ahwat’s Sardinian connection in a much more measured fashion than some of his previous publications have.  Cohen’s sober analysis of the bronze fragment fits well with the tone of a final excavation report, but it stands in sharp contrast to Zertal’s previous statements about the site and about this particular artifact.

THE FINAL PUBLICATION of the el–Ahwat excavations is valuable for its straightforward presentation of the architecture and material culture of this short-lived site.  Though several passages in the volume can be read as defenses of Zertal’s conclusions about the site’s influences and chronology, the finds are allowed to speak for themselves to a sufficient degree that scholars will be able to draw their own conclusions about el–Ahwat from the material itself, rather than simply from the excavator’s assertions (as had previously been the case with this site).

Further, whether the site truly represents an architectural link with the central Mediterranean and the first material evidence of non–Philistine ‘Sea Peoples’ settlement in the Levant or not, el–Ahwat is a unique site in many ways, not least of which are its remote location (far from water, arable soil, and traveled roads [pp. 413, 435]) and its brief Iron Age duration, which allows it to serve as a rare single-stratum snapshot of settlement (or, in Zertal’s words, a “‘time capsule’…of the period” [p. 3]).  As such, though its legacy may be that of an outside-the-mainstream argument for ‘Sea Peoples’ settlement in the Levant, and though its steep price will confine its circulation almost exclusively to research libraries, this final publication of el–Ahwat will hold great value for those studying settlement, architecture, and change in the hill country culture of Iron Age Canaan.

El–Ahwat: A Fortified Site from the Early Iron Age Near Nahal ‘Iron, Israel, edited by Adam Zertal (ISBN 978–9004176454; 485 pages; $185), is published by Brill.

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