Tel Megiddo’s Archaeology

Jezreel Valley, from Megiddo, site of Armegeddon as described in Christian Bible
The Jezreel Valley, as seen from Tel Megiddo

The three most important factors in valuing real estate, as any realtor advises, are location, location, and location. It’s not a recent phenomenon; the ancients knew it as well.

The most important thing to consider before building a city was proximity to a source of fresh water. Additionally, from the site, they had to be able to see people approaching from a distance, so overlooking a valley was good. And if that valley was trade route, all the better.

Megiddo meets all these criteria, which is why it was almost continuously inhabited for over 4000 years, from the Neolithic period (about 6000 – 7000 BCE) to the end of the Israelite period in 732 BCE.

For much of its history, Megiddo overlooked one of the major trade routes in the Middle East. The two big powers in the area were traditionally Egypt to the southwest and the Hittites, Assyria, and Babylonia. The Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians were ascendant during different periods, and held different territories, but they were all to the northeast. They used the land bridge along the Mediterranean to wage war against Egypt. Commerce between the east and west was conducted on two north-south routes: the Via Maris (sea route) near the coast or the Kings Way, along the Jordan River Valley. The best way to get from one of these routes to the other was through the wide flat Jezreel Valley, in the Galil.

And overlooking the Jezreel Valley sits Megiddo, with its own water supply, in a spectacularly beautiful location.

Because of its strategic location, it had both economic and military significance. Thus, many battles have been fought here. It is the site of one of the earliest battles in recorded history , when Pharaoh won a decisive victory in the 14th century BCE. The Bible reports Deborah and Barak beat Sisera at Mount Tavor on the other side of the valley (Judges 4-5). King Saul fell in battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (Samuel I: 31). General Allenby beat the Turks and Germans here; when knighted by the King of England, he chose Viscount Megiddo as his title. And according to Christian tradition, the last battle at the End of Days will occur here. It doesn’t take much of an accent make Har Megiddo sound like Armageddon.

With all that history, it has lured multiple archaeologists to its heights. In the 14th century, this particular hill at the edge of the Jezreel Valley was identified as the site of a Roman army camp. But it was not identified as Biblical Megiddo until the mid 19th century.

The first modern excavations took place under the auspices of the German Society for Oriental Research (1903 – 1905). Gottlieb Shumacher, the expedition’s leader, discovered a palace and tombs from around 1000 to 2000 BCE.

John Rockefeller sponsored the next important expedition. It was mounted by the Institute of Oriental Research in Chicago. Their goal was to excavate the whole site, down to bedrock, which was too ambitious for them to accomplish. The site is vast, and there are 30 layers of different civilizations within it. But in the 14 years they dug at the Tel, they uncovered many significant finds. Unfortunately, in their zeal to uncover the site, they also destroyed many things. Like many early archaeologists, the Chicago group took some of their best discoveries home with them. Most ancient cities in the Middle East had four-chambered gates. The outside Canaanite gate at Megiddo

Stairs leading to Canaanite gate at Megiddo
Stairs leading to Canaanite period four-chambered outer gate

has four rooms, as do Tel Sheva and Tel Arad. But Megiddo also once had a six-chambered inner gate dating from the Israelite period. We viewed one side of this city gate; the other three rooms are in a museum in Chicago. (At one time, archaeology was practiced not to uncover history, but to further enrich a country or organization rich enough to finance it. Thus, most of the marble frieze from the Parthenon in ancient Greece is in London. The ancient Egyptian obelisks known as Cleopatra’s needles are in Paris, London , and New York.)

This gate is one of the pieces of evidence in a long controversy in interpretation of archaeology. One of the biggest questions still outstanding is the nature of the Israelite kingdom. Were David and Solomon rulers of a large kingdom or were they small tribal chieftains? How literally should we take the Bible?

Yigal Yadin, a famous military leader and archaeologist of Israel’s early years, is famous for his work on the Dead Seas Scrolls. He also excavated at Masada, Hatzor, and here at Megiddo. He notes that six chambered gates have been found at Hatzor and Gezer, cities dating from the time of Solomon. Thus, the similar gate at Megiddo is evidence that it also dates from Solomon’s time. The inner gate is evidence that Solomon’s kingdom was large.

Because the foundations of the gate rest within earlier layers of the tel, it is hard to date them exactly. They could have been built during the same period as the palace, or from the same period as the stables, several hundred years later. David Feinstein, from Tel Aviv University, holds that the gate is not from the early period. Rather, it is part of the building done at Megiddo later, in the period of King Ahav.

We walked past the half gate to the eastern corner of the Tel, to the cultic area. In this spot remains of many altars belonging to several different cults, from different times,  were found. One of the largest altars is a huge round platform with steps leading to its

Cultic site at Megiddo where many ancient altars were found
Round pagan altar at Megiddo

top, clearly not used by Jews to sacrifice to G-d. No square Jewish altar with horns, with a ramp leading to the top, has been found here, not even from pre-Temple times.

On the other side of the cultic area is an open trench, dug down to bedrock. It was left exposed to show the 30 layers of civilization built up here over the centuries. I could see several layers, identifiable by the different shades of beige and brown/ However, I could not count all of them. Either my color discrimination or my appreciation of archaeological details is deficient. It’s enough for me to know that that those who do appreciate the subtleties can count them.

We then walked across the site to the stable area. The stables are also used as evidence in the dating controversy. If the palace at Megiddo is from the time of King Solomon, as Yadin believed, then the stables were built by King Ahav. But if, as Feinstein claims, the palace was built by King Ahav, then the stables date from King Yeravam II. Today the stables are easily identifiable—black iron horses stand in several spots. But when it was being excavated, the experts were not sure what it was. One day a college aged volunteer mentioned that she was working in the stables.

The veteran archaeologist told her she should not say that; they were not yet sure what the area had been used for. The stone troughs could have been used for other purposes, such as kneading troughs in a large communal bakery.

“Oh, no,” the young volunteer replied. “I grew up on a farm. We had many horses, and those marks on the edges of the stone troughs are the teeth marks of horses.”

The archaeologists looked more carefully at the marks. The young inexperienced volunteer was right. They set the troughs in rows between the stone posts, which they now realized the horses had been tied to. Later someone added the wrought iron horse silhouettes to the area. Now visitors who can’t identify horse teeth marks or kneading troughs can easily see what the area once was.

No city can exist without a source of fresh water, but so far we had not seen any water on the tel. We walked towards the south and came to a large open pit, 25 meters (82 feet) deep, with steel stairs winding down around its inner edge. We’ve been to enough Biblical sites to know what we were looking at. This was the access within the city walls to the source of water located outside the city walls. The steps are narrow and the descent steep. But it was only 183 steps down and 80 back up at the other end, according to the sign at the top, and most of us still had energy left. Besides, it was hot. Walking through the ancient stone tunnel was bound to be cooler than walking back down the path we had taken to the top of the tel.

As we entered the stone tunnel itself, a few people made expected comments about the “original Israelite period electric lights.” We walked through the tunnel on a boardwalk, built to allow tourists a safe path above the rough stone floor. The original chisel marks on the walls and ceiling were easily visible. This tunnel, like the access tunnels to the water sources in Jerusalem, Tel Sheva, and Hatzor, had been dug out by hand, by men using chisels and hammers. It would have been slow painstaking work, a few inches a day, through the solid bedrock. But it enabled the cities to survive for hundreds of years, withstanding sieges and droughts.

The only water in the tunnel today stands in a small pool at the far end. Over the centuries the water has found new paths. Earthquakes changed the original outlets. Debris has blocked feeder channels. New settlements and cities have tapped upstream sources. None of these factors, however, changes the achievement of the ancient engineers and builders, who managed, without today’s science or technology, to build the water tunnels. As I took a sip of water from my bottle after emerging from the tunnel, I once again marveled at the ingenuity and ability of the ancients to provide for their needs.

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