Mario Tobia, a student at Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem, found this figure head on his first day at the excavation.
Mario Tobia, a student at Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem, found this figure head on his first day at the excavation.

Abel Beth Maacah Dig Update

by Robert Mullins, Ph.D.

This past summer marked the fifth year of Azusa Pacific University’s archaeological excavation at Abel Beth Maacah with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Incredible progress has been made since we began our work there. Before our survey in 2012, this Old Testament mound was only known to contain the remains of ancient cities. Now, as a result of our work, we have learned that the origins of Abel Beth Maacah go back at least a thousand years before Abraham!

This city was much larger than the cities that followed it. This is truly amazing since most people think of Abraham as living at the beginning of history. We have also learned that during the time of Isaac and Jacob, Abel Beth Maacah was about 40 acres in size across and that its Canaanite inhabitants were protected by a thick city wall. Additionally, there was an acropolis at the highest part of the mound where the most important buildings once sat. The site appears to have maintained its enormity throughout the period of Moses and the Wilderness Wanderings.

During the time of the Judges and the early chapters of Samuel, the city was no longer protected by fortifications. Most Old Testament towns and villages at this time did not have walls; they were mainly farming villages. Abel Beth Maacah is unusual, though, in that the city had a large administrative-industrial complex containing evidence of iron forging (see 1 Sam 13:19) and religious activity during the age of Samuel, Saul, and David.

Within the complex, we found a room with a fallen standing stone, a unique ceramic cult stand ringed by petals, an altar, and several broken storage jars that once contained foodstuffs. This complex of buildings is unique in the archaeology of Israel. Passages in the Bible (2 Samuel 10:6, 8; 1 Chron 19:6) suggest that Abel Beth Maacah at this time was Aramean (the people of ancient Syria); perhaps even the capital of a small Aramean kingdom on Israel's northern flank. At some point during King David's reign, the city may have come under Israelite control: the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Samuel 20:14-22) describes the town as among "the peaceful and faithful in Israel" and as a "mother in Israel."

To learn more about the town after the time of David and Solomon, we went to the upper city where we uncovered part of a large administrative building from the time of Tiglath-pileser III's invasion of Israel’s northern kingdom in 733 BC (2 Kings 15:29).

In one of the rooms, we found a marvelous figurine head of a bearded man with his hair combed back and wearing a head band tied at the back. The head is made of faience (a glazed ceramic). It was once attached to a body which has since been lost. We knew the head did not belong to a deity, nor did it depict an Israelite or Phoenician. So who was he?

We consulted an art historian who believes that it depicts an Aramean, perhaps a king or other important official. We still have more research to do before we can come to a conclusion. If the head proves to depict an Aramean, it would suggest that the local Aramean population continued to live there as Israelite citizens long after Abel Beth Maacah fell under the sway of the United Monarchy and the northern kingdom of Israel. This not only fits what we know from the Bible about the diverse ethnic makeup of the northern kingdom, but it would fit a statement given in Joshua 13:13, "But the Israelites did not drive out the people of Geshur and Maacah, so they continue to live among the Israelites to this day" (NIV).

The head has been cleaned in the conservation lab and we are preparing it for publication in an academic journal. It is also slated for exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where the Dead Sea Scrolls are exhibited. When we return to the field next summer, we will certainly add more pieces to the puzzle of ancient Israel's past.

While the dig operates under the auspices of Azusa Pacific University, funding comes entirely from private donations. Should God lay it on your heart to support our project, please contact the Office of University Advancement at (626) 815-5333 or donate here.