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Archaeology in Israel: Tel en-Nabeh

Tell en-Nabeh, located 12 km north of Jerusalem on the southern outskirts of Ramallah, is identified with Biblical Mizpah of Benjamin (contra claims for Nebi Samwil where the archaeological remains do not match the historical data on the site). Approximately 75% of the site was excavated between 1926 and 1935 by William F. Badè of what is now Pacific School of Religion, making it the most broadly excavated settlement in ancient Israel.

The earliest occupation on the tell (Stratum 5) dates to the Early Bronze I period, ca. 3100 BC. For the most part this is limited to a handful of cave tombs and their contents. However, the northwest corner of the site contained relatively high concentrations of EB I pottery, suggesting that any dwellings were located there.

After a gap in occupation of almost 2000 years Tell en-Nabeh was preoccupied during the Iron I period, sometime between 1200-1100 BC. The structures associated with this Stratum 4 have largely disappeared. Such architecture as does survive is limited to subterranean features such as silos and some cisterns. Below ground storage facilities at many Iron I sites are one of the hall marks of the Israelite settlement process. Nabeh also produced collar rim storage jars and cooking pots typical of this era. Mizpah was the center of several confrontations with the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:5ff), so it is perhaps not surprising to find Philistine bi-chrome pottery there. What is interesting, however, is that this Philistine pottery was made from local clays. Either a Philistine potter was working in the area, or the Israelites were copying this pottery for themselves.

Stratum 3 is a typical Iron II (ca. 950-586 BC) hill country town covering 2.4 ha. The houses are arranged in concentric bands around the site, in a step like fashion which makes use of the natural terracing of the hill. At least one road, probably two in places, provide access around the interior of the town, supplemented by occasional cross roads. Most houses are of the three room variety; that is, two long rooms, with a single room across the back. Average size for such structures was ca. 65m2 The site contained about 200 dwellings, suggesting a population of 800-1000.

Initially, in Stratum 3C (ca. 950 BC), the town had very limited fortifications, only the back rooms/walls of the houses around the perimeter of the town provided any form of defense. In Stratum 3B a massive fortification system was added just down slope of this town. This consisted of a wall averaging 4.5 m thick built in an inset-offset fashion. Large towers, often over 6.5 m thick, are located along the length of the wall. In particularly important places stone revetments and moats were added, giving this relatively small settlement defenses 14+ m across! An inner and outer gate system 70 m long and at least 30 m wide secured entry to the town. These defenses were no doubt added by King Asa of Judah in the early 9th c. to turn Mizpah into his northern bastion against attacks from the Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 15:22). The importance of Nabeh as a northern fortress is also attested by the 86 royal LMLK stamps recovered; evidence of King Hezekiah's efforts to prepare for the Assyrian invasion of 701 B.C.

Olive and grape presses were found either in the town, or immediately outside and provide information on some of the agricultural practices carried out at Tell en-Nabeh. The site also yielded a rich collection of artifactual remains, such as fertility figurines, bronze and iron utensils, ostraca, jewelry, weights and more. A small cemetery of Iron Age bench tombs was located just beyond the town limits, mainly to the west and north, providing information on Judahite burial practices.

Stratum 3 was systematically dismantled and leveled to make room for a completely new architectural arrangement in Stratum 2, which belongs to the Babylonian-Persian periods and dates ca. 586-400 BC. The outer gate was also demolished to make room for additional housing. This is the zenith of Nabeh's development and corresponds well with the Biblical stories involving Mizpah in Jeremiah 40-41. The site contained at least six spacious four room house, almost double the size of the Stratum 3 dwellings. Not only are these structures larger, but they are better constructed than their predecessors. Important wall junctions contain stones of near ashlar quality, pillars are expertly crafted monoliths, more stone paved floors are in evidence. Most likely these are the homes of important officials in the administration of Gedaliah, the Judahite placed in charged of the ruined kingdom of Judah after the Babylonian invasion and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Other large buildings dot the site. In the north central area was a spacious courtyard structure reminiscent of Mesopotamian style residences. A cluster of fragmentary walls and rooms in the southwest part of the site indicates the probable existence of storage and administrative facilities. West of the old inner gate was found a long stretch of wall which seems to mark an enclosure for unexcavated structures farther west. All of these structures are far larger than anything from Stratum 3 and are laid out with no consideration or reuse of the earlier buildings. The population probably numbered between 400-500 individuals.

Artifactual remains are especially significant and add greatly to our understanding of Judah in the dark years following the Babylonian attack. Stamp impressions reading M(W)H signify resources probably sent from a royal estate at Mozah, just west of Jerusalem. Fortythree such impressions are known from an area roughly corresponding to the area of the tribe of Benjamin, a narrow strip of territory running just north of Jerusalem. Thirty of these impressions come from Nabeh. This shows not only that Nabeh was the key site in the distribution of jars stamped in this way, but also suggests the limited area Gedaliah could draw on for resources. One of the most striking artifacts is the seal of "Ja'azaniah, the Servant of the King." This seal is decorated with a rooster in a fighting stance and may belong to the very Ja'azaniah who was one of the officers who joined Gedaliah at Mizpah (2 Kings 25:23 and Jermiah 40:8)

Objects connected with the Babylonian presence were also recovered. First are fragments of three Mesopotamian bath tub shape clay coffins. A bronze beaker, common in Mesopotamian burials, was found in the vicinity of one of the coffin fragments and possibly came from it originally. Next is a slender fragment of a bronze circlet bearing a dedicatory inscription in Babylonian cuneiform. An ostracon bearing a Babylonian name incised in Hebrew characters was found in a cistern. Finally, four so-called Skythian arrowheads may indicate the presence of Babylonian soldiers.

Storage jars and deep bowls decorated with impressed wedges and circles are very abundant at Tell en-Nabeh. Similar vessels are known primarily from the area of Judah. Some examples are also now known from Jordan and north Arabia, perhaps suggesting commere across this region. Greek pottery dating to the mid 6th to late 5th century BC was also found. These two groups of ceramics probably indicate the gradual revival of foreign trade in Judah as conditions gradually improved through the 6th c. Eighteen Yehud impressions attest to Mizpah's importance down into the Persian period, as suggested by Nehemiah 3.

Stratum 1 is mixed material from several periods. Among the finds are a watch tower, grape press and pottery kilns which may be evidence for an agricultural estate at Mizpah in the Hellenistic-Roman periods. This may tie in with the brief reference to Mizpah in 1 Maccabees 3:46.

All in all the material remains from Tell en-Nabeh are an extremely nice fit with the Biblical records pertaining to Mizpah of Benjamin.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry