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Site Identification: The Case of Jericho

The identification of Tell es-Sultan as biblical Jericho is uncertain, as the dating of the archaeological remains does not fit the supposed dating of the biblical conquest stories.

A view of Tell es-Sultan
A view of Tell es-Sultan

Imagine a time three thousand years from now. New York, once the mightiest city in the world, has become a heap of ruins, a mountain of rubble and stones, decayed wood, corroded iron. Its name is hardly remembered, its days of glory forgotten.

Imagine three thousand years from now a team of archaeologists starts digging among the ruins. They conclude that once an important city was located here. But how to discover which city it was? How would they be able to identify the site?

The archaeologist might get lucky: maybe they find a piece of a rusty metal board reading “City of New York.” That would certainly be a strong indication that they were digging a city called New York. Or they find the carbonized remains of a magazine, the New Yorker. That would be less of a clear indication, as the object might have been brought to the site from elsewhere. Maybe there are ancient documents mentioning the city of New York and describing where it was located. If the description fits, that would be an indication as well. Or they dig up a part of a large statue of a lady holding a torch, and someone would remember having seen an ancient image depicting the Statue of Liberty.

All these finds provide clues about which city is being excavated, but they also leave room for doubt. Objects, even large statues, are constantly being hauled from one place to another. Sites may have had different names in different periods, or several sites may have had the same name. And descriptions of locations and buildings are often ambiguous. Maybe the dating of the finds does not correspond to the period in which the site is supposed to have existed according to ancient texts.

The same problems surround the identification of ancient sites in our days. Some sites are cooperative. In 1738, archaeologists began excavating ancient Herculaneum, the twin sister of Pompeii that was equally buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. After a few weeks, workers uncovered a large building with several life-size statues and a building inscription mentioning the Theatrum Herculanensi. They had hit upon the main theater of the city of Herculaneum. Little room for doubt there.

Other sites are less forthcoming. The identification of Tell es-Sultan as ancient Jericho is a good example. According to the biblical texts, Jericho played an important role in the conquest of Canaan (Josh 6). These events (if historical at all) are commonly dated to around 1200 B.C.E., at the end of the Late Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron Age. However, excavations showed that Tell es-Sultan was not occupied during that period, leading many scholars to look at the biblical story of Jericho as a legendary or even fictional account that attached an imagined military event to the visible ruins of Tell es-Sultan, rather than a record of a historical event. But the description of Jericho in the biblical text also seems to fit the location of Tell es-Sultan. How to solve this riddle? Some scholars have searched for other tells to identify with biblical Jericho—without much success. Others have redated the conquest stories to the Late Bronze Age or even the end of the Middle Bronze Age in an effort to bring the biblical account and the archaeological record into line with one another. Others question the dating of the excavated remains—all to make a better fit. But every solution brings forth its own problems, and Tell es-Sultan has not yielded its secret yet.

  • Margreet L. Steiner

    Margreet L. Steiner is an archaeologist living in Leiden, the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Levant. She has published a large part of Kenyon’s excavations in Jerusalem. Her publications include Excavations in Jerusalem, 1961–1967, vol. 2 and vol. 3, (with H. J. Franken, Oxford University Press 1990) and The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant, with Ann  E. Killebrew. (Oxford University Press, 2014).