Excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir

Editorial Note

Most scholars think they have found Ai.  It's a site known as et-Tell with no remains from the time of Joshua (not even close).  Quite simply, there are two options: 1) follow the archaeologists and locate Ai at et-Tell (and reject the truth of Scripture) or 2) look for Ai somewhere else.

Bryant Wood and the Associates for Biblical Research are doing the latter.  It's not only a matter of believing the Bible, it's a matter of intelligent historical geography.  If there wasn't an agenda here (to denigrate the historicity of the Bible), frankly there is no way that scholars would have ever located Ai at et-Tell.  It absolutely must be somewhere else.

Only 1 kilometer away (less than a mile) is another site with remains from the time of Joshua (Late Bronze Age, 1400 B.C.).  Dr. Wood and his team have excavated here for five years.  The work isn't done yet, and the question isn't answered yet (whether Khirbet el-Maqatir is Ai or not), but the initial discoveries are very good.  The following is the most recent excavation report, reproduced here by permission.  Since the summer of 2000, the site has been off-limits to archaeologists because of the Palestinian violence.  



By Bryant G. Wood


From May 22 to June 15 a fifth season of excavation was carried out at Kh. el-Maqatir, 15 km (9 mi) north of Jerusalem. The project is sponsored by the Associates for Biblical Research, endorsed by the Near East Archaeological Society, and under the direction of the author. Two groups of volunteers, with over 60 in each group, participated in the dig. In addition, a tour group of about 50 joined the dig for one day, and a number of people living in Israel volunteered one or more days to help excavate. Participating consortium members included Berkshire Institute for Christian Studies, Bryan College, Dallas Theological Seminary, Master's College IBEX (Israel Bible Extension), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southwest Institute of Biblical and Theological Studies.  The following institutions were also represented: Francis Marion University, Gordon College, Grace Theological Seminary, Northwestern College, Ozark Christian College, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of North Carolina, Washington Bible College and Wheaton College.


Hard work by the core staff and dedicated volunteers during the 2000 dig season allowed a great deal to be accomplished. It was a breakthrough season in that solid evidence for the burning of the Canaanite fortress was recovered and the lines of both the east wall and the west walls were located. Tomb excavation was initiated under the direction of John Davis, professor at Grace Theological Seminary. One negative note is that between the 1999 and 2000 seasons, the southwestern sector of the Canaanite fortress was fenced off as part of an agricultural plot. Because of this, it was not possible to investigate the circular wall and possible southern defense wall discovered in 1999.



 The Ashes of Ai

Following the sacking of Ai, the Israelites burned the fortress as described in Joshua 8:28. In 1999 a layer of ash was discovered in Square G24. This season the ash was traced south into Square F24 where it was some 10 cm (4 in) thick. It lay on top of what appears to be a well-preserved flagstone pavement. On the east side of the square is a north-south line of stones, perhaps collapse from the eastern wall. The flagstone pavement here and a similar pavement in Squares R13 and R14 might be part of a "ring road" inside the fortress adjacent to the wall.


Squares R13 and R14 are west of the gate and just inside the northern wall. On top of the pavement exposed in these squares was a thin layer of ash, as well as clumps of burned material. In addition to this graphic evidence for destruction, there was also indirect evidence. On both the east and west sides of the fortress pottery from the early fortress phase was found that was "metallic" hard. It is clear that this pottery had been refired, quite possibly when the fortress was burned by the Israelites.


A puzzling feature of Squares R13 and R14, as well as Square S14 excavated in 1998, is the presence of large megalithic stones in random positions. In Square R14 several of the stones are lying on 20-25 cm (8-10 in) of soil above the flagstone pavement. Similar stones have been found on the east side of the gate in Squares Q19 and P19. Evidently, these stones were part of the fortification system on either side of the gate. They later collapsed, perhaps from earthquake, and gravitated to their present locations.


The Western Wall

Efforts over the past several seasons to locate the western wall of the fortress have been futile. The western portion of the fortress was heavily robbed out by the builders of the Byzantine monastery a short distance away on the summit of the hill on which Kh. el-Maqatir is located. Persistence finally paid off. This season in Square M8 the inner face of the west wall was found. It appears that the outer face, in Square M7 to the west, was robbed out. The wall core of smaller stones remains, however, resulting in a surviving width of 3.3 m (11 ft). To the east is a stone fill, or terrace, 4.7 m (15 ft) wide which runs parallel to the inside of the western wall. In 1998 the retaining wall for the terrace was traced for a distance of ca. 40 m (130 ft). The terrace evidently was built on the sloping west side of the fortress to provide a foundation for the ring road.


Square P19--The First Well-Defined Structure Inside the Fortress

Remnants of the LB I fortress have generally been found at or just below the surface. Because of extensive agricultural activity, these remains are badly disturbed. That was the case in Square P19. What appears to be the corner of a building was found on the north side of the square. It is formed by two poorly-preserved walls ca. 0.9 m (3 ft) wide. The northernmost wall is oriented northwest-southeast, parallel to the line of the fortress wall, which was originally a few meters to the northeast. Inside the structure were remnants of a paved floor with some of the stones heavily calcined, possibly from the fire that destroyed the fortress. Calcination of the bedrock from extreme heat has also been observed in Squares P17, P18, Q17 and Q20 in the vicinity of the gate.


Square N23 Storage Pit (Did the Israelites do it?)

A test probe was made in Square N23 40 m (130 ft) southeast of the gate for the purpose of locating the east wall of the fortress. Although the wall was not found here, a very interesting feature was found. A storage pit was cut into the bedrock on the north side of the probe trench. Its covering stone was still in position. It is bottle-shaped and squarish in cross section, measuring ca. 1.5 x 1.5 m (5 x 5 ft). The pit is 2.2 m (7 ft) deep with an opening ca. 45 cm (18 in) in diameter. Filling the pit to a depth of about 1.3 m (4 ft) was soft, fine, soil. It appears that the soil sifted in through the crack between the covering stone and the edge of the opening. In addition to soil, there were a number of pottery sherds, evidently having also sifted in through the crack. All of the pottery was from the time of Joshua and had been refired, i.e., subjected to a very high temperature subsequent to its manufacture.


Taking all this evidence together, it seems that the pit was emptied of its contents at the end of the life of the Canaanite fortress and the cover carefully put back in position. The fortress was then burned and the cover became hidden from view. Over the centuries soil filtered into the pit along with pottery sherds from the time of destruction. Could the Israelites have emptied the pit of its contents when they plundered Ai (Joshua 8:27)? Was it an Israelite who replaced the cover, not to be touched again until our ABR team excavated Square N23 3400 years later?



 Work continued along the north wall of the LB I fortress. Approximately 200 years after the destruction of the fortress, in the latter part of the period of the judges, new occupants built structures along the ruined north wall. These new occupants were most likely Israelites, as the Israelites dominated the central hill country at that time. They cleared away the fill stones of the north wall, but left the outer face as the back wall of their new buildings. The Iron Age I structures have been found so far in Squares Q9 and R11. They were poorly constructed of stone walls one stone wide. A hard-packed clay floor was found in one of the rooms in Square R11. Beneath the building in Square Q9 a nearly complete cooking pot from the construction phase of the fortress was found.



Southern Fortress Wall Identified

During the 1999 season a 3.6 m (12 ft) wide wall was excavated in Square G24. There was not time to section the wall for dating purposes. Pottery from a section completed this season indicates that the wall was constructed in the Hasmonean period. The wall continues for some distance to the east and appears to be the southern wall of the Hasmonean fortress.


An Interior Structure

In Square P18 the foundations of a northwest-southeast wall and an intersecting northeast-southwest wall were found just below the surface. The continuation of the northwest-southeast wall was found in Square P17 in 1997. Although no intact floors were found in conjunction with these walls, the pottery found and the location of the P17 wall in front of the LB I gate suggest a Hasmonean date for the structure.


A Jewish Miqveh

A test probe was dug in Square L26 in search of the eastern wall of the Canaanite fortress. Steps were found cut in the bedrock that lead to an arched entrance to an underground chamber. Inside the chamber the steps continue to the back. It was plastered and measures 2.2 x 2.5 m (7.5 x 8 ft) x 1.7 m (5.5 ft) high. The design of the chamber indicates that it was a Jewish ritual bath, a miqveh, common in the first century BC. The presence of a miqveh at the site verifies our contention, based on dating, that the second fortress at Kh. el-Maqatir was built and occupied by the Hasmoneans.



In Square N23 where the storage pit was found, a small fire pit was discovered 1 m (3 ft) to the southeast. It was carved into bedrock and contained Byzantine pottery. A substantial wall oriented northeast-southwest was built over the pit. It extended into the east balk and was at least 1.5 m (5 ft) wide. Since the pit dates to the Byzantine period, the wall most likely was built in this period and is perhaps related to the nearby monastery.



Three tombs representing each of the three major phases of occupation at the site were excavated in the vicinity of Kh. el-Maqatir. All three had been robbed in antiquity. Human remains in the form of bone fragments and teeth were found in two of the tombs. Small finds were sparse.


Tomb 4, dating to the late Middle Bronze-early Late Bronze period, is located in Square AA5 outside the southwest wall of the fortress. It is a single-chamber tomb ca. 1.5 x 2.2 m (5 x 7 ft) and 1 m (3 ft) high. The entrance was blocked by a rectangular sealing stone ca. 60 cm (24 in) wide, 50 cm (20 in) high, and 26 cm (10 in) thick. In addition to a few bone fragments and teeth, 5 beads, 3 stone tools and the rim of an alabaster vessel were found.


Tomb 2, located 426 m (466 yd) southeast of the O23 benchmark is from the Late Hellenistic-Early Roman period. It has a rectangular entrance and a main chamber measuring ca. 2.5 x 2.5 m (8 x8 ft). Off the main chamber are seven kokhim, or burial chambers, each one being ca. 50 cm (1.6 ft) wide and 1 m (3.3 ft) high. The depth varies from 55 cm (1.8 ft) to 2.2 m (7 ft). The only ancient remains in the tomb were pottery sherds and human bone fragments and teeth. Tomb robbers removed whatever offerings might originally have been placed in the tomb.


Tomb 1 is Byzantine in date and is a single-chamber tomb located 384 m (420 yd) southeast of the O23 benchmark. The tomb robbers left the blocking stone, 55 cm (1.8 ft) square x 20 cm (8 in) thick, in position in the entrance. Inside, the chamber is ca. 1.7 m (5.5 ft) wide, 1.5 m (4.9 ft) deep and 1.1 m (3.6 ft) high. Other than pottery sherds and fragments of glass vessels, there were no ancient remains in the tomb.



Five years of hard work at Kh. el-Maqatir have produced significant results. The plan of the fortress from Joshua's time is slowly coming into focus. With the discovery of evidence for the burning of the fortress, we now have all the proof needed to make a strong case that Kh. el-Maqatir is the Ai of Joshua 7 8. Should we terminate the project? Hardly! Although we have plenty of common pottery from the time of Joshua, we are still lacking imported and  painted pottery, the primary diagnostic indicators for the LB I period. Imported and local painted pottery were the expensive fancy wares of the time and would not have been the everyday pottery in use at a military outpost. The only place it might have been used was in the commandant's house. In addition, officials at a 15th century BC border fortress would have needed to maintain contact with other centers. One type of communication in use at that time was written communiqués‚ in the form of cuneiform tablets. These most likely would have been kept at the administrative center the commandant's house. So, the search is on for the commandant's house! In addition, the more of the fortress we uncover, the stronger will be the evidence that we have discovered a 15th century BC fortress that should be identified as the Ai of Joshua 7-8. There are many more years of work yet to be done at Kh. el-Maqatir.


For more photographs, information and links, see Khirbet el-Maqatir and et-Tell.