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NOBTS team digs for date of Canaanite water system

JERUSALEM (BP) — R.A.S. Macalister faced a crucial decision in late 1907 when he reached the bottom of the ancient Gezer Water System in Israel — drain and excavate the pool at the bottom step or explore the cavern beyond the pool. He chose to bypass the pool and excavate the cavern.

Macalister had no way of knowing the implications his decision would have on establishing a date for the system. Now, more than a hundred years after Macalister’s dig, a reexcavation of the water system by a team of archaeologists from the Moskau Institute of Archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) is bringing the implications of Macalister’s choice into clear focus.

Leaders of the NOBTS/INPA dig believe Macalister’s choice preserved valuable data that will help establish a date for the tunnel’s construction. This summer, the team began excavating the pool area searching for datable material and the water’s source.

The Old Testament mentions Gezer 14 times. One of the more important biblical entries reports that an Egyptian pharaoh, who is not named, conquered Canaanite Gezer and gave it to Solomon as a dowry (1 Kings 9:16). The account records that Solomon rebuilt and fortified Gezer along with the cities of Hazor and Megiddo. Archaeologists have identified a common city gate type which certainly could be attributed to Solomon at these three sites.

In 2005, Steve Ortiz renewed the excavations at Gezer to study the area near the Solomonic gate with a consortium of schools that included both NOBTS and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The NOBTS/INPA water system reexcavation, led by NOBTS professors Dan Warner, Dennis Cole and Jim Parker and INPA chief archaeologist Tsvika Tsuk, flowed out of the main Gezer dig, currently sponsored by Southwestern.

The Pool and the Cavern

In Macalister’s early 1908 quarterly excavation report, he presented a detailed explanation of the water system and explained his decision to move on to the cavern, calling the excavation of the pool “a difficult, expensive and (from the archaeological point of view) profitless task.” To facilitate the crossing of the pool area, Macalister laid a “causeway” of stones, effectively sealing the ancient content below. Late in the 2012 dig season the NOBTS/INPA team discovered a layer of white chalky stones which had blended together and covered most of the pool surface. Archaeologists are certain the layer is Macalister’s causeway.

“For us this was a gold mine,” said Dan Warner, associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at NOBTS. “When Macalister laid the causeway over the water pool, he preserved for us everything underneath from further contamination and other intrusions from his excavation.”

When NOBTS and INPA began reexcavating the water system in 2010, establishing a date for the system’s construction was the foremost goal. Several dates for construction have been proposed over the years. Macalister believed that the water system is a product of the Middle Bronze IIB period during the height of Gezer’s influence as a Canaanite city-state. Others attribute construction of the system to Late Bronze Age Canaanites. Another prevalent view attributes construction to the Israelites during the time of Ahab. The difference between the earliest and latest dates for construction is around 800-900 years.

Late or early, dating of the system offers insights into the peoples of the Bible and their understanding of engineering and hydrology. Proving one of the earlier dates, for instance, would help one better understand the development of the engineering skills the Canaanites possessed and contribute to a better understanding of the geopolitical situation.

The 2013 Expedition

The team went into the three-week dig season in May and June determined to find the bottom step of the water shaft and systematically excavate the area under the causeway. Most of the first two weeks of the dig were spent searching for the bottom step and cleaning Macalister’s causeway. Tons of debris and rocks were removed in the process. When the bottom step was located and the causeway area clear, the team excavated three probes in the pool area.

Each of the pool probes reached a depth of more than six feet before the end of the season and the bottom of the pool was discovered in only the Eastern probe, located just below the bottom step of the water shaft.

The material encountered below the causeway was bagged and pulled from the water system by a crane. Once on the surface, volunteers sifted the wet silty mud using wire mesh screens and water. The probes yielded large amounts of broken pottery shards, charcoal samples and other ancient material. The dig’s directors are confident pottery from the water pool will yield an approximate date for the construction of the water system. After preliminary reading of the pottery in the field, the shards and others items were transported to pottery experts for further analysis. A separate lab will examine and establish the age of the charcoal samples.

Completing the research in the Gezer water system will require a fifth dig season in the tunnel. NOBTS and INPA will return to the site in May and June of 2014 to complete the systematic excavation of the water pool. Once the water pool is completely cleared, excavators expect to have a better understanding of the source of the water and a solid dating of the system. All of the material removed from the pool will be wet sifted and the items discovered in this sifting process will be analyzed in the lab. After the 2014 dig season and subsequent analysis, the NOBTS/INPA team will publish its findings.

Completing Unfinished Work

Macalister’s discovery of the water system was an important step in understanding the ancient city of Gezer and its inhabitants. He produced detailed descriptions, drawings and measurements of the system, offering the NOBTS/INPA team valuable data for planning their dig.

But in many ways, Macalister’s excavation work in the cavern was ultimately a disappointment, according to archaeologists. The cavern probes yielded little ancient material and shortly after Macalister completed his cavern probes, torrential rains sent all the rocks, dirt and debris his team had removed back down into the water system, archaeologists said. With the system backfilled, Macalister moved on to excavate other areas at Gezer.

The water system was left untouched for more than 100 years. By the time the NOBTS/INPA team began excavating the water system in 2010, more than two thirds of the rock-hewn shaft was filled with debris. Dating the material Macalister left below the causeway, and ultimately establishing a date for construction, is expected to help complete the unfinished work in the water system.
Gary Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For information about the 2014 Gezer Water System dig, contact Dan Warner ([email protected]) or Dennis Cole ([email protected]) at NOBTS. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).