At the beginning of the 20th century, when Jerusalem, still centered around its ancient core, was surrounded by agricultural land and orchards, 20 mysterious earth-and-stone mounds rose above the city’s western horizon, clearly visible from afar. Today several of them have disappeared, flattened by excavation or by the development of new neighborhoods. But these enigmatic man-made mounds have mystified archaeologists since they were first noticed in the 1870s. Were they burial mounds with tombs inside? Were they places for some kind of cultic observances? Why were they clustered on one side of Jerusalem and nowhere else in the country?
The new interpretation offered here links Biblical texts and archaeological evidence. I propose a startling explanation: Each of these tumuli—artificial, truncated, cone-shaped mounds—marks the place where crowds of ancient Judahites gathered to commemorate the death of one of the kings of Judah in the tenth to seventh centuries B.C.E., and each of them served as a memorial mound.
All but one of the mounds are clustered in three groups, roughly five miles from the Old City. Several are now within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. The mounds were first described in the Survey of Western Palestine (SWP), published in 1874 by the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). These classic volumes describe the land and all its ancient remains visible at the time. In those days, more than a century ago, this area to the west of Jerusalem was wild, rugged and unwelcoming.Few people went there (certainly no pilgrims or travelers), deterred by rumors of robbers and lawless villagers.
One of the PEF surveyors, a pioneer in the research of Palestine named Charles F. Tyrwhitt Drake, who is buried in the Protestant cemetery on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, noticed seven of these artificial mounds. He wrote in the PEF Quarterly Statement of 1874: “We came across some very curious mounds… The mounds vary from twelve to thirty feet in height, and from fifteen to fifty feet in diameter at top. The construction of all seems identical. Rough stones of no great size are closely packed with chips and a certain proportion of mould, and thus form a very compact mass, which can only have been erected with the expenditure of much labour. Hence the prima-facie view is that they were piled up for some special and important purpose.”1 Tyrwhitt Drake guessed that the structures were tombs, probably of foreigners, and concluded that “a thorough examination of one of them would… likely prove of great interest.”
Tyrwhitt Drake also reported that “small tentative excavations—by Captain Charles Warren, R.E. [Royal Engineers], as I am told—have been made in the mound named El Barish.” But we know nothing about the results of these “tentative excavations.”
The mounds were then ignored, regarded as unrelated to Jerusalem, until the great American Biblical archaeologist and Semitics scholar William Foxwell Albright, who excavated in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s and whose students at Johns Hopkins University dominated Biblical archaeology for more than a generation, took an interest in these mysterious mounds. Indeed, one of Albright’s first digs, after he arrived in the Holy Land in 1920, was at one of them. His efforts left the mound scarred by a trench across its peak, whose profile from afar earned it the sobriquet “Albright’s Behind.” Surrounded by desolate hills in the 1920s, the mound today is protected by a high fence, amid the walks and playgrounds of the new neighborhood of Givat Massu’ah. Few suspect that it is more than just a pile of earth.
In 1923 Albright dug for only five days at what was later identified as mound 2. He reported on his excavation in a letter to the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research: “The tumulus proved a surprise. Instead of being either Neolithic or Bronze Age it turned out to be most certainly Early-Iron… The potsherds are characteristically eleventh century B.C.”2 Albright went on to propose a theory of Philistine origins for the mounds (although no mounds similar to these are known in the coastal plain—the land of the Philistines). He noted that the pottery in the mound dates to the same era as pottery from tumuli in Thessaly, Greece—between 1200 and 1000 B.C.E. He concluded that “the tumuli were not erected by natives, but by an invading army, so that the probability that they were raised by the Philistines during the age of Samuel, Saul and David is very great.” Soon thereafter, Albright’s dating of mound 2 was seemingly confirmed when he compared the few cooking pot fragments and other sherds found in the tumulus to stratigraphically-dated 11th century B.C.E. pottery he excavated from level II at what is thought to be Gibeah (Tel el Fûl), north of Jerusalem. Gibeah, according to the Biblical sources, was King Saul’s capital in the late 11th century B.C.E.
As for the function of the mounds, Albright followed Tyrwhitt Drake, who had already proposed that they were tombs. But he found no burial in his excavation. Unfortunately, Albright left no photographs or drawings of the pottery he found in the mound.
The tumuli were then forgotten for the next 30 years; not a single journal article mentioned them. But war and politics brought changes. In the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, control of Jerusalem was divided between the Kingdom of Jordan and the new State of Israel. The historical parts of Jerusalem—the walled Old City and Jerusalem’s ancient core at the City of David—ended up under Jordanian control. Most of the new city was part of Israel, surrounded on the east, south and north like a horseshoe by the Jordanian-controlled area. Only the western side of the new city was available for further Israeli development. When new neighborhoods were planned there, the mounds were “rediscovered.”
In 1953 Israeli archaeologist Ruth Amiran excavated three of the mounds and surveyed the others, identifying and numbering 19 mounds within a distance of less than three miles.3 Each mound was set on top or on the slope of a hill overlooking a large open area. A 20th mound was not numbered, but rather given the name Gizo after the Arabic name for the site (Beit Giz). It lies about ten miles northwest of the others. Its shape, size, conspicuous location on top of a ridge and date (indicated by some surface Iron Age sherds) led Amiran to include it with the others in her survey list. However, it seems not to belong to the same phenomenon as those just west of Jerusalem.
Amiran excavated mound 5 down to its foundations. This was the first dig I ever visited in the vicinity of Jerusalem. I was in elementary school. I went there with my father’s friend who often took me hiking to “faraway” places. At the time, there were no houses in that area. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It is hard to imagine that desolate landscape now. Today the 4area is near Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menah.em, densely populated neighborhoods in western Jerusalem.
Amiran began her excavation of mound 5 by exposing a ring wall at the base, divided into 17 sections or facets, each 5 meters long (about 16 feet or 10 Biblical cubits), separated by the width of a single protruding stone. Additional narrow walls encircled the mound higher up on the slope. The inner walls were probably used to contain fill later piled within the base wall. Amiran then dug a 16-foot-wide trench through the heart of the mound, later widening the trench and removing the entire mound.
Beneath the fill comprising the mound she found a platform, partially paved with stone slabs, located on top of a flat, quarried, rocky surface. The paved platform was not in the geometrical center of the mound.
There were two entryways through the outer ring wall to the paved platform. One, with steps, led directly to it. A pit 3 feet deep was located in the paved platform; fine charcoal material filled this pit.
On a pyre near the platform Amiran found burned organic material, which she identified as “charcoal pieces,burnt animal bones, and black earth saturated with fat.” Here she found most of the few sherds she discovered. Amiran noted that a mini-tumulus—a small pile of stones—was “heaped rather carefully over the platform and immediately around it,” covering also the remains of the pyre. This entire structure was covered by the stones and earth-fill of the tumulus.
In addition to her excavation of mound 5, Amiran investigated mound 6 and also conducted a small trial dig into mound 4, which I would later explore myself. She concluded from the potsherds and from the few vessels that could be reconstructed that the three mounds date to the time of the late kingdom of Judah, the seventh century B.C.E. In a 1958 article Amiran wrote of the Jerusalem mounds, “The fact that no interment or traces of any human bones were found in the pit or beside it, and the ceremonial character of the flight of steps leading to the platform, led us to [conclude that] the whole site [is] a high place (bamah).” But, she added: “It should be stated frankly that this suggestion of the mound as a bamah [a place where cultic rituals were performed, often translated as “high place” in English Bibles] was based on the absence of a burial in the excavated tumulus. It seems to me now that [the evidence of the excavation] does corroborate the interpretation of the tumulus as a tomb,”5 despite the lack of any sign of a burial. In support she refers to tumuli in Anatolia and to a theory of Albright’s, both of which suggest that burials were sometimes located outside the tumuli associated with them.
But in oral communications Amiran never putmuch stock in this tomb interpretation and returned to her notion of the mounds as high places for some religious rites. It is this view that is accepted by most scholars today.
Amiran identified the platform within the mound as the bamah and speculated that the bamah was later defiled by the righteous kings of Judah, most probably Josiah, who sought to purify the cult and concentrate it at the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23). After the defilement, the bamah, according to Amiran, was covered by heaps of stones and earth in order to destroy it.
If Amiran is correct about the defilement, the heaping of stones, in fact, monumentalized the site instead of destroying it. Moreover, when the Bible speaks of “defiling” the bamot (plural of bamah), it uses the word hesir, best translated as “shaved off” (see, for example, 2 Kings 18:4, 22; 23:19; 2 Chronicles 17:6, 32:12; Isaiah 36:7). This, too, is inconsistent with Amiran’s theory.
Following Amiran’s excavation of tumulus 5, Ze’ev Yeivin of the Israel Department of Antiquities excavated tumulus 3. Yeivin agreed with Amiran’s conclusions that the tumuli were defiled bamot, though he did not find either a platform or a “mini tumulus” under mound 3. However what little pottery was found in this mound dated to the seventh century B.C.E.6
Since 1958, there have been only passing references to these intriguing tumuli; most uncritically accept Amiran’s interpretation of the mounds as cultic high places, or bamot.
I have a very different explanation of the mounds, one that is influenced by a visit I made in 1961 to the excavations near Salamis, on the eastern coast of Cyprus, opposite Syria. The eminent Cypriot scholar Vassos Karageorghis excavated a royal cemetery there in which some of the tombs consisted of artificial mounds or tumuli. The most intriguing was tumulus 77.7 He anticipated finding a burial, as he had at another Salamis mound (3), but in tumulus 77 he reached bedrock without finding a tomb. When he widened his trench he discovered—buried under the earth at the bottom of the tumulus—a platform built of mudbricks with steps around it. Atop the stepped platform, but not at its geometrical center, was a small stone inner tumulus. After carefully dismantling this mini-tumulus Karageorghis found a circular pyre with the remains of offerings.
The mini-tumulus was surrounded by 16 holes cut into the mudbrick platform, each of which contained remnants of burnt wood. The finds from the pyre itself included several clay faces (both male and female), feet and palms of hands, a horse’s head and a woman’s breast. The imprint of wood appeared on the inside of the faces, suggesting that moist clay effigies had been pressed against wooden poles that were fixed in the 16 holes. When the poles were burned, the effigies were fired. Gold buttons and threads from royal garments found in the ashes suggested that the effigies were clothed in regal attire. Karageorghis identified the mound as the place of a memorial ceremony for Nicocreon, a monarch of Salamis, who committed suicide in 311 B.C.E. together with about 15 members of the royal family when an enemy threatened the city.
Tumulus 77 from Salamis was built by the same method as the Jerusalem tumuli: The platform base and pyre plus the mini-tumulus were covered with earth- and stone-fill. Concentric ring walls of decreasing diameter with stone-fill inside gave the mound its conical shape. The Salamis mound was not simply a careless piling of stones—and neither are the Jerusalem tumuli. Amiran described the mounds as having been made in stages; in fact, they were built up like multi-tiered wedding cakes.
I was troubled by Amiran’s interpretation of the tumuli as cultic high places. People want their church, their chapel, their place of worship very close to where they live. Where then is a nearby settlement? Five miles fromJerusalem is very far. Moreover, we read in the Bible (Deuteronomy 12:2, 1 Kings 14:23, 2 Chronicles 28:4) that the bamot, the high places, were on every hill and under every tree. That we have these mounds only west of Jerusalem—and not near Hebron, Bethlehem, Lachish or any other site in the kingdom of Judah—argues against their being the bamot of the Biblical account.
In addition, if the mounds were cultic high places, we should find pottery scattered about with dates spanning a long period of time, left by visitors enjoying a picnic near the high place. But hardly any pottery has been found in or around the mounds. Amiran found only one restorable cooking pot and very few potsherds. And why did the excavators not discover any cultic objects—vessels, incense burners, incense altars? All the pottery was regular household ware.
The route to my explanation of the function of the Jerusalem tumuli lies through the Bible.
The Second Book of Chronicles tells about the deathof King Hezekiah in 697 B.C.E.: “Hezekiah slept with his fathers and they buried him with the sons of David, and all of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem honored him at his death” (2 Chronicles 32:33).
The “honor” paid by all of Judah and Jerusalem is mentioned after the king was buried, so it apparently does not refer to the funeral. Giving honor is a separate matter.
Second Chronicles relates that King Asa of Judah, who died in about 867 B.C.E., was buried in “his own sepulcher that he had made for himself in the City of David.” He was put on a bier of spices and other precious materials. The text then adds: “A very great fire was made in his honor” (2 Chronicles 16:14).
By contrast, Jehoram—the mid-ninth-century B.C.E. king of Judah whom, according to the Bible, the Lord inflicted with a gruesome disease (his bowels dropped out and he died)—did not receive an honorary fire: “His people made no fire for him, as they had for his forefathers” (2 Chronicles 21:19).
The Book of Chronicles is a late and ideologically slanted source that zealously protects the legacy of the Davidic dynasty. Just kings get their reward and bad ones—like Jehoram—receive their punishment. No fires for them.
Corroboration of this practice referred to in Chronicles with respect to Jehoram also comes from the Book of Jeremiah. Regarding Zedekiah, the last king of Judah (who ruled 597–586 B.C.E.), Jeremiah prophesied: “You will die in peace and, like the fires for your royal fathers, they will burn fire for you in your memory, and lament hoi adon [alas master]” (Jeremiah 34:5). This prophecy was never fulfilled because of Zedekiah’s disobedience (Zedekiah and the people of Jerusalem had at first freed their Hebrew slaves, but then enslaved them again): Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, killed his sons, blinded Zedekiah and deported him to Babylon (Jeremiah 34:21; 2 Kings 25:7). But the important point is that the practice of memorial fires is confirmed.8
I have pieced together a plausible series of events based on Biblical and archaeological evidence: A king died. The news took time to spread throughout the kingdom. A month or so after the king had been buried within the City of David, a ceremony took place for all the people (2 Chronicles 32:33). There was no space for them in the densely built up and narrow streets of Jerusalem. To avoid damaging agricultural plantations that ringed the city, they gathered on the barren hills outside the city, probably on land that was royal domain.
The entire ceremony took only a few hours. Aplatform was prepared. Around it the crowd chanted laments. Perhaps there were a few speeches, and then a huge fire was ignited in memory of the deceased monarch. Afterward each participant took a basket of stones and dirt and piled the material within rings of stone walls in order to cover the place of burning, forming a large artificial memorial mound.
It is interesting that there are 19 (or 20) of these mounds. Between kings David and Zedekiah, the last king of the House of David, there were 21 kings. The existence of, say, 40 mounds—not to mention only one or two—would create a problem for my interpretation. Even if some of the kings were not honored with a memorial mound (as the Book of Chronicles says with regard to Jehoram), or even if some other high official was honored in this way, the number of mounds more or less fits with the number of kings of Judah. It is not proof, but it is a detail to bear in mind.9
I first offered this interpretation of the Jerusalem tumuli at an archaeological congress in Israel in 1975 and received a very positive response. Still, I was in doubt.
The opportunity to test the idea came in 1983, exactly 60 years after Albright’s tumulus excavation and 30 years after that of Amiran. I received a telephone call from the Jerusalem district archaeologist Dan Bahat telling me that the neighborhood of Kiryat Menah
For one week in February 1983 in the freezing cold, battered by rain and even snow, I went to the tumulus with a group of my students from the American Institute of Holyland Studies (now the Jerusalem University College). I started the excavation on the northeastern side, closest to the area endangered by expansion of the community center. I also recalled that the platform in the mini-tumulus, the pit and the stairs found by Amiran in tumulus 5 were on the eastern side.
Moreover, since the mounds were all west of Jerusalem, they were approached on their eastern flanks by people coming from the city. Therefore we anticipated that the main activity took place on that side. We excavated a trench parallel to the bottom of the mound, and then we excavated three 5-by-5-meter squares up the slope.
We quickly hit pay dirt—a concentration of restorable storage jars, bowls and jugs, and what seemed to be the place of burning, as indicated by the presence of dark soil. Architecturally, we excavated an ancient foundation trench cut in the bedrock for the outer perimeter wall. We also found ring walls, each of decreasing diameter, from the base to the top, which retained the stone and earth fill that created the mound. There were also radial walls perpendicular to the ring walls. (Karageorghis found the same construction technique in his tumulus 77 at Salamis.)
Among the pottery were two so-called l’melekh handles. L’melekh jar handles are stamped with four Hebrew letters, LMLK, meaning “[belonging] to the king,” and thename of one of four cities, plus either a winged scarab (a beetle) or a winged sun-disk. One of the l’melekh handles found in tumulus 4 was stamped with a four-winged scarab, and the other was stamped with a two-winged sun-disk. L’melekh handles were produced only during the reign of King Hezekiah, probably in connection with preparations for the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. (see 2 Kings 18:13–19:36 and 2 Chronicles 1–22). They are royal seals, probably attesting to the official stamp of approval of the contents of the jar. There is no question as to their date.
We also found two other jar handles with incised concentric circles, which also date to the same time—the end of the eighth or the very beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. Therefore, tumulus 4 belongs to the time of King Hezekiah, and if our interpretation presented in this article is correct, this is the very place where the memorial ceremony for him, mentioned in 2 Chronicles 32:33, took place.
In antiquity this tumulus was much wider than it is today, as we know from some foundation and retaining walls discovered about 15 feet from the present foot of the mound. It was also probably much higher. About 50 percent of the mound disappeared due to erosion because its stones were robbed in later periods to construct agricultural terraces on nearby hills. Even today, on top of the mound, there are almond trees and grapevines once cultivated by Arab villagers.
Although tumulus 4 dates to the end of the eighth or the very beginning of the seventh century B.C.E., Albright, who was often very right about dates, dated his tumulus to the eleventh-tenth centuries B.C.E., and Ruth Amiran found seventh-century B.C.E. material at tumulus 5. Perhaps each of the tumuli was built at a different time. The Bible seems to indicate that the memorial ceremonies for the kings of Judah stretched over the entire four centuries of the existence of the kingdom: King Asa reigned in the late tenth to early ninth century B.C.E.; King Jehoram, who didn’t get a fire in his honor, died in the ninth century B.C.E.; King Hezekiah’s memorial ceremony took place in the early seventh century B.C.E.; and King Zedekiah’s fire (which was prophesied by Jeremiah, but which did not take place), would have occurred in the early sixth century B.C.E.
Each of the mounds may have been the site of a memorial ceremony following the death of a particular king of Judah.