Biblical Archaeology Review 34:1, January/February 2008

Archaeological Views: Giving Voice to the Silent Majority of Ancient Generations

By Sharon Zuckerman

Archaeology, as one recent textbook claims, is about excitement; it is about “intellectual curiosity and finding ways to turn that curiosity into knowledge about people in the past.” Archaeological endeavor can be compared to a journey to the past—a long voyage to Ithaca (to paraphrase the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy), full of adventure and discovery of harbors seen for the first time, Phoenician trading-stations and Egyptian cities.

For me, the journey began at the acropolis of Hazor, amidst the layers of fallen mudbricks, burnt wooden beams and smashed pottery vessels scattered on the floors of the once-monumental Canaanite buildings. These violently destroyed edifices, as well as the thorny questions of their dating, their functions and the causes of their violent destruction and final abandonment, formed the basis of my dissertation written under the supervision of Professor Amnon Ben-Tor of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

These questions are not new to the field and have indeed been tackled by most prominent scholars ever since the first excavations at the site by British archaeologist John Garstang. Yigael Yadin, who led an Israeli excavation at Hazor, embraced the Biblical narrative in the Book of Joshua and attributed the destruction of Canaanite Hazor to the Israelites. But other agents of destruction such as the Sea Peoples, the Egyptians and rival Canaanite cities were also suggested. However, the new data and the wealth of material and textual finds relating to the period, unearthed by the renewed excavations under Ben-Tor, suggested that the time was ripe for a fresh attempt to solve the riddle of the rise and fall of this great Canaanite kingdom.

As my work on the Hazor material progressed, it became clearer to me that the story of the end of Canaanite Hazor should be studied from within. The focus should be placed on understanding the dynamics of the development of the city throughout the second millennium B.C., delineating the phases of rise and decline leading to its final destruction. In my attempt to understand the final destruction, my attention was drawn to descriptions of other archaeological destructions, in contexts as remote in time and space from Hazor as the huge metropolis of Teotihuacan in Mexico and the well-known collapse of the Maya civilization in Central America. A common feature started to emerge, namely the possible role of the ordinary people in the collapse of mighty civilizations—the “commoners’ power” to change the course of history, a history usually recounted to us by the elites governing those civilizations. Viewed from this perspective, the torches put to the public buildings and monumental temples of Canaanite Hazor could have well been carried and thrown by the Hazorites themselves, enraged by centuries of the elite’s incessant demands for manpower and agricultural resources.

This different possible interpretation of one crucial event in the history of Israel has led me to delve deeper in the search after “the common people.” The ordinary people, those shaping the existence and form of society by simply “being there,” form the “silent majority” of all ancient (and modern) civilizations. Their daily activities and mundane chores, conducted in the context of domestic quarters and simple dwellings, are often hidden from current research in Ancient Near Eastern and Israeli archaeology.

Although this situation seems to be changing in recent years, most excavations on Biblical tells still focus on the central part of cities and in the monumental public buildings, neglecting the domestic quarters and their unimpressive remains of material culture. As a result, the Canaanite and Israelite commoners—men, women and children—usually remain voiceless and their stories untold.

Two projects I initiated for the coming future aim at trying to tell the story of peripheral, nonelite and nondominant groups in Canaanite society of the second millennium B.C.E. The first project is the final publication of a small coastal temple from the Middle Bronze Age on the Mediterranean shore of Nahariya, north of Haifa, excavated by the late Moshe Dothan in the 1950s. This small temple, consisting of a small room and an adjacent open cult-place (a bamah), differs from the common symmetrical monumental temples of the period unearthed in large cities such as Hazor, Megiddo and Shechem. The wealth of small finds at Nahariya seems to hint at a very specialized cult, represented by many figurines of naked goddesses and dozens of seven-cupped libation vessels. The exact nature of the cult and its worshipers is not yet clear and awaits the final analysis of the site. My preliminary impressions are, however, that it might not have been used by people belonging to the rich dominant elites of the Middle Bronze Age cities but rather to another disenfranchised group. One possibility that I intend to explore is that the temple was dedicated to a female fertility deity (Asherah), and its main function was to serve the special ritual needs of women worshipers.

The other project, which is still at a very early stage, is the reinitiation of excavations in the lower city of Hazor, left unexcavated since Yadin’s excavations there in the 1950s. I am interested in excavating a small part of a domestic quarter of Canaanite Hazor, which will complement our knowledge of the large Bronze Age city. Through the combination of both archaeology and related sciences (such as archaeobotany, archaeozoology and geoarchaeology), I hope to suggest a comprehensive reconstruction of the functions of the simple households of the humble Hazorites and their daily activities. Such a reconstruction might shed a different light on every aspect of the life of these people: What did they eat, and where did they cook and consume their food? What kinds of artifacts did they produce and use? What was the nature of their domestic ritual activities? Where and how were they buried? In short, how did the ordinary Hazorites live and die, and how were they affected by the large political processes of the rise and decline of the kingdom?

I hope those common households will be “given a face” and can contribute to our understanding of the history of the city. I believe that investigating “from the bottom up” might afford us new insights to the processes of the rise and the fall of Canaanite Hazor, the mighty kingdom whose impression on the history of ancient Israel lasted for millennia.