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Did the Fortified Jerusalem of the Middle Bronze Just Vanish, and What Does This Say About King David?

New Carbon-14 tests show that massive Middle Bronze fortifications near the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem shall not be regarded to this period anymore. The archaeological community is in a rage. If the Canaanite fortifications did not exist, how credible would be the biblical account of the United Monarchy?

By Dr. David Gurevich
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, Bar-Ilan University
Research Fellow, The Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, Hebrew Union College Jerusalem
April 2018

On the annual conference, New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and Its Region in 2016, Dr. Joe Uziel and his team dropped a bombshell.[1] According to Uziel, the famous massive fortifications near the Gihon Spring, which were attributed to the Middle Bronze Age II, shall not be regarded to this period anymore. In fact, as Uziel suggested, they were constructed much later, in the course of Iron Age, in 9th century BCE.

While debates about the chronology of Jerusalem were surfacing since the beginning of the archaeological research in the city, this time the archaeologists used their ‘judgement day weapon’—Carbon-14. Radiometric methods are well respected in the archaeological discipline since they provide an absolute dating, which is, usually, not a subject to a debate.

Joe Uziel and Nahshon Szanton are heading the City of David excavations on behalf of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA). They are continuing the work of the previous team, co-headed by Professor Ronny Reich (University of Haifa) and Eli Shukron (who worked for the IAA), who stopped excavating a few years ago.

Jerusalem has been excavated continuously by well-respected archaeologists since 1865. Many archaeologists put their spades in the soil of the Holy City. Despite much knowledge that had been obtained by archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, the understanding of the Canaanite and Israelite city changed dramatically just in the last 20 years.

Modiin synagogueFig. 1: Reconstruction of the Gihon Spring fortification system, by Eyal Meiron.[2] (Drawing by Leonardo Gurevich. Courtesy of Elad Foundation and Megalim Institute.)

In the early 2000’, Reich and Shukron unearthed a monumental tower, 16 × 16 m, which was built on top of the sole natural water source in Jerusalem—the Gihon Spring (Fig. 1: A).[3] The Spring Tower was constructed of huge boulders (‘Cyclopean stones’) and was aimed to protect the location of the spring. The walls of the tower were up to 7 m thick.

The tower did not stand alone in the field. It was an integral part of an advanced comprehensive system of fortifications. Two massive parallel walls were connected to the Spring Tower, both up to 3.5 m thick. These walls were constructed using similar Cyclopean-style stones and were continued uphill toward the summit of the City of David. Reich and Shukron assumed that in the gap (2.3 m width) between these walls there was a secured zone with a passage—Fortified Corridor—efficiently linking the city and the Spring Tower (Fig. 2). This corridor enabled the access to the water source without being exposed to an enemy army outside the city (Fig. 1: B).

Even more interesting is that a rectangular Rock-cut Pool was cut in the bedrock in proximity to the two walls which, as we understand it, could function as an outlet for water conveyed by subterraneous tunnels from the spring (Fig. 1: C).

Later, the residents of Middle Bronze Jerusalem even added an underground hewn system (Warren's Gallery) that led into the secured corridor from within the city.

Modiin synagogueFig. 2: The Fortified Corridor between the two ‘Cyclopean’ walls that was unearthed by Reich and Shukron, looking west. (Photo by Vladimir Nakhin. Courtesy of Ronny Reich)

All these elements were dated by Reich and Shukron to the Middle Bronze II, ca. 19th–16th centuries BCE, the time that the Canaanite urban civilization reached its peak.[4]

Uziel and his team continued excavating the eastern extramural face of the Spring Tower. Their predecessors, Reich and Shukron, dated the whole complex of fortification using pottery: Sherds were extracted from the space between the boulders forming the two parallel walls and on top of the passage floor. The latest-dated sherds belonged to the Middle Bronze. Uziel and his team decided to confirm this dating. They noted that in its north-western corner, the tower was not erected on the bedrock, but the walls were established on a thick layer of soil. They were lucky to discover in this rubble a few samples of organic material. The samples were rushed to a laboratory of the Weitzman Institute. The results were shocking. The latest samples—a bone, a piece of coal, and a plant seed—yielded 9th century BCE dating, i.e. about seven–eight centuries later dating than the expected period pointed by typology of the pottery sherds![5]

“If this is indeed the case, then the Gihon Spring, which served as the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem, was not fortified throughout the Middle Bronze, the Late Bronze and until the end of the 9th century BCE at the earliest”, suggested the team as one possible interpretation of their findings. “Only in the 9th century or later did the spring become protected from an assault. This means that the development of Jerusalem's urban system should be all reexamined from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age II.”[6]

The King David question

This suggestion resonates, in some expense, with an alternative view on Jerusalem's fortification suggested recently by Professor David Ussishkin (Tel Aviv University).[7] Ussishkin claimed that all of the Middle Bronze walls unearthed by K. Kenyon and Y. Shiloh on the eastern slope in the City of David (2–3 m thick), are not city walls at all, but merely terraces. The terraces were needed to transform the steep slope of the hill into a horizontal ledge for building houses. In his lecture New Studies on Jerusalem conference at Bar-Ilan University in 2017, Ussishkin referred to Y. Shiloh's wall as “particularly miserable”. “If that is so, I have to ask you, did the [city] wall of Jerusalem in the Middle Bronze Age and maybe hundreds of years later would appear this way?”, argued Ussishkin.[8]

But it also means that Ussishkin's Jerusalem was a town without city walls, until the Iron Age II walls were erected no earlier than the 8th century BCE. In other words, after the Canaanite fortification was removed from the chronology, Ussishkin's Jerusalem remained a weak town which did not have a defense system.

One has to wonder why there is so much interest of the archaeological milieu as well as biblical scholarship in the business of a single Middle Bronze II Age tower?

The answer is that the discussion on the dating of Jerusalem spring's fortification is linked with a much wider debate—that of the question on the existence of the United Monarchy, and this question has much bigger ‘rating’ than a presumed Canaanite fort.

According to the biblical narrative, King David who ruled in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE, established a big and powerful state that spanned over a large area in the Land of Israel, incorporated the twelve tribes, and held in its capacity significant military strength. David's son, Solomon, became so wealthy and influential regional ruler that even the Pharaoh submitted his daughter for an arranged political marriage with the King, in act which created an alliance between the Egypt and Jerusalem.

Contrary to the biblical account, there were very little remains that can certainly testify for Jerusalem to the 10th century BCE building initiatives, the time David and Solomon. This fact led scholars, mainly of the Tel-Aviv school of archaeology, to revisit the biblical testimonies. David Ussishkin, Israel Finkelstein and others, took the minimalistic course in the research, arguing that the biblical narrative deliberately overestimates the role of David and Solomon and exaggerates the dominance of their kingdom. David and Solomon were merely local leaders of a tiny kingdom of Judah, that had no real power nor influence in the region.

Modiin synagogueFig. 3: Reconstruction of Jerusalem in the late 10th century BCE, by Eyal Meiron.[9] (Drawing by Leonardo Gurevich. Courtesy of the Elad Foundation and Megalim Institute.)

The question of United Monarchy is a bone of contention. The lack of correlation between the biblical account of the United Monarchy and the very scant material evidence, was often explained by maximalist archaeologists by postulating that in the 10th century BCE the massive Middle Bronze fortifications must have been still in use. Dr. Eyal Meiron visually summarized these views in his reconstruction of 10th century Jerusalem that integrates the Spring Tower and the Fortified Corridor with the city in which the Temple of Solomon occupies the Temple Mount (Fig. 3). Thus, in the time that Jerusalem was ruled by the ‘founding fathers’ of the Davidic dynasty, the Gihon Spring was already heavily fortified by a renovated Canaanite complex. But, if according to the new Carbon-14 dating these fortifications had not been yet built in the 10th century and Jerusalem had no walls, the description of a stronghold capital of the United Monarchy fades away. The 9th century dating is a strong argument for followers of the minimalist theory. Perhaps David and Solomon were chiefs of a small village after all?

Doubts About Carbon-14 Results

Despite the use of natural sciences in the radiocarbon dating, the newly-suggested chronology is not far from being indisputable. While nobody doubts that the laboratory conducted the examination well, concerns are raised regarding the meaning of the results.

In his forthcoming response-article in Tel-Aviv journal, Professor Ronny Reich dismisses the Iron Age II dating and criticizes the methodology of his successors: “the data presented by Regev et al. [14C report. -D.G] cannot unequivocally guarantee that the samples under discussion were deposited in situ before the Spring Tower was constructed… Obtaining samples for 14C dating from this location was incorrect.”[10]

Indeed, Reich has a few points that should be considered carefully. The samples were obtained from a thick level of earth fill below the tower. In Reich's opinion, organic materials could be deposited inside the layers of extramural soil accumulations by floods that were frequent in the Kidron Valley. Theoretically, the deposition could occur much later than the building activity, after the Spring Tower had been constructed and was standing already for centuries. If so, the samples do not represent the construction time rather the time when the floods occurred. It is also possible, claims Reich, that in this particular corner of the tower, a strong torrent of water tore away original stones of the structure, created a cavity, which was later deliberately filled with debris and rubble containing the organic materials.

While Uziel and his team discussed these possibilities, they consider them less plausible than the Iron Age dating for the entire tower.

However, the discussion is not only about samples. Similar architecture of fortifications with extensive use of huge stones (‘Cyclopean’) was detected on many other key-sites of the Middle Bronze in the region. For instance, Reich referred to Gezer, Tell Balata (biblical Shechem), and Hebron. On the other hand, the typical Iron Age II fortifications never used Cyclopean boulders but employed smaller stones. One good example of such building is the famous Broad Wall (today in the Jewish Quarter), which functioned as the wall of Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah, end of 8th century BCE. If the Carbon-14 takes the construction of the Spring Tower and the Fortified Corridor deep into the Iron Age II, one has to provide a credible explanation why these fortifications were constructed using a building style that was abandoned many centuries before?

Additional considerations may be raised to question the dating. One such point is the regional context. Middle Bronze II is characterized by the emergence of city-states. The king of Jerusalem is mentioned in the famous Egyptian Execration texts that were used in special cursing rituals orchestrated by Egyptian authorities. This means that some kind of kingdom existed in Jerusalem. It makes sense that during the period when massive fortifications were ‘in fashion’ in the entire region, the local ruler of Jerusalem would make the effort to secure his water source which must have been a key for his survival.

Each Middle Bronze II city-state controlled also an extensive rural territory. A few Middle Bronze sites discovered in a short distance to Jerusalem. Professor Aren Maeir (Bar-Ilan University) brought in another argument into the dating debate: “The most logical scenario to explain the evidence of a web of rural sites around MB Jerusalem”, claimed Maeir, “is that Jerusalem served as the central polity in this region with a rural hinterland in its vicinity.”[11]

The final word in the dating & fortifications debate has not been said yet. Perhaps obtaining more samples from different locations along the walls could improve our understanding of the dating Gihon Spring complex. The challenge is that suitable organic materials were seldom located below the structures since they were built primarily on the bedrock. Of course, the debate over the question of the United Monarchy is also far from being resolved. Till today, fragments of city walls of the discussed periods were unearthed on the eastern slope of the City of David. It remains to hope that in the future, archaeologists will be allowed to make a wide-scale excavation along the western slope, from the summit to its bottom. This enterprise could shed light on the question of Canaanite as well as Iron Age fortification lines. Meanwhile, scholarly debates on towers, radiocarbon, and the Bible will continue to surface.


[1] I wish to thank Dr. Joe Uziel, Prof. Ronny Reich, Prof. Aren M. Maeir, Prof. David Ussishkin for sharing their conclusions. I am also thankful to Dr. Yiftach Shalev and Zvi Koenigsberg for their valuable suggestions and to Dr. Eyal Meiron for providing the visual reconstructions.

[2] Meiron, E., 2009, “Ancient Jerusalem: Four New Archaeological Reconstructions”, in E. Meiron (ed.), City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 4, Jerusalem, pp. 127–151 (Hebrew)

[3] Reich, R. and Shukron, E., 2009, “The Recent Discovery of a Middle Bronze II Fortification in the City of David, Jerusalem”, in E. Meiron (ed.), City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 4, Jerusalem, pp. 13*–33*

[4] In this article, all references to Middle Bronze refer to Middle Bronze II Age.

[5] Regev, J., Szanton, N., Uziel, J., and Boaretto, N., 2016, “Dating the Gihon Spring Fortifications”, in G.D. Stiebel, J. Uziel, K. Cytryn-Silverman, A. Re'em, and Y. Gadot (eds.), New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region 10, Jerusalem, pp. 73–82 (Hebrew); Regev, J., Uziel, J., Szanton, N., and Boaretto, E. 2017, “Absolute Dating of the Gihon Spring Fortifications, Jerusalem”, Radiocarbon 59: 1171–1193.

[6] Regev, J. et al., 2016 (supra, note 5), p.80; translated by the author.

[7] Ussishkin, D., 2016, “Was Jerusalem a Fortified Stronghold in the Middle Bronze Age? — An Alternative View”, Levant 48: 135-151, DOI: 10.1080/00758914.2016.1194052

[8] See at 0:13:15 in “יןפרופ' דוד אוסישק -האם הייתה ירושלים יישוב מבוצר בתקופת הברונזה התיכונה? הצעה חלופית ,” YouTube, 0:27:30, posted by “barilanuniversity”, February 23, 2017, (Hebrew); translated by the author.

[9] Meiron, E., 2009 (supra, note 2).

[10] Reich, R., 2018 (forthcoming), “The Date of the Gihon Spring Tower Jerusalem”, Tel Aviv 45.

[11] Maeir, A.M., 2017, “Assessing Jerusalem in the Middle Bronze Age: A 2017 perspective”, in Y. Gadot, Y. Zelinger, K. Cytryn-Silverman, and J. Uziel (eds.), New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region 11, Jerusalem, pp. 64*–74*.

Comments (3)

I note - not sure that it is of any relevance - that G. Magl ‘The Magalithic Building of S.Erasmo de Cesi’ entertains the possibility that cyclopean walls were being constructed in Italy well into the Iron Age.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/06/2018 - 17:32

Dr.Uziel would have us completely ignore the evidence obtained by Yigal Shiloh: "The city-wall in Area E1 can actually be ascribed to three phases of this period, which included fills, pavements and walls. The pottery found in these three phases was similar and belongs to the brief transition period from the end of the Middle Bronze Age IIA to the start of the Middle Bronze Age IIB. We have ascribed the foundation of the city-wall to about 1800 BCE. A similar date was determined by Kenyon for another segment of this wall, uncovered by her farther to the north, in her trench A (This is based on sherds of this period found in a foundation trench on the inner side of the wall - Kenyon, 1974, p.83)."
#2 - Arthur Chrysler - 04/08/2018 - 01:28

Dear David Gurevitch. This is a most interesting contribution and it will be interesting to see if the dating of the fortifications can be confirmed by another sampling.
One note of caution on your interpretation of the Execration texts. Such petty "kings", "princes" or "notables" of itself doesn-t really give us a suggestion of the existence of a Jerusalem "kingdom", but perhaps suggesting any form of a patronage polity. In favor of your suggestion would be any evidence that these notables are parallel to the Late Bronze petty kings. Emanuel Pfoh and I have tried to do this in a forthcoming article.


Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus,
University of Copenhagen
#3 - Thomas L. Thompson - 04/08/2018 - 14:13

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