Don’t you just hate when you misplaced something? It’s aggravating, isn’t it? For me, it’s usually something like a set of keys or reading glasses (of which I have several scattered around the house just in case). Archaeologist sometimes feel the same way, especially when it comes to entire biblical cities! Just perhaps the search can be over in light of what continues to be found at a site north of Jerusalem called Khirbet el-Maqatir. Just perhaps the biblical city of Ai has been correctly identified.
For years, there was doubt in the archaeological world that the first site excavated, Et Tell (which means, “the ruin”), was the actual city of Ai as mentioned in the text of Joshua 7 and 8. Edward Robinson, an early American explorer of the land, suggested in 1838 that Et Tell could be the ancient Ai. Later in 1866, Charles Wilson, suggested the same thing given the surrounding topography. The site was certainly the site of an ancient Canaanite city, according to William Foxwell Albright, in 1924, but was it Ai? Even later in 1964-1970, Joseph Callaway dug here. He found huge Early Bronze structures and fortifications, but no Middle or Late Bronze ruins. The next level he found was Iron Age I (or the time of the Israelite kingdom). Some suggested that this “gap” causes great problems with the biblical text of the Conquest narrative. In other words, according to some, Ai was an unoccupied city when the Bible says Joshua was here. Because the site of Et Tell could not produce the “archaeological evidence” to confirm the accuracy of the Bible, it was the Bible that took the hit, with the conclusion that the Bible could not be trusted for historical accuracy.
While the scholarship world debated back and forth about the role of archaeology and the Bible, two nearby alternative sites were excavated. Starting from the premise (a very important one, I may add) that the Bible can be trusted historically, and therefore Et Tell is not the Ai of the Bible, two teams from Associates for Biblical Research began digging. First, Khirbet Nisya was dug. Under the leadership of Dr. David Livingston, several seasons of digging took place (I actually dug for 3 weeks here in June, 1982). While a few items from the Middle and Late Bronze period were found (the time period when the Bible says the Canaanites were living here, time periods completely missing at Et Tell), no major fortification walls were found.
Thus, a second excavation took place, Khirbet el-Maqatir. Digging since 1995 under the leadership of Dr. Bryan Wood, this past season uncovered some significant things. Of most interest to the story associated with Joshua, a third lower gate socket stone from the Late Bronze period was found (above)! While the first lower socket stone was uncovered in 1995, with another one found in 1996, this socket stone was one that was used to pivot a gate. As reported by Dr. Bryant Wood, “just a few feet away we could see the tops of the surviving stones of the west chamber of the gate, measuring approximately 23 x 30 feet.” (see the entire report of this last season HERE).
What this reveals is that was indeed major fortification at this site, gates and wall structures that date precisely to the time when Joshua was here. While the city, according to Joshua 8 was taken as a result of a strategic ambush (and yes, the topography lends itself for this to have happened), the city was also one of only 3 reported in the conquest list of Joshua 12 to have been burnt (see Joshua 8:28). Will a “burn-level” be found next year? Stay tuned!
An even more impressive find this past season was an Egyptian scarab! Deemed in the top 10 finds of 2013, this tiny 3/4-inch long amulet, carved in the familiar shape of a dung beetle (picture here), has been also dated to the Late Bronze I period (1550-1450 BC).
What can we conclude then? First, the Bible, as always, is true and historically accurate. Second, these important finds seem to give some early credibility that Khirbet el-Maqatir just may turn out to be the Ai of the Bible.