Archaeology of the Biblical Negev

After various introductory field trips we are now at a stage where our weekly excursions are broadly supposed to tie in with what we are studying class. Therefore, as we began our lessons on archaeology we spent last week exploring some of the tels (archeological mounds) in the north, and this week we were doing the same but in the south, in the biblical Negev.

However, our first stop was unconnected. En route on the border of the Judean lowlands and the Negev is the Joe Alon Centre for Regional Studies (focused on the Negev region).

Learning about Bedouin culture at the Joe Alon Centre
Learning about Bedouin culture at the Joe Alon Centre

The main part of the centre (and, in my opinion, the most interesting) is the museum about Bedouin culture. The Bedouin are a nomadic people who in Israel are mostly located in the Galil and desert regions. They are moving away from their traditional life and now the majority live in fixed accommodation; however on travels through the desert it is still possible to see their tents. Although the displays are a little tired and don’t look like they have been touched since the museum opened in the 80s, there is still a lot of interesting information and we were accompanied by a Bedouin guide who went into more details. There was also a short film about the Bedouin in the Negev which was a very good and concise introduction to their lifestyle and the challenges they face in the modern world.

After being led around the museum we were taken into a traditional tent structure where we were served sweet tea and learned about the important culture of hospitality. A most pleasant experience.

From there we quickly looked at the replicas of various cave dwellings in the Negev, from the late stone age to the Bar Kochba revolt, and enjoyed the view over the area from the elevated viewpoint. The tours and videos are available in English (although you probably need to call ahead) and it is a nice stop if one is heading southwards.

Descending into the vast water system at Tel Beer Sheva
Descending into the vast water system at Tel Beer Sheva

We continued south to the region of the biblical Negev. Unlike the Negev of today, this was located only in the area of the valleys of Arad and Beer Sheva, and was a border region between the desert and the rest of the country. Our first destination here was the UNESCO world heritage site of Tel Beer Sheva. Located near modern Beer Sheva, it is considered by some to be the site of the biblical city where Abraham dug his well. The remains on the mound are later, from the post-Exodus period of the Israelite kingdom. They are very impressive (hence the UNESCO recognition). Our guide took us around, explaining the function of different structures and our theories on their uses and purpose. Most incredible was the underground water system, constructed in case of a siege. Huge caverns had been hewn out of the rock and covered with plaster; water was then secretly diverted from the nearby Hebron stream (when it was flowing) into this underground reservoir. We walked out through this water system (for extra fun, we were required to wear hard hats!) and saw the replica of the altar they found at the site; an impressive cube structure with horns on each corner; the original is now in the Israel museum.

Remains of a late Canaanite period 'Arad House' at Tel Arad
Remains of a late Canaanite period ‘Arad House’ at Tel Arad

Our final destination was at Tel Arad, located just outside the city of the same name, where we were honoured to be guided by one of the site’s main excavators. This tel is important as it contains the remains of a vast city from the early Canaanite period, with no further layers above it. This means that archaeologists can use it to really understand what life was like in this period, without the confusion of having other later constructions intermixed. We learned about the typical building construction, now found in other places but still called the ‘Arad House’ as it was here that it was discovered for the first time, and in such large quantities. Our guide also explained to us his theory that the Israelites came into Israel about 1000 years earlier than the current received opinion. Sadly (for him) he seems to be rather alone in this point of view, although he argued his case well. Given that it would mean reorganising the entire chronology of the ancient world, I can see why there might be some resistance.

The original altar in the temple at the Israelite fortress in Tel Arad
The original altar in the temple at the Israelite fortress in Tel Arad

We then went up the hill to visit the Israelite period fortress. Although there was no inhabited settlement here since the early Canaanite period, there were fortresses along the border with the unruly desert nomads. The fortress was a large impressive structure, and contains the remains of a temple; evidence that there were other temples outside of the main one in Jerusalem. It seems to have been destroyed at some point, perhaps as part of the concentration of ritual Judaism into the capital city.

We enjoyed the stunning desert sunset over the ancient ruins and then began the long journey home.

Sunset over the ruins of the Israelite fortress at Tel Arad
Sunset over the ruins of the Israelite fortress at Tel Arad

What do you think?