Skip to Content
Apply Request

Abel Beth Maacah: Beneath the Surface of Israel

by Robert Mullins

I first learned about Abel Beth Maacah some 35 years ago as a young graduate student at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem (now Jerusalem University College). Abel Beth Maacah was one of ancient Israel’s northern guardian cities along with Ijon and Dan. All three stand in the shadow of Mt. Hermon, Israel’s tallest mountain and the possible location of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1).

During a class field trip to the Lebanese border that year, my professor, Jim Monson, pointed out the 35-acre tel (an archaeological mound) east of the highway. I was intrigued by its imposing size and appearance. I wondered if the prominent rise on the north belonged to a walled citadel conquered by the onslaught of foreign armies, such as those recounted in 1 Kings 15:20 and 2 Kings 15:29.

From this first encounter with the location, I dreamt of excavating that buried city one day—a desire that continued unabated for 13 years while I taught archaeology, geography, and history at Jerusalem University College in the 1980s and 1990s. Every time I took students to Metulla to peer over the border into Lebanon, I would point out the tel and declare that if I ever had a chance to excavate a biblical city, this would be it. Today, that dream becomes a reality.

Knowing that launching an archaeological excavation presents many and varied challenges, I asked Nava Panitz-Cohen, Ph.D., of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to join our project as co-director. I first met Nava and her future husband, Moshe, in 1986 when we were fledgling archaeology students at Hebrew University. Since that time, Nava and I have worked together 14 years under Amihai Mazar, Ph.D., (esteemed professor and recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize for Archaeology) in excavations at Beth-Shean (where the Philistines hung Saul’s lifeless body on the city walls in 1 Samuel 31) and at nearby Tel Rehov.

Arrival: Monday, May 21, 2012

Like excited children on Christmas morning, we piled into our cars and headed for Metulla on the Lebanese border. As we journeyed through the Jordan Valley we bypassed Jericho, the Sea of Galilee, and Hazor (a city destroyed by the Israelites according to Joshua 11:11). Finally, we arrived at Metulla, once a small Druze village known as Metully, but now a Jewish town after Baron de Rothschild purchased several acres of land there in the late 19th century. We settled into our hotel rooms, anxious to begin the next morning.

Our goals for the survey: identify the periods of occupation and select where we want to begin full-scale excavations in 2013. Archaeologists generally accomplish this by a walking survey, where everyone spreads out and collects pottery from the surface. The pottery helps identify the various historical periods and building locations. But sometimes this can be misleading, since pottery fragments can wash down from higher elevations and give a false reading. For this reason, we decided to supplement the walking survey with the shallow excavation of select areas to get a more accurate assessment of what lies below the topsoil. To do this, we assembled an enthusiastic team of 20 volunteers from various academic institutions: Azusa Pacific University, Hebrew University, Jerusalem University College, University of the Holy Land, Tel Hai Academic College, and Haifa University.

Day 1: Tuesday, May 22, 2012

With great anticipation, we began the day at 5:30 a.m., grabbing a light breakfast and getting to the tel as quickly as possible. The hike to the top took us along a dirt road cut by the Israeli army several years ago. Neither weeds and thorns, nor sun and dirt, could curb our enthusiasm.

When we reached the summit, our surveyor and architect, Ruhama Bonfil, pointed out the mound’s topography and summarized the types of remains we hoped to find—a possible siege ramp that the Assyrian army may have used to conquer the city in 732 BC as recounted in 2 Kings 15:29, as well as a saddle on the west where the city gate might be located.

Divided into groups, we eagerly began the walking survey, diligently working from 6:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Under the shade of a great oak tree, we took occasional short breaks to rehydrate and contemplate the treasures we had uncovered. At the close of the day, we gathered again to wash, sort, and mark the pottery pieces.

Day 2: Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Nava, Ruhama, and I identified three areas of interest—the upper city, the lower city, and the meeting point of the upper and lower cities. The upper city intrigued me most. I still suspected that the prominent rise on the north hid a large structure, and based on aerial photos taken in 1945, I identified a possible wall encircling the upper city. I also saw features that led me to believe that the Assyrians had conquered the city by means of a siege ramp. The team sent to collect pottery at the foot of the mound came back empty-handed, but we still plan to investigate the possibility of a siege ramp next summer.

At the southern end of the mound is a flat, open area perfect for excavation on a large scale. In summer 2011, when Nava and I first explored the potential of the mound, we found several pieces of pottery from the time of the Divided Monarchy (930–722 BC), including a small stone weight that may have been used on pan scales. While no architectural remains were found in the shallow excavations today, the pottery we collected is consistent with the Divided Monarchy. We also plan to excavate down the slope of the mound where we not only have the potential to expose the city from the time of Abraham, but also remnants from 1,000 years before.

As we continued work on top of the tel, others concentrated their efforts on the eastern side of the mound by cleaning the protruding walls exposed by the military road.

Day 3: Thursday, May 24, 2012

The walls visible in the road quickly consumed our attention. Striking evidence of three superimposed cities emerged. The upper wall below topsoil included burnt mudbrick and pottery that could be from the city destroyed by Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BC (2 Kings 15:29). An earlier wall beneath this also showed evidence of destruction, perhaps the city conquered by Ben-Hadad of Damascus (1 Kings 15:20). A flat stone from a third city level below this may have been a threshold between two rooms.

At the end of the third day, the team found a beautifully decorated, nearly intact flask on the threshold that looks like a hollowed-out donut. Such flasks were not used for drinking, but held precious liquids like perfume. Its date and identity are uncertain, but it could be a Phoenician vessel. Such intact finds are rare in settlement sites with long periods of unbroken habitation. This particular vessel, probably caught in a sudden destruction, points to a high probability for similar finds. If excavations next summer demonstrate that the flask comes from the time of David, we will be able to tie its discovery to the city besieged by Joab in 2 Samuel 20:14-22.

We concluded our survey at the end of the day due to the upcoming Jewish Sabbath, but we will return Sunday for one more day.

Day 4: Sunday, May 27, 2012

Today is Pentecost Sunday—the Jewish holiday of Shavuoth, “Festival of Weeks”—which takes place 50 days after Passover. According to Jewish tradition, this is when Israel received the Ten Commandments and became a nation. On this same holiday hundreds of years later, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples and the Church was born (Acts 2). Today, 33 delegates from APU led by President Jon Wallace arrived at the site at 9:30 a.m. to conclude the survey.

We worked together to expose a wall on the southern slope of the upper city. Our initial hope was that this might be part of the city from the time of the Assyrian conquest, but efforts by Jon and Gail Wallace, David and Renee Bixby, Scott and Noah Daniels, and other members of the group revealed that this was more likely a wall from the Mamluke period (13th century AD). While later than the periods that interest us, it remains an important chapter in the history of this site. According to written documents, the Palestinian village of Abil, which stood here until 1948, was founded in the 13th century. Thus, these may be the first buildings of the medieval town that existed on this spot for 700 years.

After this promising initial survey, I look forward to returning with 20 to 30 APU students to begin full-scale excavations next summer. We plan to open a step trench on the upper city and an extensive area in the south to expose remains of the Assyrian conquest in 732 BC. We will also open the area to the east where the military road exposed the sequence of walls that may go back as far as the time of David.

Every discovery adds another piece to the puzzle of Israel’s past as described in the Bible. Archaeology can give us a deeper understanding of this history by providing a window into the lives of our predecessors in faith. What a thrill and privilege to lead this project! Who knows what ancient secrets we may uncover at Abel Beth Maacah?

Overview of Findings

Day 1: Shallow excavation of select areas to get a more accurate assessment of what lies below the topsoil.

Day 2: A few architectural remains were found in the shallow excavations today. The pottery we collected is consistent with the Divided Monarchy.

Day 3: The upper wall below topsoil included burnt mudbrick and pottery that could be from the city destroyed by Tiglath-pileser III in 732 BC (2 Kings 15:29). An earlier wall beneath this also showed evidence of destruction, perhaps the city conquered by Ben-Hadad of Damascus (1 Kings 15:20). A flat stone from a third city level below this may have been a threshold between two rooms.

At the end of the third day, the team found a beautifully decorated, nearly intact flask on the threshold that looks like a hollowed-out donut. Such flasks were not used for drinking, but held precious liquids like perfume.

Day 4: We worked together to expose a wall on the southern slope of the upper city. Members of the group revealed that this was more likely a wall from the Mamluke period (13th century AD).

After this promising initial survey, I look forward to returning with 20–30 APU students to begin full-scale excavations next summer. We plan to open a step trench on the upper city and an extensive area in the south to expose remains of the Assyrian conquest in 732 BC. We will also open the area on the east where the military road exposed the sequence of walls that may go back as far as the time of David.

To learn more, visit www.abel-beth-maacah.org or Robert Mullins' webpage, view the Abel Beth Maacah video and connect on Facebook.

Robert Mullins, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biblical studies at Azusa Pacific University. ramullins@apu.edu

Originally published in the Fall '12 issue of APU Life.