The Ancient City of Shiloh

In ancient times, it was not uncommon for a city to stand, fall, and be rebuilt on the same spot, over and over again for hundreds or even thousands of years. There are a variety of reasons that might have prompted ancient people to build a city in a specific spot. They might try to choose a spot near a good water source, such as a spring. A site near a trade route would be ideal for those who wished to engage in trade with other nation. The builders of the city would almost certainly consider the defensibility of the location, as well.

Shiloh Excavations. Photo by Michael Luddeni

Later, after the city had been destroyed or fallen into ruins other people would build on that spot for the same reasons that had motivated the previous builders. Over time, the site would become elevated as each subsequent incarnation of the city rose above the leveled ruins of previous cities.

Today, archaeologists know these layered mounds of ruined cities as tels. Tel Shiloh is a good example of an ancient tel. Multiple archaeological excavations have taken place at the site, revealing occupation that spans over 3000 years.

Construction on the site of ancient Shiloh first began in the Middle Bronze II (MBII) period. This period corresponds to archaeological Stratum VIII. Remains from earlier periods have come to light in the surrounding area, but no evidence has emerged of a city at Tel Shiloh earlier than this period. This early city was likely small and unfortified.

Things changed at Shiloh in the Middle Bronze III (MBIII) period, which corresponds to archaeological Stratum VII. A massive stone wall encompassed the city. A secondary wall ran parallel to and within the large wall. Perpendicular walls divided the resulting long, narrow space into storage rooms. The discovery of cult stands and zoomorphic vessels at the site suggests that Shiloh functioned as a religious site of some sort, although no remains of a temple have come to light yet.

Tel Shiloh. Photo by Greg Gulbrandsen

Stratum VI, which designates the Late Bronze (LB) period, has proven difficult for archaeologists to understand properly. The Danish team, who excavated at the site in the 1920s and 30s, believed that the site lay abandoned in the LBI and was again occupied in the LBII (Buhl 1969, 61). Conversely, Finkelstein, who excavated at Shiloh in the 1980s, suggested that the site was occupied in the LBI, but not during the LBII (Finkelstein 1993, 382–383). The Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) team currently excavating at Shiloh hopes to shed more light on this elusive stratum.

In the Iron Age I (IAI), represented by archaeological Stratum V, Shiloh was a thriving city once again. Elaborate public buildings suggest that the site was a central location, and archaeological finds of a cultic nature suggest that Shiloh functioned as a religious site. This accords well with biblical passages such as 1 Samuel 1, which locates the Jewish tabernacle at Shiloh. Although researchers have suggested various locations at Shiloh for the site of the tabernacle, conclusive evidence has not yet come to light. Perhaps further excavations will shed light on where the tabernacle once stood at Shiloh.

Stratum IV designates the Iron Age II (IAII) at Shiloh. Past excavations at the site found only scant remains from this period, but ABR’s excavation has added significantly to the corpus of IAII material from the site. It is likely that the Philistines destroyed the site at end of the IAI, and although it appears that Israelites continued to live at Shiloh in IAII, the city did not return to its previous glory.

Shiloh Excavations. Photo by Michael Luddeni.

After the Iron Age, Shiloh lay abandoned for over 600 years, the longest occupational gap at the site to date. The city once again came to life during the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman (LH/ER) periods. Stratum III denotes this occupational phase. Shiloh appears to have been a thriving town at this time. The inhabitants made use of the ruins of the older city, with some of them building their homes in the old MBIII wall.

Occupation at the site seems to have continued unbroken into the Late Roman (LR) and Byzantine (Byz) periods. Stratum II is the archaeological designation for this layer of occupation. Structures from Stratum III underwent renovations during this period. By the fourth century AD, Shiloh had become a destination for pilgrims to the Holy Land. A church, known as the Pilgrim’s Church, commemorated the site of biblical Shiloh, and the town continued to thrive, experiencing regular remodels and construction. Stratum II came to an end with the Islamic conquest in the seventh century AD.

Stratum I represents the Islamic occupation of Shiloh. The town was smaller than in previous times, and may have lain abandoned for a while. By the Late Islamic period, the site again experience reconstruction efforts. It remained occupied until at least the fourteenth century AD, and possibly later. In 1348, a pandemic known as the Black Death swept through the region. This plague decimated the population of Shiloh, and likely led to the final abandonment of the city.

Thus, the occupation of Tel Shiloh came to an end. Yet, the city lives on, and now a thriving Jewish community sits on the hill overlooking the ancient site. It bears the name Shiloh. The people of modern Shiloh take great pride in the ancient tel that sits in their backyard. They run a visitor center and promote tourism at the ancient site.

References

Andersen, Flemming Gorm. 1969. Shiloh: The Danish Excavations at Tall Sailun, Palestine in 1926, 1929, 1932, and 1963 II: The Remains from the Hellenistic to the Mamluk Periods. Copenhagen: The National Museum of Denmark.

Finkelstein, Israel, ed. 1993. “Shiloh: The Archaeology of a Biblical Site.” Monograph Series of the Institute of Archaeology. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University.

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