As I’m writing this, I am preparing to leave for a two-week excavation at Khirbet ‘Auja. Our accommodations will be a bit rustic, and I’m not sure if I’ll have any internet connection. I don’t want to miss my weekly blog post, so I’m writing this in advance. I’ll schedule it to go live on Friday as usual. The following week, I’ll plan to give you a report on how the dig went.
When I visited Khirbet ‘Auja a couple of weeks ago, I told you a little bit about the site. I thought I’d use this blog post to give you some more details.
Conder and Kitchener (1882, 391) first discovered the site. Seeing the Ottoman ruins, they assumed that it was a modern site. Their report convinced other researchers that the site was unimportant.
Nobody bothered with Khirbet ‘Auja again until Zertal encountered it during his Manasseh Hill Country Survey. He found an abundance of Iron Age pottery, and realized that there was an ancient site beneath the Ottoman ruins.
Zertal suggested that this site was an ancient military base. He believed that the site was founded at the end of the Iron Age I, but its main phase of use was during the Iron Age II. The site lies on the border between Israel and Judah, and Zertal believed that it belonged to the kingdom of Judah (Zertal et al. 2009, 116–118).
In 2019, Ben-Shlomo, Freikman, and Hawkins began excavating at the site. They dug in two areas, labelled Area A and Area B.
In Area A, they uncovered four cells of the city’s casemate wall. They found arrowheads and a burn layer, suggesting that an invading force attacked and burned the city. They noted that the site was unusual for that time period in that there were no houses attached to the city wall (Ben-Shlomo and Hawkins 2021, 60).
In Area B, they uncovered the remains of a house. Here, too, they founds signs of a destruction layer that included multiple complete pottery vessels. The house appears to be very large, and despite excavating multiple squares, they have not yet uncovered the entire structure (Ben-Shlomo and Hawkins 2021, 60).
The team’s findings so far agree with the dates that Zertal suggested for the site. Most of the pottery that they have found dates to the ninth and eighth centuries BC. However, unlike Zertal, Ben-Shlomo and Hawkins (2021, 62) associate the site with the kingdom of Israel rather than with Judah.
There have been two biblical identifications suggested for Khirbet ‘Auja. Zertal suggested that the site was biblical Ataroth, mentioned in Joshua 16:7 (Zertal et al. 2009, 120–121). Joshua 16:6–7 describes the boundary between Manasseh and Ephraim. It lists cities starting with Tannath-Shiloh and ending with Jericho. Zertal identifies Tannath-Shiloh with either Khirbet Tana el-Foqa or its neighboring site, Tahta. The next city on the list, Janohah, is probably located at either Khirbet Yanun or Aqrabeh. Zertal believed that Khirbet ‘Auja equals biblical Ataroth because it lies on the line created by connecting the locations of known sites on the list (Zertal et al. 2009, 120).
“…then the border went around eastward to Taanath Shiloh, and passed by it on the east of Janohah. Then it went down from Janohah to Ataroth and Naarah, reaching to Jericho, and came out at the Jordan.”Joshua 16: 6b–7
However, another suggestion is that Khirbet ‘Auja is biblical Na’arah rather than Ataroth. Na’arah appears in the same list in Joshua 16:7, between Ataroth and Jericho. Na’arah also appears in an unprovenanced papyrus known as the Jerusalem papyrus. However, the papyrus may be a forgery, so it may not have any historic bearing (Ben-Shlomo and Hawkins 2021, 63–64).
I think that either of these identifications could work. The only problem that I see is that the site list in Joshua 16 pertains to the earliest period of Israelite settlement, when Joshua was still alive. Khirbet ‘Auja, on the other hand, dates to the period of the divided kingdom, which was significantly later. However, it’s possible that scribes later updated the book of Joshua to include more current city names. It’s also possible that an earlier strata that hasn’t yet been discovered may exist at the site.
Ben-Shlomo, David, and Ralph Hawkins. 2021. “‘Auja el-Foqa.” Biblical Archaeology Review 47:1 (Spring), 58–64.
Conder, C. R., and H. H. Kitchener. 1882. The Survey of Western Palestine, Memoirs Vol. II – Samaria. London: Palestine Exploration Fund.
Zertal, Adam, Dror Ben-Yosef, Oren Cohen, and Ron Beer. 2009. “Kh. ‘Aujah el-Foqa (Ataroth) – An Early Iron Age Fortified City in the Jordan Valley.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 141:2, 104–123.