To my great delight, I recently discovered that there are several archeological sites within walking distance of where I live in Ariel. I learned about them on Friday (thank you, Seth!), and set out bright and early on Saturday morning to find them.
Khirbet Ras Qurra
The first one that I found was a small, round tel. I think that maybe it was a watchtower or a small fort. It rises in tiers. The lowest layer is a circular retaining wall that forms the foundation of the site. Above that is another circular wall, this one smaller. It forms a platform on which, in the center of the site, is a square structure, probably a tower.
I later did a little research and found that the name of the site is Khirbet Ras Qurra. Finkelstein, Lederman, and Bunimovitz1 surveyed the site in the 1980s and found pottery from the Iron Age I, Iron Age II, and the Persian period, with the vast majority of the sherds dating to the late Iron Age II.
This is interesting to me, because this site lies well within the territory of ancient Israel (as opposed to Judah). The Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 BC, while Judah remained an independent nation until the Babylonians conquered them in 586 BC. This site seems to have been occupied between these two conquests. With the kingdom of Israel conquered, who would have occupied this site? Could it be an Assyrian outpost? Or did Judah expand northward and occupy this territory? I don’t really know enough about the history of that time period to know to whom this site might have belonged.
Two Stone Structures
Satisfied with my exploration of Khirbet Ras Qurra, I moved on. A little farther down the slope, two stone structures caught my eye. They were still standing to full height, which suggested to me that they were probably fairly modern, but I decided to explore them anyways. The first one that I came to was a small square structure. It had an open doorway. I peered through to see a room, empty except for some weeds growing up in it and the charred remains of a campfire. In the far wall was a semi-circular niche with a domed ceiling.
I circled the building. The ground rose behind it, and I was able to climb on top of the structure. I discovered that it had once featured a domed ceiling, but the center had probably fallen in at some point, leaving a circular hole in the top. I was careful to stand on the stones supported by the wall and not to venture out onto the roof for fear of causing further collapse. I do not know how old the structure is, but I suspect that it may have been a small mosque. I think this because mosques are supposed to have a niche facing toward Mecca, and if I had my bearings right, this structure was oriented the correct direction.
I proceeded on to the second structure. This one was a little more difficult to explore because the brush grew high around it. It seemed to be circular. I couldn’t find an entrance, but there was a large, shrubby tree on one side that obscured a large portion of the wall. Perhaps the entrance was behind the tree. I climbed up on top of the structure, and although the top seemed to be slightly collapsed, there was not large enough a hole for me to see inside. I am not sure what this structure was. Perhaps it was a watch tower.
Moving on, I crossed terrace after terrace of olive trees. Finally, I arrived at a very large, impressive archaeological site. There were many large piles of stones, which seemed to cover the remains of structures. I am not sure if they were stones that collapsed from upper stories, or if someone later piled them over the ruins.
When I looked up the site later, was able to find it in Finkelstein, Lederman, and Bunimovitz’s survey. It is called Khirbet el-Shajara, and their description of it is very similar to what I found. They reported finding pottery dating to the Iron Age I and Iron Age II.
One area appeared to have been excavated, since the ancient structures were clearly visible. I later looked the site up and found that KAMAT (the branch of the Israel Antiquities Authority responsible for this area) issued an excavation permit for the site in 2006, but there were no details regarding who excavated it or what they found.
In the excavated area, there was a large house-like structure that resembled the typical Israelite four-room house. In one room, I found a square entrance to a cistern. I wanted to climb in and explore it, but I know better than to crawl into holes in the ground when I don’t have a friend along to pull me back out. I will have to go back sometime with a friend, a headlamp, and a rope! Nearby, there was a structure that appeared to be a tower.
The site seems to be quite well preserved. There are walls still standing quite high, some of them three or four meters above ground level. As I continued exploring, I found some stones that appeared to belong to some kind of industrial installation, perhaps a wine or olive press. I also found more cisterns, which I will have to explore later.
Based on the dates from the survey, this site might have been founded during the biblical period of the judges or the united kingdom period (Saul, David and Solomon) and continued in use during the divided kingdom (Israel and Judah). This site lay within the kingdom of Israel.
I proceeded through the ruins, and finally came out on the far side. I continued a little farther and came to more ruins. Ahead of me lay the remains of a large wall, and in the wall was a nice doorway, possibly a gate. Unfortunately, a large tree blocked the doorway, forcing me to climb up and over the wall. I found myself within another site much like the nearby Khirbet esh-Shajara. Large piles of rocks clearly covered ancient structures. I could see the outlines of some rooms, while others were obscured by the stone piles. However, nicely laid walls jutted out from the stones often enough to assure me that there were clearly defined structures hidden below. Climbing over one pile of stones, I scared up a gazelle that had been grazing within one of the rooms below. A second gazelle, grazing in the adjoining room, followed moments later, and they bounded away together.
I completed my tour of the site and headed back toward Khirbet esh-Shajara. I wondered if it was really two separate sites or one large one. However, there was clearly an empty space between the two. Later, when I looked up the sites, I found that the surveyors had experienced the same dilemma but decided that they were indeed two separate sites. The second site does not have a name and is known as site 16-16/76/02. The surveyors mostly found Iron Age II pottery at the site, with only one sherd from the Iron Age I, and one sherd from the Hellenistic period. Since it seems to primarily date to the Iron Age II, perhaps it was a later addition to Khirbet esh-Shajara after the city outgrew its original boundaries.
Finkelstein, Israel, Zvi Lederman, and Shlomo Bunimovitz. 1997. Highlands of Many Cultures: The Southern Samaria Survey: The Sites. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University.
Greenberg, Raphael, and Adi Keinan. 2009. Israeli Archaeological Activity in the West Bank 1967–2007: A Sourcebook. Bar-Lev Industrial Park: Ostracon.