Uncovering Khirbet Qeiyafa

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel’s excavation of an ancient fortress city is uncovering some important biblical history.
Skyview Courtesy of Yossi Garfinkel

Khirbet Qeiyafa is an extremely unique site in Israel. Unlike most of the other ancient Israelite cities that have been excavated, this fortress site is relatively “easy” for archaeologists. This is because it only briefly functioned as a city and has only one principal layer of settlement (contrasted against Megiddo’s 26, for example). It has only one layer of destruction. Everything on the site, essentially, is from the same time frame (aside from some much later and less-extensive additions).

Let’s establish one thing from the start: Khirbet Qeiyafa has not definitively been linked with a specific city in the Bible (hence the commonly used Arabic name). A few options are on the table, as this article will describe. However, this special site, inhabited for only a short number of decades, does go a long way in establishing the context of the earliest (and much debated) years of the kingdom of Israel, during the time of King David himself.

Philistine or Israelite?

Khirbet Qeiyafa is a large fortified hill mound about 32 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. It stood directly between the geographic boundaries of Israelite and Philistine land, overlooking the Elah Valley, where the battle between David and Goliath occurred (1 Samuel 17:2). This fortress was established in a contested area. Who did it belong to: the Philistines, the Israelites or another culture?

Attempting to prove the ownership of this fortress has yielded some interesting information. Biblical minimalists claim that, at the time this structure was built, Israel was too small and without a centralized government and therefore incapable of establishing such a monumental fortress. They assert that Khirbet Qeiyafa must have been built by Philistines or some other culture—but certainly not Israel. Bible traditionalists accept the biblical and historical view, and believe Israel was capable of building a structure such as this and that the remaining question is whether this site served the Israelites or the Philistines.

Archaeological excavations at the site, led by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel from 2007 to 2013, have revealed thousands of animal bones within Khirbet Qeiyafa. After the bones returned from analysis, an interesting revelation emerged: None of them were from pigs. In Philistine and Canaanite cities, pig bones are commonly found—pigs were used as food and probably as sacrifices as well. In this aspect, Khirbet Qeiyafa stands apart—and parallels Judahite sites, where little to no pig remains are found.

Let the Stones Speak

Linguistic evidence of the site’s residents included a large pottery sherd, or ostracon, covered in ancient script that can be identified as an early Hebrew precursor. Structural evidence includes the fact that houses at Khirbet Qeiyafa were built abutting the city wall in what is known as a casemate plan, not found in Philistine or Canaanite cities, but unique to Judahite cities. The site also has no central location of cult worship. Other artifact-based evidence includes the lack of idols present at the site—graven images are common to Philistine and Canaanite cities.

A number of olive pits were excavated from Khirbet Qeiyafa and carbon-14 dated. The analysis returned a date range of circa 1020 to 980 b.c.e., directly within the biblical chronology of kings Saul and David. (Roughly, Saul’s reign can be identified from 1050 to 1010 b.c.e., David’s from 1010 to 970 b.c.e., and Solomon’s from 970 to 930 b.c.e.)

The majority of collective evidence at Khirbet Qeiyafa, then, points to it being a Judahite site.

Dating to King David?

In light of all this evidence, why the contention that Khirbet Qeiyafa was not Israelite? The reason is because of its dating. The city is dated by pottery and carbon-14 analysis to the 11th century to early 10th century b.c.e. This means the site was built around the time of King David and possibly even the time of King Saul. Bible minimalists claim that David was merely a tribal chieftain with minimal control over a small area of Israel at this time. That means that if a major fortress like Khirbet Qeiyafa is found dating to King David’s time, they conclude it must have been built by some other nation. Judahite-style pottery, building methods, missing pig bones, missing cult centers and missing idols notwithstanding, Bible minimalists believe Khirbet Qeiyafa was not part of an Israelite kingdom because Israel—and especially the southern tribe of Judah—could not have had the national unity and infrastructure to necessitate or build this large fortress.

And yet the archaeological evidence, corresponding with the biblical record, here reveals just the opposite. This was a powerful early fortress in the kingdom of Israel, guarding the nearby tribe of Judah’s border with the Philistines.

Julia Goddard/AIBA

Biblical Equivalent

Is Khirbet Qeiyafa mentioned in the Bible? Archaeologists have presented certain possibilities. One is Adithaim, mentioned in Joshua 15:36. This speculation is based on the cities listed in this verse following a precise geographic order: Based on the geographic location of other cities listed in this chapter, Khirbet Qeiyafa could be a fit for Adithaim.

Another possibility is the city Netaim. This city is referenced poorly in most English-language Bibles: “These were the potters, and those that dwelt among plantations and hedges; there they dwelt occupied in the king’s work” (1 Chronicles 4:23). The word “plantations” is actually the name of a city, Netaim. And the word “hedges” refers to the city Gederah. Based on Khirbet Qeiyafa’s nearby location to the city Gederah spoken of in this same verse (these cities being near to the Valley of Elah), some speculate that Khirbet Qeiyafa could be Netaim.

The more commonly accepted name is the one chosen by the site’s excavator, Prof. Yosef Garfinkel: Shaaraim. Shaaraim means “two gates.” Khirbet Qeiyafa has the unique distinction of being the only known First Temple-period city equipped with two gates. Typical fortress cities were built with only one gate, since the entry and exit point is the weakest part of the installation. Yet for some reason, Khirbet Qeiyafa has two identical, large, four-chambered gates—one on the south and one on the west. The reason the city had two gates is unclear, but what is clear is that this city certainly matches up with the name “Two Gates”: Shaaraim.

Shaaraim is mentioned in a few Bible verses, all in early contexts (thus relating to the early inhabitation of Khirbet Qeiyafa). It is mentioned alongside the city of Adithaim in the list of cities discussed in Joshua 15:36, showing Shaaraim was located in the same general geographic area.

Another reference to this city is recorded in 1 Samuel 17:52, which describes the aftermath of David’s battle with Goliath: “And the men of Israel and of Judah arose, and shouted, and pursued the Philistines, until thou comest to Gai, and to the gates of Ekron. And the wounded of the Philistines fell down by the way to Shaaraim, even unto Gath, and unto Ekron.” Khirbet Qeiyafa overlooks the Valley of Elah, where this battle between David and Goliath (and the ensuing defeat of the Philistine army) took place. Thus, both the time frame and location fit for identifying Khirbet Qeiyafa as Shaaraim.

Another verse provides an interesting possible reference to this city. It comes earlier in the story of David and Goliath. Verse 20 records David arriving with supplies for the Israelites encamped against the Philistines: “And David rose up early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took, and went, as Jesse had commanded him; and he came to the barricade, as the host which was going forth to the fight shouted for the battle.”

This word for “barricade” (“trench” in the King James Version), magal, can mean a circular rampart. Khirbet Qeiyafa is a circular fortress atop a mound, or “rampart.” Is it possible that David brought his supplies to this circular fortress where the Israelite army was based and from which he went down to fight Goliath?

The Bible contains one more reference to Shaaraim, in the book of Chronicles: “And Shimei had sixteen sons and six daughters; but his brethren had not many children …. And they dwelt at … Beth-marcaboth, and Hazar-susim, and at Beth-biri, and at Shaaraim. These were their cities unto the reign of David” (1 Chronicles 4:27-31).

This passage specifically relates the city of Shaaraim to the time of David’s rule. This verse says Shaaraim was populated by Shimei’s family unto, or until, the reign of David. Judging by this verse, and the verses above, we see that if Khirbet Qeiyafa really was the biblical Shaaraim, it was established as at least a strategic location before David even became king yet completely fell out of view afterward—a good match for the carbon-14 data.

The Discoveries

Khirbet Qeiyafa is a relatively new site to excavators. Its existence has been known to archaeologists and surveyors since the late 1800s, but it was regarded as an Arab village having little to do with Bible archaeology. Only within the last 20 years have archaeologists begun to note in more detail the intriguing structure of the ancient fortress. As such, excavations began in 2007 and have since yielded numerous intriguing finds.

One such item is the large shard of pottery mentioned above, which bears five lines of proto-Hebrew text. This type of artifact is referred to as an ostracon. The weathered, 3,000-year-old ostracon is incomplete and difficult to properly translate, but Émile Puech proposes one possible (albeit fragmentary) reconstruction: “Do not oppress, and serve God … despoiled him/her The judge and the widow wept; he had the power Over the resident alien and the child, he eliminated them together The men and chiefs have established a king He marked 60 [?] servants among the communities/habitations/generation.”

This reading is strikingly similar to the biblical record of the nature of King Saul’s appointment (1 Samuel 8:11-19). This could provide support for Khirbet Qeiyafa as a functioning Israelite fortress at the establishment of the kingdom of Israel. Of further note are the individual words used in the inscription—according to Prof. Gershon Galil, eight of the words present in the text appear only in the Bible.

Front view of the Khirbet Qeiyafa stone shrine
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Identifying this early inscription as Israelite is problematic for biblical minimalists, considering that Hebrew writing wasn’t “supposed” to exist in this region for another several hundred years. Not only does Khirbet Qeiyafa validate the presence of a strong early Israelite kingdom, it also shows that writing—one of the vital necessities for operating a kingdom in the first place—was known and practiced.

Khirbet Qeiyafa also yielded another interesting inscription on a storage jar. This inscription bears the words “Ishbaal, son of Beda.” Saul himself had a son by this name (1 Chronicles 8:33). This inscription therefore confirms the use of the name for figures belonging to the same period. Moving into later periods in Israel’s history, however, names like this that include the term “Baal” fall out of use.

Additional interesting finds include two medium-size portable “box” shrine-like objects, one of clay and one of stone. Their design features have been compared to similar descriptions in the Bible of Solomon’s 10th-century temple and palace in Jerusalem.

There are three recessed doorposts on the stone model. 1 Kings 7:4-5 describe Solomon using this style of architecture for his palatial building near the temple (and it is likely he used the same technique for the first temple itself). Further, the Mishnah (Middoth 3, 7) shows that the doorframe of Herod’s temple was built in the same manner.

The model door opening itself is 20 centimeters tall by 10 centimeters wide. The Mishnah describes the second temple as having a door 40 amah tall by 20 amah wide—the same proportions (Middoth 4, 1; it is important to note that much of the design of the second temple was influenced by the first).

Thirdly, the model has seven protruding “squares” beneath the roof. Each square is divided by two lines, into three small rectangles. It is clear that these are meant to represent the ends of wooden crossbeams supporting the roof. This depiction is actually a comparatively “advanced” design feature called a “triglyph,” appearing in Classical Greek buildings some 400 years later. The fact that the design was already known at such an ancient time—the 10th century b.c.e.—indicates that the early Israelite kingdom was far more advanced and influential in construction and design than first believed.

Let the Stones Speak

Furthermore, this triglyph construction technique is almost certainly mentioned in the description of Solomon’s “forest of Lebanon” (1 Kings 7:2-3), in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:5), and in Ezekiel’s description of the temple (Ezekiel 41:6). Translations of these passages are problematic, but when viewed in light of this recent discovery, they make sense. Here is Professor Garfinkel and Madeleine Mumcuoglu’s translation of Ezekiel 41:6: “And the planks were organized three together, as 30 triglyph-like groups, placed on top of the wall, around all the building, without being integrated into the walls of the building.”

The clay shrine model likewise contains these features (along with a pillar on either side of the entrance—again, in this case, paralleling the temple design). It would be fair to surmise that the inspiration for the Classical Greek triglyph came from an impressive Israelite building that used such techniques. And what more impressive, influential building than the temple itself?

In addition to these other discoveries, archaeologists have uncovered a large palatial structure at the center of Khirbet Qeiyafa. This is probably where the governor would have sat. The city itself is believed to have housed about 500 to 600 people within its fortified walls, some of the stones of which weighed as much as 8 tons.

Khirbet Qeiyafa Today

It is unknown why Khirbet Qeiyafa was abandoned so early in the kingdom of Israel’s history. Perhaps it was no longer needed as a deterrent against the Philistines after King David finally eliminated them as a threat and once Solomon began his long and peaceful reign. Or perhaps King Shishak’s invasion of Judah in 925 b.c.e. played a part. The general nature and date of the site’s abandonment and destruction require further investigation.

Khirbet Qeiyafa was somewhat reused on and off after the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon in the sixth century b.c.e., generally as an agricultural area. There were a couple of instances of isolated building projects at the site, within a late-Persian/early-Hellenistic time frame, as well as during the Byzantine period. Yet the city-fortress never returned to its state of former glory as during the early 10th century under King David.

There is still much archaeological work to be done at this unique site. While a wealth of discoveries have already been found, only an estimated 20 percent of the mound has been excavated. So while debates and arguments abound regarding the veracity of the biblical account of the kingdom of Israel under Saul and David, the history uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa remains a witness, just as it did more than 3,000 years ago—as it looked out over the Valley of Elah, where a young man, full of faith and sling in hand, approached a giant.