Reassessing the Chronology of Biblical Edom: New Excavations and [sup.14]C Dates from Khirbat En-Nahas (Jordan)

Article excerpt


The archaeology of the Iron Age (c. 1200 - 586 BC) in the southern Levant (Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and adjacent areas) has been fraught with controversy ever since its nineteenth century beginnings primarily because it is linked with issues concerning the historicity of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Dating events and processes of change during the "Biblical" or Iron Age periods has been particularly problematic. The recent application of high-precision radiocarbon dates to Iron Age archaeological strata offers a less biased approach for establishing a reliable chronology for the region and for assessing Biblical and ancient Near Eastern textual and archaeological data (Bruins et al 2003; Finkelstein & Piasetsky 2003b). The archaeological evidence for the appearance of Iron Age 'statelets' throughout the southern Levant at the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200 BC) is interwoven with ancient Near Eastern and Biblical texts (Joffe 2002). Some of these new polities include ancient Israel, Judah, Philistia, and Phoenicia located west of the Jordan River; Aram in Syria and the Transjordan polities of Edom, Moab and Ammon east of the Jordan River.

The controversy over the dating of certain Levantine Iron Age archaeological deposits was recently emphasised in an article in Science by A. Mazar and colleagues (Bruins, van der Plicht & Mazar 2003; Finkelstein & Piasetzky 2003a; Holden 2003), in which they argued for a linkage between the Iron Age archaeological evidence at Tel Rehov, historical Egyptian events and Biblical texts during the tenth century BC--a period traditionally tied to the reign of King Solomon. As this "tenth century BC debate" revolves around the historicity of biblical figures such as David and Solomon, the discussions are heated and extend beyond scientific dialogue into the media (Bunimovitz & Faust 2001; Finkelstein 1999; Finkelstein 2003a, 2003b; Mazar 1999, 2001).

The work presented here moves away from correlation with historical figures, and focuses on more general processes of social evolutionary change in one of the less well-known Iron Age polities in the region. The paper reports high precision radiocarbon dates from stratified excavations at the major Iron Age metal production centre of Khirbat en-Nahas. These have proved to be of key importance for re-assessing and clarifying the evolution of the Edomite kingdom known from biblical sources (Bartlett 1992).

Khirbat en-Nahas--the context

From the Early Bronze Age (c. 3600-2000 BC), the Faynan district was a centre of copper metal production that ended around 1950 BC at about the time that copper from the island of Cyprus began to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and Near East (Adams 1999, 2002; Hauptmann 2000; Levy et al. 2002). During the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (c. 2000-1200 BC) Cyprus was the main supplier of copper in this region. At the end of the Late Bronze Age there was a general societal collapse around the eastern Mediterranean basin causing the breakdown of many complex societies such as the Mycenaeans, Hittites and others. This collapse probably promoted a 'power vacuum' that led to the emergence of the small Levantine Iron Age 'statelets' noted above. The social dislocation at the end of the Late Bronze Age may also have disrupted Cypriot metal production (Muhly, Maddin & Karageorghis 1982) and long-distance trade in copper and may have stimulated renewed interest in the copper ore deposits on the Levantine mainland in areas such as Faynan (Knauf & Lenzen 1987).

Recent excavations at the iron Age copper production centre of Khirbat en-Nahas, located in the ancient mining district of Faynan (Biblical Edom), offer a new data set for reviewing the early Iron Age (c. 1200 - 1000 BC) as well as later developments in the tenth-ninth centuries BC, both in Transjordan and in the southern Levant as a whole. Until recently, it was assumed that the establishment of settled populations in the region and the establishment of the Kingdom of Edom occurred only in the eighth through sixth centuries BC and that the rise of the Edomite state was linked to the establishment of the Assyrian empire (Bienkowski 2001; Herr & Najjar 2001; Stern 2001). …