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Overhead view of the Canaanite palace excavations in Tel Kabri, Israel. Source: Timothy Pierce

When the Earth Shook, A Famous Canaanite Palace Collapsed

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A mystery concerning the destruction of an important Canaanite palace may have been solved. Experts now believe that an earthquake destroyed Tel Kabri in Israel over 3000 years ago. This site was significant in the history of Canaan, which was very influential on later peoples.

Tel Kabri is in Western Galilee in Northern Israel and is a 75-acre site not far from a kibbutz. Today it is a massive artificial mound, also known as a Tel. This site was inhabited since the Stone Age and it was the ‘location of one of the largest palaces in Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age,’ according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia .

The structure was built around 2000-1750 BC and was rebuilt and expanded at least four times. Ancient History Encyclopedia reports that ‘the palace belonged to a political entity that is yet unnamed and is largely unknown’.

Overhead view of the northern complex with a trench through it. (Timothy Pierce)

Overhead view of the northern complex with a trench through it. ( Timothy Pierce )

The Mystery of the Canaanite Palace’s Destruction

However, this important site disappeared and suddenly became uninhabited around 3500 years ago. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia , around 1500 BC ‘the palace was destroyed and the entire site was abandoned’.

Why Tel Kabri was abandoned has remained a mystery despite it being excavated several times since the 1950s. However, a team of Israeli and American researchers may have solved the puzzle by using micro and macro geoarchaeological methods.

Evidence of Ancient Earthquake

Professor Assaf Yasur-Landau told George Washington University that while working on a trench the excavators discovered “an entire section of a wall that had fallen into it in antiquity, and with other walls and floors tipping into it on either side.” This wall collapsed in a way that was reminiscent of earthquake damage . The researchers then found later surfaces that had been warped and walls that had been slanted. Evidence was also found of collapsed ceilings that had buried jars.

Jars and the floor of the Canaanite palace falling into the trench. (Timothy Pierce)

Jars and the floor of the Canaanite palace falling into the trench. ( Timothy Pierce )

Professor Eric Cline, who took part in the study, told George Washington University that “It really looks like the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of it fell in.”  It is thought unlikely that the destruction was a result of war , as no weapons or remains such as arrowheads were found.

In PLOS ONE the team wrote that ‘here are also no indications of drought or environmental degradation that might have forced the inhabitants to vacate the site , nor mass graveyards to indicate a pandemic’. The evidence found in recent years indicating a sudden collapse of structures seems to be aligned with the results of previous years’ digs.

In 2013, the researchers unearthed a large number of storage jars that appeared to have once held wine. This was called the world’s oldest wine cellar . Four other storage rooms were found, all buried under masonry. The evidence suggests that “a rapid collapse rather than a slow accumulation of degraded mud bricks from standing walls or ceilings of an abandoned structure,” Ruth Shahack-Gross, a professor of geoarchaeology who participated in the study, told George Washington University .

Overhead view of Orthostat building with trench through it at right. (Timothy Pierce)

Overhead view of Orthostat building with trench through it at right. ( Timothy Pierce )

This would seem to indicate that a sudden catastrophic event such as an earthquake was responsible for the destruction. Furthermore, there is a history of earthquakes in the area and the area  is 30 miles (48.28 km) west of the Dead Sea fault, which was the epicenter of two major earthquakes in Biblical times. “The rapid collapse, and the quick burial, combined with the geological setting of Tel Kabri, raises the possibility that one or more earthquakes could have destroyed the walls and the roof of the palace without setting it on fire,” Prof Cline explained to George Washington University .

The Mystery of the Canaanite Palace is Solved

The experts naturally tested a number of other scenarios, such as climate change . They evaluated past finds and evidence from the site. The researchers wrote in PLOS ONE that ‘Macroscopic data (stratigraphic and structural) from five excavation seasons were re-examined, showing at least nine Potential Earthquake Archaeological Effects (PEAEs)’.

This is proof they believe that an earthquake struck the center and the Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri during its last phase of occupation. The destruction was such that the settlement was no longer viable and was abandoned.

These findings can help us to better understand the history of the Canaanites. They were very influential on the ancient Hebrews, even though they were enemies. Moreover, the Phoenicians are the descendants of the Canaanites. This research also shows how macro-and micro-geo-archaeological techniques can be successfully combined to identify ancient geological events.

Top Image: Overhead view of the Canaanite palace excavations in Tel Kabri, Israel. Source: Timothy Pierce

By Ed Whelan

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