Did Eilat Mazar find king David’s palace? I would say not.
By Margreet L. Steiner
In 2005, Eilat Mazar announced that she was excavating a monumental building on top of the hill now commonly called the City of David in Jerusalem. Based of the size of the building and the associated finds, she interpreted the building as the palace of King David, mentioned in several biblical texts. This discovery has attracted a lot of attention. Searching the Internet, I came upon some 50,000 references to the “palace” in the English language alone. Newspapers, websites, and blogs spread the word: the palace of King David has been found.
The reactions were interesting. The website www.Jesuslives.com wrote:
Skeptics ridicule and historians mock, but the historical accuracy of the Bible continues to be confirmed by archaeological finds. An Israeli archaeologist named Eilat Mazar has uncovered, in East Jerusalem, what may be the palace of King David.
And Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, concluded:1
The Old Testament is a reliable document because it is the history of a people whose memory has preserved an accurate record of the past. As remains of the past are discovered by archaeologists, these new findings provide the proper context for the understanding of the history of Israel. The discovery of the remains of David’s palace will become an item of debate for years to come. The mere possibility that this finding is authentic is very significant. This finding is another piece of that great puzzle that helps us affirm that David really existed.
Finding the palace helps us affirm that David really existed – that seems to be the crux.
The excitement was greatest among theologians and biblical scholars. Most archaeologists remained aloof, as several other expeditions had targeted the same area in the past, and re-excavating older walls is a tricky business, as they know all too well. Most archaeologists I asked at the ASOR meeting of 2005 were skeptical, although all agreed that the exposed walls were impressive. In 2007, archaeologists of Tel Aviv University published a rather technical article arguing that most walls belonged to the Hellenistic buildings uncovered there by Macalister and Duncan in the 1920s (Finkelstein et al. 2007).
In the 1960s, Kathleen Kenyon excavated in or near the same area, and I have interpreted the walls she discovered there as belonging to the Middle Bronze Age and the Iron I period (Steiner 2001). So I was especially interested to see how Mazar’s finds could be compared to the evidence of Kenyon’s excavations. In 2008, I visited the site and was enthusiastically led around by the excavator.
What has really been found?
The first thing to do is to establish what really has been found on top of the hill. Mazar has published her discoveries in an article in BAR in 2006 and in preliminary reports in 2007 and 2009. She writes that her excavation area lies in Macalister’s Field 5, northwest of the large Maccabean tower. The drawing in the 2007 publication shows the walls of the palace in orange, suggesting it to be a large building with very thick walls.2 Mazar explains size and thickness by the fact that the palace was built outside of the contemporary town and had to be well defended.
But look a bit closer at the plan. When one ignores the orange outlines and focuses on the actual stones that have been drawn, things start to change. The drawing now reveals that only some walls have actually been excavated and that many wall segments simply do not exist. Photographs of the “building” in the publications confirm this. They show an amalgam of walls, all of different thickness, going in different directions and cut through by Hellenistic and Roman cisterns and baths. What has been excavated seems to be the remains of several buildings of (for the moment) uncertain dates.
The photographs and drawing reveal that there are three main complexes of walls, located at the western, eastern, and northern sides of the excavated area. At the west side, a large wall (W107) runs from east to west, with some side walls that may or may not belong to it. The Tel Aviv authors have connected these walls with the “Inner wall” that Macalister and Duncan excavated and reconstructed a large building of possible early Hellenistic date (Finkelstein et. al. 2007, fig. 6). Kenyon has not excavated in that area.
Walls at the northern side
At the north side a “pavement” (L565) runs from east to west without connection to the walls further south. This area is located in Macalister’s Field 3, where Kenyon laid out her area H. In square H/II Kenyon excavated some 20 meters of a wall (wall 51) built of enormous boulders (Steiner 2001, fig. 3-2, 3-5). The width of this wall could not be ascertained because it disappeared into the south section of the squares. In square H/III further west, this wall continued as bedrock cut into shape. The top level of wall 51, as excavated, varied from 698.17 - 700.26 m., corresponding to the top levels of L565. Mazar’s excavation area overlaps with Kenyon’s Square H/II, and we have to conclude that “pavement” L565 has been excavated before by Kenyon and is actually part of wall 51.
I have assigned wall 51 to the Middle Bronze Age because it is the oldest wall in this area, built on and partly cut out of bedrock and because its construction technique with very large boulders is similar to that of the Middle Bronze Age since the wall is lower down the slope. In later periods, this technique was not used anymore, at least not in Kenyon’s excavation areas. The wall was already out of use in the Iron II period, judging from the sherds found on top of it, and thus dates from an earlier period.
Although my interpretation of this wall as the northern defense wall of the town in the MBA is based on circumstantial evidence only, I could find no arguments to the contrary in Mazar’s (admittedly preliminary) publications. She has found remains of an extensive “levelled surface” with much MBA pottery south of wall 51/L565. It will be interesting to check the precise connection of this wall and the surface. Does the surface disappear under the wall, does it run up to the wall, or does it not connect to the wall at all?
Walls at eastern side
At the eastern side the situation is very complicated. Here Mazar has excavated several walls, The drawing shows a long curving wall, one stone wide and running from east to west (part of W107). If this is one and the same wall, despite the curving, then it runs in a slightly different direction than the western part of W107. Two much wider walls are running from W107 to the north (W19 and a wall without number). In the area between these two walls, Mazar found a nice collection of Early Iron II (`10th century’) pottery, although she suggests that “[the sherds] somehow were deposited at this spot when the walls were built” (2007, 61). So the sherds were not found on a floor but may be part of a fill. This would negate their usefulness for dating the walls.
Kenyon, however, excavated another wall in area H. She found a segment of what she interpreted as a casemate wall in her area H/I, west of wall 51 (north of the eastern part of Mazar’s area), consisting of two walls running north-south, connected by a floor on which pottery from the beginning of Iron II was found. This dated the walls securely to the early Iron II period (Steiner 2001, fig. 5.8). The westernmost of Kenyon’s two walls seem to be a continuation of Mazar’s easternmost wall W19, and this would give an Iron II date for wall W19 as well.
At the far eastern side of Mazar’s area is what seems to be a very wide wall, running north-south. In reality, these are two walls plus some debris, as is clearly shown on the photographs in the 2007 publication. The most eastern (outer) wall W20 runs along the crest of the hill. This is the same wall that Kenyon (wrongly) labelled the Persian town wall.3 Behind the town wall is a nice wall without number that is not well distinguished on the drawing. This inner wall (which I will call wall A for convenience) is more difficult to interpret.
To complicate matters further: Kenyon had opened up her square P just behind the “Persian” wall. Mazar’s excavation area overlaps with Kenyon’s area P, and Mazar has (without knowing it?) re-excavated the walls and the debris in Kenyon’s area P. Square P was filled with stony debris without any pottery. Only the lowest deposits on bedrock contained pottery from the MBA, LBA, and Iron I period, according to Kenyon’s pottery notebooks – in Leiden we found only Iron I pottery from this layer. Wall A was built on top of this debris and is thus later than the Iron I period.
In 2007, Mazar has removed the “Persian” tower west of her excavation area because it was in danger of collapse.4 She found Persian pottery underneath the tower, as well as bullae, arrowheads, and seals from that period, thus confirming (in my opinion) a later date for the tower itself (Mazar 2009, 74-79).
Most areas that Eilat Mazar has excavated have been excavated before, by Macalister or Kenyon, often though not everywhere all the way down to bedrock. During these excavations most walls were left standing, but the deposits between the walls (floors and debris layers) were dug away. This makes it almost impossible to establish a connection between the walls and to date the walls. Mazar makes no mention of having excavated any living floors belonging to her “large stone building.” The situation is made worse by the many cisterns and baths dug through the earlier walls. Therefore it is very difficult to put the walls in their proper stratigraphic order, to establish which walls belong together, which are earlier and which are later. One cannot just assume that they belong to one and the same building: this has to be proven.
In part of the excavated area, Mazar was able to excavate undisturbed layers down to bedrock. Below the “large stone building” was an earth accumulation (showing sub-layering in one area) containing LBA and Iron I pottery, animal bones, and botanical material. The earth had been accumulated on top of a levelled chalky surface, which Mazar dates to the MBA because of the sherds found embedded in the surface. This surface covers bedrock, but it was only found at the western end of the area, not at the eastern side where bedrock was lower than the levelled surface.
Remains of what is called a “crucible layer” with smelting hearths, ceramic crucibles, and blowpipes and copper drops was found within the large building and connected by Mazar with the construction phase of the palace (2009, 59-60). As Iron I pottery was found, both below, in, and above that layer, a date for this metallurgical industry within the Iron I period seems more likely.5
Mazar has certainly excavated some walls with stones of enormous dimensions. However, it is not at all certain that these walls belong to one and the same building. Some walls (L565 at the north side) are most probably MBA in date, and may form part of the northern defense line of that period. It is uncertain if the curving eastern part of wall W107 is one wall; it may consist of segments of several different walls.
The walls on the eastern side are built on top of a deposit containing Iron I sherds, so these walls are certainly later than Iron I and may indeed belong to an Iron II building. One would expect there to be an important Iron II building on top of the hill, crowning the stepped stone structure. The ashlars and proto-aeolic capital Kenyon excavated in front of this area (in her area A/XVIII) and the fragments of a large incense stand that Shiloh found on top of the stepped stone structure may all come from this building. However, on the basis of the available evidence neither the layout of the building, nor its function (whether palace, temple or gate), nor its precise dating can be established.
The walls in the western part of the area follow a slightly different course but may date to the Iron II period as well – who can tell? Mazar’s final publication will have to provide the available evidence for the dating of these walls and their connections.
Did Eilat Mazar find king David’s palace? I would say not. To substantiate that claim she has to provide convincing evidence that 1) the walls indeed belong to one and the same building, 2) that the building dates to the 10th century BC, 3) that it functioned as a palace, and 4) that it was King David who put his throne there. I do not see how that can be done on the basis of the excavated remains.
Did Mazar uncover exciting remains in an area where nobody expected anything worthwhile anymore? Certainly. The cyclopaedic walls, the levelled MBA surface, the Iron I metallurgical industry, the decorated Iron II pottery, the Persian material underneath the tower – these finds will help us to fill in the blanks in Jerusalem’s history. I am eagerly looking forward to the final publication that Eilat Mazar, with her record of fast publication, surely will provide in the near future.
Steiner, M.L. 2001. Excavations in Jerusalem by K. M. Kenyon 1961-67, Vol. III: The Settlement in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Sheffield.
Steiner, M.L. forthcoming. The Persian City Walls of Jerusalem.
Mazar E. 2006. “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” Biblical Archaeology Review 32:
16−27, 70. 16−27, 70.
Mazar, E. 2007. Preliminary Report on the City of David Excavations 2005 at the
Visitors Center Area. Jerusalem.
Mazar, E. 2009. The Palace of King David. Excavations at the Summit of the City of David. Preliminary Report of Seasons 2005-2007. Jerusalem and New York.
Finkelstein, I., Singer-Avitz, L., Ussishkin, D. and Herzog, Z. 2007. “Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem been found?” Tel Aviv 34:2: 142-164.
2 The drawing can be found on the website of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem: http://www.shalemcenter.org.il/FileServer/6c97f1f1c86d5f6222edd69fffe102ac.jpg.
3 The wall and the small tower west of it actually date to the Maccabean period – see Steiner forthcoming.
5 Mazar writes that “An earth layer containing large fragments of storage jars of the ‘collared-rim’ type, which are characteristic of the Iron Age I, was discovered over the Crucible Layer... .” According to her: “The layer seems to reflect the earliest phase of use in the room” [of the palace – MS] (Mazar 2009, 62). Because Mazar asserts that the first quarter of the 10th century BC is to be included in the Iron I period (2009, 41), Iron I pottery can thus be assigned to the period of King David and the building of his palace.