Archaeology of Samaria
Damien F. Mackey
“[Kathleen Kenyon] believed that the entire palace complex of Period I was built by
Omri in his last six years, attributing Period II to Ahab (873-853 BC). This meant,
in her view, that the controversial pottery could be dated no later than c. 870 BC.
As Wright pointed out, it seems excessive to allocate both kings a separate
building phase, especially given Omri’s short reign. More likely Omri began
Samaria I and it was completed by his son”.
Peter James et al.
Given “Omri’s short reign” (see quote above), and that, according to Dr. Bryant Wood’s estimation, Hiel of Bethel, a contemporary of Omri’s son, Ahab, built the Iron I level Jericho:
Hiel's Jericho. Part One: Stratigraphical level
which estimation I tend to favour at this stage, then it would follow that this, too, was the archaeological phase to be associated with Omri’s city of Samaria.
Historians and archaeologists have been in disagreement as to which stratigraphical level of Samaria is to be assigned to a particular era of its history.
I wrote about this in my university thesis:
A Revised History of the Era of King Hezekiah of Judah
and its Background
(Volume One, pp. 59-62):
… it was Omri who firstly made the strategic Samaria strong and famous - and that it was not already an important place covetted by Syria before Omri had been stablished in power - seems to be borne out by the stratigraphical evidence for the site, when reordered in a revised context. James has attempted to do just that, and I find his revised archaeological model for Samaria, here outlined, to be a most reasonable one when aligned against the biblico-historical data ….
[James, P., et al., Centuries of Darkness, pp. 183-187. D. Rohl has however suggested a different, revised model for Samaria. The Lost Testament, pp. 452-453].
The Samaria conundrum
A prime test of such a large-scale revision is provided by Samaria, the key site for the Iron Age archaeology of the northern kingdom, and often hailed as a case of perfect agreement between the archaeological and biblical records. Samaria was founded by King Omri of Israel (father of Ahab); after noting that he spent six of his twelve years’ reign at his capital in Tirzah, the Bible relates the following:
And he bought the hill Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Samaria … Omri slept with his fathers, and was buried in Samaria: and Ahab his son reigned in his stead. (I Kgs. 16:23-8)
Thereafter Samaria remained the capital of Israel.
James now turns to review the archaeology of the site of Samaria:
The generally accepted interpretation of its archaeology in the light of this passage is reasonable: the first evidence of major building activity should date
from the reign of Omri (885-873 B.C.). This ground rule was followed by both the American and British teams who worked at the site. Uncovering the remains
of a series of palaces, they attributed the first (Building Period I) to Omri ….
Although it was generally accepted that the city was founded in the early 9th century BC, a conspicuous problem was raised by the pottery associated with the buildings. According to standard classification, the pottery found under the
Samaria I floor belonged to the 10th century. The British excavator, Kenyon, believed that the closest date for the architectural phase is provided by the latest pottery discovered in the rubble used to create a base for its construction. In this case, convinced that she was dealing with a 9th-century building, Kenyon had to argue that the generally accepted ceramic chronology was too high. In her opinion the pottery dated to the early 9th century B.C.
This was the starting point of a major dispute.
Kenyon’s main critic, G. Ernest Wright, suggested that ‘Omri purchased not a bare hill, but a hill with a village on it’. This hypothetical village curiously left no building remains, with the possible exception of two walls. More awkward were the attempts to explain why the same ware found underneath Samaria I also occurred above it. Wright believed that the pottery got there in debris from the pre-Omrid ‘village’ used to build the foundations of Samaria II. His argument breaks down under close examination. The ware in question was described by
Kenyon as ‘entirely uniform’. This is surprising if it was introduced as levelling material. Underneath the floors of Samaria I it was frequently mixed with Early Bronze Age pottery from a long-abandoned prehistoric settlement. It seems incredible that the builders of Samaria II selected the rubbish of only one period
to use in their construction work. Wright himself noted that such a deposit ‘would be expected to contain pottery from all earlier occupation levels on the site’.
According to the excavator it did not. ….
How to reconcile the two views?
Both sides in the dispute tended to minimize the discrepancy between the dates
for the building phases and the pottery. While Wright referred to the anomalous
pottery as ‘10th-century B.C.’, his own observations, as well as Kenyon’s, reveal
that many forms were actually characteristic of the 11th century BC.
At the same time Kenyon kept her pottery dates as high as the historical evidence would allow. She believed that the entire palace complex of Period I was built by Omri in his last six years, attributing Period II to Ahab (873-853 BC). This meant, in her view, that the controversial pottery could be dated no later than c. 870 BC.
As Wright pointed out, it seems excessive to allocate both kings a separate building phase, especially given Omri’s short reign. More likely Omri began Samaria I and it was completed by his son. If one were to take Wright’s estimate
of the time taken to build Samaria I together with Kenyon’s understanding of the pottery, some of the ‘10th’-century ceramics would postdate the reign of Ahab.
The palace of Samaria I, after Ahab had finished it, could have been used for another two generations or so, which would mean that pottery styles conventionally dated around 1000 BC might actually have been used as late as c. 800 B.C.
James now attempts to put all this into a broader sequential context, including which
level at Samaria he deems the likely one for king Hezekiah’s contemporaries, Hoshea of Israel and Sargon II of Assyria:
Examination of the later strata suggests that a reduction of this order does need to be made for the pottery of Samaria I-II. Beginning with the higher levels, VIII
contains 5th- and 6th- century Greek pottery, and is thus reasonably securely dated; VII contains ‘Assyrian Palace Ware’, and is presently believed to represent Samaria under Assyrian rule, despite the fact that nothing found in this phase reflects the large-scale reconstruction which the Assyrian King Sargon II (721-705 BC) claimed to have carried out:
[The town I] re[built] better than (it was) before and [settled] therein people
from countries which [I] myself [had con]quered. I placed an officer of mine as governor over them and imposed upon them tribute as (is customary) for Assyrian cities.
Following the dating of ‘Assyrian Palace Ware’ discussed above, VII would largely be a Babylonian level. This being the case, the Building Period termed
Samaria V/VI would not be the last Israelite level before Sargon’s conquest, but
rather the final Assyrian, before their withdrawal c. 630 BC. This reduction is in
step with the revised dates of 701-587 BC for Lachish III, the pottery of which is contemporary with that of Samaria V/VI.
James now tells of what he considers to be the likely phase at Samaria for Sargon II, and for Hoshea of Israel, an older contemporary of Hezekiah of Judah:
The work of Sargon of Assyria may then be reflected in Samaria Period IV. This
included new constructions, repairs and alterations to the old casemate walls and buildings; most significantly, it was linked with ‘the most important break’ in the pottery sequence … - a change that could reflect the Assyrian deportation of the Israelites and resettlement of the site with foreigners from Syria and Babylonia.
The famous Samaria ostraca, dated by the years of an anonymous ruler, belong to this level, judging from the type of sherds on which they were written. It seems that they do not relate to any of the Israelite kings previously suggested, ranging from Ahab in the 9th century to Pekah in the mid-8th, but in fact to an Assyrian ruler, most likely Sargon or [sic] Sennacherib.
This would make Samaria III the final Israelite level, possibly built under Hoshea, last King of Israel (732-722 BC). The extensive work undertaken during Building Period II would then belong to a powerful king such as Jeroboam II (793-753BC). The bulk of the beautiful ivories found at the site have generally been attributed to this phase and the time of Ahab (although they were actually found in disturbed or later contexts). However, an 8th-century date seems more likely.
As specialists in ancient ivory-working have repeatedly stated, they are extremely close stylistically to the ivories collected by Sargon II in his palace at Khorsabad.
Indeed, the Assyrian group includes many pieces probably manufactured in Israel.
The prophet Amos (3:9-15), a contemporary of Jeroboam II, railed against the luxury exhibited by the Israelite royalty, who dwelt in ‘houses of ivory’.
[End of quote]
… this [is a] very reasonable account of the progression of Samaria’s stratigraphy - though a full comparison will eventually need to be done between Samaria and the other northern sites, like Hazor and Megiddo ….
I concluded this with a section in which I considered that Omri and his son, Ahab, may possibly have been foreigners:
…. It may perhaps … be interesting that, in regard to the Omride names, Ellis has made the observation, without however linguistically qualifying it, that: … “Neither ‘Omri’ nor ‘Ahab’ would seem to be Israelite names”. And he has further suggested - with reference to Noth - that perhaps Omri “was a foreign mercenary who rose through the ranks to become general of the militia”.
(i) Possibilities such as these, coupled with (ii) the lack of any tribal genealogy, or patronymic, for Omri, coupled with (iii) the fact that Omri was so famous that his reputation lasted on into the neo-Assyrian era – though he is lightly treated in the Scriptures:
Why Bible May Neglect Certain Powerful Kings. Part Two: Omri
led me to the highly controversial (and necessarily tentative) consideration that the:
Omride Dynasty [was] Egyptian. Part One: Omri's Name and Origins
Omride Dynasty Egyptian. Part Two: King Ahab and his Two Sons
Hiel of Bethel
More confidently, I have proposed an identification of Hiel of Bethel, the builder of (likely) Iron I level Jericho, with the far better-known Mesha of Moab:
Hiel's Jericho. Part Two (a): Who was this “Hiel of Bethel”?
Hiel's Jericho. Part Two (b, i): Different names, Hiel, Mesha?
Hiel's Jericho. Part Two (b, ii): A Servant of the Syrians?