Date: June 3-30, 2017
Location: Khirbet el-Mastarah, Israel
The origin of early Israel has been under debate since the beginnings of biblical archaeology. The biblical book of Joshua claims that the earliest Israelites came from the east, outside the ancient land of Canaan, and that they entered it by crossing the Jordan River “opposite Jericho” (Josh 3:16). Many modern scholars, however, argue that the earliest Israelites were actually disaffected Canaanites who fled their oppressive urban overlords in the urban centers in the west. The argument that the Israelites originated inside the land of Canaan is based, in part, on a lack of evidence for early Israel in the east.
In recent years, however, fifty-four sites dating to the period of the early Israelite settlement (about 1200-1000 B.C.E.) have been discovered in the Jordan Valley, a region almost completely unknown archaeologically up until now. These sites clearly represent the presence of a new population group. Most of these sites are simply large rings of stones, probably used to house sheep or goats, and are not very promising archaeologically. A handful of them, however, are “complex oval enclosures” that include houses and other structures, and were clearly meant to be villages.
The largest of these, Khirbet el-Mastarah, is particularly fascinating. This large site includes several houses, animal pens, hints of walls, and a series of unusual stone piles, and is dated to the Early Iron Age, at the time of the first settlement of the Tribes of Israel in the land of Canaan, as described in the book of Joshua. This site is likely to be one of the earliest Israelite villages in the land.
This site is very mysterious. Its name, “Mastarah,” means “hidden,” and the site is literally hidden. It is located in the desert, about six miles north of Jericho, off the main roads and away from reliable water sources. It is positioned in the fork of a dried out river bed and surrounded by hills on three sides, completely masked from its surroundings.
In 2017, we will begin excavating the site of Khirbet el-Mastarah in an effort to solve some of its many mysteries. Is this one of the earliest Israelites villages in the land, as its location just west of the Jordan River might suggest? And, if so, why did they settle in this hidden location? The excavation at el-Mastarah is a pioneering project in a land that is almost unknown archaeologically, but that likely represents the earliest region of Israelite settlement in the land.