(Ar., Tell es-Saba῾),

a small mound about 1 ha (2.5 acres) in area, located in the Beersheba valley, east of the modern city of Beersheba in Israel's Negev desert (map reference 135 × 073). The settlement was built on a hill at the fork of the Beersheba and Hebron riverbeds, which provided the site with natural protection and close proximity to cultivable alluvial soil, as well as to the main crossroad.

Biblical References.

The main biblical references to Beersheba come from the patriarchal narratives. The patriarchs appear as pastoral nomads and occasional cultivators in the southern part of the land. God revealed himself to them (Gn. 26:24–25, 46:1–2) and they struggled at Beersheba with Abimelech over the wells (Gn. 21:22–34, 26:15–33). The name of the site stems from the Hebrew shebu῾ a (“oath”) or shiby῾ a (“seven”) (Gn. 21:31, 26:33). In the late premonarchical period, Joel and Abijah, the sons of Samuel, were stationed in Beersheba as “judges over Israel” (1 Sm. 8:1–2). Beersheba appears on the list of cities of Simeon and Judah (Jos. 15:28, 19:2; 1 Chr. 4:28). It demarcates the southern end of the land of Israel that stretched “from Dan to Beersheba” (Jgs. 20:1; 1 Sm. 3:20; 2 Sm. 3:10, 17:11, 24:15; 1 Kgs. 5:5). [See Judah.] Elijah passed through Beersheba on his journey to Mt. Horeb (1 Kgs. 19:3), and Amos condemned the pagan rites held at Beersheba along with those at Dan, Bethel, and Gilgal (Am. 5:5, 8:14).

Identification and Excavations.

Although the identification of Tell es-Saba῾ with biblical Beersheba seems to be confirmed by excavation (Aharoni, 1973; Rainey, 1984), some scholars see a contradiction between the biblical accounts and the finds. Mervyn D. Fowler claims that the absence of Bronze Age and Late Iron Age remains discredits Tel Beersheba as a patriarchal period site and as a city during Josiah's reign, respectively (Fowler, 1982). Nadav Na'aman believes that the location of ancient Beersheba must be sought at Bir es-Saba῾, while locating biblical Sheba at Tel Beersheba (Jos. 19:2; Na'aman, 1980). Patriarchal Beersheba is well represented in the remains dated to the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE. Anson F. Rainey suggests that two settlements—one at Tel Beersheba and one at Bir es- Saba῾—bore the same name (Rainey, 1984). Yohanan Aharoni also suggested identifying Tel Beersheba with the “Hagar of Abra(ha)m” of Shishak's list (Aharoni, 1973, pp. 111–113).


BEERSHEBA. Plan of the city. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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Extensive excavations were conducted at Tel Beersheba by an expedition from the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. The project was directed by Yohanan Aharoni from 1969 to 1975 and In 1976, following Aharoni's death, by Ze'ev Herzog. Methodologically, a wide horizontal-exposure approach was applied, aimed at uncovering broad and continuous occupation levels. Indeed, a comprehensive picture of the city planning in stratum II was revealed. Additional seasons, directed by Herzog, have been carried out at the site since 1990 in conjunction with the National Parks Authority's preservation of the site.

Chalcolithic Period.

Scattered sherds from the Chalcolithic period were found in the site's debris. It seems that any structures from this stage were removed by later construction operations. The first Iron Age settlers (Iron I, stratum IX) cleaned and reused depressions, or pits, they noticed on the mound that may have belonged originally to the Chalcolithic settlement (see below).

Iron Age I.

The best sequence of Iron Age remains was detected on the southeastern slope of the mound, under the outer gate of stratum V. The remains include four strata (IX–VI) dating from the mid-twelfth to the early tenth centuries BCE. The first settlement (stratum IX) consisted of a series of pits hewn into the hill's natural bedrock. The pits range from 5 to 10 m in diameter, and from 2 to 3 m in depth. The excavated area yielded parts of seven pits, most of them used for storage, apparently of grain. One pit, excavated almost in its entirety, had clearly been utilized for habitation. It was hewn into the bedrock at an angle, so that the rock provided natural protection from above. Its floor was paved with pebbles, and storage jars stood in a hewn niche. A cooking oven, surrounded by layers of ash, indicates domestic use of the pit.

A community of about twenty families could have lived in this settlement in tents or huts alongside the pits. The lack of stone architecture may point to a seminomadic community experiencing the first stage of sedentary life, a shift generated by slightly improved climatic conditions that enabled them to grow yields. Dry farming is indicated from the presence of cattle bones (12 percent), but most of their subsistence was still based on animal husbandry (sheep and goats, 74 percent). [See Cattle and Oxen; Sheep and Goats.] Two Egyptian scarabs from the New Kingdom, fragments of Philistine pottery, and local ware date stratum IX to the second half of the twelfth and the first half of the eleventh centuries BCE.

The first houses at the site were erected in stratum VIII, although the pits were still utilized. The single large unit erected near the well (see below) consists of a broad room and a forecourt—a house that might be considered the prototype of the four-room house. [See Four-room House.] The meager number of objects found in this stratum include the earliest iron arrowheads found at the site. Stone-built houses indicate a more permanent type of settlement. Stratum VIII is dated to the third quarter of the eleventh century BCE.

The stratum VII settlement was built over the abandoned pits and houses of Stratum VIII. Houses with solid stone foundations were erected in a belt covering the eastern slope—about half of the hilltop. The houses, which can be reconstructed as four-room- house types, encircled the settlement, their back walls facing outward, forming an enclosed settlement (Herzog, 1984). The large open space in the center of the settlement was probably utilized for the community's flocks of sheep and goats. However, large quantities of cattle bones discovered at Tel Beersheba, Tel Masos, and other sites in the area may point to the growing role of agriculture in the region's economy, most probably from further-improved climatic conditions. [See Agriculture; Masos, Tel.] In the eleventh century BCE, the Beersheba valley witnessed the most dense occupation in its pre-modern history. Stratum VII yielded rich finds, including pottery vessels, jewelry, iron tools, and fragments of figurines, that date to the late eleventh and early tenth centuries BCE.

The settlement of stratum VII was abandoned and parts of the houses were dismantled. The next stage, stratum VI, is characterized by a partial reuse of the earlier units, once interior partition walls were added. A single new “three- room” house was constructed in this stage. The finds from this stratum are very similar to those from stratum VII and must date to the first half of the tenth century BCE. The remains in stratum VI are interpreted as belonging to an interim stage, during which the new city (of stratum V) was built. The single house on the slope of the hill may have served the commander of the project. The compartments near it could be used as stores for equipment and shelters for work supervisors. These remains were eventually razed toward the final stage of the construction of the new city.

The well.

A well 69 m deep was found in the center of the remains of the Iron I settlement. During Iron II, this well was left outside the city fortifications but continued to serve both the city's inhabitants and passers by. Although the well was reused for several centuries, it seems that it was first dug in one of the Early Iron phases. Aharoni (1973) identified this well with the one mentioned in the patriarchal narratives (Gn. 21:26). Stratigraphically, the well does not destroy any Iron I structure, and the builders of the outer gate of stratum V clearly took it into consideration when erecting the gate's foundations. During Iron II, the city's drainage system directed rainwater into the well. The finds from the fill indicate that the well was destroyed (apparently in an earthquake) and filled in during the Late Hellenistic period.

Iron Age II.

The four strata of the Iron II city include remains of a small fortified city (2.8 acres) built on the top of the mound (strata V–II). The last occupational phase (stratum I) was an attempt to rebuild the city that was eventually halted. Two systems of fortifications were erected at Beersheba in Iron II. The earlier one consisted of a solid city wall with a four-chambered gate built in stratum V and reused in stratum IV. The later fortifications consisted of a casemate city wall and another four-chambered gate built in stratum III and reutilized in stratum II. Each of these strata suffered destruction, but the destruction of strata V and II was clearly caused by a more violent and widespread conflagration. These destructions should be dated, based on the rich pottery finds, to campaigns of Pharaoh Shishak (Sheshonq) In 926 BCE and King Sennacherib In 701 BCE, respectively. Some scholars have, however, challenged the date of stratum II. Kathleen M. Kenyon (1976) dated Beersheba II earlier than Lachish III, whereas Yigael Yadin (1976a) correlated it with stratum II at Lachish. [See Lachish.] Na'aman (1979) suggests, on historical grounds, pushing the conquest of Beersheba back to the time of Sargon.

Israelite city.

The city of stratum II at Beersheba presents a valuable picture of an administrative center in a marginal region. The oval city is small but carefully planned, with the encircling city wall following the topography of the hill. Only on the eastern side of the mound does the plan extend to a lower level. The water-supply system was erected there, and in order to incorporate it into the city, a colossal earthen rampart was built. A belt of two circular streets, parallel tothe outer contour of the mound, divided the city's interior. An additional street was cut through its center. All the streets converged on the open gate square, the city's only piazza, which could serve as a meeting place and market. The gate itself consisted of chambers with benches used by the city's functionaries in conducting their business.


BEERSHEBA. View of the Beersheba Gate. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

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An elaborate system of drainage channels was uncovered beneath the streets and pavements that conducted rainwater outside the city quickly. This prevented the collapse of the walls, which were made of stones packed with a mud mortar topped by sun-dried mud bricks. The main channel, which ran under the gate, conducted the water into the deep well outside the gate.

Water system.

Aharoni (1973) interpreted a wide flight of stairs he exposed in the 1970s as part of a water system. In 1994, the entire area was excavated and a monumental water-supply system unearthed. The system was approached through a square, vertical shaft, about 15 m deep. Stairs with a low parapet led to a stepped tunnel for an additional 5 m, at the bottom of which a series of underground cisterns is entered. [See Water Tunnels; Cisterns.] Five cisterns, each about 3 × 6 m and about 6 m high, were hewn into the limestone bedrock and covered with thick layers of water-resistant plaster. The total capacity of the system was about 500 cu m. Water was directed into the system through a tunnel from a nearby riverbed. Because the rivers in the Negev flow only for brief periods in the winter, the planners had to build a dam that directed floodwater into the tunnel. In this respect, the system at Beersheba differs from its counterparts at Hazor and Megiddo—which offer an approach to the underground water level or cistern. [See Megiddo; Hazor.] The systems in both regions were adapted to the availability of their water resources. Because the system could be filled only during a limited period of time (when it rained in winter), water was probably spared for emergency use, when the city was under siege. Assuming a population of three hundred in the city and an annual consumption rate of about 1,000 1 per person, the city could withstand a siege for as long as one year. The well outside the city gate provided the daily needs of the city's inhabitants as well as of merchants, caravans, and military units passing by and of the livestock.

Pillared buildings.

A large (600 sq m) typical pillared building was exposed near the city gate. It consisted of three units, each with three long halls separated by limestone columns that are square in section. Hundreds of pottery vessels found in the building's destruction layer indicate that it was the city's main storehouse. The goods would have been collected as taxes from neighboring villages like byt ῾mm and tld mentioned in an ostracon found in one of the storerooms (see Aharoni, 1973, pp. 71–72). In addition to storejars for cereals, oil, and wine, the inventory also included objects for food preparation and serving, evidence that the storehouse also was used for cooking and serving food to the city's administrative or military personnel (functions hinted at in some of the Arad ostraca). [See Arad Inscriptions.] Despite such clear-cut information, some scholars are of the opinion that the pillared buildings at Beersheba were horse stables (Yadin, 1976b; Holladay, 1986).

Horned altar.

In the fifth season of excavation, unusually well-dressed stones were uncovered that were incorporated into a wall of the storerooms. Peculiar rounded projections at the top of three of the stones (a fourth was cut off) identified them as part of a large horned altar. Additional stones were found in the eighth season that together reconstruct an altar that is a cube of 1.6 × 1.6 × 1.6 m. Aharoni (1973) suggested that the alter had originally stood in the courtyard of a temple, apparently in the place of the later basement building (see below). The dismantling of the temple and demolishing of the alter at both Beersheba and Arad are viewed as part of the cultic reform carried out by Hezekiah, king of Judah. [See Arad, article on Iron Age Period.] Yadin (1976a) suggested locating the altar in a bāmâ near the city gate.

Governor's palace.

A large unit (no. 416) in stratum II that controlled the gate square is interpreted as the residence of the city's governor (Heb., śar hā῾îr). The building is composed of ceremonial, residential, and service wings. Two large halls paved with stone pebbles, located on either side of the entry corridor, served as reception rooms. The door-jambs in the rear of the rooms were adorned with ashlar stones, the only example of such masonry found in Iron Age Beersheba. At the far end of the palace, with a separate wide entrance, was a small kitchen and a storage room. The western wing of the building consisted of two residential units. A narrow stair area offered passage to the upper floor from the entry corridor.

Basement house.

The second large structure in stratum II was found on the western side of the city. Its odd wall foundations were sunk 4 m deep into the ground (all others were only about .5 m deep). While in some rooms the space was filled with homogenous earth, two rooms were left empty and served as basements. The building's exceptional wall structure and east–west orientation led Aharoni to conclude that Beersheba's temple had stood there: that in stratum II, after the temple was destroyed down to its oldest foundations, the basement house replaced it. The underground rooms were connected by a door and apparently served as a wine cellar owned by one of the city's chief functionaries.

Residential dwellings and population.

Apart from the units listed above, the city's space was allocated for residential buildings. The sections of the city exposed attest that the domestic units were not uniform, however. Although they resemble the four-room-house type (most houses possessed a wall made of stone pillars to support the roof), their sizes differ and their internal division varies. The kitchens appear to have been located in the front room, which was unroofed. The central space, divided by pillars, may have been roofed and used as a storage area and as a stable for the household's livestock. The rear broad room was the family's bedroom. In houses located at the outer belt of the city, this room was also part of the defensive casemate wall. An estimated 300–350 people could live in the seventy-five dwellings at Tel Beersheba.

Its high standard of city planning as well as the vast resources and effort invested in its urban structures—its fortifications, street network, water system, and storehouses—clearly point to an administrative role for it. Such efforts were made for the kingdom's civil service elite; ordinary citizens lived in villages and farms and were engaged in agriculture. The inhabitants of Israelite cities were the region's governor; regional tax collectors who were also responsible also for redistributing taxes in kind; military commanders and local guards; officials responsible for international trade; and the priests who controlled religious rites.

Late periods.

After the destruction of stratum II, Tel Beersheba was never rebuilt as a city. Following an unsuccessful attempt to rebuild the fortifications (stratum I), the site was deserted for nearly three hundred years. The majority of the finds from the Persian period are from pits around the mound's perimeter. Forty Aramaic ostraca found in the pits list personal names of Jews, Edomites, and Arabs and mention quantities of wheat and barley. The pits were used, as elsewhere, to store grain, which was then supplied to the Persian army.

Remains of a large Hellenistic fortress with a temple nearby were found on the mound. Numerous objects were uncovered in favissae, or pits, dug in the temple's courtyard: a clay figurine (made in a mold) of a pair of goddesses; a Babylonian-style cylinder seal; female figurines in bronze and bone; a bronze bull figurine; and a falcon-shaped faience pendant. In the Herodian period a large palace, including a bathhouse, was built on the mound. The latest structure was a fortress from the Roman period (second and third centuries CE), built as a part of the limes Palaestinae. Following another gap of about five hundred years, the fortress was reused as a way station in the Early Arab period (eighth–ninth centuries CE). In the last few centuries the mound has served as burial place for local bedouin.


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  • Aharoni, Yohanan. Investigations at Lachish: The Sanctuary and the Residency (Lachish V). Tel Aviv, 1975.
  • Fowler, Mervyn D. “The Excavation at Tell Beer-Sheba and the Biblical Record.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 114 (1982): 7–11.
  • Herzog, Ze'ev, et al. “The Stratigraphy of Beer-Sheba and the Location of the Sanctuary.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 225 (1977): 49–58.
  • Herzog, Ze'ev. Beer-Sheba II: The Early Iron Age Settlements. Tel Aviv, 1984.
  • Holladay, John S. “The Stables of Israel: Functional Determinants of Stable Construction and the Interpretation of Pillared Building Remains of the Palestinian Iron Age.” In The Archaeology of Jordan and Other Studies Presented to Siegfried H. Horn, edited by Lawrence T. Geraty and Larry G. Herr, pp. 103–165. Berrien Springs, Mich., 1986.
  • Kenyon, Kathleen M. “The Date of the Destruction of Iron Age Beer-Sheba.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 108 (1976): 63–64.
  • Na'aman, Nadav. “The Brook of Egypt and Assyrian Policy on the Border of Egypt.” Tel Aviv 6 (1979): 68–90.
  • Na'aman, Nadav. “The Inheritance of the Sons of Simeon.” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 96 (1980): 136–152.
  • Rainey, Anson F. “Early Historical Geography of the Negeb.” In Beer-Sheba II: The Early Iron Age Settlements, edited by Ze'ev Herzog, pp. 88–104. Tel Aviv, 1984.
  • Yadin, Yigael. “Beer-Sheba: The High Place Destroyed by King Josiah.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 222 (1976a): 5–17.
  • Yadin, Yigael. “The Megiddo Stables.” In Magnalia Dei: The Mighty Acts of God; Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Memory of G. Ernest Wright, edited by Frank Moore Cross et al., pp. 249–252. Garden City, N.Y., 1976b.

Ze'ev Herzog