The site of Samaria lies 20.5 miles (33 km) east of the Mediterranean Sea and 6.8 miles (11 km) west of the ancient city of Shechem. The site is accessible from the coastal highway (11.2 miles [18 km] to the west) and from the Transjordan via the route through Shechem. A somewhat more difficult route over the mountains to the north links Samaria to the Jezreel Valley. Though the site was accessible, it was not situated at the key junction of any ancient trading route, nor did it possess a substantial water supply. Instead, Samaria’s primary attribute was its easily defensible mound, which rises 229.7 to 328.1 ft (70–100 m) above the surrounding valley floor. From Samaria, a king could see the coast and control the hills from the safety of an imposing fortress. Such geographic advantages made Samaria the “watchtower” of the northern hills and the ideal city for a regional power to use as an administrative center.

History of Excavations.

The first archaeological excavations at Samaria were undertaken by Harvard University from 1908 to 1910, with the first season under the direction of Gottlieb Schumacher and the second and third seasons under the direction of George Reisner. Unlike most excavators at the time, Reisner was a sensitive stratigrapher; and his careful eye was able to distinguish between the various superimposed building phases at the site. The excavation, which focused on the acropolis, was a spectacular success, outlining the entire history of the site and recovering some of the most important artifacts this region has ever produced.

The site was excavated again by a joint expedition (Harvard University, the Hebrew University, the Palestine Exploration Fund, the British Academy, and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem) led by J. W. Crowfoot between 1931 and 1935. The excavation’s finds were again rich, befitting a major expedition at a key ancient city; and a set of important Iron-Age ivories was quickly published. Once again, a relatively short excavation had an outsized effect on the archaeology of the eastern Mediterranean.

The publication of the other objects, however, was delayed and had a decidedly mixed reception. Unlike the universal admiration for Reisner’s methods, the conclusions of Kathleen Kenyon, the primary stratigrapher responsible for the publication of the buildings on the summit of the mound, were rejected by most of her American and Israeli contemporaries. In particular, Kenyon asserted that the site had been completely abandoned for more than a millennium before it was built as a royal capital in the ninth century B.C.E. For that reason, she ascribed all of the early Iron-Age pottery to the ninth century. Upon seeing the pottery, Roland de Vaux, G. Ernest Wright, Yohanan Aharoni, and Ruth Amiran immediately noticed that twelfth- to tenth-century B.C.E. pottery seemed to be part of the earliest pottery collections. Based upon their excavations elsewhere, they refused to accept that all of these forms belonged in the ninth century B.C.E. as Kenyon proposed. But the publications of the joint expedition did not provide sufficient detail to understand precisely what had gone awry. Some 30 years later, Ron Tappy published his doctoral dissertation (1992) and an extension of this dissertation (2001), in which he used Kenyon’s unpublished field notes to track down the findspot of every fragment of pottery that she had published. His analysis showed that the published pottery was not well linked to any architecture. Kenyon’s correlations between pottery and architecture could not be sustained for any period. Almost all of the pottery came from pits or mixed constructional fills, which could do no more than provide a rough terminus post quem for the architecture built above the fills. Tappy’s revisionist work was extraordinarily technical, but it was a necessary corrective to Kenyon’s work. Samaria’s excavations were so rich and its history was so central to the entire region that the archaeological details were critical.

Excavation Results.

Samaria’s earliest archaeological remains belong to the Early Bronze Age. Kenyon argued that a series of installations cut into the bedrock were used with this pottery from the third millennium. Lawrence Stager, however, argued that Kenyon had conflated the remains from the Early Bronze Age with a farmstead or small village of the Iron-I period. Kenyon herself claimed that the pottery was a mix of Early Bronze–Age and period-1 (dated to the Iron I) pottery, and Stager attempted to disentangle these mixed remains. Typologically, he argued that the simple cup marks on the bedrock belonged to the Early Bronze Age but that the bell-shaped olive presses were typical of the Iron-I period (Stager, 1990). Stager’s work demonstrated that there was Iron-Age architecture which predated the major ninth-century B.C.E. construction of the royal citadel. Stager referred to this farmstead as “Shemer’s estate,” after the biblical record of Shemer, the owner of the hill who sold his land to Omri.

At some point in the ninth century B.C.E., a large enclosure wall was constructed around the summit of Samaria, enclosing a massive citadel of 584 by 292 ft (178 by 89 m). The fortifications used carefully cut ashlar stones fitted together with impressive precision. On the northern, western, and southern sides these walls were augmented by deep cuts into the bedrock, creating rock scarps that increased the height advantage for defenders of the citadel. These bedrock cuts also likely served as ready quarries for the cut stones of the citadel. This enclosure is a clear imposition on the landscape rather the result of the natural growth of a village, marking a powerful regional king creating a royal citadel. Tappy showed that Kenyon recorded very little pottery which can be used to precisely date this construction, but archaeologists are nevertheless agreed that this construction should be dated to the time of Omri (r. ca. 884–874 B.C.E.) and Ahab (r. ca. 874–853 B.C.E.), based upon the biblical description of their activities combined with the power of these kings from contemporary Assyrian sources.

While most of the digging was conducted on the royal citadel, the excavation of the lower city of Samaria surrounding the citadel was much less impressive. In many cases later Roman constructions obliterated the earlier remains, cutting all the way to bedrock. Still, it was the opinion of the joint expedition that the Iron-Age city was similar in size to the much later Herodian city. They reported the discovery of Iron-Age pottery below the stadium in the northeastern corner of the Roman city, along with cut stones of the Iron-Age pattern near the west gate in the southeastern corner. This conclusion is rather circumstantial since many stones could have been reused or transported as constructional fills for the later Roman buildings, but it is still quite possible that Iron-Age Samaria might have included an extensive lower city around the citadel.

Within the citadel, both the Harvard expedition and the joint expedition found a complex of rebuilt and reused buildings which were too complicated for them to date accurately using their excavation methods. Still, there are some significant buildings and finds which date to the Iron Age. Along the southern side of the citadel, a building with massive walls was described by Reisner as an “Omride palace.” While its date is less certain than Reisner’s claim, this building was surely a royal residence built during the Iron Age. Its plan is partial, but given subsequent excavation at other sites, it is likely a royal residence and fortress following the pattern of similarly sized buildings at Hazor, Megiddo, and Jezreel.

In the southwestern corner of the citadel, the Harvard expedition uncovered the southern half of a building called the “Ostraca House.” It has small, regularly spaced, square rooms, usually with a doorway in the corner, joined to long, narrow rooms or magazines for storage. Within these rooms and just to the north, where the rooms were preserved less fully, Reisner uncovered more than 100 pottery fragments containing writing in black ink. The ostraca were found in an uncertain relationship to the floor of the building, so it is not clear how the building and the inscriptions worked together (the inscriptions might predate the building). Still, the building itself is a typical administrative building of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, finding a good parallel in the ninth-century B.C.E. “administrative building” at Tell Dothan.

These Samaria ostraca are among the most important witnesses to ancient Israelite administrative practice that have ever been uncovered. Typically, an ostracon includes a date (“in the tenth year”), followed by a location of origin (“from Hazeroth”), a recipient (“to Gaddiyaw”), and a commodity (“a jar of refined oil”). Some of the ostraca add another name at the end. Each of these literary components has occasioned much discussion since the ostraca were uncovered. First, the dates on the ostraca have been checked to see if they can provide evidence for the absolute date in which the receipts were written. All of the dates listed on the ostraca are either the ninth year, tenth year, or fifteenth year. While most agreed to an early eighth-century B.C.E. date for the ostraca based on paleographic considerations, Anson Rainey argued even more specifically that the year 9/10 and year 15 ostraca can be dated to 784/83 B.C.E. based on a coregency of Jeroboam II (accession in 798 B.C.E.) with Jehoash (accession in 793 B.C.E.). Others, such as F. M. Cross, date the ostraca to 775–769 B.C.E., with numbers on the ostraca referring to regnal years of Jeroboam II’s sole rule. Several locations are listed on the ostraca, and it is generally thought that these refer to the place from which the listed commodities came. When examined in aggregate these locations show interesting patterns. Names like Abiezer, Helek, Asriel, Shechem, Shemida, Noah, and Hoglah appear in the ostraca and in the biblical genealogies of the tribe of Manasseh. Yet another set of names corresponds to early modern Arabic village names in the general region of Samaria. The wine and oil was coming from nearby towns and from the clans of the tribe of Manasseh.

According to the ostraca, the substances being brought to the palaces were the finest olive oil and old wine. While any palace would need such goods for sustenance, the range of goods is rather narrow. No palace can live on oil and wine alone. At the same time, these also happened to be the most saleable commodities produced in the highlands. Given the transportation costs, these exclusive items represent the most efficient way to transfer wealth from an estate to the palace. Scholars have debated whether these were sent to fulfill general tax obligations or for more specific functions. This same debate also rages over the identity of the recipients mentioned in the ostraca, often called the “l-men” because of the lamed prefix placed before their names. It is not clear if these l-men were fulfilling a tax obligation, in this case through the transfer of the most precious of export commodities, or whether they resided at Samaria and ate at the king’s table, supplied by their own estates, as in the story of Mephibosheth and David (2 Sam 9:6–13). In any case, these l-men were receiving goods from various estates scattered over a wide area. It appears that these estates, rather than being territorial contiguous home regions for the l-men, represent land grants from the crown. In the end, the wine and oil represent income or revenue to the palace, whatever the political particulars of the occasion on which they were sent.


Ivory “cherub” furniture inlay. Zev Radovan/

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On the northern side of the Iron-Age citadel, the joint expedition recovered a set of decorated ivory inlays. The finds were generally clustered in one part of the citadel, leading the joint expedition to speak of an “ivory house.” Closer examination by Tappy, however, showed that almost all were found within Hellenistic or Roman fills. On stylistic grounds, the ivories belong to a tradition of eighth-century B.C.E. Phoenician ivory carving full of Egyptian motifs recast in ivory, but these motifs also have resonance in the traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Many argue that the pattern of the Egyptian winged sphinx with the headdress of the Egyptian goddess Hathor is the best contemporary representation of the biblical cherub. Others pick up on the palm trees as parallels for the sacred trees woven in the curtains of the Jerusalem Temple. Other motifs include battling animals, flowers, and the representation of a woman looking through a window. Taken together, these ivories are similar to those found at other cities within the sphere of Phoenicia and surely represented a costly import to Samaria.

One of the conclusions of the joint expedition which was long unchallenged was that Iron-Age Samaria was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. Because of this clear event, everyone assumed that the pottery preceding the 722 destruction was a reliable chronological maker in the history of the north. Tappy, however, deconstructed both of these conclusions, demonstrating that the pottery was a poor chronological marker and, even more startlingly, that there was very little evidence for a cataclysmic destruction of the citadel of Samaria in the late eighth century. He argued that the Assyrians did not completely or even substantially destroy the citadel but, instead, continued to occupy the royal compound and to use it as an administrative center. In this reading, the city really never stopped housing the government of the northern hills; it just accommodated a different set of rulers.

Very few architectural fragments have been found from the period of Assyrian or Babylonian hegemony in Samaria. The excavations did recover fragments of pottery from the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. along with a few fragments of administrative seals, bullae, or tablets. The written documents attest to Assyrian religious observance and judicial administration at the site of Samaria. However, because of the paucity of new buildings, Samaria is generally judged to be a second-rate outpost compared to the nearby Assyrian administrative center at Megiddo.

In the Persian period Samaria saw a resurgence as the northern highlands became more extensively settled by a group that developed into a distinct Samaritan sect. The excavation discovered very little from this period, but two lines of archaeological evidence provide key insights into life around Samaria in the fourth century B.C.E. Coins, both from surface finds at the site of Samaria and from the surrounding regions, show that the city minted and restruck coins to include the name of the province and city as well as to list the names of several governors of the province, including Sanballat (of which there were several) and Hanayah. The coins otherwise follow the typical decorative motifs of the mints of surrounding regions. These coins are complemented by the discovery of papyri from the caves of the Wadi ed-Dâliyeh. The papyri were recovered in an exceedingly remote location by enterprising Bedouin who had learned the value of cave excavation in the years following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Wadi ed-Dâliyeh papyri, dated as late as 335 B.C.E., point to the life of a community at Samaria living in the last days of the Persian Empire. The documents record typical legal or administrative events: sales of land, receipts for the acquisition of slaves, marriage contracts. The contracts were often guaranteed by a high official such as a governor. Thus, again, names such as Sanballat and Hanayah appear. The names of the contracting parties have different theophoric elements; most are Yahwistic, but others include Qôs, Kĕmoš, Bacal, and Nabū.

These documents appear to have come to the cave as part of the political intrigues at the time of the conquest of Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 B.C.E.). Ancient sources record that the Samaritans murdered Alexander’s prefect for the region, causing Alexander to take revenge on Samaria itself. These documents are likely the personal effects of those who fled from Alexander’s wrath.

After Alexander’s conquest, the city was turned into a Hellenistic colony. At the outset, the old Iron-Age walls were augmented by round towers built using some of the beautiful cut stones of the Iron-Age citadel. Then, during the second century B.C.E., the fortifications of the city were extensively remodeled. The citadel wall was replaced by a solid wall almost 16.4 ft (5 m) thick, and the lower city was protected by a major city wall in the southeast. The later Hellenistic expansion of the fortifications can be dated quite precisely because of the wealth of epigraphic evidence, including coins from as late as Antiochus III (r. 223–187 B.C.E.) and almost 2,000 imported stamped jar handles from the early to mid-second century B.C.E. Both the imported vessels and the date on the stamps point to Samaria’s role as a Hellenistic city in the midst of the Hasmonean revolts of the second century B.C.E. Between the city’s allegiance to Hellenism and its role as the central city of the Samaritans, it is no wonder that Samaria was attacked and destroyed by John Hyrcanus (r. 135–104 B.C.E.) at the end of the second century B.C.E.

Despite this temporary setback the city was too important for the control of the north to be ignored by the Romans in the first century B.C.E. First Gabinius and later Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.) rebuilt the city as a Roman fortress. The walls of the lower city were rebuilt and strengthened. In the southwest round towers some 36 to 39.4 ft (11–12 m) in diameter protected both the gates and projected out from the city wall. Though the precise lines of the earlier city walls are poorly understood, it does seem that the Roman expansion made the city larger on the northern side, providing the space for, among other things, a small stadium. In some cases, new stones were quarried and carved in classic Herodian style; in other cases, the beautiful cut stones of the Israelite citadel were used once again. Enough of the Roman city wall remains intact to be easily traced. Towers are regularly spaced every 131.2 to 164 ft (40–50 m), and the entire city expanded to 185.3 acres (75 ha).

Inside the Iron-Age citadel a series of new buildings could be dated precisely to the middle of the first century B.C.E., to the rebuilding of Samaria during the time of Gabinius (Josephus, Ant. 14.88), because they contained coins from as late as 64 to 63 B.C.E. yet were sealed beneath the Herodian Temple of Augustus. These buildings show a first step in the rebuilding process, which was overwhelmed by Herod’s monumental constructions. In order to build the temple and forecourt that Herod envisioned, he had to expand the Iron-Age citadel. This required the construction of a platform which included massive fills, retaining walls, and vaulted side chambers. Herod’s work lifted the entire temple precinct some 16.4 ft (5 m) above the rest of the citadel. In the end, while the temple may have been in honor of Augustus, the massive building project was equally concerned with Herod’s own safety. The new platform included large fortified towers at the corners and substantial housing, storage, and even stabling complexes. Taken as a whole, Herod built a “fortified compound” in the northern hills at Samaria. The orientation was different from that of the Iron-Age royal citadel; he even changed the name of the city to Sebaste, but the function of the place remained the same. Herod constructed a royal fortified administrative center from which he could dominate the northern highlands.


The barley letter from Samaria. Zev Radovan/

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Later Roman builders, particularly of the early third century C.E., heavily remodeled parts of Sebaste. Sebaste’s inhabitants backed Septimius Severus’s (r. 193–211 C.E.) bid for the empire and saw this loyalty pay off handsomely after the battle of Issus. New commercial shops and streets were cut through the bedrock, a massive forum and basilica were built on the eastern side of the city, a small theater was constructed, and a new temple to the goddess Kore ornamented the northern side of the city. In each of these cases, the remodeling was extensive enough that the excavators were unable to determine if the constructions involved remodeling Herodian structures or were entirely new monuments within the city. Surely, the Herodian city must have had a row of shops like the columned street uncovered by the joint expedition, and there must have been small theaters in Herodian Sebaste. In the case of the temple of Kore, the Severan construction reused at least two different sets of blocks from earlier temples: one from an earlier temple of Kore and another showing devotion to Isis. Using the numismatic and iconographic evidence, this worship of Kore can be first attested in the Herodian period, just at the time when representations of Isis and Demeter declined. The first set of residual blocks belongs to a Herodian temple to Kore, and the second set comes from a Hellenistic temple to Isis. Herod’s intentional move from Isis to Kore was part of a policy of distancing himself from those things associated with the defeated Cleopatra (the “New Isis,” r. 51–30 B.C.E.). This proposal is tantalizing, and surely the excavations at Samaria/Sebaste support that idea that by the late first century Herod was doing everything within his power to ingratiate himself to Augustus (r. 29 B.C.E.–14 C.E.).

Samaria in the Bible.

The Hebrew Bible refers to Samaria frequently, and since these references were known to the original excavators, the “matches” between the archaeology of Samaria were plentiful in their reports. Often, the excavators filled in a biblical framework with their find. The earliest Iron-Age pottery was linked to the founding of Samaria in 1 Kings 16. The ivory inlays were first linked to the “ivory house” of Ahab mentioned in 1 Kings 22:39, and the Assyrian takeover at the end of the eighth century B.C.E. was thought to be a clear archaeological marker. Though all of these historical connections made by the original excavators turned out to be misleading, the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the archaeological finds remains informative.

In the Hebrew Bible, Samaria appears as a new capital under the Omrides. Archaeologically, some of the problems with the pottery and stratigraphy make it difficult to be too chronologically specific, but the massive construction of the Iron-Age citadel at Samaria fits very well with this picture. A wine-pressing estate, identified in the bedrock presses, was transformed into a platform of monumental buildings constructed with the finest masonry work seen in the Iron Age. In this way the archaeological excavations provide substantial clarification to a few words in the biblical text.

The biblical text hints that Samaria had a major urban population, perhaps part of a lower city not yet found by archaeologists. In 1 Kings 20 the king of Damascus allows Ahab to set up ḥûṣōt in Damascus just as the Aramean king’s father had set up in Samaria. These ḥûṣōt are usually understood to be marketplaces, and in the Hebrew Bible they appear only in major population centers. Further, in 2 Kings 6:24–31, the text portrays a city of starving inhabitants talking to the king on the wall (perhaps the wall of the citadel). When the famine breaks, a large number of people trample the king’s envoy in their rush for food. In all of these cases Samaria, in addition to being the seat of government, is pictured as a (the) major urban center in the north. In such a case the archaeological excavations have added little to the understanding of Samaria as a major city.

Later, the biblical text describes the fall of Samaria, in terms of both Assyrian conquest (2 Kgs 17) and prophetic texts which speak of the ruin of Samaria (e.g., Mic 1:6). In this case, the archaeological picture is one of clear Assyrian control but not of the cataclysmic destruction in the areas excavated. From the Assyrian period onward, Samaria faded from view as a city in biblical texts, but the power and the control that it wielded over the region caused the entire region to be labeled “Samaria” and its residents “Samaritans.”


The Bronze-Age kingdoms of ancient Canaan seem to have had no need for Samaria, and in both Middle and Late Bronze–Age texts Shechem was the city that dominated this region. Even in the twenty-first century Samaria lies abandoned, while Shechem (Nablus) flourishes. But for a moment, from the Iron Age through the Roman period, Samaria was the quintessential government town. With the rise of the Omride dynasty in the tribal Kingdom of Israel and the threats to that kingdom from all directions, the rulers decided to invest in a city whose chief value was in its defensive prowess, with little else to commend it. The city filled its role admirably for about 1,000 years. When the Assyrians threw out the local Israelite rulers, the city served with equal effectiveness as a bastion of foreign forces occupying the hills. The city served as an administrative center in turn for the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians until the city was taken by Alexander. The city was then a Hellenistic stronghold until it was destroyed by John Hyrcanus in the second century B.C.E. The ruined city was rebuilt under the Romans as an urban fortress, a project greatly expanded by Herod the Great. The city was favored one final time during the Severan period, when its temples and streets were extensively rebuilt. But as government functions moved elsewhere, the city could only limp on as a smaller center of Christian pilgrimage. The archaeological remains document the building prowess of these successive governments as well as their unusual access to foreign goods and luxury items. Samaria, while it lasted, was a city of political power.



  • Cross, Frank Moore. Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook. Harvard Semitic Studies 51. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2003. This includes a discussion (pp. 75–76) of Cross’s dating and interpretation of the Samaria ostraca.
  • Crowfoot, J. W., and Grace W. Crowfoot. Samaria-Sebaste 2: The Early Ivories. London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1938.
  • Crowfoot, J. W., Grace W. Crowfoot, and Kathleen M. Kenyon. Samaria-Sebaste III: The Objects. London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1957.
  • Crowfoot, J. W., Kathleen M. Kenyon, and E. L. Sukenik. Samaria-Sebaste I: The Buildings. London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1942.
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W., J. J. M. Roberts, C. L. Seow, et al. Hebrew Inscriptions: Texts from the Biblical Period of the Monarchy with Concordance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. This volume includes translation and discussion of all of the intelligible Samaria ostraca.
  • Horowitz, Wayne, and Takayoshi Oshima. Cuneiform in Canaan: Cuneiform Sources from the Land of Israel in Ancient Times. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2006. This volume includes the Neo-Assyrian documents found at Samaria.
  • Lapp, Paul W., and Nancy L. Lapp. Discoveries in the Wâdī ed Dâliyeh. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, vol. 41. Cambridge, Mass.: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1974.
  • Magness, Jodi. “The Cults of Isis and Kore at Samaria-Sebaste in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.” Harvard Theological Review 94 (2001): 157–177.
  • Meshorer, Yaʿakov, and Shraga Qedar. The Coinage of Samaria in the Fourth Century b.c.e. Jerusalem: Numismatic Fine Arts, 1991.
  • Netzer, Ehud. The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2006.
  • Rainey, Anson, and Steven Notley. The Sacred Bridge. Jerusalem: Carta, 2006. The volume includes Rainey’s final statement on the Samaria ostraca.
  • Reisner, George A., C. S. Fisher, and D. G. Lyon. Harvard Excavations at Samaria 1908–1910. Vol. 1: Text. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1924.
  • Reisner, George A., C. S. Fisher, and D. G. Lyon. Harvard Excavations at Samaria 1908–1910. Vol. 2: Plans and Plates. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1924.
  • Stager, Lawrence E. “The Finest Olive Oil in Samaria.” Journal of Semitic Studies 28 (1983): 241–245.
  • Stager, Lawrence E. “Shemer’s Estate.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 277–278 (1990): 93–107.
  • Tappy, Ron. The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria. Vol. 1: Early Iron Age through the Ninth Century. Harvard Semitic Studies 44. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1992.
  • Tappy, Ron. The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria. Vol. 2: The Eighth Century b.c.e. Harvard Semitic Studies 50. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2001.

Daniel M. Master