Not all readers may be equally familiar with the chronological nomenclature used by the authors, so this section explains the terms used for the regions and periods in which the bulk of the biblical text was written. In modern terms, this ancient region encompasses southern Lebanon, southwestern Syria, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and northern Sinai. For each period, the common archaeological name is linked to an absolute date, followed by a brief summary. As one might imagine, the links between periods and dates are the subject of considerable ongoing discussion among historians and archaeologists. Chronologically, this summary starts much earlier than the writing of the biblical texts because these earlier periods are used frequently by authors in these volumes to set up the general patterns that define archaeological sites and regions. Furthermore, these brief notes are hardly comprehensive. They are simply an introduction to the general patterns of the chronological periods and note only those historical trends that influenced the types of archaeological remains recovered in excavations.

Neolithic, 8500–4500 B.C.E.

In the Neolithic period (lit. “new stone” age), all aspects of daily life were transformed through the domestication of animals and plants. Permanent settlements were built, including a village of 10 acres (4 ha) at the site of Jericho. Pottery became a common part of every settlement, architecture took on a variety of new forms, and religious life came into sharper focus through more elaborate burial customs and anthropomorphic figurines in clay and plaster.

Chalcolithic, 4500–3500 B.C.E.

The term “Chalcolithic” is a combination of the Greek word for copper and the Greek word for stone. The Chalcolithic period, then, was a bridge between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. Stone tools were most common, but metal craftsmanship reached extraordinary heights. In this period olives and grapes were domesticated, and farm animals were first used for wool, milk, and traction. Some ways of life were tied to specific ecological niches: the Beersheba Valley, the Coastal Plain, the Jordan Valley, and the hills around the Yarmuk canyon. One of the odd aspects of the Chalcolithic, though perhaps simply an accident of discovery, is that most of the settlements have been unearthed in marginal areas of the country. In each of these regions, however, marked differences in the amount and quality of goods within the settlements have led many to argue that this was the first period in which elites and chieftains rose to prominence. Across the country, small villages combined the farming of subsistence crops (wheat, barley), the farming of crops that could be traded abroad (olives/oil, grapes/wine), and the raising of sheep, goats, and cattle for meat, milk, and wool. For the next several millennia, this was the pattern of rural life in the region.

Early Bronze Age, 3500–2250 B.C.E.

The Early Bronze I (3500–3000 B.C.E.) emerged from the Chalcolithic and was distinguished by renewed contact with Egypt, particularly in the south. Trade with Egypt stimulated the construction of a production network to funnel resources to the Nile valley. By the Early Bronze II–III (3000–2250 B.C.E.) sea trade from Egypt to Lebanon allowed new coastal settlements to flourish. As urban settlement increased, so did conflict, further encouraging inhabitants of smaller settlements to cluster into heavily fortified cities. In the new cities, the inhabitants built temples, palaces, and other urban institutions that made life in this period more interconnected and diverse than it had been before. The dates for the Early Bronze Age II–III closely mirror the rise and fall of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. During the Early Bronze Age civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt grew exponentially, and the southern Levant was profitably positioned between the two. At the end of the third millennium, with the collapse of the Egyptian Old Kingdom and a sharp decline in trade between Egypt and Lebanon, the southern and central Levant collapsed.

After the collapse, the land was barely inhabited, and very little is known about the settled population. A few pockets, notably in the Transjordanian hills, seem to have maintained an urban lifestyle; but most settlements were poor and temporary. The break with the urban settlements of the Early Bronze II–III was so severe that it is uncertain whether life in this period is the last echo of the Early Bronze Age, the harbinger of the Middle Bronze Age, or something else altogether. This confusion has led this period to be variously named the Early Bronze Age IV (2250–1950 B.C.E.), the Middle Bronze Age I, and the Intermediate Bronze Age.

Middle Bronze Age, 1950–1550 B.C.E.

The terminology of the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age is confused by the uncertainty over the labeling of the end of the Early Bronze Age. Two terminological sequences are used:



Albright Kenyon Absolute date (B.C.E.)
MB IIA MB 1 1925–1700
MB IIB MB 2 1700–1600
MB IIC MB 3 1600–1550

The Middle Bronze Age was the second urban phase in the southern Levant. While there may be some examples of continuity in the Jordan Valley, most Middle Bronze–Age cities were built by new immigrants. These cities emerged at about the same time as the coalescence of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, but most of the ways of life, including the massive fortifications, have closer connections to the third-millennium cities of the Habur region in Syria. Mesopotamian sources refer to groups in the Habur as “Amorite.” It is not clear whether this was an ethnic designation or merely a Mesopotamian stereotype, but Amorite cultural traits are found at Middle Bronze–Age cities that were established as trading posts on the way to Egypt. The new trading posts first appeared on the coast, filling in the route between Byblos and Egypt; then, the network of cities moved up the natural trade routes and finally into the hills.

Most cities were very heavily fortified with sloping ramparts topped with mud-brick towers. The city gates were narrow and heavily fortified, often consisting of two or three arched entryways. For centuries almost no city needed to build new fortifications since the lines were so well established, and for millennia the Middle Bronze–Age ramparts defined the basic shape of most cities in the region. Inside the cities, palaces, temples, and other institutions were part of an international network that linked elites across the eastern Mediterranean.

As time progressed, the merchants of Canaan gained greater influence over Egypt itself, and the Amorite cultural traits increasingly became part of cities in the Egyptian delta. At the same time, Egyptian ideas about administration were adopted by many cities in Canaan, leading to a richly interconnected culture. The Canaanites living in the Egyptian delta eventually came to rule part of Egypt in the Fifteenth, or “Hyksos,” Dynasty. Soon, however, the Egyptians reunited Egypt, expelled the Hyksos rulers, and conquered their cities in Canaan. The rise of the Egyptian New Kingdom signaled the end of the Middle Bronze Age.

Late Bronze Age, 1550–1200 B.C.E.

Historically, the Late Bronze Age began with the defeat of the Hyksos rulers in Egypt and the rise of the Egyptian New Kingdom. The New Kingdom was Egypt’s military apogee, and all of Canaan was conquered in a series of Egyptian campaigns in the fifteenth century. The campaigns established Egypt’s overarching political dominance over the region, but the details of Egyptian control varied from place to place and time to time. Archaeologically, many of the cultural patterns of the Middle Bronze Age persisted into the Late Bronze Age, though most regions suffered a slow cultural decline. Fourteenth-century texts from the Egyptian capital at Amarna (Akhetaten) describe obsequious Canaanite kings attempting to gain Pharaonic approval in the midst of petty feuds and dynastic squabbles. On the ground, evidence of Egyptian control is uneven, with some cities established and supported as Egyptian centers (Gaza, Kamid el-Loz) and others showing little sign of contact. In the thirteenth and early twelfth centuries the Egyptians constructed a series of smaller forts and fortified villas in order to maintain more direct control. Through it all, the cities of the Late Bronze Age continued to participate in a flourishing Mediterranean trade, and most cities received pottery imported from as far away as Greece and Cyprus. At the end of the Bronze Age the Egyptians describe campaigns to conquer recalcitrant cities such as Ashkelon and Gezer or previously unknown groups of people like “Israel.” In this same period, the flourishing trade around the Mediterranean ceased and marauding Sea Peoples destroyed many coastal cities.

The Late Bronze Age ended with the withdrawal of Egyptian imperial control, a process which took place in stages from 1185 through 1140 B.C.E. Because this was an extended process, some describe a Late Bronze Age III, representing a period from the campaigns of Merneptah in the late thirteenth century until the full withdrawal of Egypt around 1140 B.C.E. Egyptian control seems to last longest on the main military highways, at least as far north as the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys. However, in the hill country or on the Philistine coast the Egyptians left during the first quarter of the twelfth century, and the world of the Late Bronze Age ended.

Iron Age, 1200–586 B.C.E.

The Iron Age is subdivided into Iron I, Iron IIA, Iron IIB, and Iron IIC.

Iron I, 1200–985 B.C.E.

With the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom empire, new groups fought over the poor remnants of the Bronze-Age cities. The only groups in the region that continued uninterrupted were the great trading cities of the Canaanites/Phoenicians. Everyone else became part of a new group. The most dynamic region was along the coast, where immigrants from the Aegean, such as the Philistines, introduced foreign customs in food, architecture, and social organization. In the highlands, poor villages were inhabited with groups that would make up the heart of the ancient Israelite, Judahite, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite kingdoms. As early as the late thirteenth century the names “Israel,” “Edom,” and “Moab” appear in Egyptian sources; but most groups looked culturally like refugees from the Late Bronze–Age Canaanite world. In the highlands villages were small, usually clusters of “four-room” houses. Pottery was utilitarian and undecorated. The tribal cultures and close proximity meant that the Iron-I period was a swirl of conflict and shifting allegiances. Some cities, such as those of the Philistine heartland, were so culturally different from the rest of the country that their distinctive artifacts likely do mark out their political boundaries. Elsewhere, it is very difficult to determine who was an Israelite and who was a Canaanite, much less to understand the percentage of each group at each city.

Iron IIA, 985–840 B.C.E.

The Iron-IIA period is defined by a collection of pottery rather than by specific historical events. Archaeologists generally agree on what constitutes an Iron-IIA cultural assemblage, but many disagree on when it began in absolute terms. This is a technical debate usually based on carbon-14 assays and on connections between specific sites and the military campaign of Sheshonk I (r. ca. 935–914 B.C.E.), one of the few externally dateable events. This debate has particular weight since it is during this period that a great leap forward was taken in political organization. Rulers built palaces and fortified cities with complex six-chambered gates. Merchants traded extensively with the Phoenicians. Armed men inhabited fortresses along the trade routes. Central governments organized chariot forces. If the Iron IIA begins in 985 B.C.E., then these innovations are plausibly the result of the rise of the United Monarchy under David (r. ca. 1000–962 B.C.E.) and Solomon (r. ca. 962–930 B.C.E.). In the Bible, David claims the status of a great Canaanite king through his conquest of the Bronze-Age royal city of Jerusalem, and Solomon follows with a bevy of building projects. If the Iron IIA begins in the 940s or later, then the period of David and Solomon predates most of the monumental works of the Iron Age and represents an age of small villages and no great centrally sponsored undertakings. By the end of the Iron-IIA period, highland villages had united into major regional powers, eclipsing the Philistines. A series of peer kingdoms including Tyre, Aram-Damascus, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Israel, and Judah fought to carve out space in the region.

Iron IIB, 840–700 B.C.E.

The Iron-IIB period is defined by a corpus of ceramics typically dated to the late ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E. This period is characterized by rival kingdoms building fortifications and administrative centers all around the region. Borders expanded and contracted, alliances came and went, and the overriding archaeological result is constant building and rebuilding. Few major campaigns left a clear mark, but Hazael’s (r. ca. 844–803 B.C.E.) campaign to Gath, in which the entire site was destroyed, is the exception. All of the conflicts between the kingdoms of the region were ultimately resolved by the rising Assyrian empire. Arameans appeared to be dominating Israel to the south until the Assyrian campaigns broke the power of Damascus. Israel appeared to be far stronger than Judah until Assyria conquered Samaria, and Judah appeared to be the most important kingdom in the south until the Assyrians ravaged the countryside. In this period archaeologically recovered monumental inscriptions, seals, and ostraca (inked messages on pottery fragments) provide a much richer view of the politics, religion, and economy of the region.

Iron IIC, 700–586 B.C.E.

The Iron-IIC period is defined by a ceramic assemblage dated to the seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E. This period began under Assyrian hegemony, so cultural influences from Assyria were widespread. The eighth-century wars with Assyria reorganized the region. The northern highlands were generally depopulated, though some cities were rebuilt as Assyrian administrative centers with a new town plan and Assyrian-style architecture. Every kingdom not destroyed by Assyria paid tribute to Assyria. Still, the cities that remained were able to prosper. Jerusalem expanded greatly, receiving refugees from all directions. The coastal cities from Phoenicia to Philistia, spurred on by merchants from Greece, flourished. This Mediterranean boom was only encouraged when the Assyrians withdrew from the region in the second half of the seventh century. In the late seventh century, everyone in the region produced for the Mediterranean markets. And with the economic boom, evidence of literacy was more widespread in personal seals and the ostraca of nonelites. For a moment Egypt’s armies again were part of the region, but Egypt’s ambition and the economic hopes of people across the region were dashed by Nebuchadrezzar II (r. ca. 605–562 B.C.E.). In the late seventh and early sixth century Babylonian armies devastated the region.

Neo-Babylonian Period, 586–539 B.C.E.

With the conquest of the highland kingdoms in the southern Levant, the archaeological nomenclature of the southern Levant follows the rise and fall of the empires that controlled the region. In this region, the Neo-Babylonian period was a short interlude between the conquests of Nebuchadrezzar II and the rise of the Persian Empire. Though the Babylonian armies destroyed this region, it is not clear just how thorough the Mesopotamians were. Some cities in Transjordan and north of Jerusalem were inhabited after the campaigns, but most regions in the north and on the coast were empty. Other regions are less clear. One tomb near Jerusalem was surely in use, and some archaeological surveys suggest continuity between the Iron Age and Persian period south of Jerusalem, though excavations have not uncovered evidence for substantial settlement in this region. In any case, after the destruction of all of the major cities and maritime outlets, these brief decades were not a time when anyone flourished.

Persian Period, 539–332 B.C.E.

With the rise of the Persian Empire, cities and villages flourished once again. On the coast, Phoenician cities which had survived the ravages of Babylon established colonies at most of the old ports in the south. The new settlements followed the so-called Hippodamian plan, with streets in a grid pattern. In Galilee, settlement expanded under the provincial capital at Megiddo. In Samaria, new groups coalesced around Samaria and Shechem. In Transjordan, a fortress sprang up around the capital at Rabbath-Ammon. Around Jerusalem handles stamped with YHD provide evidence for a province of Yehud with ties to the earlier Iron-Age Kingdom of Judah, and the Idumaeans, heirs of the Edomites, conquered the whole of the south, establishing control over the spice route from Arabia to Philistia. The expansion of this period took place under the ordered rule of Persia, giving a uniformity to much of the ceramic and architectural traditions. Further, because of the similar patterns across much of the empire, it is possible to use Mesopotamian and Egyptian archives to reconstruct much about life during this stable period.

Hellenistic Period, 332–53 B.C.E.

With the conquest of Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 B.C.E.), the east immediately passed from Persian to Greek rule. The difficult work of hellenizing the east, however, took centuries. Alexander destroyed parts of Phoenicia, Gaza, and Samaria but left much of the rest of the country relatively unscathed. His successors, however, split the empire along the ancient fault lines, with a Seleucid dynasty ruling from ancient Mesopotamia, while a Ptolemaic empire ruled from Egypt. These two natural divisions left a region from Gaza to Byblos in the middle, first under the Ptolemies, then under the Seleucids. The Ptolemies seem to have worked to develop the agricultural potential of the region, while Seleucid financial stresses led to a far more confrontational approach. In this period, the countryside was filled with large estates coupled with smaller watchtowers to guard the fields. In the urban centers, the Ptolemies and Seleucids were both eager to promote the distinctive urban institutions of Hellenism in all of the cities in the region. In the Phoenician cities of the cosmopolitan coast this was not an issue, but in some inland cities the boule (legislative council) and gymnasium (sports and educational center) ran counter to local cultural norms. In the middle of the second century, outright antagonism toward Jewish religious institutions was the catalyst for a highland revolt that eventually engulfed the entire region south of the Bekáa Valley. The Jewish Revolt established a Hasmonean kingdom that covered virtually the entire country.

Roman Period, 53 B.C.E. –337 C.E.

The conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey signaled the onset of Roman control in the southern Levant, and with Rome came access to the technology and transportation networks of the most advanced empire yet seen. It is difficult to overstate the resulting transformation of the landscape in this period. Rome’s hydraulic technology allowed cities to be much larger and much farther from water sources. Its relatively stable borders allowed cities to expand past old walls and build in all directions. Unparalleled Mediterranean trade brought building materials from across the sea. New building technologies and materials allowed for massive constructions.

At the same time, trade networks allowed the produce of Palestine to reach Italian markets. The new trade swept up everyone in a time of tremendous growth, particularly in the days when the region enjoyed the full benefits of Rome’s networks without the full burden of imperial control. In the late first century, Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.) embarked on a building spree that would never be matched. From Sidon to Ashkelon to Damascus he sponsored huge monuments, and within his kingdom he built temples and palaces at Jerusalem, Jericho, and Sebaste. He constructed fortress-palaces at Herodium and Masada, and on the coast he built a grand harbor at Caesarea. All of these innovations took advantage of Roman technology, and all reshaped the landscape. But Herod was not alone. At the same time, the Nabataean kingdom was building a great capital at Petra, and the city of Gerash was adding a monumental temple to Zeus. While the new wealth of this period was unequally distributed, the networks of Rome changed everyone’s existence. Even everyday food was more diverse. For the first time, the entire region was firmly linked to the whole of the Mediterranean.

In the southern Levant, some cities with a deep Hellenistic tradition, particularly those on the coast or in northern Transjordan, embraced the culture of the west. For the kingdoms of the region the rise of Rome was at first a boon; but slowly Rome provincialized the east, and the independence of Judea (6 C.E.) and then Nabataea (106 C.E.) came to an end. Still, no group suffered as much as the Jews. Their distinctive observances have been recovered in excavations in Jerusalem, Qumran, and Galilee; and the Herodian temple was their crowning glory. But their dissatisfaction with Roman rule brought on revolts in 66–70 C.E. and again in 132–135 C.E. In the end, the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were not allowed within sight of Jerusalem. They were completely removed from the highlands of Cisjordan and existed only in communities in the Negev, on the coast, or in Galilee. By the second and third centuries provincialization and the brutal suppression of the Jewish revolts left the region as just one more part of the greater Roman east. Hellenized cities continued to build, looking toward the largesse of the emperor. Synagogue life outside Judea substituted for temple worship for the Jewish community, and an increasing number of churches signaled a new religious force in the empire.

Daniel M. Master