David Ussishkin’s alternative interpretation of the trench at Tell es-Safi/Gath

As I had mentioned previously, David Ussishkin’s article on a reassessment of our interpretation of the trench surrounding Tell es-Safi/Gath as being part of a siege system has now appeared in IEJ, and David was kind enough to send me a copy of the article.
While it is nice to have someone deal with your research in such an extensive manner, and in particular, by a well-known scholar such as Prof. Ussishkin, at the end of the day I was very disappointed, and even a bit surprised, at the details of his arguments, on the basis of which he suggested an alternative interpretation of this feature.
Basically, what he suggests is that the trench is not connected to the Aramean siege; he does not suggest any other historical event or function for the trench, and it might even be a natural feature.
While, clearly, I will have to answer this with a detailed rebuttal, I would like to quickly point out some of the problems that immediately stand out from a first reading of the paper:
1) We have definitively proven that the site was ca. 400-500 dunam (40-50 hectare) in size during the Iron Age II, not only based on the survey, but now based on the excavations in the lower city (Area D [mentioned, for example, here]) where extensive remains have been found of the late 9th cent. BCE destruction). Thus, while David can quote the assessments of previous surveyors (Dagan and Shavit) that the site is much smaller (only the “upper tell”), this alas is not based on the facts on the ground.
2) He apparently did not understand the significance of the Ground Penetrating Radar studies that were conducted on portions of the trench. This studies demonstrated that the trench continues into the Elah river valley, beyond the sections that are seen on the hill, indicating that in fact the trench did connect to the Elah River bed on the northern side of the tell.
3) Most surprisingly, David missed several publications that have appeared regarding our work on the tell, including, most glaringly, Shira Gur-Arieh’s MA thesis, which appeared in 2008, which deals specifically with the trench and related finds (including architecture and pottery from the various areas in the trench which were excavated). For an updated list of publications, see here.
4) Ussishkin believes that our comparison of this feature (as a siege trench) to the “hrz” mentioned in the Zakur inscription is not to be accepted. Instead, he believes that Eph’al’s interpretation of the “hrz” as a tunnel is to be preferred. This is despite the fact that I have demonstrated (in the Stager Fs) that there is absolutely no linguistic basis for understanding “hrz” as a tunnel – it can only be a trench/channel!
5) David is apparently unaware of the various excavation areas throughout the tell (such as Area F near the summit of the tell) even though this had been published in various papers.
6) His attempts to questions the existence of quarrying marks in the trench, the dating, character, contents, and process of formation of the fill in the trench are interesting, but lack any relationship to the detailed archaeological, geomorphological and geological studies that were conducted on the features.
7) Ussishkin believes that the “berm” (the pile of earth and stones that were taken out of the trench) is not visible surrounding the entire trench. He is simply wrong and the picture that he shows (his Fig. 8) claiming that the berm does not exist along a certain section of the trench is simply misunderstood by him, and he is continuing the lack of attention to the relevant details in the field, and the misreading of the relevant evidence, as in the surveys of the site by Dagan and Shavit. It is almost the equivalent to standing next to an elephant and not noticing it since you are looking through its legs…
8) David interprets the layers that were discerned in the berm as simply “typical surface debris”. The close archaeological, geoarchaeological, micromorphological, and other studies that were conducted on these strata in the berm indicate otherwise, and one cannot simply dismiss them offhand without an explanation.
9) He also asks the question of if the trench was excavated and much stone was removed, where is all this stone. Once again, unfortunately, this question stems from a lack of close knowledge of the finds in the area of the tell. Not only are there extensive remains of quarrying chips in the berm, in many areas surrounding the tell there is extensive evidence of large quarried blocks of stone, most likely related to the trench.
10) He conveniently disregards the clear, explicit and undeniable evidence for the date of the laying of the berm (Iron Age IIA) and gradual refilling of the (commencing in Iron Age IIA, then a stop and continuing in the Byzantine period), providing a very brief period of time in which this feature could have been created (and thus, limiting the possible interpretations of the feature).
11) Ussishkin lists various historical references to siege trenches in antiquity, but has missed several important examples. There is mention of a siege trench in the Mari texts, and in addition, Josephus informs us that siege trenches were used in several Hellenistic period sieges in the time of the Maccabbees. Also, while David does mention the Egyptian siege trench at Megiddo by Thutmose III, he prefers an outdated translation of the relevant term (as a “girdle wall”) as opposed to the now accepted interpretation as a trench. Thus, he argument that siege trenches do not appear before the Roman period does not “hold water.”
12) And finally, his suggestion that it perhaps is a natural feature is simply contrary to the opinions of every single geologist and geomorphologist that has seen this feature over the last 15 or so years. Unless he can provide a valid explanation to how this can be a natural feature, I believe this suggestion is at most somewhat embarrassing.

As noted above, I will clearly have to provide a much more detailed response to David’s article in the near future (with details regarding the points noted above and various others) – and have no fear – this I will do.

I must though note that I believe it is unfortunate that David did not have the forethought to discuss this issue with me in detail prior to the publication of this article, since, just as I had gladly provided him with the illustrations that he requested (which appear in the article), I would have been happy to provide him with the publications that he apparently was not aware of (published, in press, and in preparation), and show him the relevant finds and evidence, both in the field and in the lab. While David did visit the excavations once, in the early years of the project, he would have been welcome (and still is!) to visit once again, and see the further results of our studies at any time. After all, Tell es-Safi/Gath is only 45 minutes away from Tel Aviv, and Bar-Ilan University is just 15-20 minutes from Tel Aviv University…

Perhaps though he should consider the other interpretation that I have suggested for the siege trench – that it was actually the imprint of an enormous UFO (ala the movie “Independence Day“) that had landed on an around the site. I believe this suggestion would fit in much better with his lines of argument…

More to come,

P.S. My name is MAEIR – throughout this article is appears alternately as Maeir and Maier… I don’t have a split personality :-)

15 thoughts on “David Ussishkin’s alternative interpretation of the trench at Tell es-Safi/Gath

  1. “…Gath is only 45 minutes away from Tel Aviv, and Bar-Ilan University is just 15-20 minutes…”

    Are those timings based on the High Chronology or Low? There’s about a century difference for TAU profs, you know…


  2. arenmaeir

    These times are according to the “modified conventional chronology” ala Mazar. Apparently, according to the low chronology, you would get to Tel es-Safi and/or Bar-Ilan, before you even left…



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  6. The renewed excavations by Maier (sic) have been started in Areas A and E, located on a topographical shoulder beneath the north-eastern side of the summit, and in a later season in Area F on the southern side of the summit (fig. 2; see Maeir 2003).

    -Is point #5 really fair?


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