May 8, 2012 at 11:04 PM ET
An archaeological dig near Goliath's biblical hometown has yielded evidence of Judean religious practices 3,000 years ago, pointing up fresh historical connections to the stories of King David and King Solomon.
"We have a city with a population relating to the Kingdom of Judah," Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me today. "This is totally different from Philistine, Canaanite or the cult in the Kingdom of Israel."
The site, known today as Khirbet Qeiyafa, is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem, on top of a hill overlooking the Valley of Elah. For the past five years, Garfinkel and his colleagues have been excavating the ruins of a fortified city there, situated across from what was once the Philistine city of Gath. In the Bible, the giant Goliath came out from Gath to face the Israelites, and was smitten by a rock hurled from David's sling.
Garfinkel can't vouch for the story of Goliath, but he says the weapons, the cult items and even the animal bones found around Khirbet Qeiyafa support his view that the settlement was a key military outpost for the historical House of David, riven by conflict. "There was something here quite military and quite aggressive," he said. "It was not a peaceful village."
Based on radiocarbon dating of burned olive pits found at the site, archaeologists believe the ancient city lasted for only 40 years, from 1020 to 980 B.C., before it was destroyed. Some skeptics have suggested that Khirbet Qeiyafa was just another Canaanite settlement, and that David was at best a minor chieftain, or perhaps a folkloric figure like Robin Hood. But Garfinkel said the items found at the site strengthen the connection to King David and the religious practices specified in the Bible.
"Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs," he said in a news release from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Now we uncovered three cultic rooms, with various cultic paraphernalia, but not even one human or animal figurine was found. This suggest that the population on Khirbet Qeiyafa observed two biblical bans — on pork and on graven images — and thus practiced a different cult from that of the Canaanites or the Philistines."
Garfinkel told me that the absence of human imagery was peculiar to the Judeans. "In the northern Kingdom of Israel, you find human representations," he said.
The cult objects included five standing stones, two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. Garfinkel said the shrines reflected a Mesopotamian architectural style that went back centuries before the era of King David, and probably inspired the look of the palace built by Solomon, David's son. "It seems that Solomon didn't want to be Canaanite and took a different model from Mesopotamia," Garfinkel told me.
The shrines are boxlike containers made of stone or clay. "I think they were called in Hebrew 'Aron,'" Garfinkel wrote in an email. "This had been translated into English as 'ark' and became a mystic artifact. I think that the Hebrew name was just a simple technical term: a box for keeping god symbols."
The clay shrine has an intricate facade, featuring two guardian lions, pillars and birds standing on the roof. The stone shrine was painted red, and its facade is decorated with characteristic triglyph symbols as well as a triple-recessed doorway in front. Garfinkel said the Bible may have referred to those architectural features in its description of Solomon's palace. The technical term usually translated as referring to pillars ("Slaot") may actually be talking about triglyphs, while another term that was thought to refer to windows ("Sequfim") might instead refer to the doorways.
"Now you can see by the model that you have triglyphs at the roof, and you have recessed doorways," Garfinkel said. Such features are also mentioned in biblical references to King Solomon's temple, which was built decades after the age that gave rise to the shrines found at Khirbet Qeiyafa.
Will these finds settle the debate over the historical David? Garfinkel would like to think so. "Various suggestions that completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong," he said in today's news release.
But The Times of Israel quoted Bar-Ilan University's Aren Maeir, who's in charge of the dig at Gath, as saying the discoveries don't provide any dramatic new evidence for either side in the debate. For example, the fact that the clay shrine was decorated with lions and birds undercuts Garfinkel's claim that no graven images were found at the site. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted another expert, Tel Aviv University's Nadav Na'aman, as saying that the Canaanites, like the Judeans, observed a ban on eating pork.
Maeir said the distinctions between the various peoples mentioned in the Bible — including David's Israelites and Goliath's Philistines — were "fuzzier than the way they are often described."
"There's no question that this is a very important site, but what exactly it was — there is still disagreement about that," Maeir said. In a blog posting, Maeir said "what is clearly missing is a close interface with mainstream biblical and [Ancient Near East] textual scholars."
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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.