Under a sky of darkening clouds on a hill above the valley where tradition says David and Goliath did battle, the archeologist Yosef Garfinkel triumphantly rests his hands on a 10-ton limestone rock, part of a newly discovered second gate to an ancient fortified city he is unearthing.
Garfinkel sees the massive gate, the largest ever found from the period, as potentially further evidence that the first kingdom of the Israelites was as grand as the Bible describes.
“Here we are in the footsteps of David,” says Garfinkel, a Hebrew University professor, his voice quickening with excitement. Noting the gate’s eastward direction, he adds, “It’s facing Jerusalem, another indication that it is part of the Judean Kingdom.”
This 3,000-year-old fortress with two gates, to this day surrounded by a stone wall that contains original stones from the period, is the only of its kind ever uncovered. Garfinkel believes it could be the remains of a town referred to in the Bible as Sh’arayim, meaning “two gates” in Hebrew.
The unearthing of the two gates along with a pottery shard found by a teenage dig site volunteer inscribed with what is believed to be the earliest known Hebrew text written in a Proto-Canaanite script are being heralded as significant historical finds for a period — the 10th century BCE — with scant physical evidence.
But the site also provide a lens on the wider debate over how vast and unified a kingdom David did or did not build so many centuries ago — a question of present-day interest and controversy as the founders of Israel declared their modern Jewish state the long-interrupted continuation of the kingdom this legendary ancient figure is thought to have established.
Some scholars argue that David’s Jerusalem was merely a backwater village glorified into a mythical place by those they say penned the Bible centuries later. Others suggest that true to its biblical description, it was a genuine power overseeing a strong and united kingdom. The discovery of what is being called the Elah Fortress has quickly been used to reinforce the latter argument.
Located on the road to Jerusalem, the fortress could have been a front-line defense of the city against enemy Philistines, Garfinkel says, and evidence of a powerful and centralized kingdom that needed protection.
An Israeli-based Jewish educational group called Foundation Stone has embraced the idea that the site could help confirm the historic footprints of the Bible. The group is helping to raise funds for its excavation and hopes to develop the site into a first-rate tourism and educational facility, for Jews and non-Jews.
Foundation Stone wants the site to become a must-see part of travels to Israel, and even have tourists participate in its uncovering as volunteers at the dig.
Garfinkel is bold in his pronouncements against the school of archeologists skeptical that the Bible left behind a chronologically reliable physical trail of evidence, arguing that the Elah Fortress, located in the Elah Valley near the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, is an important new weapon in the ongoing discourse.
“It’s telling them that they are wrong,” he says. “A certain amount of the biblical tradition indeed preserves historical stories and historical events. This is the first time in the history of archeology of Israel that you have a fortified city dated to the time of David.”
Even in Jerusalem, he says, there is no clear physical record of what occurred in the 10th Century BCE, when David and later his son Saul were to have ruled. In large part that’s because the city, inhabited continuously since David’s time, is extremely difficult to excavate.
“No archeological site gave you such a clear picture about the Kingdom of David” as this one, he told the JTA after hiking down from the site.
He will be presenting his findings Tuesday to colleagues at Harvard University in Boston.
But Israel Finkelstein, a Tel Aviv University archeologist and author of “David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition,” disagrees.
“David and Solomon were historical figures, but we have to look at every piece of evidence very carefully,” he says, crucial of the rush to make conclusions on a site that he says is indeed important for understanding more about the time.
Finkelstein, a father of the scholarly group that is skeptical that the biblical narrative can be proven through archeology, thinks it’s too early to say whether the city was in fact Judean. He suggests it is even more likely a Philistine city because of its physical proximity to Gath, a major Philistine town and according to the Bible, Goliath’s hometown.
Garfinkel says he is open to the possibility that the site could turn out to be Philistine, but thinks it is unlikely because of a lack of pig bones found there and the writing on the pottery shard.
Finkelstein, however, also casts doubt on whether the Proto-Canaanite script found on the pottery shard will be confirmed as Hebrew and outright dismisses the notion that the site could be the Sha’arayim mentioned in the Bible.
He says it could not be the same town because when Sha’arayim is listed as a Judean town in the Book of Joshua, it is clustered with a group of places that have all been dated to the seventh century BCE and the site of the Elah Fortress was shown to have been abandoned at least 200 years earlier.
“Archeology has always been used in many places in the world to support this or that idea or theory that have to deal with the holy and nation building,” says Finkelstein, seeing the way this site is being approached as another example.
Barnea Selevan, the co-director of Foundation Stone, says the significance of the site for his organization is at least in part “because some people say the Bible has no historical basis to it.”
Garfinkel cautions that the excavation is still in very early stages and that it will take the next decade to unearth even 30 to 40 percent of the city. He notes that it was first surveyed by British archeologists in the 19th century but was then largely forgotten until his carbon dating of its stones found it dated to the elusive but important 10th century BCE period.
“All throughout the 20th century it was forgotten,” and now it could be a turning point find, he muses.
“It’s very exciting,” Garfinkel says. “You have a theory and then you begin to be able to prove it.”