The Canaanite palatial site of Tel Kabri in Israel was severely damaged by a large earthquake around 1700 BCE, which led to its abandonment soon thereafter, according to new research by archaeologists from the University of Haifa and George Washington University.
Tel Kabri is a 34-hectare archaeological site located in the western Galilee, Israel.
Its location on a large mound overlooking the floodplain of the Ga’aton Stream made it favorable to human habitation, with an abundant water supply and soil for cultivation.
Tel Kabri flourished during the Middle Bronze Age and was the third largest site in the Levant at the time.
It was a fortified center of a regional polity and housed the largest palace found to date in the southern Levant, with an estimated area of 6,000 m2.
During its final phase (1900-1700 BCE), the palace underwent massive renovation, reaching its greatest size. This involved the addition of a two-room complex lined with carved stone blocks known as orthostats, probably used for banqueting, and a wing for the accommodation of hundreds of large storage jars containing spiced wine.
At the end of this phase, around 1700 BCE, the palace and its surrounding areas were abandoned, for reasons that are still unclear.
“We wondered for several years what had caused the sudden destruction and abandonment of the palace and the site, after centuries of flourishing occupation,” said University of Haifa’s Professor Assaf Yasur-Landau.
“A few seasons ago, we began to uncover a trench which runs through part of the palace, but initial indications suggested that it was modern, perhaps dug within the past few decades or a century or two at most.”
“But then, in 2019, we opened up a new area and found that the trench continued for at least 30 m (98 feet), with an entire section of a wall that had fallen into it in antiquity, and with other walls and floors tipping into it on either side.”
Recognizing past earthquakes can be extremely challenging in the archaeological record, especially at sites where there isn’t much stone masonry and where degradable construction materials like sun-dried mud bricks and wattle-and-daub were used instead.
At Tel Kabri, Professor Yasur-Landau and colleagues found both stone foundations for the bottom part of the walls and mud-brick superstructures above.
“Our studies show the importance of combining macro- and micro-archaeological methods for the identification of ancient earthquakes,” said Dr. Michael Lazar, also from the University of Haifa.
“We also needed to evaluate alternative scenarios, including climatic, environmental and economic collapse, as well as warfare, before we were confident in proposing a seismic event scenario.”
The researchers could see areas where the plaster floors appeared warped, walls had tilted or been displaced, and mud bricks from the walls and ceilings had collapsed into the rooms, in some cases rapidly burying dozens of large jars.
“It really looks like the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of it fell in,” said George Washington University’s Professor Eric Cline.
“It’s unlikely that the destruction was caused by violent human activity because there are no visible signs of fire, no weapons such as arrows that would indicate a battle, nor any unburied bodies related to combat.”
“We could also see some unexpected things in other rooms of the palace, including in and around the wine cellar that we excavated a few years ago.”
“The floor deposits imply a rapid collapse rather than a slow accumulation of degraded mud bricks from standing walls or ceilings of an abandoned structure,” said University of Haifa’s Professor Ruth Shahack-Gross.
“The rapid collapse, and the quick burial, combined with the geological setting of Tel Kabri, raises the possibility that one or more earthquakes could have destroyed the walls and the roof of the palace without setting it on fire.”
The team’s paper was published online in the journal PLoS ONE.
M. Lazar et al. 2020. Earthquake damage as a catalyst to abandonment of a Middle Bronze Age settlement: Tel Kabri, Israel. PLoS ONE 15 (9): e0239079; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0239079