Thousands of discoveries unearthed so far with many more awaiting someone’s lucky trowel
Millennia of human occupation at Tel Dan during the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Greco-Roman, Medieval and Ottoman periods have resulted in numerous cities superimposed on one another with countless artifacts deposited at the site. Archaeology has only revealed the tip of the iceberg, but much of what has surfaced is extraordinary. In addition to the House of David inscription, the triple-arched mudbrick gate, and the Israelite temple complex, professional archaeologists and volunteers alike have made several thousand discoveries. Here is a small sampling of the features and finds that made Tel Dan so special.
The Israelite City
The so-called collared-rim jars of the Iron Age I suggest that perhaps the Israelite tribe of Dan indeed settled the Canaanite city of Laish at the end of the second millennium BCE. From the Iron Age I, Dan evidently remained an Israelite city until the Assyrian armies of Tiglath-pileser III destroyed most of the kingdom of Israel in the late 730s. After their conquest, the Assyrians deported the native Israelite population and resettled cities like Dan with Assyrian settlers. The Hebrew Bible describes both this resettlement and the Assyrian settlers’ desire to familiarize themselves with religion and god of the former Israel. The Assyrian king dispatched an Israelite priest back from Assyria to instruct the settlers on the proper rituals to placate the indigenous god YHWH. Perhaps this explains why the cultic center of Dan, established by King Jeroboam I in the late tenth century BCE, retained its sacral significance for years after the northern Israelites disappeared from the historical record.
Remains from the Israelite city are numerous. Especially impressive is the main city gate complex, which features a series of chambered gates and winding, cobblestone streets leading into the interior of the site.
One of the interior city gates. The enormous side chambers may have functioned as guard stations, storage rooms, or commercial cubbies for a bustling bazaar of tradesmen, artisans, and market goods.
Inside the main gate, Avraham Biran discovered an elevated platform reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible’s descriptions of gate thrones for judges, sometimes even the king, to preside over lawsuits brought before the city elders. Note the decorated sockets, which may have supported a canopy. Lawsuits were routinely conducted at the city gate for several reasons. It was a naturally open place to assemble witnesses; it was the literal and symbolic hub of the town’s public affairs; and many cities housed divine icons, which might serve as ritual object in oath taking. Note the iconic standing stone to the left of the platform.
A standing stone, or massebah, which may have functioned as a divine icon in oath rituals.
Immediately entering the Iron Age city gate, visitors pass five massebot on their right-hand side. Do these standing stones represent the city god(s), divine icons, venerated ancestors, civic monuments or something entirely different? Several cities in ancient Israel and Judah featured such stones within the city gate complex, which makes us fairly certain that they indeed served some symbolic, ritual or apotropaic function.
Bilingual Cultic Dedication
Dating to the Hellenistic period, this bilingual inscription discovered in a later phase of the cultic complex bears text in Greek and Aramaic. It reads “To the god who is in Dan, Zoilos made a vow.” This indicates that the tradition of Dan’s sacral area continued for centuries after the Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel in the late eighth century BCE. It further proves that Tell el-Qadi, the site’s Arabic name, is undoubtedly the biblical city of Dan. It is impressive to consider that the temple complex that King Jeroboam established in the late tenth century BCE to rival Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem retained the force of memory an important sacred space for some 800 years.
This bilingual inscription confirms the identification of Tell el-Qadi with biblical Dan.
West Semitic Inscriptions
Individual archaeologists naturally get excited about different discoveries, but for many inscriptions represent are a kind of holy grail. Texts allow us to glimpse the thoughts and cultures of real human beings in their own words. Tel Dan has been very generous in this respect. In addition to the House of David and God Who Is in Dan inscriptions, we have a nice collection of inscribed specimens, especially from the Israelite occupation. Click on the following thumbnails for larger pictures of these four epigraphs.
These two inscriptions bear personal names, which were incised into the wet clay of pottery vessel before they were fired. The first text in Phoenician script reads “belonging to Baalpalt,” while the second text in Hebrew script reads “belonging to Amotz.”
In the instance of these two inscriptions, we see seal impressions impressed into jar handles. The first inscription, which was buried in the detritus of the Assyrian destruction ca. 732 BCE, reads “belonging to Immadiyaw,” a good Hebrew name in the northern dialect. The second seal inscription has the name Zakariyaw, corresponding to the Anglicized biblical name Zechariah.
The “Mycenaean” Tomb
A marvelous tomb dating to the Late Bronze Age, around the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, produced an unusual cache of beautiful vessels in the Mycenaean style. Do this trove indicate trade between Dan and people as far away as mainland Greece or are these objects that just happened to find their way here indirectly, collected as it were and deposited in this elite tomb?
Among the vessels from the so-called Mycenaean tomb is this gorgeous piece called the Charioteer Vase. One can clearly make out two riders in the chariot pulled by a magnificent horse in the top register.
Ryan Byrne stands in the burial chamber of the tomb.