Online Review: Book

Excavations at Kadesh Barnea (Tell El-Qudeirat) 1976–1982

Avraham Faust


Edited by Rudolph Cohen and Hannah Bernick-Greenberg. With contributions by Daniella E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Israel Carmi, Michal Druk, Iris Eldar-Nir, Avivit Gera, Mordechai Haiman, Dalia Hakker-Orion, Yshayahu Lender, Stefan Münger, Dov Nahlieli, Dror Segal, Orit Shamir, and Pnina Shor. 2 vols. Vol. 1, Text. Pp. xiv + 397, figs. 544, tables 27, plans 35, maps 6; vol. 2, Plates, Plans, and Sections. Pp. 326, pls. 183, plans 11. Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem 2007. $28 (vol. 1); $55 (vol. 2). ISBN 978-965-406-204-6 (paper).

The oasis of Kadesh Barnea (Tell el-Qudeirat) is one of the most important sites in northern Sinai and the southern Negev. The site was initially identified as the location of the biblical Kadesh Barnea by N. Schmidt in 1905, and it has drawn scholarly attention ever since. Moshe Dothan carried out brief excavations in 1956 (published in 1965). Later, in 1976–1982, Rudolph Cohen carried out a large-scale investigation. The reviewed volume is the final report of these excavations.

The report was many years in the making and was published posthumously; the excavator was active in the preparation of the report until the final stages. Difficulties were augmented by the lack of the artifacts themselves, now stored in Egypt. Bernick-Greenberg, who participated in the excavations and who was involved in the entire publication process, completed the report. Many others contributed chapters. Given all the difficulties, the publication is a major achievement. The two volumes are detailed and quite technical; they mainly present the excavations and the finds without elaborating on their significance, which may be partly due to the nature of the series in which they are published (IAA Reports). The importance of the excavations at the site lies in their large exposure and also in that this is a rare site in the region where more than one relatively short period of occupation is attested.

The site has four main strata (4–18). The oldest, stratum 4, is further subdivided into three phases, the earliest of which contained few remains, and its nature and date are therefore unclear. The other two phases are dated, generally speaking, to the Iron Age IIA and more specifically to the 10th century B.C.E. The authors believe that during those phases, an oval fortress was built at the site and that it was part of the "Negev fortresses" phenomenon.

Later, during the second half of the eighth century B.C.E., a large rectangular fortress with a solid wall was built on top of the earlier remains (stratum 3, again divided into three phases). This fort was replaced in the seventh century by a rectangular fortress with a casemate wall that was built exactly on top of the earlier solid wall (stratum 2). This fortress was destroyed in the late seventh or early sixth century B.C.E., probably by the Babylonians. Above these ruins, later occupations were unearthed in a few places, and these were dated mainly, though not solely, to the Persian period (stratum 1).

The excavators identify the site as a Judean fort. Some scholars doubt this identification, suggesting that it was Edomite or Assyrian. Still, I think there is no support for any of those identifications, and the evidence we possess (e.g., the architecture, the pottery, and the inscriptions) directs us toward Judah, not toward any other polity. I, therefore, find the excavators' conclusion to be the most plausible.

The stratigraphy and chronology of the fortress, however, are more problematic. In identifying two phases for the large rectangular fort (strata 2–3), the excavators deviated from the interpretation of the previous excavator—Dothan ("The Fortress at Kadesh Barnea," IEJ 15 [1965] 134–51), who identified one fort only. Cohen's two phases, as reported in the preliminary report, were the subject of severe criticism. Ussishkin ("The Rectangular Fortress at Kadesh Barnea," IEJ 42 [1995] 118–27) raised several convincing arguments for the suggestion that there was only one phase, with a casemate wall, and that the "earlier" solid wall was simply the foundation of the casemate wall. Ussishkin's arguments are addressed briefly in the report (16), but the authors admit that "there are no unequivocal stratigraphical or architectural evidence to prove or refute it." They, however, still prefer the original interpretation.

This is not the place for lengthy discussion, but I must note that not all of Ussishkin's claims were addressed. The ceramics, which were not yet published when Ussishkin wrote his paper, seem to support his suggestion that there was only one rectangular fort. First of all, "no pottery in primary deposition was encountered" in stratum 3 (12), and, furthermore, many of the typical pottery forms of the eighth century are practically missing at Kadesh Barnea (13, 157), casting doubt on the nature of the eighth-century "assemblage." Interestingly, despite the fact that almost 200 years separate stratum 4 and stratum 3, the excavators note "cultural continuity" (12) between them. This continuity is expressed by the high percentage of the handmade Negbite pottery and the presence of "black-painted ware"—both of which are more common in earlier phases of Iron II—in both strata. Those elements, however, are very rare in stratum 2, despite its proximity in time and plan to stratum 3. It seems to me, therefore, that most of the stratum 3 pottery (from all subphases), and especially the types that are similar to stratum 4 and are rare or missing in stratum 2 (mainly the Negbite pottery and the black-painted ware), should be attributed to stratum 4, while most of the wheelmade pottery that was assigned to this level should be reassigned to stratum 2.

This is further supported by the nature of the stratum 3 ceramic assemblage, and the difference between its composition and that of stratum 2. The stratum 3 assemblage is different from typical eighth-century assemblages elsewhere (15, 157), whereas the stratum 2 assemblage is similar to other seventh-century assemblages in southern Judah (15, 16, 173). This indicates that the nature of the stratum 3 assemblage is not a result of the site's remoteness in the far south (13) but rather a result of its mixed nature, and that most of it should indeed be dated to stratum 4. Additional arguments can be raised in support of Ussishkin's suggestion, and while a lengthy discussion is beyond the scope of this short review, it is more than likely that Ussishkin was right and the rectangular fort had only one phase.

It is also interesting to note that the earliest phase of occupation at the site (stratum 4c) was not dated. The authors seem to believe that it should be dated to the 10th century, just before the first oval "fortress" was built (143), but this is not clear. Bruins ("Radiocarbon Dating the 'Wilderness of Zin,'" Radiocarbon 49 [2007] 481–97) and Bruins and van Der Plicht ("Desert Settlement through the Iron Age: Radiocarbon Dates from Sinai and the Negev Highlands," in T.E. Levy and T. Higham, eds., The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating: Archaeology, Text and Science [London 2005] 349–66), however, had published a number of radiocarbon dates from Kadesh Barnea that seem to be much earlier in date (see also 303–5 in the reviewed volume); I return to this point below.

The Midianite pottery found at the site is also of importance, since some of it was found in stratified contexts dated to the 10th century (140–41, 143). This pottery is usually dated earlier, and the 10th-century date for the pottery in Kadesh Barnea is therefore important.

Singer-Avitz ("The Earliest Settlement at Kadesh Barnea," TelAviv 35 [2008] 73–81), however, has recently tried to attribute all Midianite pottery at Kadesh Barnea to stratum 4c (above) and to date this stratum to the 12th century B.C.E. She has meticulously worked through the report and shown that additional finds predate the 10th century. It seems that given the problems with the stratigraphy of the site, it is likely that many of the artifacts she attributes to stratum 4c could indeed originate from this level, hence presenting us with the prefortress occupation. The finds, along with the radiocarbon dates, then date this occupation to before the 10th century. What I am less convinced about, however, is the attribution of all the Midianite pottery at Kadesh Barnea to this phase. Given the finding of some sherds in what seems like a clear Iron II context at Tell el-Kheleife (where nothing, except a few pieces of this pottery, has been dated earlier than Iron II; G.D. Pratico, Nelson Glueck's 1938–1940 Excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh: A Reappraisal [Atlanta 1993] 49–50), the Har Romem site
(R. Cohen and R. Cohen-Amin, Ancient Settlement of the Negev Highlands [ Jerusalem 2004] 141 [in Hebrew]), and even a well-dated structure at Feinan (T.E. Levy et al., "The Jabal Hamrat Fidan Project: Excavations at the Wadi Fidan 40 Cemetery, Jordan (1997)," Levant 31 [1999] 305), it seems unlikely that typology alone is sufficient to redate all this pottery unearthed in Kadesh Barnea. A detailed (and difficult) analysis of the pottery unearthed in the discussed loci should be carried out before all the dates given by the excavators can be safely rejected. In the meantime, the finds at Kadesh Barnea should be, cautiously, considered as additional evidence for the late date of this pottery.

Despite the problems, it is clear that this massive report is an important contribution to the study of the archaeology and history of the desert regions of southern Israel and Sinai, and Bernick-Greenberg is to be congratulated for finishing this enormous and difficult task.

Avraham Faust
The Institute of Archaeology
The Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology
Bar-Ilan University
52900 Ramat Gan


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