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Dan IV: The Iron Age I Settlement. The Avraham Biran Excavations (1966–1999)

April 2021 (125.2)

Book Review

Dan IV: The Iron Age I Settlement. The Avraham Biran Excavations (1966–1999)

By David Ilan (Annual of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology 12). Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press 2019. Pp. 654. $125. ISBN 9780878201822 (cloth).

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In 1999, Avraham Biran directed his last season of excavation at the site of Tel Dan (Tell el-Qadi) in northern Israel. Biran had been excavating for 33 years at this site, and as he set out on this last campaign, he was already 90 years old. As that last season started, it was clear that there was no realistic way he would even begin to deal with the backlog of excavated material that he had produced, nor had he set aside the funding necessary for such a massive publication venture. It was going to be left to the next generation of fundraisers, administrators, and scholars to do the heavy lifting.

One of those enlisted was Ilan, who was given the Iron Age I material as the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Tel Aviv University (“Northeastern Israel in the Iron Age I: Cultural, Socioeconomic and Political Perspectives,” 1999). Ilan succeeded where others had failed and successfully produced a detailed stratigraphic summary and ceramic analysis. His work was the first to synthesize any substantive part of the non-tomb deposits from Tel Dan and made a major contribution to the study of the Iron I period in northern Israel.

The present volume revisits the results from Ilan’s dissertation in the form of a volume in the Tel Dan series. To someone who has studied Ilan’s 1999 thesis, this volume will read as very familiar. Indeed, Ilan says that more recent studies have not substantially modified his understanding of the ceramic assemblage, prompting him to leave much of his ceramic analysis exactly as it was. A side-by-side reading of sections on stratigraphy, the local pottery, and the conclusion (among others) shows a great deal of repetition.

The 2019 volume, however, is more expansive, filling holes in the original. A new stratigraphic report on Area T (with a contribution from Ross Voss, ch. 2), provides an Iron Age I baseline for the famous Iron Age II cultic area (to be dealt with in a later volume). The schematic architectural plans of the dissertation are replaced by excellent stone-for-stone drawings, both in the text and in a pocket in the back of the volume. The pottery types are illustrated with new color photographs. New tables connect the ceramic typology to more recently published studies from Yokne’am, Tel Beth-Shean, and Megiddo.

Since this volume is an edited final report and not a single-author dissertation, Ilan has wisely enlisted other scholars to analyze artifacts not in his areas of expertise. His short summary of chipped stone tools has now become two full chapters: one on the objects themselves by Conn Herriott (ch. 9) and a second by Shoh Yamada (ch. 10) providing a use-wear analysis of the sickle blades. Yamada’s work is particularly interesting and not often applied in Iron Age contexts. He raises questions about harvesting technology while demonstrating similar patterns in stone tool use from the Middle Bronze through the Iron Age. Ilan’s own pottery analysis is augmented by “Notes on the Philistine, Aegean and Cypriot-Style Decorated Pottery” by Alexander Zukerman (ch. 4) and “‘Phoenician’ Painted Ware” by Thomas Beyl (ch. 5). Additional archaeometric analyses include three different petrographic studies from three different laboratories (chs. 6A–C). Finally, the animal bone remains are analyzed by the team of Jonathan S. Greer, Deirdre Fulton, and Paula Wapnish (ch. 17) based on the work of the late Brian Hesse.

In dealing with this volume, then, several horizons are in view. The first concerns Biran. Ilan adds a preface to the stratigraphy chapter in which he informs the reader, however obliquely, that Biran’s excavation methods were problematic (17). At the very least, the constant excavation without detailed synthesis, year after year, caused Biran to fall farther and farther behind. Records and objects were misplaced. New excavation areas were opened without reference to the results of adjacent areas, and—as with so many large-scale, long-term excavations—growing internal confusion severed connections between the year-to-year excavation results and clear site-wide research goals. It is to Ilan’s lasting credit that he has taken these scattered, fragmentary bits and tamed them into a clear and coherent statement that should serve all scholars interested in the Iron Age I in the southern Levant.

A second horizon is the relationship of this volume to Ilan’s dissertation. All of the changes in this volume are improvements. This 2019 version has been visited by excellent editorial hands, changes to the drawings or images are enhancements, and the additional studies are all helpful. In Ilan’s conclusion, however, the only new data points are chronological (new radiocarbon dates) and the acknowledgment that recent paleoclimate studies have overturned his 1999 hypothesis that the Iron I period at Tel Dan was accompanied by deforestation. Otherwise, his historical reconstruction remains essentially the same, and without substantive interaction with the other new studies in the volume. For instance, in 1999, he argued that cattle made up 15% of the animals slaughtered in the Iron IA, and 50% in the Iron IIB, leading him to argue that this was a notable change (1999, 186). With the new faunal data presented in this volume, these figures changed to 35–38% and 41%, respectively, based on a larger sample of the Iron I material (621). But, in Ilan’s conclusion, the new numbers are simply pasted into the old paragraph without comment. The data may have changed, but the essential narrative has not been reconsidered.

As in 1999, Ilan is still unable to bridge the gap between the patterns of material culture and questions of identity that have been part of the research program at Tel Dan for decades. In this volume, there is clear evidence that Iron Age I Tel Dan was integrated with its neighbors to such an extent that the archaeologist can find almost any type of decorated or imported pottery that one might imagine. Ilan wants to use this result to argue that the identity and heritage of the inhabitants was similarly diverse (628–31). Yet, as archaeologists are well aware, the attempt to infer ethnic or political identity from material culture without clear contemporary texts is virtually impossible. No one can say whether any of these were critical identity markers for the inhabitants or are simply the residue of trade or cultural diffusion.

A final horizon is the relationship between this volume and the ongoing research at Tel Dan, under the codirection of Ilan since 2005. This book reports that volumes Tel Dan V (on the Early Bronze Age) and Tel Dan VI (on the Middle Bronze Age) are soon to come. It further reveals that Yifrat Tharaeni will be publishing the Iron Age II material (at least from Area B). Greer, Fulton, and Wapnish also report in a footnote that the ongoing excavations have produced more faunal material from the Iron I that might already be altering their conclusions from this volume and will be published in the future. All of these planned publications are needed. This is an important site, excavated for more than 50 years. One sincerely hopes that this is the first evidence of a plan to strike a better balance between field excavation and publication and to share the technical results in a much more expeditious manner. If so, it is a fine start.

Daniel M. Master
Wheaton College

Book Review of Dan IV: The Iron Age I Settlement. The Avraham Biran Excavations (1966–1999), by David Ilan
Reviewed by Daniel M. Master
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 2 (April 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1252.Master

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