Archaeology at Jericho

Mention Jericho, and the first thing that comes to mind for many of us is the story of “the walls that came tumbling down”. It’s interesting that it was Jericho’s walls that gave the city its prominence in the scriptural record, because its walls have also been the source of much interest by archaeologists.

Israel is a playground for archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists. Given its location between Africa and Eurasia, it’s a tangle of migration crossroads and so one can understand why so much rich and informative history has been uncovered in this area. One of the richest sites in this playground is Jericho, where archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than 20 successive settlements dating back over 11,000 years.  What is it that has made Jericho so prominent?

The Rift Valley that stretches from northern Syria to eastern Africa includes the Huleh Valley, the Lake of Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and the Arabah. [1]. The northern part of the Rift Valley, with its Mediterranean climate, was well adapted to agriculture and human habitation and played a significant role in ancient settlement and international traffic. The climatic conditions became harsher in the south along the Jordan Valley and so settlements were only established in favourable oases that could offer sufficient land, water availability, communication routes, and a defendable position. Jericho is a perfect example of such a site.

The Neolithic period and the first agricultural communities

The transition from food-gathering to agriculture is the essence of the Neolithic revolution. It began in the Near East around 12,500 years ago, and was accompanied by changes in social organisation that led to the establishment of settled communities and the eventual birth of the ancient Near Eastern civilisations. Some of the most important steps in this development can be traced at sites such as Jericho.

One of the best known of these is the Natufian culture. Although they remained food gatherers and hunters, their social organisation was more complex than that of their predecessors. They lived in communities of up to 150 individuals, with permanent base sites located near major water sources and where wild grain could easily be found. In these base settlements, the Natufians built some of the earliest known dwellings. Tell es-Sultan, ancient Jericho, was first settled by the bearers of the Natufian culture, and the accumulation of debris that has been found by archaeologists demonstrates a continuous occupation of over two thousand years, making Jericho one of the earliest continuous settlements in the world [2].

What about Jericho’s walls?

At the western edge of Jericho, archeologists have discovered a succession of massive protective walls that were used and rebuilt at various times between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. At one stage, a wall partially constructed of huge stones stood at a height of almost 6m, and on the outer side of the wall a broad trench was hewn into the rock.

Built into this wall was a large round tower that measured 8.5m in diameter and is preserved to a height of 7.7m. Built and used between 8,300–7,800 BC, it was made of concentric rows of undressed stone, and at the base of the tower a short passageway leads to an enclosed stairway which was heavily plastered. [3]. The walls and tower of ‘Pre-Pottery Neolithic Jericho’ were a surprising discovery from a period when almost no public architecture is known elsewhere, leading archeologists to define Jericho as the earliest urban community known.

Archeologists have conjectured as to whether the wall was for defensive purposes or to protect the settlement from the thrust of silt and eroded debris from the wadi to the west. Either way, the round tower could not have had a defensive purpose because it is built on the inner side of the wall, so it is more likely to have had some ritualistic function.

These large structures at Jericho reflect the existence of social organisation and collaboration that could recruit the necessary planning, construction ability and manpower for such building operations, and Jericho is considered one of the largest settlements for this period. (It’s thought that Jericho’s good fortune was derived from the agricultural exploitation of its vicinity).

The Jericho Skulls

The artistic aspects of this period can be seen from burial customs and several other finds. For example, skulls have been found that were modelled with plaster as if to give them a lifelike appearance, and at Jericho seven skulls were naturalistically rendered with emphasis on the outline of cheeks, brows, and lips, and eyes that were marked with seashells.

Depictions of the human face and body were also sculptured, in full or in mask form. Plaster statues of human figures were discovered at Jericho that comprised a man, a woman, and a child. The man’s head was made in flat relief with a narrow mouth, thin lips, seashells as eyes, protruding eyebrows, and hair and beard depicted in red paint.

Archaeology and the Bible

The history of the Neolithic period teaches us much about the development of ancient cultures during this time, and offers a wonderful cultural context for the early chapters of Genesis. The custom of depicting large human figures in clay is peculiar to this period and perfect finds expression in the creation story; and the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic period shows that God’s creation was finally ready to tend the garden he had prepared for it.

It is true that the timeframes involved pre-date Adam, and therefore challenge some of our long-held positions on this topic, but the archaeological findings also provide a rich socio-historical context for understanding Genesis; and they teach us why Jericho had such an important role in the region, especially for migrating through the region as such the Israelites, and why the walls of Jericho feature in the scriptural account the way they do.

Archaeology can help us to better understand the Bible, and we have no reason to fear the accuracy of its findings.


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[1] Much of this article is a summary of the work by Amihai Mazar, in his book Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven;  London: Yale University Press, 1990), 41–42.