written by Adam Zertal
A mysterious structure filled with ashes and burned bones
For decades the period of the Israelite settlement has been one of the most controversial periods in archaeological research, and justifiably so. On the one hand, the books of Joshua and Judges present us a rich, multi-faceted saga, full of vicissitudes, about the conquest and settlement of the land, about inter-relations between Canaanites and Israelites, about movements of families, clans, and tribes, and about man struggling with rocks, forests and groves, and the local inhabitants. On the other hand, archaeological research has run into great difficulty studying this era, for which we have no external sources. Hence also the great interest which the isolated structure within the precinct on Mt. 'Ebal had for us. Over two years elapsed, however, before we succeeded in raising the funds necessary to begin work. We excavated the site for seven seasons, each of which lasted approximately one month. There being no road to the site, we broke one through with our bare hands, so that we could reach the site by jeep and bring in tools, food and water.
Unlike other sites, where the archaeologist knows what he is excavating - a house, a room, a wall or other structure - the structure on Mt. 'Ebal was enigmatic from the outset. To this day no architectural parallels to it have been found within Israel. Two years of work, comprising three seasons of laborious excavation, elapsed before we got the brainstorm which solved the riddle of the nature of the site by piecing together our scientific data with literary sources on Israelite cultic worship.
When we excavated the isolated structure in the center of the walled area which encompassed approximately one acre, it became clear that we were dealing with a far more elaborate complex than we had imagined at the outset. A large elevated structure, measuring 29.5 by 23 feet, rose in the center. It was built as a frame structure with walls about S feet thick, made of large rough, unhewn stones. Inside the frame two thick walls were built facing each other and leaving an open space between them The empty space itself was filled by the builders with four deliberately laid strata of fill. The lowest stratum contained a considerable quantity of ashes, above it was a stratum of dirt and stones, then another thick layer, approximately three feet deep, containing a large quantity of black ashes. 1n these ashes were hundreds of animal bones, some of which had been burned in a hearth. Many potsherds, belonging to the same period of the Israelite settlement, were found there as well. All this formed a filled platform which came to a height of about 10 feet above d-rock. A sort of terrace about a yard lower than the structure was built adjacent to it, surrounding the high platform on three sides. Only the southeastern edge of the platform remained exposed. It is interesting that the corners of the platform point due north, south, east and west.
A ramp of unhewn stones, 4 feet wide by 23 feet long, rises to the top of the platform from the southwest. The gentle incline, easily climbed and the presence of the ramp itself accord with the explicit scriptural in j unction: "Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto Mine altar, that thy nakedness be not uncovered thereon" (Exodus 2:23).
Adjacent to the northern side of the ramp is another small, narrow wall, somewhat lower than the one beside it. It turns out that this smaller ramp, which greatly intrigued us since we could find no constructional logic for it, was intended as a means of ascent for the priests to reach another part of the altar, the surround or ledge. This is none other than the above-mentioned terrace adjacent to the altar, which was reached by climbing the smaller ramp adjacent to the larger one. All this became clear to us only after reading the extremely precise mishnaic descriptions of the Second Temple in Jerusalem: "The altar was thirty-two [cubits] by thirty-two [cubits]. It rose up one cubit and receded one cubit; this was the base. [Thus] we find left [a square space of] thirty by thirty. [The next part built up on the base] rose up five [cubits] and receded one cubit; this was the surround. Thus we are left with twenty-eight by twenty-eight... And there was a ramp at the south of the altar, thirty-two cubits by sixteen cubits in width..." (Middot 3:1-3).
About the smaller ramp the Mishnah writes: "How was this performed? The priest went up the ramp and passed around the ledge, and came to the southeast corner..." (Zevahim 5:3).
The mishnaic description of the altar depicts a sort of graduated tower in which each successive level is somewhat smaller than the one below it. In the Second Temple period there were three levels, whereas the altar on Mt. 'Ebal has only two. These levels are formed by the surrounding ledge (see photographs and reconstruction). Interestingly enough, the future altar, described by Ezekiel, which most scholars believe reflects the altar in the First Temple, was also built in successive levels: "And these are the measures of the altar by cubits - the cubit is a cubit and a handbreadth: the bottom shall be a cubit, and the breadth a cubit, and the border thereof by the edge thereof roundabout a span; and this shall be the base of the altar. And from the bottom upon the ground to the lower settle shall be two cubits, and the breadth one cubit; and from the lesser settle to the greater settle shall be four cubits, and the breadth a cubit: And the hearth shall be four cubits; and from the hearth and upward there shall be four horns"(Ezekiel 43:13-15).
On the west, adjacent to the altar and the ramps, are two stone-paved courts. In these we found structures constructed and paved with crushed chalkstone. Some of them contained ashes and animal bones, others pottery vessels which had been deliberately placed in the spot, apparently for offerings. Similar structures containing pottery were found round about the altar.