© Emil Aljem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Unlike a dozen other leading archaeologists, Prof. Yosef Garfinkel had no intention of searching for the lost biblical town of Ziklag when he commenced excavations in 2015 at Khirbet a-Ra'i, located between Kiryat Gat and Lachish. However, as the twice-yearly dig seasons progressed at the site, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Jerusalem, he and his two co-excavation directors, Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dr. Kyle Keimer of Macquarie University in Sydney, noted that it was starting to resemble the biblically attested Philistine town of Ziklag, a well-recorded site where the future King David sought refuge from King Saul.

After seven dig seasons that uncovered some 1,000 sq.m., the archaeological team found evidence of a Philistine-era settlement from the 12-11th centuries BCE under layers of a rural settlement dating to the early 10th century BCE, largely considered the Davidic era. Among the findings were massive stone structures and typical Philistine cultural artifacts, including pottery in foundation deposits — good luck offerings laid beneath a building's flooring. Some of the olive pits and other organic objects found in the deposits were sent for carbon dating, which confirmed their contexts, said the archaeologists.

© (Excavation expedition to Khirbet a-Ra‘i)
Pottery assemblage from Khirbet a-Ra’i, which some archaeologists have identified as biblical Ziklag.
Given the location of the excavations in the Judaean foothills, Philistine artifacts, along with the carbon-14 dating, have all pointed the archaeologists toward identifying the site as the lost town where David settled in the first and second Books of Samuel.

Roughly a dozen sites have already been suggested as candidates for Ziklag over the past several decades, but largely dismissed. As explained by Sydney-based archaeologist Keimer, there are three elements that must be found at the site for it to be under consideration for identification as Ziklag: 12th-century BCE Philistine habitation, 10th century settlement, and a destruction layer — evidence of the widespread ruin wrought by the Amalekites, as described in the Hebrew Bible.

"Each candidate had a problem — the sequence, the geography, no destruction layer," said Keimer. But Khirbet a-Ra'i seems to check all the boxes, he said.

Reached through a winding warren of dirt and gravels roads that travel through vineyards and orange groves, the area around Khirbet a-Ra'i could easily serve as a stand in for Italy's lush Tuscany region. Keimer said the more the team excavates the site, the more he understands its strategic importance: the breathtaking view would allow its inhabitants to keep watch over east/west coastal travel.

Strategic or not, not all the experts are convinced that this is Ziklag.

Indeed, Bar Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir, director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project for the past 23 years, is adamant that it is not. In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Maeir said, "This suggestion of Yossi Garfinkel is so unacceptable, it's unbelievable. There is simply no basis for this. I don't know how he got to it."

"The very assumption that every archaeological site is mentioned in the Bible is simply not true," added Maeir, pointing out the very important Israelite-Canaanite site of Tel Rehov near Beit She'an, which is not mentioned.

"If you're going to go for a specific site, you should at least place it in the geographical context," said Maeir, who said that in most cases in the Bible, Ziklag appears to lie further in the south.

There is one mention in the Book of Joshua in which Ziklag (along with Beersheba and other southern settlements) is apportioned to the tribe of Judah (15:31), which would make its proposed location possible. Indeed, much of Philistia lies in Judah's allotment. In Joshua 19:5, however, it is allocated to the tribe of Simeon, which was given Judah's southern portion, "Out of the allotment of the children of Judah was the inheritance of the children of Simeon, for the portion of the children of Judah was too much for them; therefore, the children of Simeon had inheritance in the midst of their inheritance."

According to Maeir, the only possible way to connect Ziklag to the Garfinkel site is "if you want to say that biblical geography is imaginary... But if you want to say there is a realia, then there's no way Ziklag is three kilometers from Lachish in the heartland of Judah."

In an email to The Times of Israel, Tel Aviv University Prof. Israel Finkelstein also discounted the identification of Ziklag at the Khirbet a-Ra'i site. "Identification of places mentioned in historical texts, including the Bible, with a given archaeological site is done according to three criteria: the geographical context in which the place is mentioned in the text/s, chronological match between the period of the text or the period portrayed in the text and the finds at the site and, when possible, preservation of the ancient name in the modern (usually Arabic) one," wrote Finkelstein. "In the case of biblical Ziklag, the name is not preserved."

Likewise, in reading the biblical accounts, he said the Philistine site would have been located elsewhere.

"Geographically, the story of David at Ziklag seems to require a site located in the territory of Gath, as close as possible to the desert fringe. Khirbet a-Ra'i is located too far from the desert fringe, in the heartland of the Shephelah," wrote Finkelstein, referring to the lowlands stretching from the Judean Hills to the coastal plain.

Referring to the narrative style of the David story, Finkelstein wrote, "Moreover, I Samuel 27:6 is typically Deuteronomistic in language [in accord with the theory that the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings had all been one work], that is, from the late seventh century BCE — it seems to show that Ziklag was contested between Judah and the Philistine cities, which does not fit a place close to Lachish, the second most important city in Judah. Most important, in Joshua 15:21, Ziklag is listed among the towns of the Negev, rather than of the Shephelah. This too does not fit the location of Khirbet a-Ra'i."

For decades, Finkelstein has been on the forefront of an ongoing debate regarding biblical chronology. In the case of Khirbet a-Ra'i as well, he wielded the particulars of dating Ziklag as a final strike against identification of the site as the biblical town.

"Chronology: the list of towns of Judah in Joshua 15, in which Ziklag is mentioned, is dated to the days of King Josiah of Judah in the late seventh century BCE. From the preliminary report, there seems to be evidence for some activity at Khirbet a-Ra'i at that time. But the main phases of occupation at the site are centuries earlier, and the seventh century finds are no more than some sherds on the surface," wrote Finkelstein.

"For these reasons the identification of Ziklag at Khirbet a-Ra'i can hardly be accepted. Indeed, in the long history of geographical-historical research scholars sought Ziklag further south and/or west of this place," concluded Finkelstein.

Speaking to this reporter at the site itself on Monday, Garfinkel and his co-directors were prepared for blowback on their announced identification.

"There are those who debate whether King David was a legend of a historical figure. Was he a king of a kingdom, or a Bedouin king of Jerusalem," said Garfkinkel. "At Qeiyafa, I saw there was a kingdom, and this site is another Davidic settlement," he said.

Under the tarp at the excavation site on Monday, lead archaeologist Garfinkel said that the resonant identification of Ziklag was a side-effect, not the intent of the excavation.

"I came here for one reason," explained Garfinkel to The Times of Israel at the dusty hot dig site in the Judaean Hills. "On the surface, I found pottery like at Qeiyafa; I had no clue there were Philistine levels below." Garfinkel's previous excavation was of the fortified Judaean city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) southwest of Jerusalem, which he claims is the biblical Sha'arayim, based on artifacts and their context, as well as carbon-14 dating.

Since the Davidic-era pottery indicated there may be other elusive remains from the period, Garfinkel and his team commenced excavations. After unearthing monumental buildings and innumerable artifacts in the 12th century BCE Philistine-era layer, Garfinkel said he realized that "the strength of the site is not David."

The site, he said, "is indeed important, but not only because of David. It was an important and large Philistine city."

Pointing to a nearby hill, Garfinkel said that in the building uncovered at the top of the mount, there were walls built over a meter and a half (nearly five feet) wide on a structure that may have had two or three floors. Noting that the individual who lived there would have had to have a high status, Garfinkel said, "It is very clear who is the land owner, who is important, and who is not."

Archaeologist Ganor told The Times of Israel that the name Ziklag itself harkens to its Philistine history. The word is not rooted in any Semitic language, he said, but rather has Aegean origins. This corresponds to a recent large scientific study of Philistine DNA, which matched their origins to the Aegean region.

While the center of gravity of this site lies in its Philistine origins, there were clear remains of an unwalled, Davidic-era settlement, said Garfinkel, standing in front of an assemblage of typically Judaean pottery.

Ziklag is first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Joshua, in which it is apportioned to the tribe of Judah. Later, it is given to the tribe of Simeon. According to the books of Samuel, under the patronage of the Philistine King Achish of Gat, Ziklag served as a refuge to the future King David fleeing Saul. At the former Philistine city, David and 600 of his men and their families settled in for 14 months and used it as a base to raid neighboring peoples, whom he and his men slaughtered.

After David fled Saul, Achish, laughed Garfinkel, "gave David a deserted place far away from Gath because he was a troublemaker."

Exploiting his status as a Philistine vassal, David attempted to join up with the army of his Philistine lord Achish to defeat Saul. But while he and his warriors were away, retaliating Amalekites razed the town and absconded with the Israelites' women and children — including two of David's wives — along with much booty. After a Hollywood-worthy chase, the Amalekites were defeated, the captives freed, and the booty widely distributed. Immediately following his sojourn in Ziklag, David ascended the throne in Hebron.

Later, in the book of Nehemiah, Ziklag is again mentioned, as one of the places to which the Jews returned from Babylon. The site offers evidence of all biblical periods, said Macquarie University's Keimer, including Persian remains which could confirm the biblical account.

Keimer said the pottery found in the earlier levels is typical of that found in some Aegean Sea settlements of a contemporary 12th century BCE excavation. But later it shows a transition and absorption of local cultural elements, he said. "The basis is in Philistine forms which were taken on by the Canaanites," he said. (As The Times of Israel observed the active dig site at the top of the hill on Monday, excavators discovered a hand-sized vessel, likely a perfume decanter, that is an example of such cultural transition.)

There are two destruction levels at the site, said Keimer, one in the early 10th century and one in the mid-11th century. The team is still awaiting results from carbon-14 testing to firmly affix the specific date of the 10th-century destruction layer, which would more correspond to the biblical narrative. "There is a general sense that an earlier date would fit better with the narrative," Keimer said.

Keimer said an article is due to be published in a scientific journal by the end of the year. Likewise, the dig, funded by Joey Silver of Jerusalem, Aron Levy of New Jersey, and the Roth Family and Isaac Wakil both of Sydney, is expected to continue for three more seasons at least.

Until the archaeologists unearth a sign clearly stating "Here lies Ziklag," it is doubtful that any consensus will be reached on its identification. Indeed, for some archaeology enthusiasts, the debate is academic at best.

Standing at the lip of an excavation square, 60-something Melbourne resident Viki Millard told The Times of Israel that the most thrilling part of the dig so far is seeing the actual spaces where people lived over 3,000 years ago.

"This is almost sacred ground," said Millard, "because someone has actually lived here, walked the ground. And we're walking the ground again. It's a privilege."