Shiloh Re-excavated

The Associates for Biblical Research team has just completed its first of a projected five seasons of excavations at Shiloh. Their stated aim is to find evidence for the Jewish sanctuary which was established there from shortly after the Jews invaded Palestine until it was destroyed by the Philistines at the end of Samuel's ministry.

Initial reports are wildly upbeat, claiming that up to 2,000 potsherds have been found per day. Those who have been on the digs after the Diggings tours will be aware that finding potsherds on an ancient site is no big deal. In four weeks of digging - from May 21 to June 17, 2017 - the group only found two nearly complete pottery vessels. The killer admission, though, is that they found 100 coins. As coins had not been invented at the time of the tabernacle, it would seem that the dig so far has been in much later strata, at the earliest the Greek or Roman period.

Shiloh excavators washing pots
Members of the ABR team engaged in washing and sorting pottery, one of the least enjoyable parts of any dig.

The excavators also claim to have found many animal bones, which have been sent off for analysis. They are hoping that the bones will be those of young, "clean" animals - that is, animals which might have been sacrificed. I'm sorry to pour cold water on their claims, but the Jews also ate clean animals, so one would need evidence of sacrifices - perhaps large quantities of ash associated with the bones - before one could claim that the bones were evidence for the tabernacle.

Worse than that, the area of Shiloh was under the control of the Samaritans from the Persian period onwards, so if the bones and the coins come from the same level it would rule out the Jewish sanctuary, even if they did prove to have been sacrificed. The Samaritans were notorious in Jewish circles for their heterodox religious practices!

Shiloh was last excavated in 1981-84 by Israel Finkelstein, who concluded - on what basis I am not sure - that the Jews did not arrive at Shiloh until much later than the time of the tabernacle. On the basis that therefore the tabernacle could not have been there, he deliberately did not investigate the summit of the tel, dismissing it as merely shallow soil above bedrock. It would seem that the Associates for Biblical Research are proving him wrong.

It is possible, however, that Finkelstein was wrong in an even more basic conclusion. On the level ground north of the tel he discovered a large ritual area containing considerable quantities of bones from animals that had been sacrificed. In this area the rock had been cut away to form a rectangle of level ground approximately 150'x75', the dimensions of the courtyard of the Jewish tabernacle as specified in the Bible.

Unfortunately, pottery from the site placed this sanctuary in the Late Bronze Age, long before the Iron Age which is associated with the Jews in conventional chronology. If the revised chronology espoused by Diggings is correct, however, that would be precisely the period during which the sanctuary was established at Shiloh. It is possible, therefore, that the site of the tabernacle has been found but not recognised!

Further information about the excavations at Shiloh - and an opportunity to volunteer for the next season's dig - can be found on the Associates for Biblical Archaeology website.

© Kendall K. Down 2017