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Edomite Cache Puzzles Archaeologists
From the BASNY Explorer

“One of the most spectacular finds of recent decades in all of Israel,” declared Rudolf Cohen and Yagal Yisrael, excavators at the site of En Hatzeva. What they are referring to is a cache of artifacts, many of which appear to be Edomite, and dating to the Seventh to Sixth century B.C.E. The cache was found in a pit between a cult site and an ancient fortress both dating to that time period. The location of the materials raises some troubling questions for scholars and is subject to some debate. The problem is that the fortress is in what was then the territory of Judah, outside of Edom. What are Edomite artifacts doing there?

A number of theories have been suggested. One is that the Edomites there were just a group of merchants with some economic influence but not politically in control. Another is that the Edomites successfully invaded portions of Judah and established some footholds. In support of the latter view, archaeologists note that the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E. were a time of substantial weakness in Judah. It is at about that time that the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed Solomon’s temple (587 B.C.E.) On the other hand, there is no clear evidence that all of the material is Edomite. Many of the items have counterparts in Canaanite, Philistine and Phoenician sites.

Located slightly southwest of the Dead Sea, En Hatzeva lies at an ancient commercial crossroads linking east to west and north to south. Although the discovery of the fortress was a surprise, the site itself had been known as the location of a Roman fortress since about 1902. Expecting to explore more of the Roman material, they found seven distinct layers of inhabitation, the Roman period being the second. Level 1 dated to the Byzantine-Early Islamic period of about the seventh century C.E. The Roman period belongs to about the third to fourth century C.E. and below that was a Nabataean community from the first century C.E. The site under discussion constitutes Level 4, and below that were other fortresses, one from about the ninth to eighth century B.C.E. and one to the tenth century B.C.E., (which may have been contemporary with King Solomon.)

In the pit were about 75 items, all smashed, but with every piece still present, suggesting that the items were deliberately placed in the pit and broken. Cohen and Yisrael believe that the breaking may have been due to the religious reforms of King Josiah. The pieces were gathered together and all were reassembled.

Among the most interesting of the items are a stone sculpture with stylized human features, possibly a god; seven limestone incense alters, similar to ones found in some Israelite sites; and three clay cult stands with human shapes. All the other items are made from clay. The cache includes a number of bowl shaped items and some of them are decorated with projecting triangles (called denticulated fringe decoration.) This triangle pattern is similar to patterns found at a site that is clearly Edomite but which has also been found at the Israelite site of Kadesh-Barnea.

This is not the first site in ancient Judah containing Edomite materials. A significant Edomite presence is known at Qitmit, about 27 miles to the north. Qitmit is more clearly Edomite and there some differences between it and En Hatzeva. Most significant is that the Qitmit materials were found on the floor of the shrine whereas the En Hatzeva cache was buried and broken in a pit, casting doubt on how significant the Edomite presence in En Hatzeva was.

Nevertheless, we have precious few materials for the Israelites and Edomites prior to this time period. Both peoples seem to have emerged, archaeologically, around 1200 B.C.E. The bible portrays a great deal of enmity between the two peoples. The Edomites are allegedly descended from Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, who began fighting even in the womb. Esau was born first but according to the bible, Jacob tricked him out of his inheritance, becoming Isaac’s heir, and Esau threatened to kill him.

Later, in the aftermath of the Exodus, the Hebrews asked the Edomites for permission to cross their territory, but the Edomites refused, threatening military retaliation. Over the next few centuries, the bible shows the Israelites sometime defeating the Edomites and the Edomites sometimes defeating the Israelites.

The Greeks conquered Edom around the fourth century B.C.E. and renamed it Idumea. This new political unit appears to have included those portions of Judah containing the Edomite sites referred to above. King Herod was the son of an Idumaean mother, which some scholars see as an ironic touch, reuniting the heirs of Jacob and Esau.

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