From November 2003 to the beginning of January 2004 and during April–June 2004 two seasons of a salvage excavation were conducted near Tel Ashdod (Permit Nos. A-4037, A-4131; map ref. NIG 16750–70/62985–3000; OIG 11750–70/12985–3000), prior to laying the railroad track between
Ashdod and Ashqelon. The excavation, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority and financed by the Israel Railway Authority, was directed by E. Kogan-Zehavi (first season) and E. Kogan-Zehavi and P. Nahshoni (second season), with the assistance of L. Rothblum, L. Shiluv, A. Qrokhmelnik and O. Feder (area supervision), H. Lavi and Y. Hayimi (administration), A. Hajian and T. Kornfeld (surveying), T. Sagiv (photography), G. Kedoshim (photography from a motorized paraglider), E. Kamaisky (pottery restoration in the field), Y. Bukengolts (pottery restoration), as well as E. Eisenberg and Y. Baumgarten.
During the first season, Area A was opened and ten squares were excavated (Figs. 1, 2). In the wake of exposing an Assyrian public building, the excavation was expanded in the second season, whereby two more squares were excavated in Area A and three additional areas (B–D) were opened, including thirty squares. Area B was to the north of Area A, Area C––to the west and Area D––to the south. These areas were located at the margins of the site to determine the size of the large Assyrian mud-brick building. Eight strata were discerned. The lower four strata (8–5) were ascribed to the Iron Age; Stratum 4 was dated to the Persian period and Stratum 3 to the Hellenistic period. An arcosolium tomb from the later part of the Roman or beginning of the Byzantine period, which was excavated by D. Varga (HA-ESI 117), was attributed to Stratum 2 and three cist graves, dating to the Byzantine or Early Islamic period, were assigned to Stratum 1. Two of the tombs were exposed by D. Varga; none were excavated.
The crowning glory of the excavation was the exposure of a palace, built in the Assyrian style, including a basement and bathrooms. The description below follows the strata from early to late.
The Iron Age
Stratum 8. Finds predating the Assyrian palace were sought in a small probe excavated in Area B, at the northern end of the site. Building remains from three phases, whose elevation and different mud bricks indicated that they preceded the construction of the palace, were uncovered (Fig. 3). The earliest phase comprised a wall built of rectangular mud bricks. A section excavated into the mud-brick wall and the fill to its west revealed fragments of pottery vessels, mostly from the tenth–eighth centuries BCE, as well as some potsherds from the Late Bronze Age. It was unclear whether a burnt layer that overlaid the wall was contemporaneous with it or belonged to a later phase, the second phase, which comprised a collapse of fieldstones and mud-brick fragments. The third, upper phase was atop the burnt layer and included a wall, bisecting the square from east to west, built of a row of rectangular mud bricks and preserved a single course high. The pottery vessels from the fills alongside the wall were dated to the eighth century BCE.
Stratum 7. A large public building, probably an Assyrian palace from the eighth century BCE, built upon a square podium (W11; height c. 2 m), was exposed in Area A. The palace and the podium were constructed from the same square brownish-red mud bricks (0.38 × 0.38 m, height 0.1 m). The eastern side of the podium was preserved to its full height (c. 2 m; Fig. 4) in the northern part of the excavation.
North of the podium, layers of ash fill that served as part of bedding for an open courtyard, were deposited. The ceramic finds recovered from the foundation of W11 and the fill to its north indicated that the podium was not established prior to the eighth century BCE.
A large public building was erected atop the podium. Its foundations (W1, W3, W8–10, W12; 2.8 m thick, preserved height 1.3 m) were built of square grayish-brown mud bricks (0.38–0.39 m, 0.11 m high). The width of the walls evidenced the fortified nature of the building, which included a large courtyard, delineated by W1 and W3 in the southwest. A mud-brick wall whose southern face was exposed enclosed the courtyard in the north. It was built on top of fills and not above the podium, indicating that part of the building and definitely the courtyard were founded above fills that were intentionally deposited for that purpose. Three elongated halls, oriented east–west and delineated by Walls 8, 10, 12, were exposed south of the courtyard.
A floor (L114) that was composed of square gray mud bricks, whose size was identical to those of the walls, abutted the building’s walls. The floor’s bedding consisted of a layered ground kurkar fill, overlain with alternating mud-brick surfaces and kurkar layers (Fig. 5). This bedding’s composition enabled the raising of the floors to impressive heights above surface. The numerous pottery fragments recovered from the bedding demonstrated that the building was not set up before the eighth century BCE.
Mud-brick collapse and remains of a mighty conflagration in all the rooms bear witness to the overwhelming destruction of the building.
A mud-brick wall (width c. 3 m), oriented east–west, was discovered in Area B. It was abutted from the north by mud-brick walls (width 1.2 m), built on top of the podium. The walls formed four elongated rooms that probably served as storerooms in the basement level of the palace. One of the rooms, excavated completely, was destroyed by an intense fire.
A section of the podium, overlaid with remains of walls that delineated the palace from the west, as well as a mud-brick floor, was exposed in Area C (Fig. 6). The walls were poorly preserved due to erosion. Two plastered rooms, which contained a stone and two ceramic bathtub-like vats, were discovered in the eastern part of the area (Fig. 7). A ceramic vat, probably used as a bathtub (Fig. 8), was found in the eastern room, which was only partially exposed and entirely coated with waterproof plaster. The bathtub was reinforced on all sides with small stones bonded with plaster. This is a first-time evidence for a bathroom with a bathtub. A wall and a pillar, whose lower sections were lined with flat ashlar stones, were found in a small section of another room that was exposed to the south of the bathroom (Fig. 9).
The southern end of the compound was sought in Area D. The southern face of a mud-brick wall, aligned east–west, was discovered. A floor’s bedding of square mud bricks arranged in orderly layers, one atop the other, was observed to the south of the wall. Probing trenches dug by a backhoe c. 20 m south of the wall were devoid of archaeological remains.
The finds from the palace included a multitude of pottery fragments, a ceramic figurine, a clay mold for casting figurines (Fig. 10) and animal bones, dating to the eighth–seventh centuries BCE.
Stratum 6. The building continued in use, undergoing several alterations. In Area A, Walls (W5–7, W15, W16) composed of square dark brown mud bricks, larger than those of the former stratum (0.42 m) and having sand-filled interstices, were added above and next to the bases of the building’s existing walls. A long corridor bounded by Walls 5–7 (Fig. 11) on its east, north and west was preserved from this construction. Its gray plaster floor was overlaid with an ash layer that evidenced fire. The corridor was probably covered with vaults built of fired mud bricks. Walls 15 and 16 in the southern part of the excavation area belonged to a building or room that extended further south. The finds included a ceramic figurine in the image of a bearded man and pottery vessels that dated this phase of the building to the seventh century BCE.
Stratum 5. Scant building remains, which were ascribed to the period following the destruction of the palace, were exposed in Areas C and D. Tamped-earth floors and walls, whose foundations were built of fieldstones, were discovered. The walls were preserved a single course high and probably bore mud-brick superstructures. Large numbers of pottery fragments from the seventh century BCE were found on the floors.
Stratum 4 – The Persian Period
Meager remains, including refuse pits in Areas B, as well as the foundation of a fieldstone-built wall and a pit that was probably a favissa in Area C, were exposed. The favissa pit contained fragments of ceramic cultic stands, adorned with figures of men and women and two imported lekythoi. This layer was destroyed by the construction of the Hellenistic period at the site.
Stratum 3 – The Hellenistic Period
Four circular potter’s kilns (1–4; a fifth kiln was excavated by D. Varga) were uncovered in the south and west of Area A. Kilns 2 and 3 were exposed for the purpose of documenting their shape and size, whereas Kilns 1 and 4 were excavated. A column or an arch that supported the curved roof was built in the center of each kiln and the vessels, which dated to the Hellenistic period, were placed on the floor. The large number of kilns in such a small area testifies to an industrial zone.
The fieldstone-built foundations of two walls (W2, W4) were unearthed. Wall 2 was built on the eastern end of W1 and W4 was built on top of the western end of W6. The dating of these walls was inconclusive because no floors associated with them were found. Mixed ceramic finds, dating to the Persian and Hellenistic periods, were associated with the walls.
Two phases of walls and floors that abutted them were discovered in Area B. The finds on the two floors included numerous fragments of pottery vessels and coins. A refuse pit was discerned south of the walls. A floor that abutted a wall and a built water channel to its east were exposed in Area C. The finds included scores of pottery fragments and coins.
Stratum 2 – The Roman–Byzantine Period
An arcosolium tomb excavated by D. Varga (HA-ESI 117) was ascribed to this stratum.
Stratum 1 – Byzantine or Early Islamic Periods
Three rectangular tombs (5–7; two were exposed by D. Varga) built of dressed kurkar slabs were uncovered at the western end of the excavation area. The tombs were not excavated and could not be dated, due to objections by representatives of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The tombs were inserted into the mud-brick walls of the Assyrian public building. Judging by their size, two of the tombs (5, 7) were for adult individuals and an infant possibly occupied the third tomb (6). It seems that these tombs and those discovered in the trial excavation were part of a cemetery in this area. Tombs of this type are known from the Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic periods.
The large public building from Stratum 7 served as the Assyrian provincial center, mentioned in the Assyrian and biblical sources, and its construction is ascribed to the time of Sargon II. It centralized the administration connected with overseeing the military and economic affairs of the Assyrians in Philistia and the south of the country. Its enormous dimensions extended across more than ten dunams.
As only a small fraction of the palace was exposed, it is hoped that future excavations will reveal its other parts.