Tel Avel Bet Ma‘akha (Abel Beth Maacah) is a large mound (c. 100 dunams) located 5 km south of Metula, near the eastern bank of Nahal ‘Iyyon, at the northern end of the Hula Valley (Fig. 1). The site lies 6 km west of Tel Dan and 35 km north of Tel Hazor, and the distance to Tyre and Sidon on the Lebanese coast to the west is 35 km and to Damascus in the east is 70 km as the crow flies. The site is mentioned as “Abel” in second millennium BCE sources, such as the conquest list of Thutmosis III. In the Bible, where it is mentioned three times, the name is “Abel Beth Maacah”, and scholars have suggested that the addition of the tribal name “Beth Maacah” occurred in Iron Age I when a local clan of that name took over the city (Younger 2016:213–219). The biblical references include a list of conquered cities by the Aramean Ben-Hadad in the ninth century BCE (1 Kings 15:20) and a similar list by the Assyrian Tiglath Pilesar III in the late eighth century BCE (2 Kings 15:29). The third reference (2 Samuel 20) tells of a local Wise Woman who saved the town when Sheba ben Bichri, a rebel against King David, fled Jerusalem to find haven in Abel Beth Maacah (Panitz-Cohen and Yahalom-Mack 2019).
The tell, which includes a lofty summit in the north, a moderate saddle in the middle and a large lower part in the south (Fig. 2), had never been excavated before the initiation of the present project, which began with a survey in 2012 and the first excavation season in 2013. To date, ten seasons of excavation have been conducted (2013–2022), with 2020 and 2021 being limited projects due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A renewed survey was conducted in the winter of 2021. This report briefly summarizes the main excavation results of seasons 2018 to 2021 (for articles concerning the excavation and various finds, see Panitz-Cohen, Mullins and Bonfil 2013; 2015; Panitz-Cohen et al. 2018; Yahalom-Mack, Panitz-Cohen and Mullins 2018; Yahalom-Mack et al. 2018; Yahalom-Mack, Panitz-Cohen and Mullins 2019; Panitz-Cohen 2021; Panitz-Cohen and Tsoran 2021; Susnow et al. 2021; Yahalom-Mack et al. 2021; and the project website for annual field reports).
Excavation Areas
Four areas were excavated in 2018–2021 (A, B, K, O; Fig. 3).
Area A is located at the eastern edge of the site, at the join between the lower tell and the ascent to the upper tell in the north. It has been excavated since the beginning of the project in 2013 and was excavated in 2018, 2019 and 2021. The area currently encompasses a total of 23 squares and is divided between a higher part in the west (Sqs M–S/10–14; Fig. 4) and a lower part, near the tell’s slope, in the east (Sqs T–B/11–15; Fig. 5). Eight main strata were revealed, dating from the Middle Bronze IIB to Iron IIA (Fig. 6; Table 1); modern terrace walls and several intrusive Early Islamic-period burials (only in the lower part of the area) were not designated a stratum number to date. Five of these strata (A6–A2) are attributed to an intense and continuous Iron Age I sequence that suffered two major destructions during its course, at the end of Stratum A4 and of Stratum A2. Following the Stratum A2 destruction was Stratum A1a–c, which is radiocarbon and ceramic-typology dated to Iron IIA. Remains of this period were identified only in the western part of the area, as erosion had removed these layers in the eastern part. Following this period, the area was abandoned, aside from a limited exposure of a layer, found in half a square, that possibly post-dates the Iron IIA and is tentatively assigned as Stratum A0a; currently it is dated to Iron IIB or IIC.
Table 1. Area A Strata
Period/Date (BCE)
Main features and finds
Terrace walls, pottery, coin
Early Islamic
Iron IIB or IIC
Earth layer, stone installation, pottery
Iron IIA (mid–late tenth–late ninth c.*)
Substantial stone architecture, stone-paved courtyards, many ovens, possible pottery kiln; astragali hoard, abandoned
Iron IB (late eleventh–early/mid-tenth c.*)
Large public-administrative building complex, two phases in certain places, pot-bellows and remains of metal industry, unique cultic context, numerous wavy-band pithoi, destroyed in a violent fire
Iron IB (mid–late eleventh c.)
Relatively little architecture, many ovens and other installations; abandoned
Iron IA (late twelfth–mid-eleventh c.*)
Cultic structure with two phases; destroyed violently
Iron IA (mid-twelfth c.*)
Possibly an early phase of the cultic structure
Iron IA (early twelfth c.)
Pits cutting into a burnt layer and into a wide mudbrick wall (MB IIB–LB)
Limited exposure; continued use of a wide mudbrick wall (MB IIB–LB?), associated burnt layer with stone wall foundations
Limited exposure; possible construction of wide mudbrick wall, face of brick wall with associated pottery, scarab
* Radicarbon dates obtained from short-lived organic material, such as olive stones, in secure stratigraphic contexts.
Area B (Fig. 7) is located near the eastern slope of the summit, in the northern part of the site. It has been excavated since 2015 and was excavated in 2018–2021. The area currently encompasses a total of 24 squares (Sqs C–I/18–20, 1–2). Six main strata were revealed, dating from the Middle Bronze IIB to the Mamluk period (Fig. 8; Table 2). The earliest elements in this area are an MB IIB rampart and burials (Stratum B6). Directly on top of the rampart are limited architectural remains, ascribed to Iron IB (Stratum B5). Cutting and covering these remains is a massive casemate-like structure, abutted by rooms and courtyards on its south, and a massive construction on its east, possibly a gate (‘citadel compound’; Stratum B4a–c)—all dated to Iron Age IIA. Several pebble floors and narrow walls were built on top of the western and northern parts of the casemate complex, tentatively dated to Iron IIC (Stratum B3c), which were covered by a substantial building dating from the Persian–Early Hellenistic periods in the north of the area (Stratum B3a–b). Fragmentary remains in the northwestern part of the area were assigned to the Roman–Byzantine periods (Stratum B2), which were severely damaged by Mamluk-period graves (Stratum B1) that likewise cut into the Iron Age layers.
Table 2. Area B Strata
Period/Date (BCE)
Main features and finds
Graves, terrace wall
Wall segments, earth layers’ pottery, glass, coins
Persian–Early Hellenistic
Substantial stone building, pottery (e.g., Semi-fine Phoenician Ware), cylinder seal
Iron IIC
Pebble floors, narrow walls founded directly on the Iron IIA citadel, installations
Iron IIA (mid/late-tenth–ninth c.*)
‘Citadel compound’, red-slipped, hand burnished pottery, Cypriot, Greek and Phoenician imports, unique faience head, figurines
Iron IB (eleventh–early tenth c.*)
Walls, floors, ovens, silo, pottery; possibly ending in a burnt destruction
Sloping layers of a rampart, adult grave and infant jar burials dug into the rampart, pottery
* Radicarbon dates obtained from short-lived organic material, such as olive stones, in secure stratigraphic contexts.
Area K is located on the eastern side of the middle part of the tell, at the juncture between the lower tell, to the south, and the saddle joining the upper tell. Nine squares excavated in 2019 and 2021 (Sqs P–R/4–6; Figs. 9, 10) yielded remains ascribed to four main strata, three from the Iron Age and one modern: Stratum K4, a stone floor and an accumulation dated tentatively to Iron IB; Stratum K3, a corner of two walls and an associated debris layer dated to Iron IIA; Stratum K2, a large storehouse dated to the late Iron IIA (ninth century BCE); and Stratum K1, graves that cut into the earlier layers.
Area O is located on the western edge of the lower tell in the south of the site. It was opened in 2014 and excavated again in 2017 and 2019. The area encompasses six squares (Sqs H–J/11–12; Figs. 11, 12). ­Three main strata were defined in this area: Strata O3 and O2 comprise part of a large residence dated to MB IIB; Stratum O1 comprises wall segments and debris layers dated to Iron I/IIA, along with a pit with pottery of this period at the western end of the area. In addition, an adult burial that was radiocarbon dated to the tenth century BCE was found in the northeastern part of the area. In 2019, a very limited excavation in one square (Sq H/12) was conducted, revealing numerous jar and pithoi burials of infants and toddlers dated to MB IIB.
The Remains
The main features of the excavated remains, dating from MB IIB to the Mamluk period, are described below.
Middle Bronze IIB occupation remains were found in almost all the excavation areas, indicating that the entire site was settled during this period. Area B revealed remains of a rampart composed of chalk and nari gravel sloping down towards the south and east (Fig. 13), along with an adult grave and several infant jar burials of this period cutting into it (Fig. 14; Panitz-Cohen et al. 2018). It is surmised that this rampart supported a large edifice that occupied the summit of the tell at its northern end. In Area A, a limited probe revealed a wide brick wall (width 2 m; Fig. 15) that is tentatively assigned to MB IIB (Stratum A8), as it is associated with a layer containing pottery (e.g., Fig. 16) and a scarab of this period (Fig. 17). Area O revealed a substantial MB II courtyard building, which included many infant jar burials (Strata O3, O2), particularly in the western end of the building. Below the floor level of the earliest phase (Stratum O3) was a dense concentration of jar burials of infants and pithoi burials of toddlers, with accompanying juglet offerings (Figs. 18–20). Although not excavated in the seasons covered by the present report, Area F, at the southern end of the lower tell, should be mentioned in the context of the MB IIB settlement, as it contained a fortification comprising a rampart, a wall and a tower, as well as a well-built drain system and an associated occupation layer with a large cooking-pot installation (oven?) and infant jar burials (Stratum F6; Fig. 21).
The Late Bronze Age occupation was far more limited than in the previous MB IIB, as its remains were found mainly in Area F, excavated in 2013, 2014 and 2016. The most prominent find from this area was a small jug with a silver hoard dated to LB IIB (Fig. 22; Yahalom-Mack et al. 2019). Notably, the MB II fortification in Area F continued to be used during this period, when houses were built against its northern facade. It seems that the same phenomenon can be noted for the eastern, lower part of Area A, where a layer with traces of severe burning abutted the wide brick wall that was apparently first built in MB IIB (see above) and apparently continued to be in use during the Late Bronze Age (Fig. 23; see also Fig. 15). This layer (Stratum A7) was virtually devoid of pottery or other finds, aside from three pithos bases set into it that remained undatable, as they were embedded into the northern balk and covered by Stratum A5 walls; this layer was revealed in a very small probe conducted in 2021. A very limited excavation in 2020 in Area B revealed a concentration of legumes on a burnt layer, which rested on a stone pavement visible near and in the western balk of the area (Fig. 24); the legumes yielded a radiocarbon date in the thirteenth century BCE. To date, this is the only evidence of a Late Bronze Age activity in this area, aside from sundry pottery sherds, suggesting a limited occupation during this period on the summit of the tell. It probably extended beyond the excavated area, in a part of the tell that is not available for excavation due to a modern military bunker.
Iron Age I remains were found in all the excavation areas, indicating that the entire site was occupied over the entire period. The most intense sequence was found in Area A. The earliest Iron I occupation there (Stratum A6) comprised several pits dug from a living surface in the central part of the lower, eastern part of the area into the Late Bronze and MB IIB remains (Figs. 25, 26). The finds in these pits were mainly pottery vessels—Late Bronze shapes that continued into Iron I, along with innovations, such as collared-rim pithoi—as well as some bones and grinding-stone fragments. Directly above the pits, a floor was laid (Stratum A5; Fig. 27); it contained various installations and a large quantity of pottery sherds and grinding stones, as well as an heirloom MB II amethyst and gold scarab (Fig. 28; David 2019). This context appears to be the earlier of two phases (Stratum A4a–b; Fig. 29) identified in a large, unique building devoted to cultic practices, which was excavated in 2014–2019. It probably comprises three rooms and has notable features, among them a rounded wall, benches, standing stones (mazzevot), two ovens and a storage-jar base installation fronted by three stone ‘tables’ (Fig. 30), as well as an equid burial, a dog burial, a deer antler and abundant pottery (e.g., Fig. 31; Yahalom-Mack, Panitz-Cohen and Mullins 2019). This complex was destroyed in a violent fire, leaving a layer of burnt destruction debris and brick collapse (Fig. 32), radiocarbon dated to the eleventh century BCE.
The stratum above the destroyed cultic building (Stratum A3), comprising many ovens and a few walls, was abandoned, to be replaced by an entirely new and well-planned complex (Stratum A2; see Fig. 6), public in nature. It served for storage and administration, as indicated by numerous wavy-band pithoi and a seal. In addition, remains of metal working—pot bellows and tuyere nozzles—were found in the complex, which also had evidence of cultic activity in a courtyard in its northwestern part. This evidence comprised a bench along its southern wall and several installations of a ritual nature (Fig. 33). Foremost among these was a unique mudbrick-built and plastered structure, possibly an altar (Fig. 34). It was attached to the plastered, western wall of the courtyard and surrounded by a low stone wall. Its top surface was formed with two basins (a ‘double sink’); one basin contained a drain hole that opened to its northern side. This installation was flanked by two stone mortars and fronted by an offering table composed of stacked basalt stones. The courtyard also included two standing stones (mazzevot), found lying down, a large oven, and a cultic stand (Fig. 35). Other cultic finds in the courtyard were a deer antler and a bronze razor found near a goat horn. Between the altar and the offering table were at least six wavy-band pithoi (Fig. 36). The entire complex was violently destroyed and burned, providing a radiocarbon date in the tenth century BCE.
Iron Age IIA (tenth–ninth centuries BCE) remains were found in Areas A, B and K, suggesting that the southernmost part of the site was not occupied during this period, although further work in Areas F and O, as well as in other parts of the lower tell, is required to confirm this assumption. In Area A, an entirely new town plan (Stratum A1; see Fig. 6) was established above the ruins of the last Iron I occupation. It comprised well-built stone structures, stone-paved courtyards and work areas, as well as many ovens, a possible pottery kiln and several installations of unknown purpose (Fig. 37); two or three phases were discerned, with radiocarbon dates from the upper phase in the ninth century BCE. It seems that the structures of this stratum were not dwellings, but rather part of an area designated for production and other activities. Red-slipped and hand-burnished pottery was common, and among the finds was an amphora containing a hoard of 406 astragali (Fig. 38; Susnow et al. 2021). The amphora was found on a raised podium in a stone-paved courtyard (Fig. 39), which was erected just west of and above the Iron IB (Stratum A2) cultic courtyard (Fig. 40).
Iron IIA remains in Area B comprise a fortified complex dubbed ‘the citadel compound’ (Stratum B4; see Figs. 7, 8), consisting of a northwest–southeast casemate-like structure built with massive stones and a series of rooms and open spaces abutting it on the south. Three phases were discerned in both the casemate structure and the rooms to its south. The earliest phase revealed traces of a localized destruction in the western part of the complex, where an entranceway in the casemate’s southern wall was consequently blocked and built over; a fallen standing stone (mazzeva?) was found lying on a stone pavement in front this entranceway (Fig. 41). Special finds from the casemate complex include the torso of a female drummer clay figurine (Fig. 42:1; Panitz-Cohen and Tsoran 2021), a clay pendant depicting a Phoenician-style ship (Fig. 42:2; Brandl and Yahalom-Mack 2021) and a beautifully crafted faience head of an elite, bearded male (Fig. 42:3). The pottery included local wares, such as a red-slipped and hand-burnished bowl (Fig. 43:1), along with imported Phoenician pottery, such as an ‘Akhziv Ware’ jug (Fig. 43:2) and an elaborate Phoenician Bichrome jar (Fig. 43:3; Panitz-Cohen 2021), as well as imported Greek (Fig. 44:1) and Cypriot (Fig. 44:2) pottery. Radiocarbon dates of the latest occupation in this complex are no later than 800 BCE. At the eastern end of the casemate structure, part of a massive construction was exposed: a very wide east–west wall (width c. 3 m) with an opening and surrounding architecture (Fig. 45; see also top of Fig. 7). This construction is aligned with the casemate structure and is thus tentatively understood as a fortified entrance into the complex. However, the possibility that this was an earlier (MB II?) structure that was reused cannot be ruled out at the moment.
Iron IIA remains in Area K are represented by two strata (K3, K2), although the current exposure is not sufficient for determining their exact date (see Figs. 9, 10). The uppermost stratum (Stratum K2), exposed just under topsoil, comprises a well-built structure (length [east–west] at least 15 m, width [north–south] 8 m), apparently a storehouse, composed of two long, parallel wings, with the northern one subdivided into two rooms; its northern, western and southern walls lie currently beyond the excavation limits. The southern wing and the central wall were poorly preserved, while the northern wing—specifically its eastern room, where a concentration of some 35 in situ smashed storage jars was found (Figs. 46, 47)—was better preserved. The storage jars were of a standardized type and size, characterized by a bag-shaped body that is found at Iron IIA sites in northern Israel; one jar bore under one handle a one-word ink inscription in Hebrew, reading lbnyw (לבניו; “lbenyaw”; Fig. 48; Yahalom-Mack et al. 2021) and an incised potter’s mark on the other handle. Many other jars also bore on their handles incised potter’s marks of various types, and some jars contained small amounts of organic remains, including grape pips and legumes. Sporadic traces of burning were identified in the building, but it is not clear whether its end—most evident by the smashed in situ jars—was brought about by human agency or by an earthquake. In any event, no rebuilding took place, and this part of the site was abandoned for millennia.
Roman–Byzantine Periods. Segments of walls built of basalt and limestones were found directly above several Iron IIA walls in Area B (Fig. 49), along with some pottery indicative of the Roman–Byzantine periods, as well as very few glass fragments and coins found in topsoil.
Mamluk Period. Burials ascribed to this period, yielding poorly preserved skeletal remains and no grave goods, were dug into the Iron IIA remains of the citadel compound in Area B. While excavating these burials, several out-of-context Iron IIA finds were found, including a stone weight, a fragment of a figurine and a cylinder seal of Neo-Assyrian style.
The main contributions and conclusions of the 2018–2021 excavation seasons at the site may be summarized as follows. The MB IIB sub-floor burials of toddlers in pithoi and infants in jars further highlighted the intensity of this phenomenon at the site. Evidence of the Late Bronze and Iron Age IIA inhabitants encountering, acknowledging and even re-using MB IIB remains, such as the wide brick wall in Area A and the fortification wall in Area F, attests to the massive nature of the architecture of this period.
Although of limited exposure, the burnt LB II layer uncovered in Areas A (and in the 2022 season in Area B as well) indicates that some violent act was involved in the termination of this stratum. This, however, was not evident in Area F, where the main Late Bronze remains have been uncovered to date. No occupation of this period was identified in any of the other areas; nevertheless, the LB IIB concentration of legumes in Area B seems to indicate a limited occupation on the summit of the tell during this period.
The excavation further exposed the Iron IB (Stratum A2) public-administrative complex in Area A and completed the exposure of the unique mudbrick-built structure, understood as an altar, and of other cultic paraphernalia in its cultic courtyard. The excavation also exposed further traces of the violent destruction this complex suffered, which was radiocarbon dated to the early–mid-tenth century BCE.
Iron IIA remains were the focus of the 2018–2021 seasons in all the areas except for Area O. Exposure of additional parts of the citadel compound in the upper tell (Area B), comprising a monumental casemate structure, as well as rooms and courtyards associated with it, constitute a major addition to our knowledge of the occupational status of the site during this period. The contemporaneous remains excavated in Area A tell of a vibrant urban occupation that took place following a complete change in architecture and in layout from the preceding Iron I complex, which was destroyed in the tenth century BCE. Nevertheless, the amphora containing 406 astragali, found in a courtyard near the previous Iron I cultic courtyard, indicates a degree of continuity in the location of ritual activity. The storehouse exposed in Area K points to a well-developed economic organization. Furthermore, the Hebrew name inscribed on one of the jars may shed light on the identity and political affiliation of the inhabitants at this time. This occupation terminated sometime towards the end of the ninth century BCE.
Finally, despite the inclusion of Abel Beth Maacah in the list of cities conquered by Tiglath Pilesar III (2 Kings 15:29), no clear Iron IIB occupation or destruction layer has been uncovered, although such a stratum is typically found at nearby sites, such as Hazor and Dan. Nevertheless, some pottery forms found at the site are typical of this period, suggesting that remains of this period might be discovered in future seasons.
These results have considerable bearing on our understanding of the historical socio-political situation of the border region in which Abel Beth Maacah lies (see Fig. 1).
In MB IIB, Abel Beth Maacah joined nearby Dan as a large, fortified town within the hinterland of the “head of all those kingdoms”, Hazor, with implications for economic competition over resources and viability in face of this mega-kingdom’s domination. The relatively sparse Late Bronze occupation may have been related to a shift in the economic and political strategies at Hazor, as a similar picture emerges at nearby Dan. With the demise of this dominant kingdom sometime in the thirteenth century BCE, the regional arena opened up for new populations, local and migrant, to achieve elite status and to expand economically. This process seems to have led to the exponential growth and flourishing of Abel Beth Maacah in Iron I, the period that comprises one of the most intense and continuous occupation sequences in the region.
The large urban center at the site in Iron Age IIA, with a citadel compound, a storehouse, industries and cultic activity, fills a gap in our knowledge of the occupation of this region in the late tenth and ninth centuries BCE. It has been postulated that this period of time saw a settlement hiatus at nearby Dan, and by implication, at Abel Beth Maacah as well, a hiatus that changed only with the arrival of the Aramean king Hazael towards the end of the ninth century (e.g., Arie 2008). The question of the political association of Abel Beth Maacah during this period remains open, while the material culture points to it having been culturally, if not politically, part of the Israelite kingdom, but nevertheless having a very strong Phoenician cultural component, as evident in its pottery, iconography and art.
Despite the great expansion of the excavation at the tell over the four seasons described here, no clear stratified evidence of an Iron Age IIB (eighth century BCE) occupation—what would have been the city destroyed by the Assyrians—has been found. Nevertheless, some traces of Iron IIC occupation have been found in earlier seasons in the upper part of the tell, covered by Persian–early Hellenistic remains. These and other post-Iron Age occupation remains are all confined to the center of the northern half of the tell and were poorly or sporadically preserved.