NEW ORLEANS – Modern people in developed nations take water for granted. Technology makes the procurement, storage and consumption of water relatively easy – not so in ancient Israel. While water was plentiful, collecting and storing water was difficult work.
Tsvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist for the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, spoke on ancient Near East water system development during the Manuel Archaeology Lecture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) April 14. The presentation came just weeks before NOBTS students and professors return to Israel for a second season of digging in Tel-Gezer’s rock-hewn water system. Tsuk is directing the dig along with NOBTS archaeology professors Dan Warner, Dennis Cole, and Jim Parker.
The Manuel Archaeology Lecture series was established by the Manuel family of McComb, Miss., and is hosted by NOBTS' Center for Archaeological Research. The lectureship presents current archaeological research and excavation data as it pertains to the biblical text and historical events.
“There was no lack of water in antiquity. The challenge was to construct a water system to divert water to a settlement – pumps were not available,” Tsuk said. “The problem was how to deliver the water from the source to the cities.”
The lack of technology in antiquity led to less water consumption. Tsuk estimates the average person in Biblical times used about 3.5 gallons. In the Byzantine period consumption was up to 5 gallons per day per person. Modern people use exponentially more – close to 68 gallons a day per person.
One of the foremost experts on water systems in Israel, Tsuk’s doctoral research and dissertation focused on water systems and he is the author of an influential Hebrew-language book on the subject, which is being translated into English by Jim Parker and will be published by BorderStone Publishing in partnership with NOBTS. Tsuk also participated in the excavation of water systems at Beersheva and Sepphoris.
According to Parker, “There is hope too that this never-before excavated cave, which dates to circa 2000 B.C., will yield artifacts and information that will add to our understanding of the history of Israel and of the biblical text.”
Drawing from his years of study and experience, Tsuk’s presentation introduced the most common types of water systems used in Israel from 6000 B.C. until 1948 A.D. Though nine types were in use during that time period, Tsuk focused most of his attention on wells, cisterns, reservoirs, rock-hewn water systems and aqueducts.
Wells were the oldest water system used in ancient Israel, Tsuk said. One of the oldest wells ever discovered in the Holy Land was constructed around 5900 B.C. At more than 200 feet deep, the deepest well in Israel was dug in Beersheva. It is more than 220 feet deep and dates to 1100 B.C.
Cisterns, reservoirs and other systems developed between 3000 – 1800 B.C., Tsuk said. The water system type of greatest interest to the NOBTS group – rock-hewn tunnels dug to the water table –appeared in Canaan in 1800 B.C. during the Middle Bronze Age. These systems provided water inside the walls of fortified cities – a great asset during a siege.
Some of the oldest rock-hewn underground water systems are found at Tel Gerisa and at Gezer where the seminary is working. Similar systems have been discovered in ancient cities throughout Israel. Most, including the well-know systems at Hazor and Megiddo, were cut after 1000 B.C. By the end of the Judean Kingdom in 582 B.C., these water systems disappeared from use.
The NOBTS team working in Gezer May 21 – June 11 will attempt to reach the water source and access a cave behind the water source.
“There is an assumption that the [cave] will lead to another entrance, but we are not sure,” Tsuk said. “This is a big puzzle now and we hope to solve it this May and June.”
Tsuk said the water system at Tel Gerisa has yet to be excavated and hinted that he is interested in seeing NOBTS involved in that project. “Maybe after Tel Gezer, we can go there,” he joked.
The final water system type Tsuk spoke about was the aqueduct. Aqueducts gain prominence in Israel during the Hellenistic Period and received extensive use in the Roman and Byzantine periods.
“Typology of ancient water systems can give a general picture on the subject in each region,” Tsuk said. “The research is just beginning and needs to be continued.”
NOBTS is working to heed Tsuk’s call for continued water system research. Warner believes the seminary’s work at Gezer will yield vital information.
“Our renewed excavation at Gezer is critical to the discussion of understanding how these system functioned, especially since Gezer seems to be one of the largest if not the largest water system in the Ancient Near East,” Warner said. “Our knowledge of how these tunnels were dug, how the builders knew where to find water, and the possibility of a secondary uses like a secret escape hatch leading outside the city in case of a siege can be greatly increased.”
Tsuk presented a second lecture about his excavation work at Nahal Qanah Cave in the 1980s. After the cave was discovered by an acquaintance, Tsuk and several others explored the site to see the stalagmites and stalactites. On his first trip he found a few pot shards.
Tsuk and Avi Gopher returned several times and discovered many ancient artifacts. Ultimately, after 17 days of exploring spread over several years, the teams found pottery and other items dating to the Chalcolithic Periods when the cave was used as a burial chamber. The most important find – eight gold circlets (rings) – is the earliest gold discovered in what is now Israel. The original purpose of circlets has not been determined.
Parker, working with Tsuk, will represent NOBTS at the 15th International Conference on Water in Antiquity to be held in October, 2012 in Tel Aviv, Israel. The theme of the conference is “Water, Life and Peace in the Middle East with a View to the Future.” Parker will be presenting a paper from the 2010 and 2011 dig campaigns at the water system at Tel Gezer.