Did an Earthquake Topple This Ancient Canaanite Palace?

Excavations at Tel Kabri in Israel revealed physical evidence of a natural disaster

Palace excavation
Researchers identified a "trench" previously dated to modern times as a 3,700-year-old fissure. Courtesy of George Washington University

Some 3,700 years ago, Canaanites living in what is now northwestern Israel abandoned their opulent, 65,000-square-foot home in a hurry—and archaeologists have long wondered why.

New research published in the journal PLOS One draws on recently unearthed evidence to pinpoint the “probable culprit” behind this hasty departure: an earthquake.

As Ruth Schuster reports for Haaretz, excavations conducted last year identified a debris-filled “trench” previously thought to date to modern times as an ancient fault. The discovery proved to be the final piece of the puzzle, confirming the circumstances surrounding the palatial estate’s demise.

Because archaeologists tend to view earthquakes as an “an easy way out” for explaining the presence of toppled ruins—“like the joke … of assigning a ‘ritual’ purpose to artifacts” that can’t otherwise be explained, according to National Geographic’s Kristin Romey—the researchers were careful to rule out all other possibilities. Ultimately, they recorded an array of irregularities indicative of a natural disaster.

“This is archaeology,” study co-author Eric Cline of George Washington University tells National Geographic. “You know, pieces come together. You discard hypotheses, you get more plausible hypotheses, and then eventually you have to invoke Sherlock Holmes, right? You eliminate the impossible and work with whatever’s left.”

Excavations at the Tel Kabri site, which encompasses a Canaanite city as well as the razed palace, began in 1986. Archaeologists discovered the telltale trench in 2011; initially, they thought it was a modern creation, perhaps providing irrigation for a nearby avocado farm or dating to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Toppled ruins of Canaanite palace
“It really looks like the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of it fell in,” says study co-author Eric Cline in a statement. Courtesy of George Washington University

But subsequent excavations revealed unusual features across the palace, including strangely sloped floors, offset walls and broken tiles. A wine storage cellar uncovered in 2013 contained jars that looked like they’d been smashed by a collapsing roof.

Before exploring the possibility of an earthquake, the team searched for signs of armed conflict. They found no weapons, charred materials or human remains associated with a violent confrontation.

Instead, the archaeologists uncovered three sections of a palace wall that had fallen into the fissure simultaneously, suggesting a sudden collapse rather than a slow deterioration.

“It really looks like the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of it fell in,” says Cline in a statement.

If the trench was indeed the result of an earthquake, it might provide some explanation for why the palace was built in such a disaster-prone location. As Cline and University of Haifa archaeologist Assaf Yasur-Landau tell Haaretz, three natural springs run along the Kabri fault line and may have served as a source of water for Canaanite elites’ bacchanalian parties. The huge amount of wine found at the site—more than 100 jars in total—further testifies to the palace inhabitants’ probable penchant for banqueting.

“At any given day they could have held a small banquet in which they had wine,” Cline tells Haaretz, adding that the complex’s residents likely ate “a lot of sheep and goats.”

The sudden earthquake, however, would have brought this lavish lifestyle to an abrupt end.

People living along the Kabri fault line today may want to take notice of the study. Tina Niemi, a geologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who wasn’t involved in the research, tells National Geographic that further assessment is necessary to determine whether the earthquake originated at the nearby Kabri fault line or the larger Dead Sea fault.

“When you speak of earthquakes and Israel, everyone thinks of the Dead Sea fault,” says lead author Michael Lazar of the University of Haifa to National Geographic. “That’s it, and that everything off the Dead Sea fault is not considered a major threat.”

But the Kabri fault, he points out, “has definite meaning for hazard assessment, and we need to put it back on the map.”

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