What is a Tel?

A Settlement Begins

The environment of the Middle East is harsh and mostly unsuitable for settlement. For a location to be habitable, three conditions had to exist for a settlement to begin:

WaterFresh water is limited in Israel, and in ancient times, many communities existed on rain- water stored in cisterns. If a season went by with below-average rainfall, cisterns dried up, and people abandoned their city. If an enemy laid siege to a city, the cistern water supply would eventually run out and the city would fall.

OccupationMany settlements prospered by farming, while others were successful with industry. A few cities existed by supplying people on the Via Maris, the major trade route through the country.

Defensible LocationThe third prerequisite for a successful settlement was a defensible location. The political climate in the Middle East was volatile. Therefore, cities were built on hills ringing fertile valleys. These hills enabled cities to defend themselves, even during an extended siege.

A Settlement Grows

Eventually, the settlement grew large enough to require a wall and a gate. The king or ruler would build a palace and a temple, and the people would build houses, usually haphazardly, inside the city wall.

Often, a steeply sloped rampart was built against the wall to protect the hill from erosion and to keep enemies away from the foot of the wall. Over time, the ramparts were replaced or covered with others. These buried walls and ramparts holding the hill together gave it its steep, straight shape.

A Settlement Abandonded

As the city prospered, it became an attractive prize, and enemies would lay siege to it, sometimes penetrating the defenses and destroying the population. Armies were often brutal in their conquests. Occasionally, they remained as an occupying force, but usually they marched off, leaving behind smoking ruins. Israel's conquest of Canaan followed this pattern.

Whether because of droughts, wars, or some other reason, once-prosperous cities were sometimes abandoned. Sand carried by the relentless Middle East wind would gradually cover the streets and houses. Nomads would arrive, pitch their tents, then move on. Soon the ruins blended into the landscape.

A New Settlement Begins

The conditions for life in this location remained, however. The water source continued or, in the case of drought, the rain returned. The farmland or pastureland was still there, and the hill still offered an effective defense. Eventually, people came back and resettled.

Lacking the heavy equipment needed to remove the debris of former inhabitants, the newcomers filled in holes, gathered the larger building stones, leveled off the hill, and began to rebuild on the remains of the old settlement. Soon another prosperous community developed. Inevitably, its success attracted enemies, and the cycle of destruction resumed.

Layers of History

Over centuries and even millennia, as each settlement built upon the last one, the hill grew higher and higher. This growing mound of cities has been compared to a layer cake, each layer representing a civilization long since disappeared from history. Archaeologists call these layers strata (singular: stratum).

Beth Shean has 18 or more strata, Jerusalem has at least 21, and Megiddo has even more. Locked within these layers are pottery, jewelry, weapons, documents, gates, temples, palaces, and houses, all waiting for archaeologists to uncover their stories.

A Gift from God

Our beliefs are based on faith in God and not on the discoveries of archaeologists. But archaeologists can help us better understand the message of the Bible by pulling us into ancient times, making them more relevant today. From artifacts unearthed at tels, we know how the people during biblical times lived, what they ate, how they worshiped, what their customs were, and many other important details. Tels help bring the Bible alive and make its message clear.