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Archaeologists say earthquake caused sudden disuse of Canaanite wine palace

Joint Israel-US team at Tel Kabri site in Galilee region propose why thriving complex with well-stocked cellar was abandoned 3,700 years ago despite no sign of war or pandemic

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Wine cellar room at the Tel Kabri archaeological site.
Wine cellar room at the Tel Kabri archaeological site.

A joint Israeli-US team of archaeologists say they may have finally uncovered what caused the sudden abandonment of an ancient Canaanite palace well-stocked with wine — and the culprit was an earthquake.

Research at the Tel Kabri site in the Western Galilee region was co-directed by Assaf Yasur-Landau, a professor of Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Haifa, and Eric Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology at the George Washington University, the US university said in a statement Friday.

Excavations were carried out at the 75-acre site, located on land belonging to Kibbutz Kabri that contains a Canaanite palace and city dating to 1900-1700 BCE.

“We wondered for several years what had caused the sudden destruction and abandonment of the palace and the site, after centuries of flourishing occupation,” Yasur-Landau said in the George Washington University statement.

A breakthrough came last year when a trench previously uncovered at the site was mapped and found to extend further than initially thought as well as containing key archaeological evidence that appeared to show the land had moved.

“We opened up a new area and found that the trench continued for at least 30 meters, with an entire section of a wall that had fallen into it in antiquity, and with other walls and floors tipping into it on either side,” Yasur-Landau said.

A building with a trench running through it at the Tel Kabri archaeological site. (Tel Kabri research team via the University of Haifa)

“It really looks like the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of it fell in,” Cline said. “It’s unlikely that the destruction was caused by violent human activity because there are no visible signs of fire, no weapons such as arrows that would indicate a battle, nor any unburied bodies related to combat. We could also see some unexpected things in other rooms of the palace, including in and around the wine cellar that we excavated a few years ago.”

There are also no signs of drought that would cause residents to leave, or a mass burial site that would point to an epidemic, according to the study, which was published in the PLOS ONE online journal.

Ruth Shahack-Gross, a professor of geoarchaeology at the University of Haifa and a co-author on the study, said that the rapid collapse, rather than a slow accumulation of building fallen materials as found in an abandoned building, indicates “one or more earthquakes could have destroyed the walls and the roof of the palace without setting it on fire.”

Researchers found warped plaster floors, tilted walls and mud bricks that had collapsed into rooms, sometimes quickly burying large jars, dozens of which were discovered.

Michael Lazar, the lead author of the study, described the difficulties in recognizing past earthquakes at sites with little stone masonry and where ancient builders had used degradable construction materials such a sun-baked brick and wattle-and-daub.

At Tel Kabri there were remains of stone foundations and also of mud-brick superstructures.

“Our studies show the importance of combining macro- and micro-archaeological methods for the identification of ancient earthquakes,” Lazar said in the statement. “We also needed to evaluate alternative scenarios, including climatic, environmental and economic collapse, as well as warfare, before we were confident in proposing a seismic event scenario.”

Tel Kabri wine cellar with numbered jars (photo courtesy: Assaf Yasur-Landau)

An earlier excavation in 2013 found 40 jars in a storage room of the palace, making it one of the oldest and largest wine cellars discovered in the Near East. Analysis revealed the jars had contained wine.

Since then the dig has uncovered four additional storage rooms and at least another 70 jars in the collapsed building.

A statement Sunday from the University of Haifa said that previous excavations had shown the palace was equipped with “magnificent halls” and other evidence, including meat consumption, pointed to a life of luxury that “testified to immense wealth, murals that testified to trade and cultural ties with Minoan Crete and the Aegean islands.”

In particular, “huge wine cellars where many dozens of large wine jugs were discovered, which contained red wine to which resin and plant extracts were added.”

The archaeologists noticed that the wine jars were all smashed in the storage area and there was evidence that the wine poured into the buildings drainage system.

“When you add to all this evidence the geology of the area: the fact that the place is on a fault, there are four springs on the same line, which can indicate an active fault, and on other geological findings the explanation of an earthquake is greatly strengthened,” Lazar said in the Sunday statement and added that he hopes the team may eventually be able to calculate the strength of the earthquake.

The team, which was funded by the National Geographic society and the Israel Science Foundation, hopes its methods can be used to identify earthquake damage at other archaeological sites.

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