In January 2004, an excavation was conducted at Meẓad Zohar (Permit No. A-4110; map. ref. 232900/562188).The excavation, undertaken on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and underwritten by Mekorot Ltd., was directed by T. Erickson-Gini (photography) and D. Nahlieli, with the assistance of G. Nahlieli (Area C), A. Hajian (surveying and drafting), R. Porat and U. Davidovich (metal detection), M. Avissar and E. Stern (pottery), I. Lidsky-Reznikov (pottery drawing), E. Belashov (plan), A. Berman and R. Kool (numismatics) and volunteers from the Blossoming Rose organization of Biblical Tamar Park.
Area A. The southwestern wall of the fort was built of hard limestone and dolomite stones and was the best-preserved of the walls in the fort (preserved height 8–10 courses) and included an arched gate. Some of the stones in the wall around the gate contained hewn margins. Two vertical loop-holes were built into the wall to the south of the gate. Two hewn recesses were visible in the limestone bedrock on the western side of the interior of the lower level. Excavation along the interior of the southwestern wall of the fort, below the vertical loop-holes, revealed walls and a small staircase, descending to the east. Area A yielded potsherds dating to the twelfth–thirteenth centuries CE, including molasses jars and Mamluk hand-painted ware, and organic material. Probes along the exterior of the southwestern wall of the fort revealed a midden and a south–north retaining wall extending from the southwestern corner of the fort.
Area B. The eastern extension of the site included the remains of one hewn pilaster and two stone-built pilasters (see Fig. 3) that may have originally supported a rope bridge across the streambed to the upper level. Excavation around the eastern built pilaster revealed a baking oven (2.3 × 3.0 m; Fig. 4), including an intact platform and a partially collapsed domed ceiling. The opening of the oven faced south. Potsherds, including cooking pots with drippy brown slip, dating to the late twelfth–early thirteenth centuries CE, were found outside the oven. The finds indicate that the oven operated in the earliest phase of the fort and that its use was discontinued later, in the Mamluk period. Excavation along the northern side of the middle, built pilaster revealed human remains that were partially revealed and subsequently covered over, an intact handmade jug painted with geometric designs and traces of textiles and other organic material. A probe located near the western hewn pilaster revealed layers of organic material, apparently originating from animals kept in this place, covered with collapsed building stones that presumably derive from the staircase ascending to the upper level (see below). Two bronze coins discovered on the surface in this area include an Ayyubid coin of al-‘Adil Sayf al-Din (died in 1218 CE) and a coin of the Mamluk sultan Baybars (1260–1277 CE; D. Ariel, pers. comm.).
Area C. The upper level (8 × 8 m) is c. 20 m higher than the lower level. It was enclosed by high walls on all sides. Remains of a wall (height c. 3.5 m) and part of a staircase ascending from the east over the lower level were preserved on the northeastern side of the upper level. However, at present, this level can only be accessed by a pathway cut against the western bedrock wall of the lower level. A small probe (2.0 × 2.5 m) in the upper level revealed a thick layer of ash (depth 0.4 m); the finds include sherds of handmade Mamluk painted ware dating to the thirteenth century CE. Apparently, the entire area of the upper level is covered with a similar layer of ash.
Outside the fort, northwest of the gate in Area A, is a plastered bell-shaped cistern. Three plastered pools, created by dams in the streambed to the northwest of the fort, served as catchment basins to provide the fort with water; only one was fully preserved (Fig. 5).
The finds in the excavation indicate that the fort was built toward the end of the twelfth century CE and was occupied throughout the thirteenth century CE. It was apparently constructed to guard the important adjacent pass (Naqb Zuweira) on the ancient road leading between Hebron and the Crusader fortresses in southern Transjordan. The upper level appears to have been a signal tower that could be seen from the Kerak heights overlooking the Dead Sea from the opposite side. Muslim sources attest to the importance of the road as part of the barid network (the postal service) in the Mamluk period (Fig. 6) and refer to the site as az-Zuweir.