Tel Burna is located in the Judean Shephelah, on the bank of Naal Guvrin, c. 3 km northwest of Maresha. The tell controls its immediate surroundings and one of the ancient roads that crossed the coastal plain, ascending eastward to the Hebron Mountains and Jerusalem. The tell overlooks the Hebron Mountains, the coastal plain (from Ashdod in the north to Gaza in the south) and the hills of the Shephelah, including several tells, among them Tel Zafit (Tell es-Safi), Tel ‘Azeqa (Azekah), Tel Goded, Tel Maresha and Tel Lakhish (Lachish). The tell has been well known in research literature since the nineteenth century CE (for a survey of the history of research, see Dagan and McKinny 2015), and various proposals have been offered as to its identity in biblical times, among them Libnah (for suggested identifications, see Uziel and Shai 2010:242). The tell has been surveyed several times in the past (Aharoni and Amiran 1955:255; Dagan 1996; 2000: Site 180), but no excavations were conducted prior to the current one. The results of past surveys, including that of 2009 (Uziel and Shai 2010), led to the following conclusions: (1) the site was first settled in the Early Bronze Age; (2) settlement at the site continued throughout the Middle and Late Bronze and the Iron Ages, and in the Persian period; (3) human activity at the site was very limited after the Persian period; (4) the settlement reached its floruit in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age II, when the settled area reached 60 and 80 dunams, respectively.
During the ten seasons of the current excavations, seven areas (A1, A2, B1–B3, C, G; Fig. 2 [Area C is not in the figure]) were opened, exposing settlement remains mainly from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age II. Alongside these excavations, the tell was surveyed using additional methods, and the results were compared with those of the surface surveys: an excavation-survey, in which shallow probes (diam. c. 1 m; depth c. 0.3 m) were opened and all soil within was sieved for finds (Shai and Uziel 2014); and a chemical elements analysis of soil samples, using a portable XRF spectrometer (Šmejda et al. 2017). The main research question at the beginning of the project dealt with the material culture of border sites in antiquity, with an emphasis on the Iron Age.
The Late Bronze Age
Although the 2009 survey revealed finds dated to the fourteenth century BCE (Cassuto, Koch and Shai 2015), the earliest remains uncovered in the excavations date from the thirteenth century BCE. Remains from this period were found in Area B1, in the western part of the tell, west of its summit. This area was opened to confirm the results of the surface survey, which indicated that most finds in this area dated from the Bronze Age. Indeed, a few centimeters below the surface, directly on bedrock, were the remains of a structure (Building 29305) dated to the thirteenth century BCE (Figs. 3, 4), which extended over 500 sq m. The building’s foundations were constructed of medium-sized fieldstones, and its outer walls (thickness c. 0.5 m) were uncovered on the west, east and north. The structure features a large courtyard and rooms on the east and west (Shai, McKinny and Uziel 2015; Shai et al. 2018; McKinny, Tavger and Shai 2019). Most finds were found in the western part, which was the best preserved. In the western part of the courtyard, a large concentration of finds included chalices, goblets, bowls, lamps and figurines (Sharp, McKinny and Shai 2015; Fig. 5), imported zoomorphic vessels, two fragments of ceramic masks (Shai 2018), three small Cypriot goblets that were attached to each other and set on a rock surface, the head of a Mycenaean figurine and two Cypriot pithoi (each with a volume of c. 200 liters; Shai et al. 2019). A remarkable rounded stele (diam. c. 1.5 m), perforated in its center, was uncovered near these finds (McKinny, Tavger and Shai 2019; Fig. 6). Animal bones (Greenfield, McKinny and Shai 2017) and botanical material (Orendi et al. 2017) from the building also attest to its exceptional nature. The size of the structure, its quality of construction, the assemblage of cultic finds and the distinctive stele indicate that the building had a cultic function. This does not seem to have been a temple, but rather an open cultic enclosure.
Iron Age II
The finds from the 2009 survey pointed to the existence of a very small settlement at the site in Iron Age I; however, so far, no strata from that period have been uncovered. The earliest remains from the Iron Age are dated to the second half of the tenth century BCE. The significance of the site in Iron Age II stems from its location between Gath of the Philistines (Tel Zafit, Tell es-Safi; 9 km to the north) and Lachish (Tel Lakhish; 9 km to the south), the latter having been the main Judahite administrative center in the Shephelah. The settlement at Tel Burna at that time covered c. 80 dunams at the top of the tell and on its eastern, northern and southern slopes. To date, finds from the Iron Age have been unearthed in five excavation areas (A1, A2, B2, C and G).
The summit of the tell is surrounded by fortification walls that create a large square enclosure (c. 70 × 70 m; Fig. 7); these are the most prominent architectural remains on the mound, though they are only partially visible on the surface. The fortification was excavated in three different areas (A1, B2 and G) to date its construction and use periods. Four conclusions may be drawn from the excavations so far: (1) The fortification was first built in the Iron Age IIA, but it has not yet been determined whether in the tenth or the ninth century BCE; (2) it was constructed as a casemate wall; (3) In the seventh century BCE, the inner casemate wall fell out of use (Shai et al. 2012:147–148), but the outer wall continued in use—a crucial fact to consider when seeking the identity of the site, because if the site was indeed biblical Libnah, the city would have been significant at that time (according to 2 Kings, Hamutal, the daughter of Jeremiah and wife of King Josiah was from Libnah); (4) the settlement was not a fortified city, but a small settlement that developed around a fortress.
On the northeastern slopes of the tell (Area C), the 2009 survey identified agricultural installations. These installations were excavated to determine their date. Four squares were opened near a cluster of installations identified in the surface survey. Several installations were found in three of the squares (Fig. 8): an installation built of clay and bricks, and rock-cut basins and cupmarks. These installations yielded sherds and botanical remains; the earliest pottery dates from the Chalcolithic period. In two cupmarks there were sherds of straight-sided cooking pots, characteristic of the Middle Bronze Age I. Most ceramic finds from the installations date from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age II, the latest finds date from the Iron II. Although none of the pottery was found in situ, it indicates the periods of use of the installations. As in the other areas, the ceramic finds from the installations point to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age II as the main periods of activity.
The tenth century BCE. To date, remains from this century have emerged only in Area B2. The excavation in this area was aimed at creating a section through the strata at the summit of the tell. Two squares (B6 and B7; Fig. 9) revealed remains of a structure obliterated in a fierce destruction. Because only two squares were excavated, its plan is not clear; however, the magnitude of the destruction is unmistakable. The excavation of the destruction stratum has not yet been completed. A large assemblage of complete pottery vessels, smashed in situ, was found in a thick layer of ash. The stratum was also found to be rich in burned botanical remains, particularly lentils.
The ninth century BCE. Remains from this century were uncovered mainly in Areas A1 and A2. In Area A1 (Fig. 10), the stratum was uncovered at the foot of the outer face of the fortification wall, containing a number of complete smashed vessels in situ on a floor. This stratum was seen also on the inside of the wall, revealing an installation associated with the textile industry (L21225) that abutted the inner side of the casemate wall. About 20 loom weights were found in the installation. The remains of domestic activity outside the fortification indicates that the settlement at the site was not restricted to the fortress on the top of the tell, but also extended over the slopes (Shai 2017).
In Area A2, the early phases of a large building, well-constructed on bedrock, were unearthed; only its northern part was excavated (c. 10 × 15 m). It seems that the fortification and the large building were constructed in the ninth century at the latest; this assumption should be taken into account in analyses of the geopolitics of the Shephelah in the Iron Age II.
The eighth century BCE. Remains from this century were found in Areas A1, A2 and B2. In Area A1 (Fig. 11) the casemate wall continued in use and a floor (L21210) abutted its inner face. In Area A2, remains of a large building (L32417; Fig. 12) were found, built on top of the ninth-century building. The outer walls of the building (width 0.8–1.0 m) were built of medium-sized fieldstones. The floors of the inner rooms were made of compacted soil, while the floor of the courtyard north of the building was paved with large stones. Two architectural phases were noted in the building, both dated to the eighth century BCE. The location of the building in the middle of the fortified area, its size, quality of construction and continuity of plan indicate that it may have been a dwelling of the local elite.
In Area B2, a 10-m-long segment of the casemate wall was exposed; its outer wall was preserved ten courses high. The entire width of the fortification in this area is identical to that in Area A1 (c. 5.5 m). The material culture at the site in the eighth century BCE is typical of Judah and includes a variety of vessel types common in Tel Lakhish Stratum III, such as cooking pots, wheel-burnished bowls, a decanter, Judahite pillar figurines and stamped handles (lmlk, as well as 'private' stamps; Shai et al. 2014), which were used in the royal Judahite administration.
The seventh century BCE. Remains from this century were found in Areas A1, A2, B2 and G. Of four silos in Area A1 (Fig. 13), one cut the inner casemate wall of the fortification, attesting that this wall had gone out of use in this period. Remains of more silos from this period were found in Area A2.
In Area B2, as in Area A1, the inner wall of the casemate system had gone out of use, and a dwelling was built on top of it; the western wall of this dwelling served as the outer fortification wall (Fig. 14).
Area G (Fig. 15) was opened on the southern side of the wall surrounding the summit of the tell. The goal of the excavation in this area was to better understand the fortification system and to locate the gate, based on topographical considerations and proximity to Naal Guvrin, the main water source, as well as to the road leading to Lachish. A c. 20-m-long segment of the fortification was exposed here, but it was not part of the casemate system found in Areas A1 and B2. The wall featured a gate with an impressive threshold, dated to the seventh century BCE, as well as a drainage channel that led water outside the fortified area. The gate was sealed at a later time (likely in the Persian period), while the wall continued in use.
There was a major change in the site plan during the transition to Iron Age IIC. The summit was still fortified, but only the outer wall of the casemate fortification remained in use. The large structure in the center of the fortified area (Building 32417; Area A2) went out of use. Additionally, many silos were built all over the summit during this time. It appears therefore that while the site continued as a border fort, it now served also as an administrative center where agricultural products were collected and redistributed.
A study of 13C isotopes (Riehl and Shai 2015) suggests that precipitation in Iron Age IIC was greater than that in Iron Age IIB. Climate conditions in the Iron Age IIC were therefore conducive to the cultivation of a variety of crops that require larger quantities of water. This conclusion is supported by the discovery of silos in this stratum.
The main periods uncovered in ten excavation seasons at Tel Burna are the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age II, when the site reached its zenith. The earliest Iron Age remains at the site, in Area B2, include evidence of massive destruction and dozens of smashed vessels in situ from the tenth century BCE. The remains from the ninth and eighth centuries BCE reveal continuity in the settlement’s plan and apparently also in its status in the settlement system in the Shephelah at that time. In the ninth century BCE, the site’s summit was surrounded by a casemate wall, perhaps the result of a lesson learned from the destruction in the previous century; a large structure was built at the center of the summit, and its plan remained almost unchanged throughout the ninth and eighth centuries BCE. It seems that these construction activities relate to the location of the site between Lachish, the central Judahite administrative city in the Shephelah, and Gath of the Philistines. A change in the settlement’s plan is clearly evident in the transition to Iron Age IIC. During that time, the casemate fortification was replaced with a solid wall, the large building went out of use and smaller, simpler dwellings were built, as well as numerous silos. These changes reflect a transformation in the site’s position in the settlement hierarchy in the Shephelah, with Maresha rising to prominence, and the Philistine cities, particularly Gath, losing their status as significant threats.