One of the few remaining unstudied major biblical sites, where according to the Bible the Ark of the Covenant was kept for two decades, will be excavated by archaeologists this summer for the first time.

Organizers hope the anticipated study of Kiryat Ye’arim (also transliterated as Kiriath Jearim) will shed light on the site’s significance during the Iron Age, the period associated with the biblical account of King David.

Kiryat Ye’arim is mentioned over a dozen times in the Bible as a Judahite town situated near Jerusalem during the period of the judges and King David — the Iron Age, in archaeological terms.

The biblical town is associated with the hill where the Deir El-Azar monastery is situated, next to modern Arab town of Abu Ghosh, 12 kilometers (7 miles) west of Jerusalem’s Old City. A modern Jewish town founded nearby is named after the ancient site.

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant by Benjamin West, 1800 (Wikipedia)

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant by Benjamin West, 1800 (Wikipedia)

The Shmunis Family Excavations at Kiriath Jearim‘s first season kicks off in August under the aegis of Tel Aviv University’s Israel Finkelstein and Christophe Nicolle and Thomas Römer of College de France.

“The place is important for several reasons,” Finkelstein told The Times of Israel. “It’s a large, central site in the Jerusalem hills that hasn’t been studied until now. It may be the only key site in Judah that hasn’t undergone a systematic archaeological excavation.”

The crown of the tel is largely bare, save for a 20th century monastery dedicated to Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, which sits atop the ruins of an earlier Byzantine edifice at the summit. The dig will focus on the area around the monastery. Much of the site, Finkelstein said, is believed to be relatively undisturbed.

Church of Notre Dame de l'Arche de l'Alliance near Abu Ghosh (public domain by Ori~, via Wikimedia Commons)

Church of Notre Dame de l’Arche de l’Alliance near Abu Ghosh (public domain by Ori~, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the tantalizing aspects of Kiryat Ye’arim is the likelihood of there having been an ancient temple at the site, remains of which may lie buried. Such a discovery could help scholars better understand cultic practices in Judah during the Iron Age.

In several parts of the biblical narrative, Kiryat Ye’arim is alluded to as a site of religious worship. It’s referred to variously as Kiryat Ba’al, Ba’alah and Ba’ale Judah in the Book of Joshua, suggesting the site was at some point affiliated with worship of Ba’al, storm god of the Canaanite pantheon.

1728 illustration of the Ark at the erection of the Tabernacle and the sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17-19 (Gerard Hoet and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague / Wikipedia)

1728 illustration of the Ark at the erection of the Tabernacle and the sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17-19 (Gerard Hoet and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague / Wikipedia)

According to the Book of Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant was stored at Kiryat Ye’arim for 20 years after it was returned to the Israelites by the Philistines, who had captured it in battle and to their dismay were smitten with disease. The text says the ark was stored “in the house of Avinadab in the hill” and tended by the priest Elazar before King David conveyed it to his capital in Jerusalem.

Atlas of the land of Canaan during the Israelite conquest from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Atlas of the land of Canaan during the Israelite conquest from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Whether or not the story of the ark being kept at Kiryat Ye’arim can be taken as historical fact, Finkelstein argues, the fact that it’s mentioned in that context suggests the town was of great significance, “and it’s reasonable to assume there was a temple there.”

“To follow the story, the place where they took the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t, of course, just some field or under a tree, they refer to an important cult place,” he said.

The exact nature of that shrine, however, is unclear. The Book of Joshua was assembled centuries after the events described in the text. Does the book’s association of Kiryat Ye’arim with a pagan deity indicate contemporary Ba’al worship, or allude to a bygone era?

The major questions concerning the manner of worship conducted at Kiryat Ye’arim are difficult to resolve through excavating the site, Finkelstein said. “You need a lot of luck for archaeology to provide answers to such complex questions,” he said.

Nonetheless, Finkelstein said he hopes the dig will yield vital information about the history of the site’s inhabitation, its rise and fall, from which scholars may be able to reflect on the larger picture of life in Iron Age Judah, including nearby Jerusalem.