What’s a Tell?

Tel Beit Shemesh

No, I’m not talking about a poker tell. I’m talking about the kinds of tells that you hear about whenever your travel to Israel (or other parts of the Middle East). Tel Arad, Tel Be’er Sheva or Tel Maresha, for example.

(By the way, you may have noticed the change in spelling from “tell” to “tel.” If so, 10 points for you. More on that distinction later!)

So, what is a tell, anyway?

Well, that and other questions were what we explored in this past Friday’s class, an introduction to Biblical Archaeology. For the record, a tell is a multi-stratified (i.e. multi-layered) mound, that resulted from people in subsequent periods rebuilding towns atop the ruins of prior settlements. It is a distinctive feature in Middle East archaeology, and the tells in Israel are actually relatively small, compared to ones in Syria and Iraq.

Why would people build settlements on top of prior ones? For starters, the same things that made the location attractive the first time around would still hold true. Settlements in ancient times needed to be near water, land for agriculture, and roads. They would also benefit from the defensibility afforded by height. If these things existed the first time around, they’ll probably be there years later as well. Secondly, if a town was once there, but now lies in ruins, that means that the building materials would be readily available, lying among the rubble. So they could recycle some of the former settlement’s building materials in creating their homes.

Thus, tells are often archaeologically interesting sites where artifacts from various eras may be explored in one location. Since newer settlements were built on top of older ones, the deeper you dig, the older you get. Interestingly, most archaeological expeditions begin with a survey rather than an excavation. In a survey, the archaeologists examine just the surface of an area. What makes this interesting is that for various reasons (natural churning of the Earth due to temperature changes, animal foraging, etc.) some material from all layers of the tell can typically be found on the surface!

As archaeologists dig, they will typically find artifacts, many of which can be tied to specific time periods. If so, then a certain stratum can thus be dated. Where this becomes more interesting, however, is when this dating method is extended to what is known as “relative chronology.” Imagine that Tell A has strata that can be dated to periods 1-8, moving downwards. Tell B has strata with periods 2-4, 6, 8 and 9-10. And Settlement C elsewhere only has artifacts dated to period 6.

From this we can conclude that Tell B is the earliest settlement (remember we were numbering downwards, and the lower you get, the older it is), but was only occupied sporadically. We can also learn that Tell A was occupied continuously, which shows more permanence. And Settlement C was a much more temporary type of settlement, that only existed in one period, and thus never built up into a tell at all. Interesting!

It is using this method that specific information on some location may also be learned. We knew that Tel Beit Shemesh was destroyed int eh biblical era, but never knew if it was raised by Sennacherib the Assyrian in 701 BCE or the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. By comparing the strata of this tell with the one at Lachish, and using relative chronology, archaeologists were able to determine that Beit Shemesh was destroyed by Sennacherib in the earlier period.

And what about that difference between spelling it tell versus tel? The English word is tell, with two l’s, and if the place is using an Arabic name it is written that way as well. But if it is a Hebrew place name, the name is written using only one “l.” So for example, the Arabic Tell es-Safi is written Tel Tzafit when using the Hebrew name for the place (the tell identified with the biblical city of Gath).

Lastly, what about the “Tel” that most of you probably know best — Tel Aviv? It was built only 100 years ago (so no strata from various eras) and isn’t even on a hill at all! Well, the city that was founded as the first modern Jewish city got its name not from its location at all, but rather from the title of the Hebrew translation of Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland.

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