An Earthquake May Have Caused the Demise of an Ancient Canaanite Palace
Thu, April 22, 2021

An Earthquake May Have Caused the Demise of an Ancient Canaanite Palace


The Canaanites were a group of ancient people who lived in the land of Canaan, which today encompasses Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, and the southern portions of Lebanon and Syria. In the Bible, the Canaanites are descendants of Canaan, grandson of Noah.

Abandonment of a Middle Bronze Age settlement in Israel

Some 3,700 years ago, the Canaanites abandoned their luxurious 65,000-square foot home (larger than a modern shopping mall) in a hurry and it was left vacant for almost a thousand years. Archaeologists have discovered fancy banquet hall, wall paintings, and storage rooms filled with over a hundred jars of spiced wine in the said building. There has been much speculation for the sudden abandonment as there are no hoards of jewelry, money, weapons, or evidence of the fire that would rule out the conquest of hostile attack to the place. There are also no indications of mass graveyards to indicate a pandemic or signs of environmental degradation or drought that may have forced the inhabitants to abandon the site.



Earthquake damage as a catalyst

Beginning in 2009, archaeologists were digging up the palace to find out the reason why and they were stumped with their discovery. A new study published in the journal PLOS One highlights new evidence to pinpoint a possible culprit for such hasty abandonment: an earthquake.

Authors Michael Lazar from the Charney School of Marine Sciences, University of Haifa, and colleagues used micro-geoarchaeological methods to prove that the destruction of the palace was rapid, with ceilings and walls collapsing at once before the abandonment. They examined the macroscopic data from five excavation seasons and they discovered at least nine Potential Earthquake Archaeological Effects (PEAEs).

Co-author Assaf Yasur Landau of Haifa University, who is also the co-director of the excavation project, said via National Geographic that it took him six years to be interested in the idea that an earthquake may have caused the demise of the Canaanite palace. He says their team wanted to make sure that they’ve considered every detail before they conclude. It’s “super important” to do good science and not be a sensationalist. Otherwise, it would be bad for the community they serve, and for science, he added.

The archaeologists digging up in the 75-acre site of Tel Kabri (Israel) also shared that the place lies in a tectonically active region, making it easy to blame the destruction of an earthquake. But they said that invoking that cause is like an easy way out like it is a joke among archaeologists for things they cannot explain. So, the team spent various dig seasons to rule out the possibilities. The National Geographic Society also supported their endeavor.

In 2011, they found a trench that appeared to cut straight through the building. The team assumed that it was probably an irrigation channel for a nearby avocado farm in the site or it was dug during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Tel Kabri co-director Eric Cline of George Washington University explained that there was a battle in 1948 right across the road so the team thought it may have been a modern tank trench.

However, throughout various excavation seasons, the team noticed features in the palace that didn’t seem right. For instance, some floors were somehow “wavy,” that it was pockmarked or inclined at odd angles. In 2019, they have also uncovered a hundred feet of the trench and three sections of the palace wall that fallen into the trench, suggesting that a sudden collapse instead of a slow deterioration.

Co-author Eric Cline said it appears that the earth simply opened up and everything on either side of the wall fell in. He recalls that at that point in their discovery, their team kind of looked at each other and the supervisor said, “I don’t think this is a modern trench.” Then, one of them said, “Um, earthquake?” Then, the team said, “Yeah, maybe.”

After that, they called research scientist Lazar, who previously visited the site in 2013 when they uncovered a storage room for wine. He shared that when they saw a bunch of jars smashed by a roof that collapsed, he thought it must be an earthquake. Years later and taken all their observations together, an earthquake would only be likely the reason why the Canaanites abandoned the palace.

They even considered the sediment records from the Dead Sea, which indicates that an earthquake happened in the region around 1700 BC. It was the same time the palace was abandoned. Cline said, “This is archaeology” as pieces come together. Once other hypotheses are discarded, they get a more plausible hypothesis. They eliminate the impossible and then consider the evidence of what’s left.

Cline also pointed out that in the said palace, people may have held a small banquet and enjoyed wine on any given day. They may have also eaten goats and sheep. Yet, the sudden earthquake has brought the lavish lifestyle to an end. Today, people living along the Kabri fault line are considering the study.



Number of known significant earthquakes, Israel, 2,150 BCE to 2017

In a statistic provided by Our World in Data, it shows that there was 1 significant earthquake in 1,566 BCE and another one in 1,250 BCE. There was also one significant earthquake that happened in 1927. Countries with the highest number of significant earthquakes as of 2017 include Iran (7.00), Philippines (7.00), China (4.00), Indonesia (4.00), Mexico (3.00), New Caledonia (3.00), Chile (2.00), and Italy (2.00).

Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau also told the Jerusalem Post that it’s very exciting when their work comes to fruition. Their study could also be influential in how people look for signs of earthquakes in archaeology. The researcher went on to say that they have been working on for the said project for five years or so on a specific question. This is why having the answer now is “really gratifying.” The team also hopes that the Kabri fault can be put back in the map as a potentially active fault in Israel.

The study conducted by Lazar and colleagues is not only important in archaeology but will also help predict modern risk. It could have implications for those in the engineering and construction industry.