Kadesh Barnea: Judah's Last Outpost
Carol Meyers

The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Dec., 1976), pp. 148-151.

(Kadesh Barnea: Judah's Last Outpost, Carol Meyers, 1976 AD)


Joshua 15:1-4 assigns Judah the Wilderness of Zin as far south as Kadesh Barnea in the northern Negev. Later, the United Monarchy of David and Solomon expanded southward into the central Negev. After Solomon's death, the new territory was lost. However, the results of a new survey of the Negev and a surveyor's excavation at Kadesh Barnea suggest that the border city itself flourished until the fall of the Judean Kingdom.

The highlands of the central Negev are the true desert of Palestine, a complex series of intermingling geological formations: high plateaus and sandy valleys, conical hills and lunar craters. Known as the High Negev, this region extends southward from the Beer-sheba Basin, from the Arabah on the east to the springs and wadis leading toward the coast on the west.

The High Negev was long considered completely hostile to human habitation. There seemed to be hardly more than a month in winter when even Bedouin could graze their flocks among the barren rocks. Yet the Archaeological Survey of the Negev, which began as part of the intense survey of the whole of Israel that was initiated in 1964, has now shown that such an assessment of the High Negev for antiquity is erroneous.' The Survey, unlike any previous survey work ever attempted, takes each grid on the 1:20,000 map and painstakingly

Dr. Carol Meyers, a frequent contributor to Biblical Archeologist, is just back from a year's research in Israel, where she worked with, among others, Rudolph Cohen of the Department of Antiquities and Museums of the State of Israel. Writing from Duke University, Carol describes herself as "deeply indebted to Rudolph Cohen . . . for his gracious willingness to provide details of his work at Kadesh Barnea and to share his ideas about the significance of what has been excavated there." explores the entire territory, meter by meter. The project will take many years to complete, but it is clear after twelve years of work that there have been settlements in the central Negev in all periods from the Paleolithic to the Early Arabic.

Notable among these evidences of early human habitation is a series of sites dating to the Iron Age. They invariably consist of some sort of fortress surrounding or adjacent to a small settlement. Yohanan Aharoni identified many of these sites in his Negev survey of the late 1950's and attributed their existence and importance to the need to establish control over the road system of the Negev.2 Thus, a line of forts was established which would safeguard the lucrative trade routes with South Arabia and East Africa as well as with the various mining operations in the Arabah and Sinai.

Aharoni's work was concentrated upon the road system. Since then and as a result of the Israel Survey, the explorations of Rudolph Cohen, head of the Negev Survey, have given indication that the Iron Age sites provide information not only about trade routes but also about the borders of the Judean kingdom. Cohen is Archaeologist for the Southern District, operating under Israel's Department of Antiquities and Museums. In that capacity he has been able to conduct excavations at some of the sites he discovered on the Survey. Gradually, a sound basis for evaluating the borders of Israelite settlement in the South is being established.

Fig. 1. View of Tell e Qudeirat, identified with biblical Kadesh Barnea; the excavated area is at the eastern end of the tell.

Central Negev: Abandoned After Tenth Century

As a result of the work done to date by Cohen, particularly at the central Negev sites of Khirbet Rahba, Khirbet Haluqim, and Atar Haroa,3 it is now clear that there is a crucial difference in the pattern of Iron Age settlements between the Beer-sheba Basin and the Negev Highlands. Whereas the Beer-sheba Basin remained inhabited throughout the Iron Age, the central Negev was settled only during the period of the United Monarchy, when (especially) King Solomon seems to have followed a deliberate pattern of expansion and of construction of forts. After the 10th century, the southern border of Judah receded: Cohen discovered that all the Iron Age sites in the Central Negev contained remains which dated only to the 10th century.

The sites excavated by Cohen have all produced remains of the typical 10th-century "four-room house" associated with Israelite settlements throughout the country. In addition, the remains of two disparate kinds of pottery have been found at these sites within the ashen layer which marked the termination of the settlements:4 (1) wheel-made vessels, including cooking-pots, juglets, and jars similar to 10th-century pottery found throughout the country; and (2) hand-made pottery, sometimes known as Negev ware, which consists of a few, relatively simple forms found only at sites in the central and southern Negev. While the wheel-made pottery is quite well known, the origin and development of the hand-made vessels are problematic.

Kadesh Barnea: Tenth Century and Later

Therefore, in order to investigate the matter of hand-made Negev pottery as well as to clarify the western boundary of the central Negev and the Judean hold on it, Cohen turned to the site of Kadesh Barnea, where he fielded an excavation in January, 1976, on behalf of the Department of Antiquities and Museums of Israel.

Kadesh Barnea, known also as Tell e Qudeirat after the spring Ein el Qudeirat, is located at the largest oasis in northern Sinai, a lush green valley that has attracted travelers and a variety of permanent and semi-permanent residents for millennia. The tell itself (see fig. 1), surmounted by a large (60 x 41 m.), rectangular, eight-towered fortress, was first delineated and planned at the beginning of this century by Woolley and Lawrence.5 Later excavations were carried out by Moshe Dothan. In 1956, Dothan identified three periods of occupation: a pre-fortress period, containing only hand-made pottery which he dated to the 10th century; the fortress itself with pottery from a very long time-span the 9th to the 7th centuries; and a post-fortress period of scattered Persian remains.6

Cohen was curious about a number of things. To begin with, the existence of a corpus of 10th-century hand-made pottery without accompanying wheel-made pottery seemed strange. After he examined Dothan's materials, it began to seem that, in comparison with the materials found at the Negev sites he had just excavated, the pre-fortress hand-made pottery at Kadesh Barnea was somewhat different. The shapes seemed more or less the same as those from the central Negev corpus; but the texture and general feeling was somehow not quite the same. Cohen wanted to see if this pre-fortress pottery really belonged to the 10th century. If so, were there structures to go with it? If not, could it perhaps be earlier than the 10th century?

In addition, the existence of the fortress in its eight-tower form without alterations for nearly three centuries seemed unusual. Indeed, it was without parallel in Negev sites of the Iron Age. Perhaps there was more to the history of the place than had been realized. Dothan had thought that the casemate walls of the fortress had been built almost on the wadi floor, with a huge glacis having been constructed to increase the fort's impregnability. This would have made it almost a Khirbeh, or ruin, rather than a true tell. Since Dothan's tentative conclusions had been based on relatively few soundings, Cohen felt that a wider exposure of the remains might clarify the history of the defenses.

Finally, Dothan's work had left unresolved the matter of the location of the gate or entrance to the fortress. Cohen's expedition would also address itself to that problem.

Fig. 2. Silo found outside the fortress walls at the southeast corner.

1976 Excavations

The 1976 excavations at Kadesh Barnea were carried out along the eastern end of the tell, where fifteen squares (5m. x 5m.) were laid out from north to south. This area of excavation would include part of the casemate wall of the fortress, the central tower of the eastern end, part of the courtyard area, and perhaps the area of the gate, since Dothan had noted at the southeastern perimeter a pavement outside the walls which he suspected might be part of an entryway. Cohen also chose the eastern portion of the site because the courtyard area at this point is much higher than at the western end, evidently signaling a greater build-up of debris.

The central Negev was settled only during the United Monarchy, when King Solomon followed a deliberate pattern of expansion and construction of forts.

The results of Cohen's work, after one season, show that Kadesh Barnea is indeed different from the typical Iron Age settlements in the Negev. Already three series of ruins have been identified and dated, not including the uppermost Persian remains.

1. The fortress with eight towers and casemate walls dates to the 7th-6th centuries B.C.E. The pavement outside the walls at the southeast corner proved not to lead to a gate; rather, a well-built silo was found at this point (fig. 2).

2. Below this fortress is another fortress with 4 m.-wide walls dating to the 8th-7th centuries B.C.E. This structure is very similar to the fortresses with 4 m.-wide walls known from the northern Negev tells at Beer-sheba, Arad, and Aroer.

3. Below the earlier fortress are 10th-century remains. So far these have been recovered only in one pit, and it cannot yet be ascertained whether these remains are also part of a fortress. Only further excavation will determine this. But in general, the depth of debris has been surprising the deepest trench has already uncovered 6 m. of debris, and virgin soil has yet to be reached.

The pottery uncovered in the excavations includes wheel-made pottery typical of Palestinian pottery in the 8th-7th and 7th-6th centuries B.C.E. Hand-made pottery, in quantities enormous by comparison with other Negev sites, was also found. However, by contrast with other sites where only supposedly 10th-century Negev ware was recovered, Kadesh Barnea has produced stratified hand-made pottery from the uppermost to the lowest levels, that is, from the 6th back to the 10th century. The Negev pottery clearly has a long range; it may even go back earlier than the 10th century.? Furthermore, it is not exactly the same throughout. A development over the centuries can be recognized, with some shapes remaining more or less constant and with others increasingly influenced by contemporary wheel-made types.

The sequence of Negev pottery obtained from Kadesh Barnea provides important clues concerning the history of this pottery and also offers tantalizing new information for the old question of the ethnic identity of the producers of any given ceramic corpus. Nelson Glueck, after first discovering this pottery at Tell el-Kheleifeh, identified it as the handiwork of the semi-sedentary inhabitants of the Negev, the Kenites, Rechabites, Calebites, and Yerahmeelites.8 Aharoni attributed it to the nomadic potters of the Negev who used it mainly for domestic purposes.`' Rothenberg holds that this pottery is Amalekite.19 Finally, Cohen would generalize upon Glueck's impressions and identify the pottery with Israelite-related groups and ultimately with the Israelites themselves. However, it is obvious that Tell Kadesh Barnea has not been exhausted as a source of information on this subject. Earlier stratified Negev pottery may yet be found; and Kadesh Barnea judging from the quantities of material may prove to be a center of its manufacture and thus a key to understanding its patterns of use and dissemination in the southern areas of ancient Palestine.

Fig. 3. One of four Hebrew ostraca discovered in the fortress at Kadesh Barnea.

Ostraca Finds

In addition to the pottery, the small finds include at least four ostraca (fig. 3), which are presently being deciphered by Professor Naveh of the Hebrew University. One of these seems to be part of an abecedary, written in an excellent script. Another contains three lines of writing, the contents of which are not yet clear. A third is an ostracon from the latest stratum, very similar to one from the Arad fortress, bearing at least ten lines of hieratic writing.

Thus, these recent excavations have shown that, while Kadesh Barnea is topographically located at the western extremity of the Negev Highlands, it does not share the same history as the Iron Age settlements of that region. Habitation for the most part ceased in the central Negev during the Divided Monarchy, but Kadesh Barnea remained a thriving settlement until the end of the Judean kingdom. In other words, while the southern state could not, for whatever reasons, sustain its Negev territory as spelled out in Josh 15:1-4, the Sinai border continued to be maintained, with Judea controlling northern Sinai as far as Kadesh Barnea. Cohen believes that this site must be seen as a border post as well as a highway defense. The fact that it was settled from the 10th century, if not earlier, until the 6th century, makes it more akin to the big tells of the northern Negev than to the fortress ruins of the central Negev.

'This is reported in "The Archaeological Survey in Israel, Notes and News," Israel Exploration Journal 15 (1965): 263-64.

2Y. Aharoni, "Forerunners of the Limes: Iron Age Fortresses in the Negev," Israel Exploration Journal 17 (1967): 1-12.

3R. Cohen, "Notes and News," Israel Exploration Journal 25 (1975): 171-72; "Excavations at Khirbet Haluqim," `Allow (English Series) 11 (1976, forthcoming): 34-50; "Atar Haro 'a," `Atiqot (Hebrew Series) 6 (1970): 6-24.

4Perhaps a result of Shishak's campaign in Palestine. Cf. B. Mazar, "The Campaign of Pharaoh Shishak to Palestine," Vetus Testamentum Supplement 4 (1957): 57-66.

5Woolley and Lawrence were the first to identify Tell e Qudeirat as Kadesh Barnea. Cf. "Wilderness of Zin," Palestine Exploration Fund Annual III (1914-15): 69-71. This identification has been accepted widely ever since. The name Kadesh Barnea may have applied to the whole Quseima district, of which another, smaller spring, Ein Qedeis, was also a part.

6M. Dothan, "The Fortress at Kadesh-Barnea," Israel Exploration Journal 15 (1965): 134-51.

7B. Rothenberg, Timna, Valley of the Biblical Copper Mines, London: Thames & Hudson, 1972, pp. 153-54, may have it as early as the 12th or I 1 th centuries; and a sherd has been found in a clear 11th-century context at Tell MAUA; so Y. Aharoni, V. Fritz, and A. Kempinski, "Vorbericht uber die Ausgrabungen auf der Ijirbet (M1 MVOS)," Zeitschrift der deutschen Pakistina-Vereins 89 (1973): 202, p I. 22:A.

"Nelson Glueck, "The Third Season of Excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 79 (1946): 17-18.

9"The Iron Age Pottery of the Timna` and `Amran Area," Palestine Exploration Quarterly 94 (1962): 66. 10Rothenberg, Timna, p. 117.

By Steve Rudd: Contact the author for comments, input or corrections.

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