OU students part of archaeological dig with biblical ties

Members of the archaeology team from Oakland University worked long hours to uncover pottery samples like these at Khirbet al-Ra'i. Pottery is an important part of the material culture that helps archaeologists date a site. Dr. Jon Carroll and Dr. Michael Pytlik, back row from left, help guide students through excavation work in Israel. PHOTO/OU


Oakland University students, working with a team of international scholars, uncovered a 3,200-year-old city that is thought to have been a refuge for the biblical King David.

The excavated site is Khirbet al-Ra’i, located on the Judean foothills of central Israel, approximately 440 miles from Jerusalem. Archaeologists have been digging at the site since 2015, and OU students have been excavating there since 2018.

Last week, scholars identified Khirbet al-Ra’i as the biblical city of Ziklag.

“It was quite a blitz, actually,” said Dr. Michael Pytlik, director of Judaic Studies and director of the Archaeology in Israel program at OU. “There was a lot of activity, a lot of foreign correspondents, and cameras everywhere. It was bigger than I expected.”

Camera crews and media personnel were on-site at Khirbet al-Ra’i following archaeologists’ announcement. PHOTO/ Dr. Michael Pytlik

According to the books of Samuel, Ziklag was a Philistine city located between Kiryat Gat and Lachich where David took refuge from King Saul, who was attempting to kill him. The biblical account says that David was given Ziklag while acting as a vassal for the Philistines. Later, after Saul’s death, David became king in Hebron and ruled over Ziklag.

For the past 11 years, the Oakland University Archaeology in Israel Program has partnered with Hebrew University to excavate at several important archaeological sites that have changed the scholarly understanding of Judea in the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.

“Anytime there’s a site mentioned in the bible it receives a lot of attention. Was it real? Was it historical? When did it exist, and can we find it? And it’s not easy at all to determine an ancient place name because inscriptions are lacking, usually,” Pytlik said.

“We’re not out there trying to prove the bible — the bible is a tool that helps us in some ways… So we have to look at that carefully, but it is a tool. The thing that was most interesting about this site, and probably the reason why it got so much attention, was the fact that it was associated with David.”

David is a controversial figure in the world of biblical archaeology. Scholars are divided over the historical authenticity of biblical accounts that describe a Judean kingdom under his rule, which is dated to approximately the 10th century B.C.

“It’s hard to find individuals in archaeology, but we can say that taking all the other evidence together, that there is evidence for a small kingdom,” Pytlik said.

This is not the first time OU has excavated at a site affiliated with the biblical king. OU students excavated at Khirbet Qeiyafa from 2009-2013. That site is a fortified city dated to the first half of the 10th century B.C. and was identified by excavators as the biblical city of Sha’arayim because of the two gates discovered there.

“Qeiyafa is very interesting because it’s a snapshot into the 10th century, about 1,00 B.C.,” Pytlik said. “It was built in on go as a planned small community. Probably a border fortress.”

Archaeologists have proposed that Qeyafa was a fortress for David and that the large building at the center of the site is an administrative building that dates to his reign. Numerous significant small finds were uncovered at Qeiyafa, including finger-printed jar handles, an ostracon bearing an inscription in Canaanite or Hebrew script, and portable shrines.

Artifacts from Khibet Qeiyafa, such as these portable shrines, are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. PHOTO/ Oakland University Archaeology in Israel Facebook Page

OU students also participated in a four-year expedition at Tel Lachish, which sought to learn more about the geopolitical structure of Judea during the 10th century B.C.

“The first site we dug, we more or less were able to say there was a functioning small– small for sure– kingdom that fits the time of David,” Pytlik said. “Then we went to the larger site for four years and answer a few questions. Now, we’ve been at this site for two, so it’s part of a puzzle.”

To be identified as the biblical city of Ziklag, Khirbet al-Ra’i had to meet a number of archaeological conditions. The location of the site was san important factor, according to Pytlik. The material culture of the site also had to show a transition from Philistine to Judean. Pytlik said that the materials found at Khirbet al-Ra’i support this transition. The occupation levels at the site are overlapping and show a transition from pottery with Philistine decorations to the undecorated redware pottery typical of Judah in the 10th century B.C.

Reconstructed pottery vessels from Khirbet al-Ra’i. PHOTO/ Oakland University Archaeology in Israel Facebook Page

According to a press release from Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, in addition to the transition between Philistine and Judean culture, Kirbet al-Ra’i also shows remains of an intense fire that destroyed it. This lines up with the account in the Hebrew Bible, which says Ziklag was razed by the Amalekites during the time of David.

OU technology has played a significant role in Khirbet al-Ra’i excavations. Dr. Jon Carroll, assistant professor of anthropology at OU, is using drone technology and geospatial mapping to help excavators gather detailed information about the site. Using the drone, Carroll can gather specific details about the location and look under the vegetation on the site to provide clues about where archaeological teams should excavate.

“It is fascinating that the vegetation will reflect differently when there are disruptions underground,” Pytlik said.

The geospatial mapping technology also allows the excavation to put together 3D models of the site based on highly accurate measurements.

Dr. Yosi Garfinkel is the lead archaeologist at Khirbet al-Ra’i. He also led excavations at Tel Lachish and Khirbet Qieyafa. From left: Pytlik, Garfinkel, and Carroll. PHOTO/ Oakland University Archaeology in Israel Facebook Page

While OU has contributed to advancements in the field of biblical archaeology through its program, Pytlik said its most important impact is how it affects students.

“We’ve had well over 100 students, probably 150 students by now, participate in something that is life-changing and is allowing them to work with international scholars and also volunteers and workers from all over the world,” he said.

In addition to their hard work at the dig site, every weekend of the trip, students travel around the country and visit historical, archaeological, and cultural sites.

“They get a much bigger perspective on the middle east because of the trips we make within Israel. They get to meet local people and work with local people.”

2019 OU group at Masada, a first-century palace-fortress of King Herod the Great, near the Dead Sea. PHOTO/ Oakland University Archaeology in Israel Facebook page

The program has also been able to engage with the local community back home. Donors have made significant contributions to make the trip affordable to students.

The Archaeology in Israel program is a study abroad program and is part of the anthropology and religious studies departments at Oakland University. The program open to all Oakland University students, as well as continuing education students. To learn more about OU Archaeology in Israel, visit the program’s website