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Tell el-Hesi: The Persian Period (Stratum V).

Palestinian archaeology began in 1890 at Tell el-Hesi (perhaps ancient "Eglon") with brief soundings by the legendary W. M. F. Petrie, followed by the first American excavations in Palestine, directed by Frederick J. Bliss in 1891-92. The 25-acre site, near the Gaza Strip, is imposing, with its walled Early Bronze Age lower city, topped by a small but steep acropolis of the Iron Age and Persian period. Despite Tell el-Hesi's importance, however, its cultural history remained obscure until the American Schools of Oriental Research initiated modern stratigraphic excavations in 1971 (continuing through 1983). This final report volume covers four seasons of excavation of Persian Period Stratum V.

Because of its explicit adoption and articulation of the goals of the "New Archaeology" that had been pioneered at Gezer in the 1960s under this reviewer and others, where many of the original Hesi staff had been trained, this volume must be judged by the very high standards that it has set for itself.

The material per se is obviously cleanly excavated, meticulously recorded, and is presented here in admirable fullness and detail. Nevertheless, it is somewhat scant: four phases of domestic occupation, extending over eleven 5.00 x 5.00 m squares in Field I, and consisting almost entirely of pits and silos; and some 40 burials in Field III. The bulk of the material is the stratified corpus of Persian pottery of the late 6th-mid 4th cents. B.C., both imported ("Aegean Fine") wares and local coarse wares. The imported wares include substantial quantities of Attic and East Greek pottery, dating between ca. 500 and 460 B.C. The coarse wares, all familiar from other Persian sites in Palestine, apparently extend down to ca. 350 B.C. The Greek pottery, especially significant because it is the largest corpus of such stratified pottery yet published from a Palestinian site, is competently treated by Martha K. Risser and Jeffrey A. Blakely in what should be a point of departure for future discussions. The coarse wares total 912 vessels, mostly represented by sherds.

Chapters 5-8 cover the flints, other small finds, and floral-faunal remains. There is little that is exceptional here, although the treatment is as thorough as one would expect in an up-to-date excavation report, including experimental use of the flint blades. Chapters 10 and 11 present the conclusions regarding Str. Va-d and an overview of Tell el-Hesi in the larger context of Persian Palestine.

Chapter 12 offers some concluding methodological observations, responding in particular to two earlier assessments of the Hesi project by this reviewer (both in 1981). Since the project had claimed so much for its "holistic approach" and its orientation toward then-new questions of larger cultural process and change, I and others had voiced some hesitation. The principal question was whether the final report volumes would justify the elaborate and expensive recording and publication scheme of the Hesi project; their ambition to achieve "total retrieval," for instance, attempting to save every sherd; and their sometimes pretentious claims of superiority over other contemporary projects. Does this first substantial final report vindicate the Hesi project?

The answer is yes--and no. On the one hand, it must be said at once that this volume is undoubtedly the most thorough, even exhaustive, presentation of well-stratified Persian materials from any Palestinian site, such as they are. Yet that holds true mainly for the pottery; the architectural remains are flimsy, and the small finds mostly insignificant. Thus, while my original misgiving--that the mass of recorded detail could not actually be synthesized and published--has been removed, my second misgiving remains. That is, the "new" or processual archaeology, as espoused at Tell el-Hesi (and even at Gezer), has evidently promised more than it can deliver. Thus, concerning Hesi's "holistic approach," we see burials published here with nothing but the most rudimentary treatment of the human skeletal remains; and nothing whatsoever in the overall synthesis that would contribute toward "explanation" or even address processual questions.

To be sure, the gathering of more varied and precise data--often environmental as well as artifactual--has been salutary; but, as the authors of this volume themselves acknowledge, present research design and analytical procedures do not permit us fully to exploit the new data we have acquired. Nevertheless, they claim that the Hesi project "was able to yield substantial fruit". Undoubtedly; but, in my judgment, no more so than the five Gezer volumes to date, or a number of final reports of other excavations in Israel and Jordan published since 1970. The authors' final, modest, somewhat wistful recommendations for research design on future projects are an appropriate tempering of their own earlier optimism (and mine as well). Ironically, the "New Archaeology" may become passe before its potential even begins to be fully realized in Palestinian archaeology.

The crucial problem with the revolution in fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s in Palestinian archaeology was one of balance. How much detail is wanted, or needed? How much data can actually be synthesized and presented to a wider audience? And finally, if depth must be bought at the expense of breadth, is not the resultant picture too narrow? While carrying the newer stratigraphic and multidisciplinary banners forward, we came to know more and more about less and less, until we ran the risk of knowing everything about nothing (and thus, of course, knowing too much to publish). The appearance of Hesi 3 is not, as the authors seem to think, a break through this impasse; it is, rather, another symptom of the problem.
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Author:Dever, William G.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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