site located 56 km (35 mi.) north of Jerusalem (map reference 168 × 187) and west of the Ephraimite watershed, rising to a summit height of 430 m above sea level at 32°17′ N, 35°12′ E, near the center of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Samaria overlooked the main road (Via Maris) connecting Egypt and the Southern Kingdom of Judah with the strategic Jezreel Valley and northern routes to Phoenicia and Damascus. Its biblical names Šāmîr (Jgs. 10:1–2) and, somewhat later, Šāmĕrôn (1 Kgs. 16:24 et passim), mean “watch” or “Watchman.” Both designations stem from an original qātil participle and reflect successive changes in the pronunciation of that verb form (šāmir-všōmiršōmēr). The name of the site's earliest recorded private owner, Šemer, represents a secondary nominal formation from this verbal antecedent.


SAMARIA. Figure 1. Ostraca house. (Courtesy Reisner-Samaria Archive/Semitic Museum, Harvard University)

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Excavation at Samaria began In 1908 with the Harvard expedition directed by Gottlieb Schumacher. George Andrew Reisner and architect Clarence Fisher succeeded him in the second phase of the project, which ran from 1909 to 1910. Their combined efforts concentrated on the western half of the summit and exposed a substantial portion of the Israelite royal palace and, immediately to its west, a sizable storeroom complex. Reisner called the latter feature the Ostraca House because of the discovery inside of more than one hundred laconic shipping dockets recording the transfer of various commodities (primarily wine and oil) to the capital during the early eighth century BCE, in the time of Jehoash/Jeroboam II (see figure 1). [See Samaria Ostraca.]

Between 1932 and 1935, five institutions (mostly from England and Israel) sent a Joint Expedition to Samaria under the leadership of John W. Crowfoot. As primary field supervisor in the royal quarter, Kathleen M. Kenyon introduced new techniques of debris-layer analysis to the project. She exposed a north–south section across the entire summit east of Schumacher's and Reisner's earlier excavations. In the final reports, Kenyon held that Samaria's pottery provided crucial guidelines for evaluating the stratigraphic history and ceramic traditions at other Iron II sites in Palestine. Her publications quickly became the standard references for studying Samaria and the early Iron Age II generally; moreover, Aegean archaeologists began mooring their chronologies to Kenyon's proposed framework at Samaria.

Though Kenyon found some Early Bronze Age I pottery on the rock surface, most remains came from the Iron Age. Here she distinguished eight major building phases (periods I–VIII) and concluded that periods I–VI spanned the earliest Iron Age II occupation under Omri to the Assyrian destruction of Samaria In 722/21 BCE. Kenyon also believed that each new building phase corresponded directly to a shift in ceramic tradition. Appealing to 1 Kgs. 16:24 to buttress her archaeological interpretations, she argued decidedly against any Iron Age occupation of Samaria earlier than Omri's reign.

Prior to Kenyon's official publication of the pottery (1957), however, Roland de Vaux (1955) suggested that her two earliest ceramic phases actually predated all Omride building activities and indicated an Iron I occupation of the site. Whereas this view merely questioned the direct correlation of architectural and ceramic periods, George Ernest Wright (1959) later proposed a formal distinction between them. Other contemporaneous studies by William Foxwell Albright (1958) and Yohanan Aharoni and Ruth Amiran (1958) agreed that the earliest Iron Age pottery predated the first royal architecture at Samaria. The resulting controversy stemmed mainly from differences in archaeological method and interpretation.

Kenyon's assertion that 1 Kgs. 16:24 precluded any occupation on the hill prior to Omri compelled her to correlate the earliest ceramic remains with the earliest royal architecture and to assign both to Omri. Although the earliest Omride courtyard lay several depositional layers above bedrock, Kenyon's system demanded that she associated all Iron Age pottery lying directly on the bedrock (and often mixed with scrappy Early Bronze Age remains) with that higher floor level. Having started this way, she dated each successive floor level by the material found beneath it. Wright and others, however, proposed dating these surfaces by the material lying directly on them. In fact, both systems had merit; they simply addressed different aspects of the same methodological issue. Kenyon's approach yielded a floor's terminus post quem (construction date), whereas Wright's provided its terminus ante quem (occupational dates).

The early studies that challenged Kenyon's principles of dating had only her published pottery to evaluate. More recent ceramic (Stager, 1990) and stratigraphic (Tappy, 1992) investigations have examined unpublished material to determine the original findspots of the pottery and thereby settle the unanswered questions. The results have confirmed a pre-Omride occupation of Samaria and have associated the Iron I pottery there with various nonmonumental architectural features resting immediately on or set into the rock surface (remains of a possible beam press, numerous rock cuttings, storage pits, separator vats, and cisterns). A narrow reading of 1 Kgs. 16:24, therefore, can no longer support Kenyon's proposed chronological framework for Israelite Samaria.

Kenyon's initial pottery analysis raised hopes that the strict stratigraphic controls that presumably attended her excavation method might strengthen typologies for the ninth–eighth centuries BCE. However, Tappy's recent stratigraphic study has shown that much of the published pottery came from secondary or disturbed contexts, while those pieces from primary contexts often came from deposits several layers above or below the floors and architecture they purportedly dated. When analyzed typologically against ceramic groups from traditional and more recently excavated sites, the pottery recovered from these deposits supports the new stratigraphic analysis. The collective attributes of vessels such as bar-handle bowls, cup-and-saucer forms, lentoid flasks, collar-rim store jars, and Early Iron Age krater, chalice, and cooking pot rims point to a significant Iron I occupation for many of the levels exposed in Kenyon's large section across the summit and labeled “periods I–II.”

In short, while Kenyon correctly associated the first monumental building activities with the early ninth-century Omride dynasty, recent studies have demonstrated the need to adjust her proposed ceramic chronology. Pottery Periods 1–2 belong to as early as the eleventh (possibly late twelfth) century BCE. It does not follow, however, that we should automatically shift the pottery from Pottery Period 3 upward to fill the resultant gap in the Omride era. In fact, only some of the Pottery Period 3 wares can relate to the Omrides. Other vessels in that assemblage must remain in Jehu's time period, while a significant number extend into the early eighth century. Clearly, we have many fewer stratigraphically secure archaeological data pertaining to ninth-century Samaria than the excavation report implies. Therefore, we must exercise caution when relying on the published materials from Samaria to establish or adjust chronologies at sites elsewhere in the Levantine and Aegean worlds.


When Omri rose to power over Israel in the early ninth century BCE, he soon moved the capital from Tirzah to Samaria (1 Kgs. 16:21–24). Together with Ahab, his son and successor, Omri subsequently transformed this onetime family estate of Shemer into a cosmopolitan royal city complete with impressive fortification walls, a palace, large courtyards with rectangular pools, public buildings, and storerooms. Ahab's politically motivated marriage to the Sidonian princess Jezebel opened the way to Phoenician wealth and religious influence. Later biblical references (1 Kgs. 22:39; Am. 3:15, 6:4; Ps. 45:9 [MT]) to ivory-appointed houses preserve a memory of the site's grandeur, confirmed by the discovery of numerous ivory furnishings spanning the period from Ahab to Jeroboam II. At the same time, Ahab's syncretistic tendencies won him the scorn of the religious establishment, epitomized in the figure of Elijah (1 Kgs. 17–19), whose victory against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel enhanced the credibility of the monotheistic Yahweh Alone Party. With backing from this faction, comprised mainly of prophets, ultra-conservative social groups such as the Rechabites, and undoubtedly some segments of the military, Jehu seized control of the throne in Samaria sometime around 842 BCE (2 Kgs. 9–10). Nevertheless, long after this event the Assyrians continued to refer to Samaria as the House of Omri.

Over a span of roughly 150 years (c. 870–722 BCE), fourteen Israelite kings ruled from Samaria as the city became Israel's political and cultural center, the undisputed “head of Ephraim” (Is. 7:9). Yet its newly acquired centrality also made Samaria the clearest and most dangerous symbol of opposition to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and its cult in Jerusalem. This deeply rooted north–south schism and the Judahite perspective taken in the final Deuteronomistic History produced a critical treatment of the rulers and activities at Samaria in the Hebrew Bible, while extrabiblical sources (Mesha Stele; Assyrian annals) often pointed to the capital's regional and international prominence. The complexities attending both textual and archaeological investigations into the Israelite period have led historians to concentrate their research on this phase of the city's existence.

In 722/21 BCE, Assyrian armies led by Shalmaneser V and Sargon II besieged and occupied Samaria, deporting large numbers of Israelites and resettling the site primarily with South Arabians (2 Kgs. 17; the Display, Bull, Khorsabad Pavement, and Cylinder inscriptions of Sargon). Though excavators recovered few building remains from this occupation, an Assyrian stele fragment (attributable to Sargon II), pieces of various cuneiform tablets (some apparently representing a letter to Avi-aḥi, the local governor), and significant quantities of Assyrian palace ware attest to Samaria's use then as an administrative center. Following Assyrian rule, the city passed into the hands of each successive world power. Although archaeology has revealed little from the subsequent Babylonian period, Jeremiah 41 alludes to the site's occupation during that time.

From the late sixth to the late fifth centuries BCE, Persia retained Samaria as an administrative center. Concurrent efforts to restore and strengthen Jerusalem rekindled old antagonisms between the two cities (Ez. 4; Neh. 2, 4, 6; 1 Esd. 2). Though few architectural remains survive from these years, excavators did recover a .25 m-thick deposit of fertile brown soil spread over a 45 × 50 m area of the summit. This area surrounded the district governor's palace and seems to have served as a large garden similar to those found elsewhere in the Babylonian-Persian empires. Small finds from this period include seal impressions in both Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid styles; fragments of an Achaemenid throne; a fifth-century Athenian coin; three Sidonian coins (from the reign of Abdastart I, 370–358 BCE); painted and incised limestone incense altars; an alabaster alabastron; fourteen Aramaic ostraca (bearing dates from the late sixth to early fourth centuries); plus significant quantities of black- and red-figure, white-ground, and black-burnish wares imported from the Aegean world during the late sixth to late fourth centuries BCE.


SAMARIA. Figure 2. Hellenistic round tower. (Courtesy Reisner-Samaria Archive/Semitic Museum, Harvard University)

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The conquests of Alexander the Great initiated the turbulent Hellenistic period throughout the Levant. Following Alexander's death, the Ptolomies and Seleucids competed bitterly for control over Palestine. At Samaria, a series of beautifully constructed round towers and a subsequent massive defense wall (4 m thick) with square towers attest to the political vicissitudes of the time (see figure 2). The round towers, originally misdated to the Israelite period, stand 8.5 m high, with diameters ranging from 13 to 14.7 m. They represent some of the most impressive Hellenistic architecture unearthed anywhere in the country. Significant quantities of Megarian bowls and fragments from thousands of Rhodian stamped jars reflect Samaria's international commercial contacts during this era. Late in the period (c. 108/07 BCE), the Hasmonean high priest John Hyrcanus (135/34–104 BCE) led an assault against the city, destroying much of the so-called Fortress Wall and bringing Samaria temporarily under Judean control (Josephus, Antiquities 13.275–281; War 1.64–65).


SAMARIA. Figure 3. S-2 foundation of Herodian stair. (Courtesy Reisner-Samaria Archive/Semitic Museum, Harvard University)

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Following Pompey's conquest of Palestine In 63 BCE, Samaria underwent its period of greatest physical change. The provincial governor, Gabinius (57–55 BCE), rebuilt its walls and residential areas and established a forum with an adjoining basilica northeast of the summit. But the most dramatic program of construction came under Herod the Great (Josephus, Antiquities 15.292; War 1.403), who renamed the city Sebaste (a Greek name honoring Emperor Augustus) and commissioned the Augusteum, a summit temple (35 × 24 m) with portico and cella, all situated on a platform whose retaining walls stood 15 m high. A 21-m-wide staircase led from the forecourt up 4.4 m to the temple proper (see figure 3). Other impressive features, including another temple and altar dedicated to the goddess Kore and a large stadium (230 × 60 m), lay on the city's north and northeast slopes, then enclosed by an outer city wall more than 3 kilometers (almost 2 mi.) in circumference (encompassing roughly 160 acres). A main entrance gate, flanked by two massive round towers, stood west of the city, and shops of all kinds lined the columned street (12.5 m wide) that angled around the south side of the hill and eventually approached the summit from the east.

Under Constantinian rule, in the Byzantine period, Samaria-Sebaste sent bishops to councils at Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon and to the Synod of Jerusalem. Few remains from this period have survived. Between this time and the Middle Ages, tradition identified Samaria as the burial site of John the Baptist, and two separate shrines marked the proposed resting places of his body and head.


  • Albright, William Foxwell. “Recent Progress in Palestinian Archaeology: Samaria-Sebaste III and Hazor I.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 150 (1958): 21–25. An early and quite positive review of Kenyon's 1957 publication of the Samaria pottery, though it questioned her dating of some early Iron Age vessels. Find it in your Library
  • Avigad, Nahman. “Samaria.” In The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 4, pp. 1300–1310. New York, 1993. Well-balanced article written by a participant in the Joint Expedition to Samaria. Find it in your Library
  • Crowfoot, J. W., and G. M. Crowfoot. Early Ivories from Samaria. Samaria Sebaste: Report of the Work of the Joint Expedition In 1931–1933 and of the Work of the British Expedition In 1935, no. 2. London, 1938. Find it in your Library
  • Crowfoot, J. W., G. M. Crowfoot, and Kathleen M. Kenyon. The Objects from Samaria. Samaria-Sebaste: Report of the Work of the Joint Expedition In 1931–1933 and of the Work of the British Expedition In 1935, no. 3. London, 1957. This volume and the two published earlier by Crowfoot et al. comprise the official excavation report of the Joint Expedition (1931–1935). Although the report received praise as a hallmark in the study of Palestinian archaeology, it failed to present the stratigraphic data necessary to evaluate critically the authors' opinions. Find it in your Library
  • Crowfoot, J. W., Kathleen M. Kenyon, and E. L. Sukenik. The Buildings at Samaria. Samaria-Sebaste: Report of the Work of the Joint Expedition In 1931–1933 and of the Work of the British Expedition In 1935, no. 1. London, 1942. Find it in your Library
  • Kaufman, Ivan T. “The Samaria Ostraca: An Early Witness to Hebrew Writing.” Biblical Archaeologist 45.4 (1982): 229–239. Synopsis of the author's 1966 dissertation, “The Samaria Ostraca: A Study in Ancient Hebrew Palaeography,” summarizing the evidence available from archaeology and from the study of early scripts and hieratic numerals. Find it in your Library
  • Rainey, Anson F. “Toward a Precise Date for the Samaria Ostraca.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 272 (November 1988): 69–74. Presents a viable new proposal to clarify the dating of the Samaria ostraca, explaining how they can be assigned to Jehoash and his coregent, Jeroboam II. Find it in your Library
  • Reisner, George A. Israelite Ostraca from Samaria. Cambridge, Mass., [191?]. Find it in your Library
  • Reisner, George A., Clarence S. Fisher, and David G. Lyon. Harvard Excavations at Samaria, 1908–1910, vol. 1, The Text; vol. 2, Plans and Plates. Cambridge, Mass., 1924. The official excavation report from the initial exploration of Samaria by Harvard University from 1908 to 1910, including Lyon's brief summary of Schumacher's work In 1908; it is often difficult to relocate specific findspots on the basis of these reports. Find it in your Library
  • Stager, Lawrence E. “Shemer's Estate.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 277–278 (February–May 1990): 93–107. Salient study of Early Iron Age bedrock installations that represent facilities for processing wine and oil. Find it in your Library
  • Tappy, Ron E. The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria, vol. 1, Early Iron Age through the Ninth Century BCE. Harvard Semitic Studies, no. 44. Atlanta, 1992. Thorough evaluation of Kenyon's proposed chronological framework for the occupation of Early Iron Age Samaria, based on a critical assessment of data contained in both published reports and unpublished field notebooks. The discussion is technical and intended for the specialist. Find it in your Library
  • Tappy, Ron E. The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria, vol. 2, The Eighth Century BCE. Forthcoming. Find it in your Library
  • Vaux, Roland de. “Les fouilles de Tell el-Far῾ah, près Naplouse, Cinquième Campagne.” Revue Biblique 62 (1955): 541–589. An essay that predated Kenyon's official publication of the pottery from Samaria and that proposed tentative correlations between the Samaria pottery and that which de Vaux had recovered at Tell el-Far῾ah (North); the correlations disagreed with Kenyon's conclusions regarding the earliest Iron Age materials from Samaria. Find it in your Library
  • Wright, G. Ernest. “Israelite Samaria and Iron Age Chronology.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 155 (October 1959): 13–29. Praises Kenyon's work at Samaria as “one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of Palestinian excavation” (p. 17), but disagrees strongly with both her methodology and conclusions. Find it in your Library
  • Wright, G. Ernest. “Samaria.” Biblical Archaeologist 22.1 (1959): 67–78. Find it in your Library
  • Wright, G. Ernest. “Archaeological Fills and Strata.” Biblical Archaeologist 25.2 (1962): 34–40. Although here the author analyzes selected vessels from among Kenyon's published assemblage, his articles in Biblical Archaeologist function more as brief methodological treatises than comprehensive ceramic studies. Find it in your LibraryFind it in your Library

Ron Tappy