Smoking Gun at Ai

By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 2003, updated, 2007

Rough Draft 

1.  Introduction

2.  Addendum, 2003

3.  First Discovery

4.  The Gate of the City

5.  The Early Bronze Age City

6.  The Meaning of Ai

7.  The Location of Ai



1.  Introduction


Donovan Courville argued that the Conquest took place at the end of the Early Bronze Age (cf., Exodus Problem and its Ramifications).  If that is the case, then we should expect to find a heap of stones at Ai.  Joshua 8:28-29 says:


“So Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap forever, a desolation to this day.  And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until evening.  And as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his corpse down from the tree, cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raise over it a great heap of stones that remains to this day.”  (Emphasis added.)


For there to be a match between Courville’s theory and what Joshua 8 tells us, these key points must be fulfilled:


1)  there must be a HEAP of stones located at Ai.

2)  the stones should be located on the ruins of the GATE of the city.

3)  the heap of stones should be on top of the last EBA gate complex.


Joseph Callaway cites Marquet-Krause’s mention of a heap of stones found at Ai.  This heap was found on top of the ruins of an Early Bronze Age 3 “citadel” at et-Tell.  The reference is from her book, Les fouilles de ‘Ay (et-Tell) 1933-1935, p. 16.  Callaway says:


“The citadel at Ai, located at Site A in Fig. 1, was discovered by Marquet-Krause in 1934.  Working with 80 to 100 men for ‘…un long mois’ [a long month], a six-meter heap of stones was laboriously removed from what proved to the ruins of Sanctuary A and the citadel.”  (Cf., J. A. Callaway & K. Schoonover, “The Early Bronze Age Citadel at Ai [Et-Tell]”, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 207, p. 41, Oct 1972; note: a meter is 3.28 feet, so the heap would have been 6 x 3.28 = 19.68 feet.)


I began to wonder whether Marquet-Krause had committed one of the archaeological crimes of the century by destroying this heap¾the only evidence we have, outside of the Bible, that Joshua was a real individual.  I asked some French-speaking members on a different chronology list if they could find MK’s book and see whether or not she had the minimal scholarly competence of taking a picture of this amazing heap of stones before trotting it all away.  To my surprise (and wonder), a French-speaker named Jean-Fred was able to find a picture of the heap, and courteously provided a picture of it at his website below.  He also provided a translation of MK’s remarks about the stones.


One thing I would like to find out at this point is whether any skeletal remains were found underneath the rocks.  Of course, any skeleton under that great weight of rocks would be crushed.  If the skeleton survived through the centuries, it could easily have gone unrecognized, and the skeletal remains mixed up in the dirt and lost forever.  I am hoping, however, that someone might have noticed it before destroying the site.


I regard this heap of stones¾now available in pictorial form¾as virtually confirming Courville’s theory that the Conquest took place at the end of the Early Bronze Age.  It is to be noticed that the stones were not found on ruins from the Iron Age, but on the ruins from the Early Bronze Age gate complex.  Accordingly, in the New Courville view, the last of the Early Bronze Age strata should be dated to around 1404 BC, the time of the Conquest under Joshua.


Jean’s Fred’s site is at:


Of course, the views I have expressed above are solely my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of others.  (Note: I have not corrected Jean Fred’s translation into English.)



2.  Addendum, 2003:


A few weeks after writing the above, I was doing research on the Internet and came across an article by Mark Aardsma at:


I scrolled down the 2001 article, “Is there evidence of the conquest at Ai?” and lo, there was the picture of the heap of stones at Ai!  Though I do not agree that this proves that the Conquest took place in 2400 B.C.¾as claimed by the “biblical chronologist” website¾I do need to revise the above comments in order to give credit to Mark for first putting the picture on the Web.  It was confirmed to me in private correspondence that the picture was part of the original 2001 article and that the heap of stones information was published by Dr. Gerald Aardsma in his 1993 book, A New Approach to the Chronology of Biblical History from Abraham to Samuel.  So, much as I’d like to crow about being the first to get this picture onto the Web, credit goes to Mark for getting the scoop.



ADDED, 2007


3.  First Discovery, updated 2007


Since writing the above report in 2003, I have discovered that Courville mentioned the heap of stones at Ai in a 1975 article.  The article was about chronological revision, including an overall critique of various dating schemes, and some discussion of the archaeology of Jericho and of Ai.  According to Courville:


“The date for the destruction of Ai, as indicated by the associated pottery should be the same as for the destruction of the Jericho site.  Archaeological research of the site revealed the heap of rocks.  The reports actually emphasize the uninteresting nature of the investigations of the rock heaps in contrast to the more interesting investigations of neighboring sites [footnote 12]….The pottery in association with the destroyed city is of the same era as that of the destruction of Jericho (late Early Bronze) [footnote 13]….”  (Cf., Courville, “Is a Fixed Chronology of Egypt Back to c. 2000 B.C. Mistaken?” in Creation Research Society Quarterly, Vol. 11, March 1975, pp. 206-07.  Footnote 12 was to J. A. Callaway’s excavation report in “The 1966 Ai (Et Tell) Excavations,” BASOR, 1969, 196:4; footnote 13 was from Kathleen Kenyon’s Digging Up Jericho, 1957, p. 115.)


Courville, however, did not provide in the article the all-important picture, which is worth a million syllogisms, in my opinion.  If anyone knows if this heap of stones was mentioned in relation to chronological revision before Courville’s 1975 article, please contact me at and I will add it to this paper.



4.  The Gate of the City


The question has arisen whether the heap of stones was found at the gate of the city, since the excavators only mention a sanctuary and citadel.  According to Callaway::

“The citadel at Ai…was discovered by Marquet-Krause in 1934. Working with 80 to 100 men for ‘…un long mois,’ a six-meter [19.68 feet] heap of stones was laboriously removed from what proved to be the ruins of Sanctuary A and the citadel.”  [Note: “un long mois” means “a long month.”]  (Cf., Joseph Callaway & K. Schoonover, “The Early Bronze Age Citadel at Ai (Et-Tell)” BASOR, 207, 1972.)

“The latter [citadel] was a rectangular tower of stone, about 40 m. long, 10 m. wide, and 5 m. high, built along the west side of the sanctuary.”  (Idem.)


Note that the measurement in feet is: 131 ft. long; 32.8 ft. wide, and 16.4 ft. high¾which means we’re in King Kong territory.  In addition, L. Vincent wrote a summary of the excavations, which was dedicated to MK posthumously, with specific reference to the interpretation of the citadel.  According to Callaway:

“Vincent’s interpretation was based upon conclusions that (1) there were three major Early Bronze Age phases of the city reflected in the sanctuary evidence; (2) that the citadel was associated with the last phase of the city, beginning c. 2600 b.c. [sic] and contemporary with the construction of the latest, and outer, city wall; and (3) that the citadel tower had five rooms in its inner structure accessible from a conjectured super-structure once located on top of the present ruins.”  (Idem; quoting from L. H. Vincent, “Les fouilles d’et-Tell=‘Ai,” Revue Biblique, Vol. 46 [1937], pp. 231-66.)

Doubts about whether rooms were located in the citadel tower led to new excavations in 1968, with three goals in mind:

“(1) to examine the earliest city wall north of the citadel for evidence of the ‘double wall’; (2) to explore the possibility of a gate in the citadel area, seemingly required by the deep passage-like approach leading under the tower from the west at Vincent’s Buttress f, north of Area d, and (3) to discover the nature and sequence of tower and wall structures at Site A.”  (Callaway, op cit., pp. 41-42.) 


I have emphasized the terms “gate” and “required.”  The citadel at Ai was like two other towers, one found at Taanach, and the other at Jericho.  J. Garstang referred to the tower at Jericho as a “gate-tower.”  (The Story of Jericho, p. 85.)  Kathleen Kenyon refers to this east tower at Jericho saying that it may be “part of a gate.” Moreover, “Certainly there would be bound to be a gate on the east side…and it would appear that this was the only gate.”  (Digging Up Jericho, p. 178.)  Given that fortification towers are usually built to protect gates, there does not seem to be any good reason to deny that a gate was located near the Ai tower during the last EBA phase of the city.  It should also be kept in mind that the Israelites had already burned the city for the most part, so piling the rocks on the dead king at the entrance to the city could only be something of an estimate at that point.  Even so, there was, as Callaway mentioned with respect to Ai, a “deep passage-like approach leading under the tower from the west.”  (Callaway, op cit., pp. 41-42.)  A passage-like approach leading to what?  It seems rather likely that the passage-like approach was leading to some kind of entrance, which in turn was guarded by the citadel-tower.


In another article, under a heading called “They City Gates and Fortifications,” Callaway said,


“The Citadel at Site A is representative.  Constructed of fieldstones, this tower was a massive, solid rectangle….The city wall curved gently around Site A,…and the citadel stood high above the wall, commanding the approach to the acropolis area and providing a lookout point over the Lower City.”  (“Excavating Ai [Et-Tell]: 1964-1972,” Biblical Archaeologist, March, 1976, p. 25.)


Moreover, in a chart, Callaway lists the gate associated with the EB3b tower as 1.25 meters wide. (Ibid., p. 28; about four feet.)  The total number of gates excavated at Ai since 1964 is six, and “[f]ortification towers have been excavated at most of the gates.”  (Ibid., p. 24.)

Ai was destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze Age and does not have Middle or Late Bronze Age material.  According to Power and Bull (supervisors at the Ai excavations), the Iron Age village of Ai was unfortified, and “[t]here is no extensive evidence of burning or violent destruction of either [Iron Age] phase.”  (“The 1964 `Ai (Et Tell) Excavations”, BASOR, April, 1965, No. 178, p. 27.)  This led them to deny that the Iron Age village could be associated with the city of Ai captured by Joshua.  (Ibid., pp. 27-28.):


“Early Bronze Age architecture lies immediately under the Iron Age I structures of Fig. 7, with no evidence from the intervening periods represented at all.”  (Ibid., p. 28.)


As with the case of Jericho, there is no archaeological material that can be associated with the Conquest, dated on conventional views either to the end of the Late Bronze Age or to the beginning of the Iron Age.  Thus, some of the most famous incidents recorded in the Bible are left without any representation in the archaeological record.


5.  The Early Bronze Age City


In his 1976 article “Excavating Ai (Et-Tell): 1964-1972”, Callaway provides a chart of the archaeological phases of the city of Ai.  The phases that concern us are the strata labeled as Urban A1 and Iron Age.  (Cf., Biblical Archaeologist, March, 1976, p. 19.)  The following table is based in part on Callaway’s charts on pages 19 and 28 of his article:



Urban A1

Wall A1

Fourth city, thick walls, 27.5 acres


Iron Age


Unwalled village, 2.75 acres




Urban A1 correlates with (1) the Citadel and Sanctuary A at Site A; (2) the fortifications associated with Wall A at Site C; and (3) Wall A at Site D (the “Acropolis”).  (Cf., Callaway, BASOR, No. 178, April, 1965, pp. 13ff.; 40.)


It is easy to see from the above table that the Iron Age village could not have been the city attacked by Joshua, since that city was heavily fortified.  The heavily fortified city of Urban A1 was destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze Age, i.e., at the end of EB3b.  How do we know that the city of Ai was destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze Age?  Power and Bull state:


“Although a thick layer of debris accumulated after the destruction of the Early Bronze city, the communication routes to the acropolis must have remained the same and the tell contours must have remained the same.” (Ibid., p. 22.)


They take the thick debris accumulation as evidence of the destruction of the EBA city.  Callaway & Schoonover also discuss the final Early Bronze Age city:  “The same violent destruction that terminated Sanctuary A brought an end to the Wall A phase on the Acropolis.”  (Ibid, p. 38.)  Also, “A gaping hole in the north wall, which is drawn as a door by Marquet-Krause, is evidence of the disaster.” (Idem.)


In another article, Callaway says, “Violent destruction overtook the city of Ai ca. 2400 B.C. during the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt [sic] and a ‘dark age’ fell upon the land with the appearance of nomadic invaders from the desert.  The site was abandoned and left in ruins.”  (“Excavating Ai”, etc, Biblical Archaeologist, March, 1976, p. 29.)  The reference to nomadic invaders is to the MB1 or Intermediate Bronze Age people, who invaded the Holy Land at the end of the 6th dynasty (not the 5th).  For a critique of the 5th dynasty placement, see Ram Gophna’s, “The Intermediate Bronze Age”, in The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, pp. 126ff.)


In his article on the city of Ai, Ziony Zevit says, “During the period archaeologists call Early Bronze IB…, an unwalled village existed on the tell.  Gradually, this village grew until it developed into a major walled city of 27.5 acres in Early Bronze IC….This city was destroyed at the end of Early Bronze IIIB…, and the site remained unoccupied for more than 1,100 years [sic].”  (“The Problem of Ai,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 11:02, March/April 1985.)  He says that “No evidence whatever of a Middle Bronze Age…or a Late Bronze Age…settlement has been found at the site.”  In addition, “Even at the Iron Age level, the excavations have produced no evidence of either a general destruction or a burning of the Iron Age village.”  Zevit’s concludes: “Whether the story of Ai is historically accurate, however, is not important. What is important is the meaning of the story.”  Zevit takes meaning and truth and plays them off against one another, a sure sign that archaeologists will make any excuse for the conventional chronology, no matter how absurd the result.


Callaway, rather than rejecting Zevit’s speculative reconstruction of the narrative by an  “ancient bard,” also holds on to conventional chronology at all costs:  “Two very important issues in Professor Zevit’s paper need further comment:  First, he is right in concluding that archaeology has wiped out the historical credibility of the conquest of Ai as reported in Joshua 7-8.  The Joint Expedition to Ai worked nine seasons between 1964 and 1976 and spent nearly $200,000, only to eliminate the historical underpinning of the Ai account in the Bible.” (“Was My Excavation of Ai Worthwhile?” BAR, Mar/Apr, 1985.)  Callaway’s second issue was about “how to find a realistic perspective on both the Ai account in the Bible and on the site itself.”  He opts for a “development” view of the story versus Zevit’s “bard” theory, and thinks the story “aquir[ed] a life of its own late in Israel’s history.”


In any case, in the above discussion, it has been sufficiently demonstrated first, that the citadel tower very likely guarded an entrance gate, and second, that the city of Ai was destroyed at the end of the EB3 period.  These findings are consistent with both Classical and New Courville regarding the timing of the Exodus at the end of EB3.  The lack of evidence of any Late Bronze Age or Iron Age heap of stones corresponding to a city-wide destruction layer directly contradicts conventional chronology, as well as other alternative chronology models, so the usual alibi for theory-failure is to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the biblical account.  In our opinion, however, casting doubt on the biblical account in order to save a tottering theory is the last refuge, sometimes even the first, of a bankrupt chronology.


6.  The Meaning of Ai.


Martin Noth believed that the Israelites invented the Ai story in order to explain the origin of the name “Ai” which he thought meant “ruin.”  However, as Zevit points out, “[T]he etymology of the word Ai negates any connection with a word meaning ‘ruin.”  Etymologically, Ai does not refer to a ruin.  In antiquity the name would have been pronounced ghay (guttural gh) [i.e., somewhat like the Scottish “loch” or German “Bach”—VC], which would not have been associated by an Israelite with his Hebrew word for ‘ruin’, ‘iy.  The two words simply didn’t sound anything like each other.  Arabic cognates suggest that the name ghay may have referred to some topographical feature of the city.  The word ghay may have referred to the height of the city.” (Zevit, BAR, 11:02, 1985.)   


7.  The Location of Ai


John Bimson responded to Zevit’s article and claimed that Nisya was the site of Ai rather than et-Tell.  (BAR, 11:05, Sep/Oct 1985.)  He admits that no building remains, nor a destruction level, have been found at Nisya “as one might expect from the Biblical account of Ai’s end” but still claims that “the pottery evidence favors Khirbet Nisya over Khirbet et-Tell as the site of Ai….”  In order to relocate Ai to Nisya, Bimson further argues that Bethel is not Beitin, as archaeologists assume, but is rather el-Bireh.


Zevit responded in the same issue, by pointing out that the excavator of Nisya has not published his results in a major publication, nor in one that can be easily located, thus making it difficult to evaluate the distribution of the pottery evidence.  That aside, however, even if the excavator of Nisya is right that there was a s


mall MB2 settlement on a hill near el-Bireh, Zevit asks, “What has this to do with Ai?”


Moreover, Bimson’s shift of Ai from et-Tell to Nisya was motivated by the glaring contradiction that et-Tell proposes for his chronology.  “Dr. Bimson,” says Zevit, “accepted these conclusions in his 1978 book, Redating the Exodus and the Conquest.  Livingston’s conclusions [the excavator of Nisya] were useful to him in that the Beian = Bethel and the et-Tell = Ai equations created difficulties for the MB II date of the Israelite conquest that he was trying to establish.”  Of course, the complete absence at the site of Ai (et-Tell) of fortifications or pottery from the Middle Bronze Age through the Late Bronze Age is more than just “difficulties.”  It is fatal to Bimson’s alternative chronology.


Zevit refers to Anson Rainey’s critique of Bimson’s position in the Westminster Theological Journal, 33, 1970, and in Israel Exploration Journal 30, 1980, pp. 249ff.)  On the basis of Rainey’s work, Zevit notes that “the linguistic equation Beitin = Bethel is irrefutable [because Hebrew “l” shifts to Arabic “n”], that both Biblical and patristic sources located Bethel where Beitin is, and that el-Bireh does not appear to have been a fortified MB or LB site.”  “All archaeologists,” continues Zevit, “with whom I have conferred on this specific matter agree that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports Rainey.”  Summing up, “So, if el-Bireh is not Bethel, the role of Khirbet Nisya in a discussion of Ai is nil.”  (Cf., BAR, 11:05, 1985.)


In a follow up, Bimson summarized his theory that the Exodus & Conquest took place at the end of the Middle Bronze Age.  (BAR 13:05, Sep/Oct 1987.)  He once again attempted to overturn the near universal identification of et-Tell as the site of Ai by questioning the site of Bethel as Beitin.  He has to do this because the Bible places Bethel close to, and west of, Ai, and et-Tell is the only viable site east of Bethel (i.e., Beitin).  Bimson, following Livingston, also claims the equation between Beitin and Bethel is not absolute, pointing to the phenomena of towns or cities undergoing name changes over the years.  In other words, the Arabs who came up with the name Beitin for et-Tell merely mistook et-Tell for the real site of Ai, which is Nisya in Bimson’s view.  In addition, Bimson appeals to geographic data, noting that the Onomasticon of Eusebius says Bethel was near the 12th Roman mile marker from Jerusalem, and from this concludes that Beitin would be too far north of Jerusalem.  Further, according to Gen. 12:8, Abraham rested on a mountain that was between Bethel and Ai, but no such mountain exists between Beitin and et-Tell.  Instead, Bimson claims, the site at Bireh matches the evidence for ancient Bethel.  It is 12 Roman miles from Jerusalem, a mountain is to the east of Bireh called Jebel et-Tawil and could be the one on which Abraham built an altar to the Lord.  Moreover, Bireh is close to Khirbet Nisya, which is the city of Ai in Bimson’s view.


Unfortunately for Bimson’s theory, the earlier archaeological work at Nisya found no occupation before the Iron Age, as he himself admits.  Nevertheless, subsequent work by the Israeli Department of Antiquities as well as Livingston, during the 1980’s, found some material from the Chalcolithic, EB1, and Middle Bronze II levels.  Bimson does not specify which MB2 period¾a, b, or c¾though he does say that occupation ceased “at the time of the MB II/LB transition.”  Bimson also admits that “no building remains have been found that can be attributed to the Middle Bronze II period” but explains this as being the result of the “ravages of time and human activity.”  (This is similar to the reason—or excuse—invoked by Kenyon on why she could not find even a trace of a Late Bronze Age wall at Jericho, which was supposedly the time of the Conquest on conventional views.)


Anson Rainey responded to Bimson’s claims in the Sep/Oct, 1988 issues of BAR (14:05).  He pointed out that when measured from the Damascus Gate, the distances in Eusebius’s Onomasticon check out, including the distance from Jerusalem to Bethel.  Rainey says, “Livingston and Bimson have evidently accepted the specious argument that one may measure these distances from the Muristan, a square in the midst of the Old City of Jerusalem.  Thus they claim to pull the twelve-mile marker back southward to the town of el-Bireh, where they want to place Bethel.”  Further, “It just so happens that at about twelve Roman miles north of the Damascus Gate (already past the town of el-Bireh) there is a turnoff to the northeast and that road leads one directly to a town called today Beitin.”


Rainey also points to the name equivalency between Bethel and Beitin, citing the phenomenon of final “l” sound changing to final “n” sound, e.g., something like “Beitil” to “Beitin.”  Other examples are Ishmael to Isma‘in, and Jezreel to Zer‘in.  Rainey argues that it is specious to move the name Bethel from the impressive site at Beitin to the much less impressive village site at el-Bireh.  He says, “If Bethel is not Beitin, then there is no Historical Geography of the Bible.”  With respect to the question of a mountain between Bethel and Ai, Rainey says that the Hebrew of Gen. 12:8 means “mountainward” or “towards the hill country,” based on the Hebrew hahara, which is directive, similar to araa hannege, “to the south land” of Gen. 20:1.  It should also be noted that the Bible uses the term har for mountains, mounts, or hills.  Moreover, as Rainey points out there is high ground between Beitin and et-Tell that prevents eye contact between the two sites.  He concludes that “there are no geographical arguments in favor of Bimson and Livingston’s attempt to move Bethel to el-Bireh and Ai to Khirbet Nisya.”


Despite his skepticism about the truthfulness of the biblical narratives, Zevit in his earlier paper about et-Tell says that he was:


“struck by the astounding extent to which the topographic details of the battle of Ai stated or implied in the Biblical accounts can be identified on the ground at Khirbet et-Tell and the immediate vicinity.”  (BAR, 11:02, 1985.)


With regard to what lay between Beitin and et-Tell, Zevit says: “Directly west of Khirbet et-Tell is a hilly area containing a few prominent rises and deep ravines.”  There was also a “low, narrow saddle” west of Ai in which Joshua’s 5000 men could hide from view from either Bethel or Ai (Josh. 8:9).  Thus, the topographic details work for both the time of Abraham and the time of Joshua.  Bimson does, however, draw attention to a problem at et-Tell, namely that there does not appear to be any occupation of the Tell past the Iron 1 period, 1050 B.C. in conventional chronology, c. 900 B.C. for New Courville.  The Bible makes reference to returnees after the Exile as returning to their inheritance and living in Ai (Aija) and Bethel (Neh. 11:31), yet there is no material after the IA1 city, and even if IA1 is dated to c. 900 B.C. per New Courville it would not be late enough for the Exile, 587 B.C. or the return from Exile, 445 B.C.  How are we to reconcile the archaeology of et-Tell with the Bible’s description of its occupation?


There are two ways; one, the book of Nehemiah appears to make general references to the cities of the pre-exilic Israelites and the returnees.  For instance, mention is made of the “villages with their fields” that are close to the main towns (Neh. 8:25).  In Nehemiah 11:31, Ai and the other towns are mentioned along with “their villages.”  Hence, it is possible that the pre-exilic or the returning children of Benjamin lived primarily in villages nearby the main towns.  Thus, the site of Ai itself may have been unoccupied while its surrounding villages served as homes for the Israelites both before and after the Exile.  The biblical reference may then be a general reference.


The second way may be more likely, in that Iron 2 or 3 materials will eventually be found at et-Tell.  There are only 9 areas within the mound that have been excavated, mostly around the east wall and in the Iron Age village.  Bimson’s challenge should therefore motivate further archaeological scrutiny of the site of et-Tell in the hopes of finding some later Iron Age material that could correspond with the time of the pre-exilic or returning Israelites.  It should not, however, undermine the view that et-Tell is the ancient site of Ai.  The heap of rocks was found at et-Tell, not at any of the surrounding villages or towns.  Each rock of that great heap is enough to bury the conventional chronology, as well as alternative chronologies, so that they should never be able to rise up again.  We feel therefore that Bimson’s challenge will be met, and all other proposed sites for the city of Ai will fail, indeed must fail.