In the Footsteps of King David: Revelations from an Ancient Biblical City
Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor and
Michael G Hasel
Thames & Hudson
256pp, 110 illustrations
Hardback, £24.95

It is a real pleasure to read an account of an excavation presented as a fascinating detective story and an intellectual adventure. After seven seasons of work at Khirbet Qeiyafa, in Israel's Valley of Elah, the authors have rescued King David from the mists of mythology and brought him into the light of history and into the glaring spotlight of modern media. The site and King David hit the headlines in 2008 when The New York Times ran the story, which went viral. Now we have the more considered version from the excavators themselves.

This is a story close to my heart. In 1968, keen but inexperienced, I was given a job digging at the great Biblical tel site of Lachish with Professor Yohan Aharoni. On one of our occasional days off, a relief from the heat and dust, Professor Aharoni and his assistant Anson Rainey borrowed a military truck. 'We are going to see the landscape of the Bible,' he announced. We headed north-east towards Jerusalem, into the hill country of the Shephelah until we reached the verdant Valley of Elah, a route to the Mediterranean, and pulled up. 'This is where David killed Goliath,' cried Aharoni. 'In that direction – to the west – was Philistine territory. Behind us was the Kingdom of Judah. This was a bloody border'. We drove on, following the Philistine line of retreat to Gath. Then on to Ashdod and Ashkelon, their cities on the coast. Not surprisingly, Professor Aharoni went on to write The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, 1979. What none of us knew at the time was that immediately above where we stopped on the north side of Elah Valley were the ruins of Khirbet Qeiyafa. So why is this tumble of stones important? It is because here, for the first time, archae-ologists have revealed the extensive remains of a well-planned, fortified late 11th- to early 10th-century city belonging to the Kingdom of Judah, at the time of King David.

Professor Aharoni's generation of heroic archaeologists developed what was a generally accepted chronology and historical narrative for this period. Unfortunately, there was an element of circularity about their logic based on unsound Biblical foundations. The Bible is not a basis for dating archaeological remains. By the 1980s their assumptions were under attack. The 'minimalist' school rejected the historicity and reliability of the Bible story. David was seen as a kind of King Arthur figure – more myth than reality, even if he is mentioned more often in the Bible than anyone else. If he existed he probably resembled a Bedouin chieftain, more at home in a tent than a palace. The 'minimalists' put more trust in the contemporary inscriptions, of Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians, than in the Bible – and these sources do not mention anyone called David.

Now history is being revised again. Here, the authors explain why traces of the Kingdom of Judah, or David, Solomon and their successors are so elusive. In Jerusalem or in tel sites, such as Lachish, the deposits are deeply buried or destroyed. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In 1993 the Tel Dan stela was found. Its Aramaic inscription records the defeat of the King of Israel and the King of the 'House of David'. The stela suggests that David was no myth. But what kind of ruler was he?

This fascinating book describes the large-scale, open-area excavation of a fortified city. Its plan is distinctly of the Kingdom of Judah, with thick casemate walls around the inner perimeter. The occupants left huge quantities of animal bones but none of the porcine variety. The cult-rooms contained no icons of human figures – as usually occur on Philistine or Canaanite sites – and a pot sherd found inscribed in Hebrew, included the phrase 'thou shalt not'. There were also lots of iron weapons – still a rarity in the region at that time. Clearly these people were ahead in the local arms race. Slingstones were for the birds. The excavation reveals the emergence of a centrally governed, urbanised society and the radiocarbon dates fit the time of King David. Recent excavations at Lachish and nearby Khirbet al-Ra'i paint a similar picture.

All this proves that King David is not simply a mythical folk hero but, more importantly, the authors also provide a well-considered and absorbing account of the shifting geo-politics of this important region of the Middle East 3000 years ago, as complex and conflicted then as, unfortunately, it is today.

David Miles