Total Archaeology at Tel Akko: Our Learning Journey

Article—Issue 25 (March, 2020)

By Prof. Nancy Tan

On 30th June 2019, six students and I embarked on our new adventure to be part of the archaeology project at Tel Akko. We joined a larger team comprising students researchers, and professors from Penn State University and Claremont Graduate School, as well as a few other local archaeologists and researchers. We were based at Nautical College, a naval college in the region.

I have taught archaeology in my classes but only in a limited way — from what I have studied in books. I usually introduce what it is, and crucial discoveries that had changed the knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, impacting theories and facts about her origins, history, contexts, and culture, as well as information about the larger backdrop where ancient Israel was located, of the ancient Near East. I had visited archaeology sites, and learned about what was done at a site, but I had never been part of an archaeological dig before. This trip has bridged the gap of knowing and experiencing. The most invaluable treasure that I took away from this trip was that I did not go to learn all about the subject on my own, but together with six students. We learned about Total Archaeology from scratch together. We shared and learned from each other as our field supervisors guided us at the excavation site and the pottery-washing field. Together, we shared the marvels and joys of uncovering new experiences as we engaged with the earth of past civilizations. We were covered in dirt and under the merciless, scorching heat most of the time and under the merciless scorching heat — an entirely different classroom arrangement that I think any of us has ever had!

Total Archaeology

The students from the above-mentioned institutions were taking credit-bearing undergraduate courses on archaeology. Therefore, the day’s schedule included late afternoon lectures and also some workshops, depending on the modules the students have chosen. As our team only participated for the first week of the project, we attended all the introductory lectures, workshops and field trips that helped us orientate the local region — their history, context, purposes, as well as aspirations of the possibilities of future archaeological projects in the region.

Prof. Ann Killebrew at the introductory lecture says, “Archaeology is a celebration of humanity.” She goes on to explain it is about how we, the diggers of today, interact and engage with the humanity in history and early civilizations.

At the same time, archaeology is not simply excavation for ancient artifacts of ceramics, figurines and inscriptions, but it also includes other sciences such as archaeometallurgy (i.e., the study of how humans used metals in early civilization), archaezoology (i.e., the study of animals in the contexts of the archaeological sites), and archaeobotany (i.e., the study of plants and how they co-exist with other living beings in the contexts of the archaeological sites).[1] There are also other crucial sciences involved, such as geophysical sciences, ceramics and pottery analysis, 3-Dimensional photo-imaging, etc. What makes archaeology at Tel Akko different from other archaeology projects is its commitment to “Total Archaeology”, i.e., the task of conservation and community outreach.

It is undeniable that excavation is destructive in nature. As we plough through the layers of earth that have been embedded for many centuries, we inevitably disturb and even destroy the many habitats of the living beings that have made these soil their homes. Every year while the excavating is going on at the tel, groups of students work with the local community to preserve the buildings in the old city. Some of these buildings were ruins of the Crusaders period, and most of the buildings were reconstructed or built by the Turks in the 18th century. The old city was declared a World Heritage by UNESCO in 2001. Led by the locals, they would embark on projects such as reinforcing the disintegrating old mortar that hold the old stones together, etc. This is the conservation part of Total Archaeology.

In one of the introductory lectures, the local social worker in Akko, Ory Rosin, presented on the social fabric of the community in Akko — the religious and ethnic tensions and how projects are geared to help and encourage the community to learn to respect and live harmoniously with each other. Total Archaeology strives to make a connection with the local communities. The local residents are invited to be part of the excavation, and there is always a team, especially the youths who join the students in excavating to excavate at the tel. The local community is constantly updated on the progress of the excavation. This is a shared project with the locals, and open communication is kept to its best integrity. Thus, students are involved in a few of the community buildings or outreach projects in the city. In other words, total archaeology, as Ann Killebrew said at the start, is a celebration of humanity in the past and at present. The engagement is a dynamic one. As it acknowledges the destructive component in excavation, it seeks to build the present from its past — through all means and as much as creativity and its local authorities permit.

Why Akko?

In the Hebrew Bible, there is only one occurrence of its mention in Judges 1:31: Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob. Here it states here clearly that Akko never became part of Israel. It was occupied by the Phoenicians during the biblical period. Indeed, there is no direct bearing of Akko to the Hebrew Bible in this sense, but its significance in the region cannot be trivialized to our appreciation of the Levant area, especially during the biblical periods.

There was settlement in Akko in the 3rd millennium for a few centuries, after which it was abandoned for a period of time, but from the middle Bronze Age (approximately 2000 BCE) onwards, it has had an unbroken record of settlement. While its significance to ancient Israel seems trifle, it is mentioned in several inscriptions and also well-known ancient Near East manuscripts: the Ebla texts (c.a. 25th century BCE); and in Akkadian cuneiform — the Amarna Letters (14th century), and other letters in ancient Mesopotamia. It had been was an important port way before Israel was on the map in the Levant, and archaeological discoveries from the Tel Akko since its first excavation in 1970s, led by Moshe Dothan, prove the city prosperous and important. Prof. Michal Artzy explained to us, during the tour on site, that the port was originally outskirts of Tel Akko where we were excavating. However, due to inundation and erosion of the River Na’aman, the city moved from the Tel Akko site to the bay area, which we now call the “Old City”. This probably took place in the 3rd century BCE.[2] The tel became an agricultural plot and the significance of its name as Akko shifted to the bay area where fortresses and buildings were raised. Evidence from the archaeology digs of Tel Akko supports this theory.

A recent article on Killebrew’s discovery of large amounts of iron slags on the 6th – 4th century BCE strata, and further research indicates blacksmithing, specifically iron, was one of its major industries then. Her research also traces the origin of the iron ore to the modern Ajloun in Jordan.[3] These discoveries inform us a lot about the civilizations of the ancient world that our Hebrew Bible was part of.

Akko, Akka, or Acre?

You might have noticed now that this city’s name has many different spellings today, and it has been so since the ancient times. We have called the city “Akko” from the start in this article and we shall explain why here. Throughout Akko’s history, it has been spelled in various ways but generally, its guttural for its first letter and its Hebrew equivalent “kaph” following is retained. Hence, we have Akka, Akko, and Aka found throughout the Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts.[4]

Under the Grecian rule, it was named as Ptolemais (Acts 21:7, which Paul visited), and apparently referred to as “Ace-Ptolemais”, and later as “Antioch in Ptolemais”. Coins discovered in the region that dated to the mid-first century found “AKH” minted on them. Thus it was concluded that the variation of forms “Ak-” was never abandoned until the Roman period, during which they renamed it as Germanica.[5]

It was only until the 7th century CE when, the Arabs conquered Akko that its original name Akka was restored. Then from the 12th century when the Crusaders first took hold of the city from the Muslims and made it their base, it was renamed Saint Jean d’Acre in honor of the Hospitalier of Saint John in Jerusalem. When the Crusaders were defeated in 1187 by Saladin, the city of Akko fell into ruins for about 450 years. During the period of the Crusades, it became clear from relevant texts that when referring to this city, “Acre” became its westernized version and “Akka” its Arabic counterpart. This tendency continues to today.

The tel, however, was given the name “Tell of Foukhar”, meaning “Tell of sherds (or clay)” — noted by M.E.G. Rey’s accounts in 1889 of the Crusaders period.[6] Moshe Dothan took this name. Today the locals call it “Napoleon’s Hill” or “Tel Napoleon” because of the erroneous idea that in 1799, Napoleon’s troops were there when they besieged the city. There is a metal portrait of Napoleon on his horse erected on the tel today. “Tel Akko” is used by archaeologists and in accordance to an 18th century map and referenced elsewhere, which were mentioned by Rey. Following the archaeologists today, we call it “Tel Akko” in this article.


  1. ^ Much of the information mentioned here can be found at their website: Please browse this website for further information on how you can be part of Total Archaeology at Tel Akko.
  2. ^ Martha Risser, “What’s in a Name?” Complutum 26.1 (2015): 205–12.
  3. ^ Cherie Winner, “Forging History: Archaeologists Recreate an Iron Age Smithy in Northern Israel,” Penn State News (Pennsylvania), published 20th May, 2019.
  4. ^ Risser, 207.
  5. ^ Arie Kindler, “Akko: A City of Many Names,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 231 (1978 Oct): 51–55.
  6. ^ Risser, 210. Cf. 211 for the possible theories of origin of this name. Risser is referring to the following two publications by Rey: 1. “Topographie De La Ville D’acre au XIII Siècle,” Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France XXXIX (1878): 115–45; and 2. “Supplement: L’étude sur la topographie de la Ville d’Acre au XIIIè siècle,” Mémoires de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France XLIX (1889):1–18.