That’s what I said to myself when I realized I hadn’t posted a blog in more than a month: that’s what finishing up a semester and the big rush of completing a book can do for you — along with being determined to take a few days off during the holidays.
So here we are on the last day of the year, and I thought I’d highlight a few of the many interesting stories from the world of archaeology, especially as it relates to finds in Israel, the West Bank, and other areas associated with the Bible.
One interesting story doesn’t relate directly to the Bible, other than to the highly metaphorical stories of creation in Genesis 1 and 2: an article in the June issue of Nature revealed that fossilized remains identified as Homo sapiens have been found in Morocco that date back 315,000 years, pushing back the origin of our species considerably further than previously thought. The finds in Morocco — in northwest Africa — also indicate that humans probably did not emerge from an idyllic spot in East Africa, as earlier proposed, but must have developed over a broader area.
Closer to the biblical world, archaeologists wrapping up a lengthy dig at Gezer uncovered three bodies of residents who died in a fiery conflagration dating to the 13th century BCE — about the same time Egypt’s Pharaoh Merneptah claims to have attacked and burned the city. Mernaptah is best known to biblical students for a monumental stele on which he claims to have conquered a number of cities and peoples in the Levant, including a people called “Israel” — the earliest reference to Israelites outside of the Bible. Merneptah overstated his case, saying “Israel is laid waste: his seed is no more” — but Israel was just beginning.
Excavators found an ashy destruction layer more than three feet deep in parts of Gezer: an adult and a child whose bodies were discovered were apparently inside an industrial building when the roof and walls collapsed, burying them beneath the debris — only to be found 3200 years later. The bodies were so badly burned that their gender could not be determined, but the child was wearing earrings that survived. One can only imagine the circumstances of their deaths: perhaps they were hiding from rampaging fighters, or trying to loot something from the building before fleeing. In either case, they were unsuccessful.
In Jerusalem, archaeologists digging on the eastern slopes of the “City of David” reached a noticeable destruction layer that was uneven, but could be evidence of the Babylonians’ burning of the city in 587 BCE. The primary indicator is the discovery of many storage jars bearing rosette stamps on the handles, an indicator that they had been used in the payment of taxes or levies to the government. Earlier forms of the stamps also bore the inscription “lemelech,” meaning “for the king,” so they are commonly referred to as LMLK seals.
The excavators proposed that the uneven depth of the destruction layer — up to three feet thick in some places and barely noticeable in others — may indicate that the conquerors did not burn every building, possibly selecting those that were most strategic or valuable, such as the storehouses where the LMLK jars — containing both dry and liquid contents — were kept.
Several interesting finds emerged from excavations at Timnah, a copper mining camp deep in southern Israel, across the Aravah Valley from ancient Edom, where other copper mining and smelting operations have been found. The site, once known as “Slave’s Hill,” is in such an arid region that fragments of textiles dating back to the time of King Solomon have been preserved, offering the oldest known examples outside Egypt of textiles colored with plant-based dyes. The existence of brightly colored and patterned clothing — which would have been expensive — in such a remote location indicates that many of the people working (or supervising) there were not slaves at all, but skilled workers who did very well. The discovery of fish bones and other imported foods also indicates a higher than expected standard of living for people working in such a desolate region. The existence of large mining operations dating to the 10th-11th century BCE is clear, but material finds are not yet sufficient to determine if it was run by Egyptians, Israelites, or Edomites: debate on that issue is as hot as the climate in the southern Negev. See this earlier blog for more on that site, including what we can learn from some well-preserved donkey dung.
Finally, one of the more interesting finds of the year came about as a result of unconscionable destruction and vandalism, when ISIS militants in the Iraqi city of Mosul tunneled into the mound beneath a site known as known as Nebi Yunus, traditionally (but erroneously) thought of as the tomb of the prophet Jonah. The story was reported by The Telegraph, among other outlets.
What’s beneath it was actually a palace first built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705-681BCE) in ancient Nineveh. Sennacherib’s rule included the northern part of Israel, and he famously conquered dozens of cities in Judah before threatening Jerusalem in 701 BCE. While tunneling for portable artifacts that could be sold on the black market to finance their murderous operations, the militants uncovered and left in place large wall panels, including a massive marble cuneiform inscription and a relief sculpture of divine figures using plant fronds to sprinkle the “water of life,” presumably for the benefit of the king or other humans: perhaps they were hoping for a prosperous new year, though they celebrated it as the “Akitu” festival in the springtime.
Archaeology is attractive for many reasons, not least because it’s a field in which everything old is new again. If you’d like to try your hand at archaeology, consider joining me on a dig at Jezreel this summer, where Campbell University Divinity School is part of the Jezreel Expedition consortium, and Nurturing Faith Experiences is partnering with Campbell to offer the experience of a lifetime. You can read more about it and register here: if experiencing a dig is on your bucket list, we can guarantee you one bucket after another. I look forward to hearing from you!