Top 8 of 2008: Archaeological Discoveries Related to the Bible

2008 was a good year for archaeology.  You can read about the top ten archaeological discoveries in the world this year, but my goal here is simply to suggest what I perceive to be the most significant discoveries for understanding the Bible and its world.  Both the selection and the ranking is purely subjective; there were no polls, editorial committees, or coin tosses.  For another opinion, take a look at the list of Dr. Claude Mariottini

1. Khirbet Qeiyafa (and inscription).  The new excavations of this fortified site in the Shephelah ranks as #1 for the following reasons:

1) The site was occupied for only a limited time during the reign of King David.

2) The site is located near the battle location of David and Goliath.

3) A strongly fortified site is indicative of a strong central government, at a time when scholars
question the existence of such. 

4) A early Hebrew inscription discovered this summer points to the site’s owners (Judeans) and the state of literacy in this period. 

5) These discoveries will certainly shed light on what is currently the most debated issue in biblical archaeology: the nature of Israel/Judah during the 10th century.

Elah Valley aerial from west, tb011606779 marked Elah Valley from the west

2. Gath excavations.  It’s not a single discovery that puts the excavations of this Philistine city in the number two spot, but rather the cumulative results of a very profitable season.  This includes possible early Iron IIA material (see above debate), a 10th century seal impression, two Assyrian destruction layers, methodological advances, as well as other significant remains from the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Ages.

Gath, Tell es-Safi, Area E excavations from east, tb060906085dddGath excavations, Area E, Summer 2006

3. New discoveries at Herod the Great’s tomb.  The tomb was discovered and identified in 2007, but on-going excavation in 2008 revealed additional coffins, including one that may belong to one of Herod’s wives and another to one of his sons.  They also found a theater that sat 750 people and included a VIP room with beautiful wall paintings.  All of this further confirms the previous identification that Herod’s tomb was located on the slope of the Herodium.

4. The “First Wall” of Jerusalem.  A well-preserved portion of the Hasmonean wall (2nd century B.C.) was uncovered on the south side of Jerusalem.  While parts of this wall have been excavated previously, there are two advantages to the current excavation:

1) It is being carried out with the latest in archaeological knowledge.

2) The remains will be preserved and visible to visitors.

5. Alphabetic Inscription from Zincirli. The Kuttamuwa Stele is a large well-preserved funerary inscription from the 8th century B.C. city of Sam’al (modern Zincirli) that sheds light on the beliefs of the afterlife of one of Israel’s northern neighbors.  For more on the content of the inscription, see this.  This is the only discovery on this list which is also on Archaeology Magazine’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2008.

6. Iron Age Seals from Jerusalem.  Many inscriptions were found in Jerusalem at different times this year, including the Seal of Shlomit (aka Temah), the Seal of Gedaliah, the Seal of Netanyahu, and the Seal of Rephaihu.  The first two were discovered in Eilat Mazar’s excavation of the potential area of “David’s palace,” and the other two were found relatively close by (Western Wall and Gihon Spring).  Gedaliah is mentioned by name in Jeremiah 38:1, and Shlomit may be mentioned in 1 Chronicles 3:19.  Some might rank these discoveries higher in the list, but I have not because so many have already been found, including many in this area and many that mention other biblical figures.

7. Pre-8th century B.C. neighborhood in the City of David.  This report received little notice, as far as I could tell, but could be quite significant in our understanding of the growth of Jerusalem in the earliest centuries of Judean rule.  While these discoveries were made in 2007, they were only publicized in 2008 (thus qualifying them for this list).  In short, the archaeologists found five Iron Age strata which included a group of houses that dated “earlier than the 8th century.”  Excavators rarely uncover houses in Jerusalem, and these would be the earliest I know of from the Iron Age.

8. Philistine temple near Gerar.  I heard very little of this discovery, but it makes the list because Philistine temples are both rare and of biblical interest (see Judges 16:23-30 and 1 Samuel 5:2-5). 

Other Philistine temples have been excavated at Tel Qasile and Ekron (and Aren Maier has teased that he may have another at Gath).

Other discoveries that did not make the top 8 include the sarcophagus fragment of the son of the High Priest in Jerusalem, the “Christ Inscription” in Egypt, and a Jerusalem quarry found in Sanhedria. 

The on-going Temple Mount sifting project deserves mention (and support).

Other finds that did not make the list are the perfume bottle that Mary Magdalene used to anoint
Jesus’ feet and the water tunnel that David used to conquer Jerusalem.  Perhaps more information or discoveries will convince me that these are more than attempts to gain publicity.

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Khirbet Qeiyafa: Two New Articles

The Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has a summary of the Kh. Qeiyafa excavations.  Most of the information has already been reviewed at this blog and others, but the article is nicely presented with beautiful photographs (online teaser here).  The article concludes with editor Hershel Shanks pressing excavator Yosef Garfinkel to release photographs of the ostracon.

So what does the inscription say? The decipherment has been assigned to Haggai Misgav, a Hebrew University epigrapher. “So can we see a high-resolution image of the inscription?” I asked Garfinkel. “Maybe our readers would have some helpful suggestions for Misgav,” I urged. All to no effect. Yossi stuck to the time-honored tradition that a readable picture of the inscription remain a secret until the scientific report is published in a scientific journal by the scholar assigned to publish it: Remember the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Be a hero! Break the mold,” I urged Yossi. No way, he responded. He did tell us that the first line contains the Hebrew words “don’t do,” and that “king,” “judge” and “slave” also seem to be legible, but “it is still premature to talk about the content,” he maintains.
So when will we see a picture of the inscription with all of its indistinct letters? If the past is any guide, it will be a year or more. Is this any way to run a railroad?
Haggai Misgav has a reputation for being a very competent epigrapher. But he can only be helped, not hurt, by what other scholars (and even amateurs) have to say prior to his official publication. You can be sure, he will show the ostracon and high-resolution pictures (and infrared images as well) to friends and colleagues. He will take some of their suggestions and thank them in his publication of the ostracon. So why not enlarge the circle? It cannot hurt, and it may help. In any event, an early look at the inscription will not detract from his fame as the publisher of the famous ostracon from Qeiyafa.

As an aside, if you have this issue of BAR, or online access by personal or institutional subscription, take a look at the third article in the “Strata” column, “Gold-Plated Building Stone Found Near Temple Mount.”  Very interesting.

(HT: Joe Lauer)

The discussion about the site identification of Qeiyafa is continued by Nadav Na’aman in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (8/24; full pdf online).  He disagrees with Garfinkel’s identification of the site as Shaaraim, in his article entitled “Shaaraim – The Gateway to the Kingdom of Judah.”  The abstract reads:

The article discusses the location of the city of Shaaraim mentioned in Josh 15:36 and 1 Sam 17:52. It first argues that its proposed identification with Khirbet Qeiyafa, north of the Elah Valley is mistaken. Then it argues that Shaaraim is located on the main road that led from the Valley of Elah to the city of Gath. This article proposes that the place-name Shaaraim means “gate” and that the city was named so because it was located on the western border of Judah with Philistia, a place that was seen as the gateway to the kingdom of Judah.

Na’aman makes some points that I have made previously, and that I think are obvious and difficult to circumvent.  I am working on an article on the subject and thus will restrain myself from further analysis at this time.

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Khirbet Qeiyafa: A Primer

I’m in the midst of compiling my “Top Five” list of archaeological discoveries of the year, and since Khirbet Qeiyafa stands a chance at making the top of the list, I thought it might be appropriate to share a recent “introduction” to the site that was included in the latest BiblePlaces Newsletter.  This may be especially helpful to those who have not had the time to read some of the lengthy posts here.


Defining terms: Khirbet is a word with a meaning similar to “tell.”  Whereas a tell has many layers, a khirbet consists of one or two, meaning that people only lived there in one or two periods in ancient times.  Khirbet is often translated “ruin,” as opposed to a tell, which is translated as “mound.”


Qeiyafa is the name the locals gave to this particular ruin.  Sometimes the modern names preserve the ancient name (for instance, Beisan was the Arabic name of biblical Beth Shean). 


Where is it?:  Kh. Qeiyafa is located in the western foothills (Shephelah) of the Judean hill country.  More specifically, it sits on the northern side of the Elah Valley.


Elah Valley, that sounds familiar: Yes, that’s because when David fought Goliath, the two armies were situated on hills on opposite sides of the Elah Valley (1 Sam 17:2-3).

Elah Valley aerial from west, tb011606772_marked


David and Goliath?: That’s where this whole story gets real interesting.


Tell me more: After two seasons of excavating, the ruins at Kh. Qeiyafa date to approximately 1000 B.C.  According to the biblical chronology, David became king over Judah in about 1000 B.C.


Too bad they didn’t find an inscription: Actually, they did!  It may be the earliest Hebrew inscription.  It is quite difficult to read, which is why a translation has not yet been published.


Is Qeiyafa in the Bible?: Maybe.  The excavator once suggested that the site was Azekah (1 Sam 17:1).  Now he has proposed that it is Shaaraim (1 Sam 17:52).  Another scholar has identified the site as Gob (2 Sam 21:18-19).  I have argued that it may be Ephes-dammim, where the Philistine army was camped when they fought David (1 Sam 17:1).


What’s the bottom line:
1) This is an important site from the time of David.

2) Critical scholarship that has tended to minimize the importance of the Israelites during this time may need to revise their conclusions. 

3) The inscribed potsherd is likely to be a big story when it is translated. 

4) Continued excavations will likely reveal more in future years.


Where can I find more?: You can google Qeiyafa, go straight to the excavation’s website (#1 and #2), read my analysis of why the site may be Ephes-dammim, and why I don’t think it is Shaaraim or Gob.  Other posts I have written (or will write) may be found here.

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264 Gold Coins Found in City of David

The excavations south of the Dung Gate, where previously an announcement was made of the discovery of the palace of Queen Helene of Adiabene, is the site of a cache of Byzantine coins.  A Byzantine tourist volunteering at the dig made the find yesterday.  CNN reports:

Some Israeli archaeologists are having a particularly happy Hanukkah.
The Israel Antiquities Authority reported a thrilling find Sunday — the discovery of 264 ancient gold coins in Jerusalem National Park.
The coins were minted during the early 7th century.
“This is one of the largest and most impressive coin hoards ever discovered in Jerusalem — certainly the largest and most important of its period,” said Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, who are directing the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Researchers discovered the coins at the beginning of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which started at sunset on Sunday.
One of the customs of the holiday is to give “gelt,” or coins, to children, and the archaeologists are referring to the find as “Hanukkah money.”
The 1,400-year-old coins were found in the Giv’ati car park in the City of David in the walls around Jerusalem National Park, a site that has yielded other finds, including a well-preserved gold earring with pearls and precious stones.
They were in a collapsed building that dates back to the 7th century, the end of the Byzantine period. The coins bear a likeness of Heraclius, who was the Byzantine emperor from 610 to 641.

Usually archaeologists do not want to publicize the discovery of gold during an ongoing excavation, as it can lead to unwanted attention.  Perhaps word got out before they could swear everyone to secrecy.

The rest of the story is here.  You can also read about it at Arutz-7, Jerusalem Post, and the government press release.

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Hanukkah Re-creation in Hasmonean Village

Hanukkah begins at sundown tonight.  The Washington Post reports on a city in Israel that has re-created the story.

Dressed in a tunic and brandishing a sword, Zohar Baram leaps around the makeshift stage in the re-created Israeli village of Kfar Hashmonaim as dozens of children follow the action.
“I am the old Mattathias, and I have seen a lot in my life,” he says in a booming voice. “The Greeks have forbidden us from reading the Torah and observing the Sabbath. . . . We are Jews, and we will always be Jews. Whoever is for God, follow me!”
What follows is a tale of military triumph and a miraculous supply of oil, a story told the world over that gains magic when recounted in the land where it took place. The reenactment of the Hanukkah story, which commemorates the time when a small band of Jews, the Hasmoneans, fought the Greeks for the right to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, is only part of a visit to Baram’s Hasmonean village, which tries to re-create life during that period, more than 2,000 years ago.
At the village, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, children can participate in several activities appropriate to Hanukkah. In one area they harvest olives from a tree and crush them into oil using an ancient olive press. In another they make mosaics, and in a third they make copies of ancient coins.

You can read the rest here.

HT: Paleojudaica

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Ivory Pomegranate Inscription Not Forged, Says Scientist

The Biblical Archaeology Society has posted a new study by Professor Yitzhak Roman of Hebrew University in which he concludes that the inscription was carved before the ivory pomegranate was broken.  This agrees with the previous study of André Lemaire of Sorbonne University, against the conclusion of Yuval Goren and the Israel Museum that the inscription was forged in modern times. 

You can get the original report in Hebrew, or an English translation, as well as various related materials at the BAS website.  There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the ANE-2 list, largely attacking the experts or explaining why now it doesn’t matter.  If Roman’s and Lemaire’s arguments are invalid, hopefully someone will step up and refute the evidence.  You can do your own analysis of the photographs here.

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Two Important Coins Found in Temple Mount Rubble

Many interesting finds have been made from the pile of “trash” that was removed from the Temple Mount and dumped in the Kidron Valley.  The Jerusalem Post reports the latest discovery.

Two ancient coins, one used to pay the Temple tax and another minted by the Greek leader the Jews fought in the story of Hanukka, have been uncovered amid debris from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, an Israeli archeologist said Thursday.
The two coins were recently found in rubble discarded by Islamic officials from the Temple Mount. It is carefully being sifted by two archeologists and a team of volunteers at a Jerusalem national park.
The first coin, a silver half-shekel, was apparently minted on the Temple Mount itself by Temple authorities in the first year of the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66-67 CE, said Bar-Ilan University Professor Gabriel Barkay, who is leading the sifting operation.
One side of the coin, which was found by a 14-year-old volunteer, shows a branch with three pomegranates, and the inscription “Holy Jerusalem”; the other side bears a chalice from the First Temple and says “Half-Shekel.”
In the Bible, Jews are commanded to contribute half a shekel each for maintaining the Temple in Jerusalem. At the time of the Temple’s construction in the sixth century BCE, every Jew was ordered to make an obligatory symbolic donation of a half-shekel. This consistent yet small payment allowed all Jews, irrespective of socioeconomic position, to participate in building the Temple.

You can read the full story here.

In related news, the archaeologists in charge of this project face a significant funding shortfall.  A recent letter from Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Zweig concludes:

The Temple Mount Sifting Operation is not a project for an elite group of archaeologists. It is now the property of the entire Jewish people, including the tens of thousands of volunteers who have helped us sift through the rubble over the years. Many times throughout history the most important projects are adopted by private donors who have the privilege to make a significant difference well before the state steps in to help. The Temple Mount Sifting Project is just such an opportunity. Please take part in this effort to save the Temple Mount Antiquities and help us to continue the educational programming which is having an immeasurable impact on thousands of visitors from all walks of Jewish life.

You can read more about this important project and learn how to make a contribution here

HT: Joe Lauer

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Video Review: Noah’s Ark in Iran

Robert Cornuke, renowned discoverer of the true Mount Sinai, location of the Ark of the Covenant, and anchors from the Apostle Paul’s shipwrecked boat, has recently produced a video on his discovery of Noah’s Ark. 

This video has recently been reviewed by Gordon Franz, Bill Crouse, and Rex Geissler, who note:

“Because of the excellent production quality, we are concerned once again that its sensational claims will mislead the Christian public.”

From the review:

The main premise of the video, as stated on the back cover of the video box, is that: “Based on the testimony of the Bible, personal investigation, examination of evidence, and other factors, Cornuke points to Mount Suleiman in the modern-day country of Iran, as the most probable resting place for Noah’s Ark.” This premise, however, collapses on Biblical grounds and other known facts.
Cornuke bases his conclusion on five main assumptions:

  • The veracity of the Ed Davis testimony as to the location of the Ark
  • The region (country) of Ararat (Urartu) extended into the central Elburz mountain range in Iran
  • An interpretation of Genesis 11:2 would mean that the Ark landed in Iran, east of Shinar (modern-day, south central Iraq)
  • Other ancient sources, for example Josephus, might extend the Land of Ararat eastward into Iran
  • The rock outcrop they found on Suleiman is the Ed Davis object, is petrified wood, and by implication, the remains of Noah’s Ark

The review then considers each of those assumptions.

The problem is, as with all of Cornuke’s “discoveries,” that they are never published in a credible journal where specialists in the relevant fields can respond.  Instead, Cornuke (like his predecessor Ron Wyatt) goes straight to the public, where the standards are much, much lower.  Sadly, perhaps no group is more gullible to these sorts of claims than evangelical Christians. 

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Photos from Iran, ancient Persia

If you’ve been looking for photos of Iran/Persia, you won’t find any in the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands.  Maybe one day I’ll make it there, but I don’t have any plans in the near future.  In the meantime, Stephen Jones has sent a link to a terrific collection of photos on flickr, including Susa, Persepolis, and some from the Iranian National Museum.  The photos include helpful historical descriptions.

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