We live in remarkable days, archaeologically speaking. More excavations at more sites are uncovering a tremendous amount of all kinds of information about ancient civilizations. Much of what is learned doesn’t make for a sensational news story, but is perhaps more important than the headline discovery.
The end of the year is a good time to look back over the stories, and attempting to identify highlights, and even to rank them, provides a good opportunity to determine what we consider important and why. My list here is decidedly subjective, and with my own undeniable biases towards discoveries from the biblical periods made in the land of Israel. The value isn’t in the accuracy of the list but in the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve gained and what may lie ahead. Here, then, is my list of the top 10 discoveries in biblical archaeology in 2019:
1. A seal impression belonging to “Nathan-Melech, servant of the king” discovered in Jerusalem’s City of David. Why is this in my top 10? Scholars believe this is likely the same individual who served Josiah, king of Judah (2 Kgs 23:11). If so, this is an archaeological artifact created by someone named in the Bible.
2. A statue likely depicting an Ammonite king in the 9th or 8th centuries BC discovered in Amman. Why is this in my top 10? Depictions of ancient kings are quite rare from Israel or their neighbors in Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Phoenicia, or Aram.
3. A destruction layer from the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC discovered on the Western Hill of Jerusalem. Why is this in my top 10? The Babylonian conquest is well-documented in the Bible, but archaeologists have found less trace of it in excavations than you might expect.
4. Massive fortifications exposed at Gath. Why is this in my top 10? This provides further insight into the nature of this Philistine city at the time when Goliath went out to battle and never came home.
5. A 7th-century BC seal impression “belonging to Adonijah, the royal steward” discovered in the City of David. Why is this in my top 10? Though this is not the famous Adonijah, son of David, it gives us an ancient example of the same name, in the city where he lived. In addition, this Adonijah was “chief of staff” to one of the kings of Judah, possibly Manasseh and Josiah.
6. The possible discovery of the “Church of the Apostles” at el-Araj (Bethsaida?). Why is this in my top 10? Anything that furthers the discussion about the correct identification of Bethsaida is valuable.
7. A mosaic depicting the Israelites’ encampment at Elim as well as two of the four beasts of Daniel 7 discovered in the ancient synagogue of Huqoq. Why is this in my top 10? Before there were photographs illustrating the biblical record, there were mosaics. But most synagogue mosaics depict Zodiacs and other non-biblical subjects.
8. A mosaic floor in a church at Hippos apparently depicts Jesus’s multiplication of the fish and loaves (Haaretz premium). Why is this in my top 10? This may well be an ancient depiction of a miracle near the place where it happened.
9. An Byzantine Church near Beth Shemesh with an inscription mentioning a “glorious martyr.” Why is this in my top 10? This church is well-preserved, and its mosaics are beautiful.
10. A new DNA study indicating that Philistines living in Ashkelon in the late 12th century BC originated from Greece, Crete, or Sardinia. Why is this in my top 10? The origins of the Philistines has long been debated, and this provides some definitive scientific evidence of their Aegean origin.
Khirbet a-Ra‘i is Ziklag.
Kiriath Jearim is Emmaus.
Temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant discovered at Beth Shemesh.
Top Stories Related to Tourism:
The Ketef Hinnom Archaeological Garden opened, no longer requiring passage through the Begin Center to visit the First Temple period tombs.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project was relaunched at a new location.
A $6 million, 9-year project has made much of Jerusalem’s Old City accessible to wheelchairs.
The outer courtyard of the Tomb of the Kings was reopened to tourists.
$55 million will be invested to renovate several sites in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Burnt House, the Wohl Archaeological Museum, and the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue.
With restorations complete, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity was removed from UNESCO’s list of endangered world heritage sites.
A new sound-and-light show, used advanced technologies, was unveiled at Masada.
A new visitor’s center opened at Caesarea in four reconstructed vaults underneath Herod’s temple.
A new archaeological visitor center opened at Jokneam, at the base of Mount Carmel not far from Megiddo.
The new Petra Museum was inaugurated.
Egypt opened a 105-mile hiking trail called the “Red Sea Mountain Trail” that is west of Hurghada.
Greek authorities granted permission for the restoration of the interior of the Parthenon in Athens.
The palace of Nero, with virtual reality features, opened to visitors.
Saudi Arabia is now giving visas to foreign tourists.
Losses This Year:
Philip J. King
William B. Tolar
The two I would recommend first are those by Gordon Govier and Bryan Windle. Others are a bit broader in scope or have different criteria, including those by Owen Jarus, Stephanie Pappas, and Aaron Earls. Israel HaYom suggests the top 5 of the decade, and Haaretz (premium) offers their top discoveries of the decade.
I compiled my lists before reading any others, and I see there’s quite a bit of difference between them. One reason: I excluded discoveries made or announced in previous years. But it can be tricky knowing when a discovery was “made,” as sometimes a lengthy analysis delays the announcement. Of course, in some cases, the announcement is necessarily made before the analysis!
You can revisit the top stories of previous years with these links: