World Report

Where stones and soil speak
The Holy Land yielded startling finds in 2016, writes Paul Keenan

Caesaria, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ashkelon, Nazareth : names so redolent of the Holy Land are at once biblical, historic, perhaps even a little exotic in the images they prompt at their mention.

Importantly the sites are also archaeological in an ongoing sense, and just some of a plethora of excavations currently dotting the landscape of Israel. As proof of this, the reader can pay an online visit to the Archaeological Survey of Israel map contained on the website of the Israel Antiquities Authority (www.antiquities.org.il). 

Here one is presented with a rainbow of squares overlying virtually every corner of the nation, with each boxed-in space signalling a place of painstaking research beneath city streets and desert stones. But even this is just the broad outline of the sheer volume of activity. Click on a given grid square and the visitor is immediately plunged into an area map speckled with individual excavation sites. 

At this, one is struck at just how the Holy Land is a ‘layered’ landscape for faiths and scholars of history. And those layers continue to be slowly peeled back to expose ever more tantalising riches for both.

Understanding

The year 2016 has been no exception to this. In fact, more than before, this year has seen leaps forward in terms of researchers’ understanding of excavated items, thanks mainly to developments in digital technology which dig even deeper than the archaeologist’s trowel.

Thus we have in this past year the exciting revelations from earlier digs in the Negev Desert and at Ein Gedi (a site close to the Dead Sea and near the Qumran Caves).

In April, scientists revealed to the world the results of new multispectral analysis on shards of pottery found within an ancient military fortification in the Negev in the 1960s. 

Said results, which exposed faded text written by at least six different hands, gave every indication that literacy in the Kingdom of Judah some 2,600 years ago was wider than previously thought. The knock-on effect of this was the intriguing possibility that the earliest books of the Bible (at least from the Book of Joshua to the Second Book of Kings) were written, not during the exile after the 506BC fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, but during the period before that conquest.

Meanwhile, for the twisted clump of carbonised parchment that is the Ein Gedi scroll, science proved even more dramatic, with developments in imagery processing (three-dimensional micro-computed tomography) allowing researchers to peer upon text that has been bound up in the fragile scroll since its discovery in the 1970s – and for the first time since it burned with the town of the same name in 600AD. 

The scroll, the oldest known Pentateuchal document but for the Dead Sea Scrolls, yielded passages of Leviticus, specifically Leviticus 1: 1-9, commencing “Yahweh called Moses and from the Tent of Meeting addressed him, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel; say to them “When any of you brings an offering to Yaweh, he can offer an animal from either herd or flock”’” and Leviticus 2: 1-11, commencing “If anyone offers Yaweh an oblation, his offering is to consist of wheaten flour on which he is to pour wine and put incense”.

Subsequent radiocarbon testing showed the Ein Gedi scroll as dating to the 3rd or 4th Century, though one renowned scholar of palaeography, Dr Ada Yardeni, insisted that the contained script dates to the late 1st Century.

Whatever the answer to that issue, the Ein Gedi scroll testified to the unchanged character to Leviticus across the intervening centuries.

More dramatic finds from elsewhere in the Holy Land were to follow, but in the meantime, across the summer, archaeologists were placed on something of an emergency footing, and one highlighting the ongoing dangers to the biblical/historical record in the region. 

Faced with the ever present threat from grave robbers, a number of whom had been captured in the act of selling their ill-gotten wares, the Israel Antiquities Authority mobilised some 500 volunteers and experts to descend on the renowned Cave of Skulls in the Judean Desert, south-west of the Dead Sea. 

In what was the largest single excavation project at the site in 60 years, the massive team turned up a wealth of artifacts from various time periods (as far back as the Neolithic period), not least those connected with the Jewish refugee community that had lived in hiding in the cave network in the bloody aftermath of the second Judean revolt against Rome (the Bar Kochba revolt) of 132-136AD. Expectation was heightened with the announcement that papyrus fragments had been found, prompting memories of the Dead Sea Scrolls, though the comparison has since been played down and analysis of the fragments is ongoing.

Tribe of Goliath

More tangible was the find announced in July of the first Philistine cemetery ever to be discovered, located near an existing long-term dig at Ashkelon in the south of the country. 

Three thousand years old, the burial ground was hailed as a revelation in terms of learning about the tribe of Goliath, presenting as it did for the first time the very bones of the people mentioned in the Book of Samuel. Skeletons, individually buried, some with earrings and bracelets, were found along with storage jars and bowls, thought to have contained perfumed oils.

Of primary importance to the Ashkelon team, select bones of the Philistines are now being subjected to radiocarbon and DNA tests towards proving biblical passages suggesting the tribe entered the Holy Land via Crete (though this is disputed by scholars favouring an Aegean Sea route).

The Philistines - and the Book of Samuel – were at the heart of yet another discovery announced in September. In the lush Elah Valley – 40kms southwest of Jerusalem – archaeologists came upon a settlement of modest size, but – curiously in relation to its scale – with twin gates. 

This element immediately tipped investigators to the reality that they had discovered the Old Testament city of Shaaraim, mentioned in Samuel 1:17-52: “The men of Israel and of Judah started forward, shouting their war cry, and pursued the Philistines as far as the approaches of Gath and the gates of Ekron. The Philistine wounded lay all along the road from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron.” In the same battle, the Bible (Samuel 1:17: 1-58) tells of how David slew the giant Goliath.

Carbon dating of olive pits within the settlement boundaries have confirmed the site as existing during the time of Kings Saul and David.

An ancient gate was the focal point for the find at Lachish – another 20kms southwest from Elah – which was announced at the end of September. 

Not in itself a revelation to the team which has long laboured on the Lachish site to uncover a clear site of habitation dating to the First temple period, the gate nevertheless pointed the way to something far more interesting for Bible scholars. Around and beneath the site of the gate, evidence was found of a shrine and smashed idols, one being described as a pagan altar with horns that had been deliberately and forcibly removed. 

The find immediately turns the clock back to the time (726 to 697 BC) of King Hezekiah and his place in the Bible record, specifically the Second Book of Kings, 18:4: “It was he who abolished the high places, broke the pillars, cut down the sacred poles and smashed the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for up to that time the Israelites had offered sacrifice to it.”

Gate shrine

Further, excavations have shown that the gate shrine contained a symbolic latrine, intended to further desecrate the pagan space, a practice recorded again in the Second Book of Kings, 10:27: “They demolished the altar of Baal, and demolished the temple of Baal too, making it into a latrine, which it still is today.”

This and the years of Bible history uncovered in 2016 alone represent merely a snapshot in time within the very soil of the Holy Land. The digs continue to dot the landscape and bring up, piece by tantalising piece, the greatest story ever told.