New framework helps date biblical events
Archaeologists often use destruction layers to help date ancient sites, especially when the destructions can be linked to known events, such as the biblical war between Assyria and Judah. Now, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has provided a new framework for using archaeomagnetism to more accurately connect destruction layers to events known from biblical and historical sources. While this framework can help date destruction layers, it also provides firm historical dates for several wars mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
Many biblical sites are marked by destruction layers left behind by the military campaigns of famous conquerors. While the catastrophic events that created these layers would have been terrible to experience, the layers themselves are incredibly valuable to archaeologists when it comes to dating sites. Using archaeomagnetism, an international team analyzed 21 destruction layers at 17 different sites to firmly establish the date of their destructions. This allowed them to pin down the dates for several biblical wars and campaigns, including those of Shishak (1 Kings 14:25), Hazael (2 Kings 12:1), Jehoash (2 Kings 14:11), Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 15:29), Sennacherib (2 Kings 18-19), and Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25).
Archaeomagnetism utilizes the earth’s ever-changing magnetic field to date objects. Many ancient artifacts, such as ceramics or mudbricks, include tiny magnetic particles which, when heated to high temperatures, act like a compass needle, reflecting the direction and intensity of the magnetic field at the time of heating. Thus, when an object was fired in a kiln or set on fire in a destruction, it locked in these magnetic conditions. Reconstructing the magnetic field over the last few millennia, archaeologists can use this data to pinpoint, with relative certainty, the date of these objects.
Although not as common as other dating methods, archaeomagnetism does offer several benefits over methods like radiocarbon dating or ceramic typology. Archaeomagnetism “is particularly useful when it comes to remains from 800–400 B.C.E., a period for which radiocarbon dating does not enable high resolution dating,” Yoav Vaknin, primary author of the study, told Haaretz.
Although most of the destruction layers studied by the team correspond to conflicts recorded in the Hebrew Bible and other sources, determining precisely when they occurred or which destruction layers correspond to which campaign can be tricky. This is especially true of several conflicts during the Iron Age II (c. 1000–586 BCE) that occurred over a relatively short period of time. This has led to some disagreement regarding the dating of destructions from particular sites. Such is the case with Beth Shean, whose destruction layer has at different times been attributed to either Shishak or Hazael. Through the application of the new archaeomagnetic dating framework, it can be confidently attributed to Shishak—around 920 BCE—nearly 100 years before the campaign of Hazael.
Similarly, the framework was able to date the destruction of the Judahite city of Beth Shemesh to early in the eighth century BCE, which agrees with the biblical account of the city being destroyed by the Israelite king Jehoash (2 Kings 14:11–13). Several other destruction layers were likewise able to be firmly linked to particular biblical wars, including destruction found at Tel Zayit and Tell Beit Mirsim. The framework has also allowed archaeologists to distinguish between the Babylonian campaigns of 600 and 586 BCE, showing that the Philistine city of Ekron was destroyed in the earlier rather than later campaign.
Interestingly, the framework also demonstrates that not all of the towns in Judah were destroyed at the time of the Babylonian invasion. Instead, several sites, like Tel Malhata in southern Judah, were only destroyed later, possibly by the Edomites. “This betrayal and participation in the destruction of the surviving cities may explain why the Hebrew Bible expresses so much hatred for the Edomites,” Erez Ben-Yosef, a co-author of the paper, told The Jerusalem Post.
Archaeomagnetism can be used to date more than just destruction layers, however. One example is the date of the famous lmlk stamp handles used in the administration of the kingdom of Judah. Since potters fire their pottery to similarly high temperatures, archaeomagnetism can be used to determine the date of a pot’s creation rather than its destruction. While it is occasionally thought that lmlk handles were only introduced in the Judahite administration after the Assyrian campaign against Israel in 733 BCE, the study was able to show that they must have instead been introduced several decades earlier, in the first half of the eighth century.
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