A Royal Tomb at Biblical Armageddon?

Megiddo Expedition uses digital documentation methods to investigate lavish tomb

In 2016, team members of the Megiddo Expedition, led by co-directors Israel Finkelstein, Matthew Adams, and Mario Martin, uncovered a tomb, labeled “Tomb 50,” adjacent to a monumental Middle Bronze Age palace. The excavation and documentation of the tomb represents an enormously successful application of some of archaeology’s most innovative and fashionable techniques in digital recording and investigation.

Tel Megiddo is an archaeological site located in the Jezreel Valley in Northern Israel. The site was occupied for more than 6,000 years between the late Neolithic era to about 500 B.C.E. and is most well-known for being the location of Biblical Armageddon, the penultimate battle in the Book of Revelation. The settlement has an extensive history of archaeological exploration, and since 1994, excavations have been carried out under the auspices of Tel Aviv University and a consortium of international institutions led by Finkelstein.

The discovery

I had the privilege of working with the Megiddo Expedition as a volunteer during the 2016 summer excavation. In a season that saw the exploration of areas of the tell untouched since before WWII and the articulation of extraordinary Bronze and Iron Age residential architectures, the most intriguing discovery took place toward the end of the summer, nestled in a deep excavation trench called Area H.

megiddo-expedition-tomb-50

Megiddo Expedition supervisor Robert Homsher crouches inside the chamber tomb at the site of Tel Megiddo, identified with Biblical Armageddon. Photo: Homsher et al. 2016.

The area is supervised by Adam Prins, who focuses on photogrammetry and digital modeling and reconstruction, and Melissa Cradic, a specialist in Bronze Age burial practices—a pair whose specialties and interests would prove conveniently felicitous. Excavating adjacent to a monumental Middle Bronze Age palace, the team discovered an undisturbed Canaanite burial chamber, home to three intact skeletons adorned with lavish grave goods from around the ancient world, including beautiful gold jewelry.
 


 
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The tomb also contained an entangled pile of skeletal remains from six additional individuals and other disposed grave goods. This feature is what is known as a “bone heap.”

The Megiddo Expedition labeled the subterranean, masonry-constructed chamber “Tomb 50.” The chamber is comprised of a narrow corridor with only a small entrance protected by large stone blocks (see image above).

The tomb immediately sparked intrigue because of its proximity to the Middle Bronze Age palace, originally discovered by the University of Chicago excavations in the 1930s. “The palace is 15-20 meters from us,” Finkelstein suggested in a short film about the 2016 season, “so this may be the nobility. I mean, what else can it be?”

The nature of the burial certainly seems to support the noble status of the interred. According to the Times of Israel, the intact remains included a middle-aged male adorned in fine jewels and a gold diadem, along with an 8–10-year-old child and a woman in her mid-30s, also clad in fine ornamentation.

Based on ceramic typology, Finkelstein dates the burial to the later portion of the Middle Bronze Age, between 1550–1500 B.C.E., according to the traditional chronology.

The team returns to the field this summer to continue the exploration of the area around the palace in Area H. In the meantime, Megiddo Expedition team member and osteologist Rachel Kalisher is leading an analysis of the remains—which includes DNA testing and examination of the bones for indications of disease, cause of death, and nutrition.

DNA analysis could shed light on if and how closely the individuals in Tomb 50 are related to one another.
 


 
Learn more about Megiddo by watching dig director Israel Finkelstein’s lecture “Megiddo and Ancient Israel” in the BAS DVD Unearthing Israel.
 


 

What this means for the study of Canaanite burial practices

Melissa Cradic, Area H supervisor and expert on burial practices for the Megiddo Expedition, recently finished her dissertation Transformations in Death: Funerary Practices and Personhood in the Bronze Age Levant. The study is an investigation of textual and archaeological evidence of ancestral memory and funerary ritual using evidence from recent excavations at Tel Megiddo.

The discovery of Tomb 50 is a fortunate opportunity to augment a rich body of scholarship on Canaanite interment practices, ceremonial burial, and conceptions of afterlife and ancestry. Cradic said, in an email to the Times, “The incredible state of preservation of Tomb 50 offers an important opportunity for comprehensive scientific study of the ancient population and their funerary practices.”

megiddo-expedition-tomb-50-burial

A view of the finds within Tomb 50 from a 3D perspective of the textured model. Photo: Homsher et al. 2016.

Particularly fascinating is the bone heap, found alongside the remains in the tomb. A recent article by Cradic notes the importance of these depositional features.1 She suggests that they are not merely a jumbled pile of various deposits but, rather, a carefully curated variable in the process of burial ritual and ancestral memory.

The similar style of jewelry in the bone heap and on the intact remains suggests a relationship between the two phases of the burial.

The bones in the heap are likely those of more distant relatives and were rearranged after death and decomposition in a transitional process of moving from death to “ancestor.” The relics and goods that accompany the interred are offerings that were used in the ritualistic nature of the processes of the ceremonial burial.

Promisingly, the chamber was disturbed neither in antiquity nor modern times, and the remains and grave goods were untouched by looters. Thus, Tomb 50 presents a crucial, in-context contribution to the study of Canaanite burial practice, ritual, and processes of ancestral memory and worship.

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New methods in archaeological field documentation

The discipline of archaeology is constantly pressing the methodological boundaries of fieldwork. The traditional tools of the trowel, the pickaxe, and the shovel are giving way to tablets, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and satellites.

These innovations are often made in the field, with archaeologists and specialists fine-tuning instruments, developing methods, and refining programs during the course of excavation and data recovery.

For nearly 10 years, the Jezreel Valley Regional Project (JVRP), currently headed by Megiddo Expedition co-director Matthew Adams, has been a leader in developing cutting-edge field technologies. One such consequential innovation by the team has been the “JVRP Method” of reconstructing 3D, geospatially-accurate models from 2D photographs using Structure from Motion (SfM) technology. JVRP technology lead and Megiddo Expedition area supervisor Adam Prins led the team that developed the JVRP Method, which essentially takes overlapping photographs from a standard DSLR camera and renders a digital model of a feature, landscape, or object, accurate within millimeters.2
 


 
Watch Megiddo Expedition co-director and William F. Albright Institute director Matthew Adams’s lecture “Archaeology: The Future of the Ultimate Discipline” in the BAS DVD The Elusive Biblical Archaeology.
 


 
This photogrammetric revolution means that archaeologists have the capability to replace slow, hand-drawn methods of data documentation that can inhibit excavation with little more than a single camera and a computer back at camp. Not only can photogrammetric methods speed fieldwork, but they are substantially more accurate than pencil-and-notebook techniques, which are often sketchily drafted and can be based on imprecise measurement methods.

SfM reconstruction relies on spatially accurate geometric coordinates to establish a reference for the images. In other words, the procedure uses a precise geographic plane for the rendering of models, allowing archaeologists to “abandon the constraints of analogue measurement.”3

While some are reluctant to adopt these new technologies, preferring instead the tried-and-true methods, photogrammetric techniques of documentation are becoming more and more common in the field. This past summer, Prins led a workshop for the Tel Kabri Archaeological Project (KAP) field school on the technique, and the KAP quickly adopted the technique to render 3D models of recently unearthed Iron Age architectural features.4

Digital documentation at Tomb 50

Tomb 50 presented Prins and the Megiddo Expedition team with a uniquely challenging opportunity to try out SfM documentation. The cramped chamber was too confined and dark for traditional recording methods, and, following successes with the technology in earlier projects, the team decided to use it in this more unconventional setting.

The team lowered a Total Station, a geospatially referenced tool for measuring heights, into the chamber and set up encoded targets that would help guide the software to reconstruct 2D images into a model. Next, Prins was able to simply input the geographic points into a program called Agisoft Photoscan and add the images, and the program more or less did the rest.

megiddo-expedition-sfm

Distribution of the encoded targets within Tomb 50. The targets allow the computer to understand how the 2D photographs overlap. Photo: Homsher et al. 2016.

“In a context like Tomb 50,” the team writes in a poster presented at the annual ASOR meetings in San Antonio, TX, in November 2016, “no standard photograph is capable of documenting the entire context with any success.”
 


 
Interested in the latest archaeological technology? Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory released the free BAS eBook Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past, featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.
 


 
A georeferenced 3D image, accurate to the millimeter, helps to overcome the difficulties with documenting unusual spatial contexts. In the case of Tomb 50, not only does a model preserve the in situ provenance of the discovery through high-resolution photography, but it also allows the team to bring the burial into the lab, manipulate the model, and investigate the otherwise confined chamber from a more accessible location.

megiddo-expedition-tomb-50-3d

Textured model of Area H showing the architecture cross section, highlighting Tomb 50. Photo: Homsher et al. 2016.

The implications of this technology for the field of archaeology are far-reaching and ever growing as archaeological technicians continue to innovate and apply new methods. As more archaeological projects adopt photogrammetry into their repertoire of investigative techniques, the application of these technologies will flourish and continue to aid archaeologists in an expeditious and efficient exploration of the past.
 


 
Samuel DeWitt Pfister is a Graduate M.A. Student in the Department of Anthropology at The George Washington University.
 


 

Notes:

1. See Melissa S. Cradic, “Embodiments of Death: The Funerary Sequence and Commemoration in the Bronze Age Levant,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 377 (May 2017), pp. 219–248.

2. Adam B. Prins, “3D Modeling for Archaeological Documentation,” JVRP White Papers in Archaeological Technology, September 2016; Adam B. Prins and Matthew J. Adams, “Practical Uses for Photogrammetry on Archaeological Excavations,” JVRP White Papers in Archaeological Technology, December 12, 2012; Adam B. Prins, Matthew J. Adams, Robert S. Homsher, and Michael Ashley, “Digital Archaeological Fieldwork and the Jezreel Valley Regional Project, Israel,” Near Eastern Archaeology 77, no. 3 (2014), pp. 192–197.

3. Robert S. Homsher, “New Dimensions in Digital Documentation: Tomb 50 at Tel Megiddo.” Poster presented at the Annual Meetings of The American Schools of Oriental Research, San Antonio, TX, November 2016.

4. Assaf Yasur-Landau, Eric H. Cline, Andrew Koh, and Alexandra Ratzlaff, “Preliminary Report on the Results of the 2017 Excavation Season at Tel Kabri,” The Kabri Archaeological Project, 2017.

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  • Harold says

    Jared:
    A few BAR issues ago, a scholar wrote about the many things we can discover from studying ancient skeletons. A letter-writer two issues later asked what you’re asking, and specifically asked the scholar if she would have a problem digging up her parents or grandparents. The scholar didn’t include a response in her “Reply”.

  • Jared says

    If another tomb were discovered of likely ancient Israelite origin, could that and its Jewish remains be similarly excavated? Would those remains be removed and similarly examined? What would happen to these remains? My question refers to all ancient tombs, regardless of location, and contents regardless of origin and ethnicity. I have the greatest respect for the pursuit of knowledge and the meticulous efforts of these archeologists but I also have respect for the beliefs and practices of all civilizations.

    • Helen says

      In these days, many examined bodies are reburied after study.

  • david says

    What were ‘they’ (- the interred) not aware of regarding their origins – where they originated from?


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