Start of the Jewish Diaspora

Mt. Zion excavation uncovers signs of the Babylonian defeat of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar

On August 11, the Mount Zion archaeological project announced in a press release that archaeologists have discovered evidence of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem from 587/586 B.C.E. They found a deposit with Scythian-type arrowheads of bronze and iron, layers of ash and burnt wood, Iron Age potsherds and lamps, and a gold and silver tassel or earring, bell-shaped at the top in gold, with a silver cluster of grapes beneath.

Scythian type arrowheads

Credit: Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/Virginia Withers

The excavation team, led by Shimon Gibson, Rafi Lewis, and James Tabor, believes this layer can be dated to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple both because of what they found together, and the location—in the southwestern neighborhood of ancient Jerusalem—where they found the ash and artifacts. As Shimon Gibson said in the press release, “Nobody abandons golden jewelry, and nobody has arrowheads in their domestic refuse.”

earring or tassel

Credit: Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/Rafi Lewis

As Abraham Malamat explains in his 1999 article (“Caught Between the Great Powers,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1999), Judah, which included Jerusalem, was a small kingdom in the sixth century B.C.E. The great powers of the day were Babylon and Egypt, with Judah maintaining its fragile independence between the two. Judah chose the wrong side, relying on Egypt’s strength to maintain its own independence.

Judah had stood against Egypt, the hegemonic power of the region until, some time after being defeated by Egypt at Megiddo, Jehoiakim was placed on the throne in 609 B.C.E. He ruled as an Egyptian vassal and royal ally. Four years later, Egypt was defeated in the Battle of Carchemish (near the current Turkish-Syrian border), by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian forces. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah warned Judah to turn away from Egypt towards Babylonia, to no avail. Two years later, Judah was forced to submit to Babylonia, but it took advantage of continuing war between the two powers to defect back to the weaker Egyptian side.

The Babylonian Chronicle confirms the biblical story of Judah’s surrender upon King Nebuchadnezzar’s initial siege of Jerusalem. Ten thousand Judahites were exiled to Babylonia, including the elites of the kingdom—a milestone in the development of the identity of the Jews as a wandering people.

map of Nebuchadnezzar's campaigns

Nebuchadnezzar’s Campaigns

After the remaining Judahites attempted to set up a league of weaker states, from modern Jordan across Israel to coastal Lebanon, to fend off Babylonia’s might, Nebuchadnezzar attacked again, with a siege that may have lasted more than two years and, ultimately, open warfare. When Nebuchadnezzar’s forces broke through, they completely destroyed the palace and the Temple. As Malamat concludes, this ended the Davidic dynasty and Judah itself for generations to come.

The researchers feel confident that they have found the remains of this devastating siege and subsequent destruction. Specifically, they think they are digging inside one of the “Great Man’s houses” as mentioned in the biblical telling of the destruction. “It’s the kind of jumble that you would expect to find in a ruined household following a raid or battle,” Gibson said in the press release, mentioning the lamps, bits of destroyed pottery, arrowheads that would have been used by soldiers of the time, household objects, and the surprising piece of jewelry, which must have been obscured to have been missed by looting Babylonians.

Credit: Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/James Tabor

The excavation is directed by Shimon Gibson and James Tabor from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, along with Rafi Lewis of Ashkelon Academic College and Haifa University, facilitated by Sheila Bishop for The Foundation for Biblical Archaeology.

Mt. Zion co-director James Tabor will be speaking at Bible and Archaeology Fest XXII in San Diego November 22-24. So will more than twenty other leading archaeologists and scholars of biblical archaeology. See the talks this special weekend will include. We hope you can join us .

During the 2019 excavation season, the archaeologists of the Mt. Zion dig also announced they had found evidence of the sack of Jerusalem during the first crusade. Specifically, they found a trench which had been referred to in contemporary accounts of the battle in Jerusalem, and which contemporary researchers didn’t believe had existed. The press release about this find is here.

The announcement of the discovery of evidence of the Babylonian siege was made on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of remembrance of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of King Solomon’s Temple, and the Second Temple, razed by the Romans in 70 C.E. This new archaeological evidence of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege enriches our understanding of an important biblical event from more than 2,500 years ago.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

Egyptian Papyrus Reveals Israelite Psalms

The Evolution of Biblical Hebrew

What Is the Oldest Hebrew Bible?

Errors in the Masoretes’ “Original” Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bible?

Comparing Ancient Biblical Manuscripts

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