Ancient biblical war verified with Earth’s magnetic field

A biblical account of an ancient Egyptian military campaign against Israel has been verified using a novel archaeological approach based on reconstructing the Earth’s geomagnetic field from points in history thousands of years ago.

The research, which was published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA), was also able to verify other Old Testament accounts of Aramean, Assyrian and Babylonian military campaigns against the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Yoav Vaknin, a researcher from Tel Aviv University who is the lead author of the interdisciplinary study based on his doctoral thesis, said the aim of these investigations was to shed light on events described in the Hebrew Bible—an issue that is hotly debated among experts.

“This debate is relevant to discussions regarding the historicity of the biblical text,” Vaknin told Newsweek.

An Old Testament Bible
This stock image shows a worn copy of the Bible’s Old Testament book. Researchers were able to verify Old Testament accounts of military campaigns against the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah due to new data.
iStock

In the past, this debate was focused on the examination of ceramics and more recently, radiocarbon dating. But from around 800 B.C. to 400 B.C., radiocarbon is very limited and does not enable high-resolution dating, according to Vaknin.

“We wanted to introduce another chronological tool to help solve this debate,” he said. “It is very important for the study of events that took place after 800 B.C. For earlier periods it is a complementary tool to radiocarbon. Together, they enable more precise dating.”

In the study, the researchers used an approach that reconstructed the ancient geomagnetic fields in the remains of ancient towns in Israel that were destroyed by fire. The data has enabled researchers to link archaeological contexts with specific military campaigns recorded in biblical accounts.

“We sampled mainly sun-dried mud bricks which had been burnt when ancient cities were set on fire,” Vaknin said.

When the international team of researchers sampled the bricks in their original position, they were able to reconstruct the direction and intensity of the ancient geomagnetic field.

“The reconstruction of the field during the period in question is based mainly on our results from sites which were destroyed at a known time, according to a combination of archaeological data, and historical sources, including the Bible,” Vaknin said. “Then, we used the magnetic results from these chronological anchors in order to date other sites, where the dating is debated.”

But how can the ancient geomagnetic field be reconstructed by sampling archaeological material? The key lies in the fact that many archaeological materials, such as clay objects, contain what are known as ferromagnetic minerals, such as magnetite.

“On the atomic level one can imagine the magnetic signal of these minerals as a tiny needle of a compass,” Vaknin said. “As long as the needle is free to move it will ‘prefer’ to align with the magnetic field around it. Similarly, the magnetic signal of ferromagnetic minerals can also sometimes change its direction but, unlike the compass needle, this ability depends on the temperature.”

Thus, when these archaeological materials were heated or burned, they recorded the Earth’s magnetic field at the time of the fire.

Above a certain temperature, “the magnetization of a ferromagnetic mineral can change its direction and therefore it tends to align with Earth’s magnetic field,” Vaknin said. “Below this temperature, the magnetic signal is fixed.”

“When archaeological materials were heated to high temperatures the magnetic signals of the different minerals aligned in the direction of the geomagnetic field. When these materials had cooled down, their magnetic signals were ‘locked.’ Measuring the recorded signal in a sample enables reconstruction of the direction and intensity of the ancient geomagnetic field.”

In order to reconstruct the direction of the geomagnetic field during the fire, the archaeological materials must be sampled in the orientation in which they had cooled down.

Looking at how similar or different the intensity and direction of the magnetic field were between various sites can either corroborate or disprove hypotheses suggesting that they were burned during the same military campaign.

“In most cases, our results show that sites which were presumably destroyed during a certain military campaign yielded very similar magnetic results,” Vaknin said. “This corroborates the assumption that they were destroyed during the same period.”

One of the key findings of the study relates to an Ancient Egyptian military campaign led by Pharaoh Shoshenq almost 3,000 years ago.

“We know about the campaign led by the Egyptian Pharaoh Shoshenq from the Old Testament and from an inscription on a wall of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egypt,” Vaknin said. “However, to date, no destruction layer is securely attributed to this campaign. Many scholars think that Shoshenq did not destroy any sites and some even claim the campaign never occurred.”

Destruction layers are like time capsules in archaeological sites that show evidence of destructive events, such as fire, mass murder, or natural disasters.

In the case of the site of Beth-Shean, the researchers showed that it was destroyed much earlier than has usually been suggested.

“We raised the possibility that Beth-Shean and the nearby site of Rehov, with the same magnetic signal, were destroyed during the military campaign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shoshenq,” Vaknin said.

“Shoshenq’s campaign is described in the Hebrew Bible and in an inscription on a wall of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egypt, which mentions Beth-Shean and Rehov as two of his conquests. If they were indeed destroyed during this campaign, it is a very important find, since no other destruction layers are securely attributed to this campaign. Researchers suggested that Shoshenq did not destroy any site.”

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