Archaeologists reconstruct biblical conflicts using Earth’s magnetic field

According to the Bible, the Holy Land was a frequent target for conquering empires: from the ancient Egyptians to the Arameans, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians. Of course, the good book interprets these tragedies from a religious standpoint, usually as divine retribution for the sins of the ancient Israelites. But many of the wars mentioned in the biblical text were historical events.

Settlements were often burnt down, and in some cases were rebuilt only to be sacked again a century or so later – leaving archaeologists today puzzling over multiple layers of destruction and struggling to figure out who destroyed what and when.

Questions over the dating of ancient sites in the Levant are not purely academic. They lie at the heart of the longstanding debate over fact and fiction in the Bible.

Now a new scientific technique based on information from the Earth’s ever-changing magnetic field is helping archaeologists date their finds and reconstruct biblical conflicts that occurred in the Iron Age – that is the period that goes from the 12th to the sixth century B.C.E. and spans the rise and fall of the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

A paleomagnetic study of 21 destroyed Iron Age settlements at 17 different sites was published Monday in PNAS by Yoav Vaknin, a doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and colleagues. The application of paleomagnetic research to biblical archaeology has been pioneered by Vaknin together with his PhD advisors, archaeologists Oded Lipschits and Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University as well as geophysicist Ron Shaar of the Hebrew University.

Map of the studied destruction layers and the different military campaignsCredit: Itamar Ben-Ezra

Turning up the heat

First of all, we need a short primer on how the study of our planet’s magnetic field is applied to archaeological research.

The Earth’s magnetosphere, which protects living beings from dangerous solar radiation and high-energy particles, can fluctuate wildly in intensity and direction, for reasons that are not entirely clear. So if researchers can reconstruct the magnetic conditions for a certain time and region they can also use that information to date ancient ruins and artifacts.

They can do this because ceramic vessels and many ancient construction materials, such as sun-dried mud bricks, contain tiny ferromagnetic particles. When these particles are heated to high temperatures – for example, in a pottery kiln, or in a destructive fire – they behave like tiny compass needles: they align with the magnetic field of the Earth and become magnetized based on the direction and intensity of the field at the time.

“Our location here in Israel is uniquely conducive to archaeomagnetic research, due to an abundance of well-dated archaeological findings,” Shaar explains. “Over the past decade we have reconstructed magnetic fields recorded by hundreds of archaeological items.”

This provides researchers with a double opportunity. If the date of a particular destruction event is known, scientists can gain information on how the magnetic field looked at that time, possibly providing some insight into its enigmatic fluctuations. This was the focus of a previous study led by Vaknin, which reconstructed magnetic data for the Levant using samples from the stone floors of a Jerusalem building burned down in 586 B.C.E., when according to historical records and the Bible, the Babylonians conquered the capital of Judah and destroyed the First Temple.

Yoav Vaknin measuring at the siteCredit: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities

Also, data from sites whose chronology is unclear can be compared with the magnetic information from securely dated ruins, such as that structure in Jerusalem. If they match, then the destructions were roughly contemporaneous; if they don’t, they occurred in different periods.

“The new dating tool is unique because it is based on geomagnetic data from sites, whose exact destruction dates are known from historical sources,” says Lipschits. “By combining precise historical information with advanced, comprehensive archaeological research, we were able to base the magnetic method on reliably anchored chronology.”

“Paleomagnetic data 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,” Vaknin adds. “This means that, for this period, archaeologists often tend to date their finds based only on ceramic typology, a tried and true method, but not a particularly precise one.”

Researching biblical war zones using Earth’s magnetic fieldCredit: Tel Aviv University

Biblical whodunits

Vaknin and colleagues were able to combine and compare magnetic information from previously dated sites with evidence from undated sites ranging from Beth She’an in the Galilee to Be’er Sheva in the Negev desert.

Their results answer several riddles in biblical archaeology.

One puzzle concerns the remains of large structures destroyed by a massive fire at Tel Beth She’an. Based on the typology of the pottery remains, the site’s excavators have seesawed between attributing the destruction of the city either to Pharaoh Sheshonq I, the biblical Shishak who raided the Levant around 925 B.C.E., or to the Aramean forces of Hazael of Damascus, who conquered parts of the Holy Land about a century later.

Burnt mud bricksCredit: Yoav Vaknin

By sampling the burnt bricks at Beth She’an and comparing the data to the magnetic picture from sites previously linked to Hazael’s rampage, chiefly the Philistine city of Gath, the researchers found that this particular destruction in the Galilee cannot be attributed to the Arameans. Instead, the intensity and direction of the magnetic field recorded in Beth She’an suggests that the last time the ancient walls were heated to a high temperature was in the late tenth or early 9th century B.C.E., which is compatible with the Egyptian invasion led by Sheshonq, recounted both in the Bible (1 Kings 14:25-26) and on the walls of the pharaoh’s own temple at Karnak.

Another link between the biblical narrative and the archaeological record emerges from the magnetic study of Beth Shemesh, an ancient Judahite town just west of Jerusalem. The data suggests the town was destroyed at the beginning of the eighth century B.C.E., Vaknin and colleagues say. This does not correspond to any major foreign invasion of the Levant or known major natural disaster, but dovetails well with a biblical episode of internal conflict between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah around 790 B.C.E, when, according to 2 Kings 14:11-13, King Joash of Israel battled King Amaziah of Judah at Beth Shemesh: “And Judah was put to the worse before Israel; and they fled every man to their tents.”

While it is confined to a few verses in the Bible, this event was quite significant, as it established the dominance of the northern kingdom of Israel over Judah and Jerusalem for most of the eighth century B.C.E., until Israel was vanquished by the Assyrians.

Burnt mud stones Embargo; Tuesday, October 25th, 6:00 A.M. (Israel Time)
Study led by the Hebrew University & Tel Aviv University
Scientific breakthrough:
Geomagnetic fields reveal the truth behind Biblical narratives
Credit: Yoav Vaknin

A pox on Edom

Moving forward a couple of centuries, another interesting finding comes from the ruins of Malhata, a Judahite settlement in the Negev, east of Be’er Sheva. Vaknin and colleagues found that the remains of Malhata did not share the same magnetic signature of the destruction of Jerusalem and other Judahite sites known to have been put to the torch by the Babylonians around 586 B.C.E.

Instead, it seems that this remote desert town was set alight years after the fall of Judah and the start of the Babylonian exile, when the magnetic field was weaker.

This supports recent theories according to which Judah’s southern neighbors, the Edomites, encroached upon some of the lands formerly controlled by Jerusalem, taking advantage of the Babylonian conquest to expand their own territory, says Ben-Yosef.

“Some researchers, relying on archaeological evidence, argue that Judah was not completely destroyed by the Babylonians,” he says. “Now, the magnetic results support this hypothesis, indicating that the Babylonians were not solely responsible for Judah’s ultimate demise.”

This may also explain why the Bible frequently singles out the Edomites for opprobrium, alongside their Babylonian allies, for their complicity in the destruction of Judah and the First Temple, he adds. Take Psalm 137, famous for its opening line “By the rivers of Babylon” and its pledge of “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” Less cited is the Psalm’s ending, which laments: “Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof,” and concludes with a blessing for anyone who would dash Babylonian babies against stones.

When they go low

Underscoring the promise of paleomagnetic dating, Vaknin and his supervisors co-authored their latest study with more than a dozen top archaeologists who are often on opposing sides of the debate on biblical historicity.

The team’s work is “impressive,” says Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv and Haifa University who is one of the leading figures in this debate. “There are ways in which paleomagnetism dating can help, especially in periods for which radiocarbon is not reliable, first and foremost after the middle of the eighth century B.C.E.,” says Finkelstein, who did not participate in the paleomagnetic study.

In recent decades, the question of how much of the Bible is a real story has centered on the putative kingdom of David and Solomon and on the dating of remains linked to the biblical United Monarchy of Israel. Back in the 1990s, Finkelstein proposed a new paradigm, dubbed the “Low Chronology,” which essentially shifted down by a century the dating of ruins at ancient sites like Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer once attributed to Solomon’s building prowess.

Those structures, Finkelstein argued, were built not in the 10th century B.C.E., the time when David and Solomon reigned according to the biblical chronology, but in the ninth century B.C.E. and were the mark of the Omride dynasty, the founders of the northern kingdom of Israel. The corollary to this Low Chronology is of course that it leaves us with no grandiose structures from the time of David and Solomon and consigns their fabled United Monarchy to myth.

Ever since it was put forward, more conservative archaeologists have been trying to poke holes in this theory and uncover some major architectural remains that can be securely attributed to the time of David and Solomon, but nothing has been terribly conclusive, partly because the margins of error on dating methods, whether it’s pottery typology or radiocarbon, often exceed the century or so that separates the differing views.

While the newly published material pertains to a period just after the legendary United Monarchy, starting with Sheshonq’s invasion at the end of the 10th century B.C.E., Vaknin is convinced that paleomagnetism will in the near future contribute directly to the debate on the earlier era at the heart of the controversy.

“While radiocarbon dating works better in the earlier parts of the Iron Age, up to the 8th century B.C.E., it is not always possible to find organic material to date a site and even when such material is available, the results still have a margin of error,” Vaknin notes.

“The two methods can work together,” he tells Haaretz. “Let’s say radiocarbon gives overlapping ranges for two destroyed sites. We can then look at the magnetic results from the two sites: if they match then the sites may have been destroyed at the same time and if they don’t then they were destroyed at different times.”

Is paleomagnetism the key to resolving the ceaseless arguments on biblical historicity? Well, it’s certainly a powerful new tool, but let’s face it, archaeologists love to argue and come up with conflicting interpretations of data from the field. So this new method, like most good research does, will likely help provide some answers, only to generate even more questions.

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