Celebrating the 50th issue of Archaeological Diggings, I have chosen to give my personal list of the 50 most outstanding archaeological sites and finds discovered in the land of the Bible. Our last issue included nos. 50 to 26. Now it is time to review the top 25 “winners”. Ready?
25. Herod’s winter palaces at Jericho
This extravagant complex was the largest residence Herod erected in his kingdom. Although only the ground level is preserved, excavations show not only Herod’s wealth but also his adoption of contemporary Roman fashions. Gardens and pools attest to the abundance of water brought to the palace, while a nearby hippodrome-theatre provides evidence of his leisure activities.
This fortress-palace was also built by King Herod and is known to contain his tomb. Constructed on an artificial hill shaped like a volcano, (or, as Josephus states, a female’s breast), the palace is well-preserved—even the domed ceiling of the bath house is still intact. The greatest find, however, still lies ahead. Josephus claimed that king Herod was also buried in the Herodium, with much of his wealth. If and when the tomb is found, it could be one of the greatest archaeological finds ever.
23. Jewish Coins
Though small and mute, coins in general provide a wide range of information. The Jews minted coins from the fourth century BCE and until the end of the Bar-Kokhbarebellion in 135 CE. A recent comprehensive study of coins by Prof. Y. Meshorer described 395 different types of Jewish coin. Some reflect past dramatic historical events, while others show sacred objects, such as the temple utensils.
22. Bar-Kokhba caves
In 132 CE Emperor Hadrian banned the Jewish religion, and rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city named Aealia-Capitolina. This provoked a bloody 3.5 year long Jewish rebellion led by Shimon Bar-Kokhba. Historical sources concerning this rebellion are scant, yet archaeological research has provided us with much information. TheShephelah caves for instance are a maze of underground hideouts for the rebels, providing shelter for the outnumbered and under armed fighters against the Roman foe. Another set of caves in the Judean desert sheltered the last refugees from nearby Ein-Gedi. Unlike the Shephelah caves, the Judean caves were found intact and contained the refugees’ possessions including house keys, prayer texts, garments, etc. Two finds in particular are of interest: Babtha’s archive, found in her original stylish leather bag, was a collection of documents providing a detailed personal history of a lady named Babtha; and Bar-Kokhba’s archive, found in the innermost part of the “Cave of the Letters”, contained letters sent from Shimon Bar-Kokhba himself to the leaders of Ein-Gedi. As an illustration of the maxim that truth is stranger then fiction, these letters were found by the renowned archaeologist Y. Yadin, who at one time served as Israel’s Chief of Staff, thus creating a connection spanning nearly two millennia between two Jewish generals.
21. The “Herodian Quarter”
Preserved beneath the modern Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem, the Herodian quarter sheds light on the daily life among upper class residents in the SecondTemple period. Spacious reception halls, fashionable mosaic floors and wall paintings, imported pottery and glass objects, all speak eloquently of the great wealth of the ancient inhabitants. A large number of ritual baths (mikva’ot) found in the basements of these houses, suggests that priestly families lived there. Thick layers of ash provide dramatic evidence of the resident’s fate when the Romans burned and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE.
20. Lachish letters
Found at the gate of the second largest city in Judah (after Jerusalem), these letters reconstruct the drama a few days before the city was conquered by the Babylonians. Especially dramatic is Letter no. 4, in which a scout reports that he can no longer see the signal fires of nearby Azekah. It was probably written just a few days beforeLachish itself was destroyed.
19. Lachish Ramp
At the southern edge of Lachish dramatic evidence of an another battle was found, in the form of an assault ramp. Some 130 years before the Babylonian conquest ofLachish, the Assyrians also conquered Lachish, an event depicted on the famous “Lachish relieves” found in Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh. In perfect accord with this graphic depiction of the conquest of the city, the University of Tel-Aviv excavation found the filling used to create the assault ramp, as well as thousands of arrow heads and other Assyrian military equipment.
18. “Shebna” tomb epitaph
The largest cemetery of Old Testament Jerusalem was on the hill east of the City of David. Although the contents of the burial caves were looted long ago, an inscription on one entrance façade has been preserved. It reads in part: “..yaho who is over the house”. Although it is unfortunate that the beginning of the deceased name is missing, the remaining letters of the name, and title, match that of the Phoenician clerk whom Isaiah rebuked: “Shebna[yaho] who is over the house.. what have you done here.. that you have hewn here a tomb for yourself” (Isa. 22:15-16). This is the only instance in which we have almost sure identification of a tomb by means of a Biblical description.
17. The Ekron inscription
Discovered under a Philistine temple, this inscription puts to rest the long standing debate over the location of the Philistine city of Ekron. The inscription contains a dedication by Achish “king of Ekron” to a certain goddess. The inscription also lists five Philistine kings from the 6th century BCE, only two of whom were known prior to the discovery. Recognizing the temple in which the inscription was found as Philistine, archaeologists were also able to draw a parallel to the Dagon temple atGaza, which Samson brought down on himself and his enemies.
16. Mesha Stele
Found in the 19th century, the Stele of Mesha (also known as “the Moabite Stone”) is an amazingly clear and detailed description of the deeds of a Moabite king in the ninth century BC. Unfortunately, soon after it was found, the stele was broken to pieces by Bedouin who believed it contained demons. But thanks to Clermont-Genneau, a France scholar, the contents have been preserved. The content matches in various degrees events documented in the Bible, and the Book of kings.
15. The “House of David” Inscription
This royal inscription was found in 1993 next to the main gate of Biblical Dan, in the far north of Israel, by a member of the team working with
Professor Avraham Biran. The inscription was probably erected by an Aramaic king after defeating the Israelites in battle around the 9th century BC. Two words of the inscription astonished the archaeologists when deciphering them: “Bet David”, meaning “the House of David.”
It is the first mention of the Davidic dynasty outside the Bible and is important evidence in proving the historicity of David.
14. Mt. Gerizim
Blessed by Moses himself (Deut. 11:29), Mt. Gerizim has been an archaeological treasure trove. Entire neighborhoods and fortifications of the ancient Samaritans were exposed there, the chief find being the remains of a Samaritan temple purporting to be a copy of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. In its remains were countless dedicatory inscriptions, sacrificial remains, and a large ceremonial stairway, all of which bringt vividly to mind the daily life at this religious complex.
Although the Nabateans are not known in any Biblical records, they were important neighbors of Judea in early Roman times. Their capital was at Petra, today a breathtaking sight in southern Jordan. Carved in the colorful multi-colored sand stone of the mountains of Edom, Petra includes a well-preserved set of tomb façades, temples, city streets and market places.
12. The tomb of Caiaphas and the Pilate inscription
An incidental salvage dig south of the old city of Jerusalem in the 1990’s led to the discovery of a tomb containing the ossuary (small coffin) of Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest who questioned Jesus.
Another incidental find made at Caesarea provided an inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. Both finds are displayed next to one another in the Israel Museum.
11. The ivory pomegranate
Although the Bible gives long descriptions of Solomon’s temple (I Kings. 6-7), no remains have ever been found of that complex. The only object possibly deriving from the temple is a tiny pomegranate made of ivory. Its possible attribution to the temple is based on an inscription chiseled on it, reading: “Dedicated to the priests, house [of Yahw]eh”. If genuine, this could have been a actual ritual object in Solomon’s temple, maybe even one of the pomegranates that decorated the high priest’s garments.
In the tenth to eighth places are the Kuntilat Ajrud inscription, the Tel-Sheba Altar, and the Arad Shrine. These three finds shed light on the complex nature of ancient Israelite religion and has revolutionized our understanding of Israelite religious practice.
10. The Arad shrine
The Arad shrine was found in the Biblical fortress of Arad, and served the people of Judah between the 10th to the 8th centuries BCE. The design recalls Solomon’s temple, including an altar in the courtyard coated thick layers of ash. Most striking was the “holy of holies” where two massebot (standing pillars) were found, possibly belonging to a local cult prevailing side by side with the Israelite one. Who could the two massebot represent? The answer may have been found about 50 km south ofArad—where archaeologists found the Kuntilat Ajrud inscription.
9. The inscription at Kuntilat Ajrud
Situated in the northern Sinai Peninsula, this small Biblical period fortress included a surprising inscription written in ancient Hebrew on one of its walls: “To Yahweh and Asherah his consort”. This is evidence for the worship of not just one god, but also a female consort at that time and place.
8. Tel-Sheba Altar
The Tel-Sheba Altar was found dismantled, but dates to the Israelite period. In size and shape the altar is strikingly similar to the dimensions of the altar at the Templedescribed in Exodus 27:1-2. A serpent chiseled on one of its side perhaps echoes the copper snake that Moses made (Num. 21:8-9). The altar was eventually dismantled, perhaps due to Hezekiah’s reforms, in the 8th century BCE (II Kings 18:22).
7. The Siloam inscription and tunnel
To this day a tunnel under the city of David conducts the water of the Gihon spring to a pool on the other side of the hill. It was probably cut by King Hezekiah in anticipation of the Assyrian assault. Indeed the additional fortifications he built and the improvements made in the water system were partly responsible for the city’s deliverance, as described in II Kings 20:20-21 (cf. II Chron 32:1-5, 30-31). In the late 19th century two Arab boys noticed an inscription chiseled at the end of the tunnel. Later deciphered, the inscription expressed the workers’ joy at the completion of the tunnel. Walking in the water through the dark tunnel is one of the most an exciting archaeological experience in Israel!
6. Silver amulet of priestly blessing
The tomb complex known as “Ketef Hinom” is situated west of the old city of Jerusalem. Excavations by G. Barkai at the site revealed typical burial caves from the 8th-6th centuries BCE, with a few un looted repositories (storage niches). They contained many valuable items, suggesting the tombs belonged to wealthy families. The chief find was two pieces of rolled silver, each containing an ancient Hebrew text, including the well known Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:24-26). Dated to the 7th century BCE, this is the oldest quotation from the Bible. The very same blessing is pronounced in all synagogues throughout the world to this day.
5. Madaba mosaic map
Dated to the 6th-7th century CE, this mosaic floor depicts the oldest known map of the Holy Land. Found in Madaba, Jordan, at the end of the 19th century, the map probably functioned as a pilgrims guide, describing various holy sites, from Lebanon in the north to Egypt in the south. The best preserved part in the center picturesJerusalem and its environs in a detailed manner. The Madaba mosaic map is a beautiful and important find for the study of the Byzantine Era in the Holy Land (325-638 CE).
4. The Temple Mount, Western Wall, and the southern wall excavation site.
The Temple Mount, the heart of Jerusalem and western religion, is unfortunately inaccessible for any archeological work. On the summit is one of the oldest and most important Muslim religious structures—the Muslim Dome of the Rock, but in antiquity this was the location of the Jewish temples. The most impressive remains of theSecond Temple (538 BCE- 70 CE) are the retaining walls of the surrounding enclosure, the most famous being the Western Wall. Large scale archeological digs in front of the southern wall added much information concerning life in the times of the Temple. The gates at the southern retaining wall were apparently the main entrances to the Temple in antiquity, and in this vicinity the largest number of ritual baths (mikva’ot) was found. Deep layers of ash attest to the fate of the temple and the city in the summer of 70 CE when the besieging Romans put it to the torch. A new high-tech visitors’ center at the site enables visitors to make a virtual pilgrimage through theTemple courtyards. Christians can picture Jesus arguing with the Pharisees, and overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the dove sellers at the site.
3. The Holy Sepulchre
Located in the center of the old city of Jerusalem, and accessed only by a series of narrow alleyways, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre attracts Christian pilgrims from all over the world. Originally constructed by Constantine the Great in 335 CE, the building stands on the place where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and resurrected. The church suffered neglect and destruction after the Arab conquest of Jerusalem (638 CE), and was restored on a smaller scale by the Crusaders (1149 CE). The structure is undergoing renovations (the dome over the tomb was redecorated about a year ago), and is a living example of perpetual veneration of a religious site.
2. Masada and its finds
Isolated in the Judean desert, the mountain of Masada was the location of one of the greatest dramas in antiquity. Initially built by king Herod as a fortified palace, Masada is famous for its impressive Herodian palatial remains, but even more for what it witnessed following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
967 Jews fleeing to Masada hoped to survive the punishment for rebelling against the Roman Empire, yet the Romans eager to punish all rebels, and so were determined to conquer Masada. For that they built an enormous ramp abutting the mountain from the west. But as they completed the task, the Jewish rebels committed suicide, favoring “noble death to Roman slavery” according to Josephus Flavius. The archaeological excavation at the site, led by famed archaeologist Y. Yadin, found dramatic evidence at the site. I still become emotional when guiding at the site, and I am proud to say I had the privilege of participating in small scale excavation at the site.
1. Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea scrolls are one of the greatest archaeological finds of all times. This ancient library was concealed 2000 years ago when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (70 CE). It remained preserved until 1947, when a Bedouin looking for a lost goat chanced upon a few of the scrolls. This discovery led to others, and a total of about 900 manuscripts in total are recorded, their publication was finally completed this very year(!). Some of the scrolls are Extracts from the Old Testament, while others seem to record the customs of a unique group of Jewish ascetics.
Many of these customs call to mind the practices of the “Essenes”, a Jewish sect mentioned by Josephus Flavius, Pliny the Elder, and Philo of Alexandria. Excavations at Qumran, a site near the caves where the scrolls were found, also revealed many similarities between the practices of the inhabitants and those described in the sectarian scrolls. Many scholars are of the opinion that the Qumran community belonged to the Essenes, and were the people who copied the scrolls and eventually hid them. Both the site and the sectarian scrolls relate to early Christianity, and although there is no proof that Christians dwelt among the Qumran community, many scholars suggest that John the Baptist was a member of the community for a while.
The most intriguing scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls is Copper Scroll. It contain a list of treasures hidden in various locations in Judea. The hoards allegedly contain vast amounts of gold and silver as well as ritual objects from the temple in Jerusalem. This puzzling document led archaeologists to search for the treasures at various locations, but so far in vain. Some scholars have concluded the list is fictitious, written down as an expression of messianism. I hold the romantic view that the list is genuine, and that we have not yet deciphered the coded description of the hiding places. Perhaps future research will prove I was right, and maybe, who knows, I’ll be the fortunate archaeologist to find the first treasure!