According to the Bible, and a religious song you may know, Joshua fought a battle in Jericho. The once ghostly and former assistant of Moses led the Israelites around the city walls on successive days until, after seven circuits on the seventh day, the walls fell. Then the Israelites—following divine commands—slaughtered every living thing in the city. Adults, children and their pets. It’s not a happy story, so you should breathe a sigh of relief that these events never happened. When archaeologists excavated the site at Tell es-Sultan where the battle was supposed to have taken place, they discovered that it had been abandoned long before Joshua arrived.
The study of the historical accuracy of the Bible is always fraught. Our primary sources are ancient texts that have been edited by many hands, copied dozens of times, and written with theological message in mind rather than facts. For centuries, therefore, scholars have used archaeological methods to supplement our knowledge and test the accuracy of the Bible. Even then, the results are controversial and difficult to interpret. A new study methodology using magnetic data may change some of that.
Tel Aviv University PhD student Yoav Vaknin is lead author of a groundbreaking new biblical archeology study that applies archaeomagnetic technologies to date military campaigns described in the Bible. The article, which was recently published in the open access journal PNAS, brings together a series of data derived from studies of 17 different archaeological sites to create a timeline of the ancient destruction. The geomagnetic dataset he compiled includes evidence for 21 destruction layers. It is, as Vittoria Benzine has observed, a “geological book of conquests by the Aramean, Assyrian, and Babylonian armies against the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.”
Unlike more conventional archaeological methods such as stratigraphy (which examines different layers in the ground), archaeomagnetic dating is interested in the magnetic field generated by the earth’s core. It examines the layer of liquid iron in the planet’s outer core. Ron Shaar, who led the development of the methodology itself, said that “Until recently, scientists believed that the [earth’s core] has remained stable for decades, but archaeomagnetic research has challenged this hypothesis by revealing some extreme and unpredictable changes in antiquity.”
Vaknin explained that the archaeological material contains magnetic minerals. “At the atomic level, one can imagine the magnetic signature of these minerals as a tiny needle of a compass.” When, say, a clay brick is incinerated during the sacking of a city, the brick retains the magnetic signal from the moment the city caught fire. If geophysicists know the magnetic states of various seasons at specific time periods, then they can determine the origin of materials.
The study focuses on objects made of mud (mainly bricks, but also loom weights and clay hives) that were burned during the period of military unrest and invasion. His findings confirm some biblical stories and archaeological theories and debunk others.
Tel Beth-Shean, in the northern region of modern Israel, was previously believed by archaeologists to have been destroyed by the Aramean king Hazael in 830 BC. Vaknin and his co-authors suggest that it was actually fired between 70 (95% probability) and 100 (68% probability) years earlier. This would mean, Vaknin argues, that the city was probably destroyed during a military campaign by Pharaoh Shoshenq I. This campaign is mentioned both in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 14:25026) and in a campaign relief carved on the walls of the temple of Karnak in Egypt.
Most surprisingly, Vankin’s findings suggest that the Babylonians were not responsible for the total destruction of Judah in 586 BCE. (2 Kings 24:18; Jeremiah 1:3; 39:2; 52:5-6). However, the tension derived from sites in the Negev, in the mountains of southern Judea, and in the foothills of southern Judea, suggests that cities in this region survived the Babylonian invasion. Only a few decades later, after the destruction of Jerusalem and its environs, others (probably the Edomites) attacked these smaller settlements. The discovery may help explain some of the hostility toward the Edomites found in the Hebrew Bible.
It is undeniable that archaeomagnetic dating offers another complementary method for establishing the chronology of these events. Like carbon dating (which works from a set of data samples), it is able to use the larger data sets gathered from the numerous archaeological studies in the area to date military campaigns more precisely. It is promising and exciting work.
At the same time, some of the media surrounding the findings may overstate the significance of the method and overlook some of its limitations. Although you wouldn’t know it from some of the references, archeology is already a very technologically savvy science that uses a range of technologies (like, for example, carbon 14 dating) to develop hypotheses and reach conclusions. As with carbon dating, archaeomagnetic findings are expressed as percentages rather than binaries, but this is not in the news. You can be forgiven for turning a 95% probability into a certainty, but a 68% probability is less decisive. Let’s be honest, it’s a C+. This is not Vankin’s fault. this is exactly what happens when archeology makes news.
It is also important to note that the findings represent only the facts of a site’s destruction, not its cause. As Dr. Laura Zucconi, a professor of history and archeology at Stockton University who has written about copper mines and the Edomites, told me, “It’s a very interesting new dating method,” but it doesn’t tell us why a site was destroyed. “If a site has a destruction layer but lacks other information, we have no way of knowing whether it was a war or just an earthquake with fire.” Although we have other methods for dating sites, Zucconi says, multiple analysis methods are always preferred. “Even if [archaeomagnetic analysis] repeats other methods, it is good to have different approaches because the material used in one methodology may not always be available. Due to a phenomenon known as the Hallstatt Plateau, for example, carbon 14 dating methods are not useful for dating materials between 800-400 BC. It is important to have another instrument in the archaeological toolbox.
Vankin told Artnet News that he hopes to create a similar chronology for the most controversial period of ancient Levantine archaeology: 1300-900 BC. This is, according to the Bible, the period when the Exodus took place, the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan, and David was king. This is a hotly debated time period whose events have political ramifications in the present. It will get him out of the proverbial frying pan and into the proverbial fire. But after five years of studying the effects of burning on clay bricks and with a well-stocked arsenal of archaeological tools, he is up to the challenge.