The excavation site, a wedge of land between Jerusalem’s Tower of David citadel and a busy highway. Picture: Mount Zion Archaeological Project.
The excavation site, a wedge of land between Jerusalem’s Tower of David citadel and a busy highway. Picture: Mount Zion Archaeological Project.

New evidence proves Bible story’s true

By all accounts, the battle - 2605 years ago - was a ferocious event.

Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was out for revenge. The King of Israel had betrayed him - for a second time. This time, he would not withhold his wrath.

2 Kings 25: 1-9 reads: "So the city was besieged unto the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the [fourth] month the famine was sore in the city, so that there was no bread for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war [fled] by night by the way of the gate between the two walls … And he [Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian captain of the guard] burnt the house of the Lord, and the King's house; and all the houses of Jerusalem, even every great man's house, burnt he with fire."

It was 586BC. King Nebuchadnezzar's troops plundered the city. King Solomon's Temple on Mount Zion was stripped of its treasures and dismantled. Thousands were taken into captivity.

Now, archaeologists say they have - for the first time - evidence supporting the Bible's account.

Recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a great Iron Age house. And it tells a tale of bloodshed and destruction.

"It's the kind of jumble that you would expect to find in a ruined household following a raid or battle," University of North Carolina, Charlotte, professor of history Shimon Gibson says. "Household objects, lamps, broken bits from pottery which had been overturned and shattered … and arrowheads and a piece of jewellery which might have been lost and buried in the destruction."

Miles Shen, one of the students from the UNC Charlotte's Levine Program holding a lamp dating from the Iron Age. Source: Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/James Tabor.
Miles Shen, one of the students from the UNC Charlotte's Levine Program holding a lamp dating from the Iron Age. Source: Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/James Tabor.

DECISIVE DEFEAT

King Nebuchadnezzar II ruled over much of the ancient Middle Eastern world around 604-562BC.

He defeated the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho in a struggle for control over what is now Syria. This opened the way for Babylon to become the superpower of the era, and expand its territories.

But Nebuchadnezzar is most notorious for the biblical account of his conquest of Judah, the smashing of its Temple, and the deportation of its citizens in Babylon.

King Jehoiakim of Judah had paid tribute to Nebuchadnezzar for three years before changing his allegiance back to Egypt. But Babylon moved harshly to quell the rebellion.

Jehoiakim was bound "in copper chains", and died after being dragged through the streets outside the city of Jerusalem. The Temple was plundered, and thousands of captives taken.

Zedekiah was put on the throne of Judah as Babylon's vassal. But, 11 years into his reign, Zedekiah also sided with the Egyptians.

The resulting siege of Jerusalem, it is said, lasted two years. Eventually, its gate was breached.

This time, Nebuchadnezzar's troops destroyed the city - and the Temple - by fire. Zedekiah was caught attempting to escape via secret underground passages. He was blinded before being bound in chains and hauled away with many of his people into exile.

The Babylonian conquest was complete.

It's an event Jews have mourned ever since.

 

The excavation site, a wedge of land between Jerusalem’s Tower of David citadel and a busy highway. Picture: Mount Zion Archaeological Project.
The excavation site, a wedge of land between Jerusalem’s Tower of David citadel and a busy highway. Picture: Mount Zion Archaeological Project.

 

DECODING THE DETRITUS

The new discoveries are being touted as historically significant, especially because the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple is such a defining moment in Jewish history.

Archaeologists sifting through a dig site on Mount Zion have found layers of ash, arrowheads, iron-age potsherds, lamps - and even a gold and silver tassel. It all points to a significant event about the time of the biblical account.

Professor Gibson says researchers have found a ruined house that was once part of a fortified urban area that extended to the southwest of the "City of David".

The Mount Zion Archaeological Project believes the location, the style of pottery and lamps and bronze and iron arrowheads definitively date the burning event to the period of the Babylonian siege.

"The combination of an ashy layer full of artefacts, mixed with arrowheads, and a very special ornament indicates some kind of devastation and destruction," he says. "Nobody abandons golden jewellery, and nobody has arrowheads in their domestic refuse."

One indication the burning is linked to King Nebuchadnezzar's assault is the style of arrow found among the ash. The researchers say they are of a type known as 'Scythian', also discovered at other sites dating from the 7th and 6th Centuries BC.

"They were fairly commonplace in this period and are known to be used by the Babylonian warriors," Professor Gibson says. "Together, this evidence points to the historical conquest of the city by Babylon because the only major destruction we have in Jerusalem for this period is the conquest of 587/586 BCE."

 

One of the Scythian type arrowheads found in the destruction layer from 587/586 BCE. Source: Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/Virginia Withers.
One of the Scythian type arrowheads found in the destruction layer from 587/586 BCE. Source: Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/Virginia Withers.

 

JEWEL OF A FIND

Also among the rubble and ash was a tassel, or possibly an earring. It has a gold bell-shaped upper component clasped to a silver cluster of grapes.

"Frankly, jewellery is a rare find at conflict sites, because this is exactly the sort of thing that attackers will loot and later melt down," Professor Gibson says. "(It) is a unique find and it is a clear indication of the wealth of the inhabitants of the city at the time of the siege."

Researchers speculate the finely worked fragment may have been torn from a more significant artefact but not enough of it survives to identify its original nature definitively.

"It went through trauma itself, was smashed somehow," senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College Dr Rafi Lewis told Israeli news service Haaretz. "The little silver cluster of grapes is almost detached from its golden case, as if the jewel had been violently torn from somebody. You can almost sense the violence on the artefact itself."

It is the first time such an artefact had been found from the time of the Babylon conquest.

"No evidence of this kind of richness of material culture has ever been found inside the walls of Jerusalem before," Dr Lewis said. "The biblical books of Kings and Daniel dwell on the wealth of Jerusalem that Nebuchadnezzar took back to Babylon, and describe feasting using the gold vessels and copper vessels which came from the city. This small artefact that shows the potential of how rich Jerusalem really was."

 

The earring or tassel ornament made of gold and silver from the destruction layer of 587/586 BCE. Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/Rafi Lewis.
The earring or tassel ornament made of gold and silver from the destruction layer of 587/586 BCE. Mt Zion Archaeological Expedition/Rafi Lewis.

 

'GREAT MAN'S HOUSE'

Only part of the substantial ancient house has been excavated due to the complexity of the archaeological site. But its discovery supports the argument that Jerusalem really was a sprawling Iron Age city, not just a hilltop village.

"I like to think that we are excavating inside one of the 'Great Man's houses,'" Professor Gibson speculates. "This spot would have been at an ideal location, situated as it is close to the western summit of the city with a good view overlooking Solomon's Temple and Mount Moriah to the northeast. We have high expectations of finding much more of the Iron Age city in future seasons of work."

 

Led by Shimon Gibson and James Tabor, the excavations at Mt. Zion in Jerusalem have unearthed a first-century C.E. mansion that may have belonged to aristocrats or a member of the wealthy Jewish priestly families. Photo: Shimon Gibson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Led by Shimon Gibson and James Tabor, the excavations at Mt. Zion in Jerusalem have unearthed a first-century C.E. mansion that may have belonged to aristocrats or a member of the wealthy Jewish priestly families. Photo: Shimon Gibson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Earlier this year, excavation of a higher level pointed to the accuracy of accounts of the siege of Jerusalem by Christian Crusaders in 1099AD. So the need to document the context of every stone is paramount.

"We are slowly taking the site down, level by level, period by period, and at the end of this last digging season two meters of domestic structures from later Byzantine and Roman periods have still to be dug above the Iron Age level below," Professor Gibson says. "We plan to get down to it in the 2020 season."

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel



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