As a new decade begins, I thought it might be beneficial to look back at the top ten discoveries of the past ten years. The number of significant discoveries in the decade made it difficult to compile this list. The truth is, depending on what criteria you use to judge a find’s significance, your list may look very different than mine. That’s part of the fun with these lists; it is my hope that they will stimulate both discussion and further investigation.
For the record, I used the same criteria I do for my annual top ten lists:
- These discoveries must be directly related to people, places or events mentioned in Scripture or to the composition of Scripture, as opposed to the many discoveries that are made in Bible lands which teach us much about the different cultures. These are helpful, but I’ve chosen to narrow the focus of my list.
- They must be discoveries or new studies about discoveries, as opposed to announcements.
Here then would be my nominees for the ten most significant discoveries in biblical archaeology of the decade:
#10 – The Egyptian Scarab of Khirbet el-Maqatir (2013)
In 2013, the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) discovered a rare Egyptian scarab dating to the 18th Dynasty, likely in the reign of Amenhotep II (ca. 1455-1418 B.C.) at Khirbet el-Maqatir. While only 3/4 of an inch in size, it was a huge find that was named the #1 discovery of the year in Gordon Govier’s annual Top Ten list for Christianity Today. To recognize the significance of this discovery, one needs to understand the debate surrounding the location of the city of Ai that Joshua and the Israelites defeated in Joshua 7 & 8. Scholars had traditionally followed W. F. Albright’s suggestion that Et-Tell was the site of Ai, although it lacked evidence of occupation and destruction at the time the Bible describes. This led Joseph Callaway, who excavated at et-Tell from 1964 –70, to conclude: “Ai is simply an embarrassment to every view of the conquest that takes the biblical and archaeological evidence seriously.”
The archaeologists and scholars from ABR believed Albright had suggested the wrong site. From 1995-2017, they excavated at nearby Khirbet el-Maqatir, uncovering a fortified settlement from the time of Joshua that had been destroyed by fire, and matched all of the biblical criteria for Joshua’s Ai. One of the most important finds was the Amenhotep II scarab, which was discovered in situ in a sealed locus, and provided a terminal date for the fortress toward the end of the 15th century B.C. – the time the conquest occurred, according to biblical chronology. It, along with a second scarab from the Middle Bronze III period (ca. 1650–1485 B.C.), helped date the period of the fortress, independent of the pottery that was found. Archaeologist, Dr. Scott Stripling, who oversaw the final years of the excavations, concluded: “The two scarabs synchronize with the ceramic analysis and provide firm dates for the operation of the fortress. It now seems clear that the small fortress, likely the Ai of Joshua 7-8, was constructed during the MB III boom and was violently destroyed near the end of LB I.” The Amenhotep II scarab from Khirbet el-Maqatir was a significant piece of the puzzle in helping ABR locate the lost city of Ai.
Read more about the lost city of Ai here: https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2019/04/12/biblical-sites-ai/
#9 – The Ophel Pithos (2012)
During the 2012 excavation season at the Ophel in Jerusalem, the rim of a pithos (storage jar) inscribed in ancient text was discovered in large, early Iron IIA Age (1000-900 BC) building. It was one of several pithoi that had been used as part of the fill to stabilize a section of the building. Five letters are clearly visible, with parts of several others discernible. While the interpretation of the inscription has been somewhat controversial, what is evident is that this is the earliest alphabetical inscription found in Jerusalem. Epigrapher, Christopher Rollston, identified the script as deriving from the Egyptian Proto-Sinaitic or Proto-Consonantal inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadim. Gershon Galil from the University of Haifa, has argued that the inscription is Hebrew and he dates it to the second half of the 10th century BC. It would appear, given his translation, that the pithos once contained wine. If this interpretation is correct, it would make the Ophel Pithos the earliest Hebrew inscription discovered in Jerusalem.
Read more about the Ophel Pithos here: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/contemporary-issues/2575-new-find-jerusalems-oldest-hebrew-inscription
#8 – The Seal Impression of the Prophet Isaiah (2018)
The discovery of a clay impression (called a bulla) that may have been from the Prophet Isaiah’s personal seal was announced in February 2018. The bulla was unearthed by archaeologist Eilat Mazar and her team in the Ophel excavations just south of the Temple Mount. It was in a batch of seal impressions that included the famous Hezekiah bulla (see below). The 2700-year old bulla is not fully intact, with the top and left side partially damaged. Enough of the bulla is legible to clearly read the name “Isaiah” in the middle portion and the letters “N-V-Y” – the first three letters of the Hebrew word “prophet” – below it. Unfortunately, the crucial letter aleph to complete the word “prophet” is missing. By reconstructing the missing part of the border ring, it is likely that another letter was present on the damaged portion of the seal. This fact, along with its discovery within a few feet of the Hezekiah bulla, have led many to believe this is likely the impression of the personal seal of Isaiah the prophet. In the Bible, King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah were more than just contemporaries, they were personally close, and their names appear together at least 14 different times (2 Kings 19-20; Is 37-39). If this identification is correct, then the “Isaiah Bulla” is surely one of the most significant finds of the past decade
Read more about the “Isaiah Bulla” here:
#7 – Discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa (2010-2013)
From 2007-2013, archaeologists from Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated the ruins of an ancient fortress 30 km southwest of Jerusalem, a on hill that borders the Elah Valley. Over the course of the excavations, almost 20% of the city was unearthed, revealing a Judahite fortified city dating to the time of King Saul and King David. The excavators have identified it as biblical Shaarayim (1 Sam. 17:52) because of its two gates. In addition to the city walls, city gates and numerous buildings that were excavated, other significant finds were unearthed.
While it was officially discovered in 2008, the Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostraca (a shard of pottery with writing on it) made the news in 2012 with a new analysis of its text. Scholars translated one line of the ostraca to read, “The men and chiefs/officers have established a king.” If this translation is correct, it could be the first reference to King Saul outside of the Bible. The text itself is one of the earliest Hebrew inscriptions yet discovered.
In 2011, several cult shrines were unearthed at the site, and are evidence of Israelite worship predating the First Temple. The excavators suggest that these shrines, which have no images of people or animals on them, indicate the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa were observing the biblical ban on graven images.
These finds have helped our understanding of the period of the United Monarchy.
Read more about Khirbet Qeiyafa here:
#6 – The Seal Impression of King Hezekiah (2015)
In December 2015, it was announced that a 2700-year old ‘bulla’ or clay seal, bearing the inscription ‘Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king of Judah,’ had been discovered in Jerusalem. In addition to the inscription, the bulla was also inscribed with a two-winged sun, with wings turned downward, flanked by two ankh symbols symbolizing life. On the back, it preserves an impression of papyrus fibers, which suggests the seal once enclosed a document perhaps signed by the king himself. The bulla was unearthed in a refuse pile which dated to the time of King Hezekiah or shortly after, and likely originated in a Royal Building. It was found with 33 other bullae imprinted from other seals, some bearing Hebrew names. While other seals purported to belong to King Hezekiah have surfaced on the antiquities market, this is the first bulla of an Israelite or Judean king that has been unearthed in an actual archaeological excavation. Unlike the Isaiah Bulla, around which there is some debate, the identification of this bulla as the seal impression of King Hezekiah is secure, making it one of the most important finds of the past ten years.
Read more about King Hezekiah’s seal impression here: https://new.huji.ac.il/en/article/28173
#5 – Discoveries from the Temple Mount (2015-2017)
Since 2004, numerous discoveries have been by the Temple Mount Sifting Project (TMSP) relating to the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. They have been excavating some of the 9000 tons of material that was removed from the Temple Mount during illegal renovations by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in 1999.
In addition to pottery, bullae, and arrowheads that date to the First Temple period, in 2015, a 10-year old Russion boy who was voluneering at the the TMSP found a conical seal, dating to the time of King David’s conquest of the city. Two animals are carved on its circular base, possibly representing a predator and its prey.
In 2016, archaeologists from the TMSP announced that they had restored some of the flooring tiles from the Second Temple using colored stone floor tile segments found in the earth and rubble that had originally come from the Temple Mount. Of the many tile segments discovered, more than 100 date to the time period of Herod’s Second Temple. Seven floor tile designs were assembled by using basic geometry, the known size of a Roman foot (approximately 29.6 cm), and similarities to the tile designs used by Herod at other sites, including his palaces at Masada, Herodium and Jericho.
In 2017, the TMSP announced the discovery of a capital from one of the columns that formed the eastern colonnade of the Second Temple, known in the New Testament as ‘Solomon’s Colonnade.’ The capital itself is in the Doric style and would have adorned the top of one of the columns that surrounded the Temple Mount area to provide shade for those who visited the Temple. Dr. Leen Ritmeyer, one of the world’s leading experts on the Temple, has responded to the announcement by agreeing that the capital is likely from Solomon’s Colonnade while correcting information about the size of the column the capital likely came from. The Bible records that Jesus (Jn 10:23), Peter and John (Acts 3:11), and the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 5:12) all spent time at Solomon’s Colonnade.
Additionally, in 2018, a small stone weight which was once used to measure the half-shekel temple tax during the First Temple period was found. The weight was found at the City of David’s wet-sifting project in the Emek Tzurim National Park amidst the rubble taken from the 2013 excavations under Robinson’s Arch. Exodus 38:26 mentions the “beka” in regard to the weight of silver brought by the Israelites for the maintenance of the temple.
The Jewish temples in Jerusalem served as the primary place of worship for the Hebrew people for centuries. Any discovery related to these ancient structures are important, especially in light of the fact that, given the current political situation, systematic excavations on the Temple Mount are not possible.
Read more about these discoveries here:
#4 – The venerated home of Jesus from Nazareth (2015)
This was the #2 find in biblical archaeology of 2015, according to Gordon Govier’s list for Christianity Today. Professor Ken Dark, of the University of Reading (UK), announced that a first-century “courtyard house,” found beneath the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, matched the description of the purported childhood home of Jesus found in the writings of a seventh century pilgrim. In Des Locus Sanctis, the pilgrim, Adomnán of Iona, described the house Jesus was said to have grown up in, as located between two tombs, under a church that also contained a spring. This specific description matches what was found beneath the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. In addition to the “courtyard house,” several tombs, cisterns, and the remains of a Byzantine church were discovered. The house itself was partially-hewn from the natural rock and partially constructed with walls. Even some of the home’s original features, including doors and windows, remain intact. The house and the nearby tombs were decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine period, suggesting they were venerated as places of significance. The archaeological findings and the pilgrim’s description, suggest that this was the house that was venerated as the childhood home of Jesus during the Byzantine period. Any find that credibly relates to Jesus of Nazareth is on this top ten list!
Read more about this discovery here:
#3 – A Roman Ring Inscribed with Pilate’s Name (2018)
A copper ring unearthed during the 1968-69 excavations at the Herodium was recently cleaned, photographed and analyzed revealing the name of Pilate. This discovery was announced in the latest issue of Israel Exploration Journal under the title, “An Inscribed Copper-Alloy Finger Ring from Herodium Depicting a Krater.” The artifact itself is as simple stamping ring with the image of a Krater (a wine vessel) surrounded by Greek letters which translate to, “Pilatus.” It was found in a room at the Herodium with an archaeological layer dating no later than 71 A.D. Given the rarity of the name Pilate in the first century, many are naturally asking whether this ring belonged to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judea who sentenced Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. The authors of the article write, “Simple all-metal rings like the Herodium ring were primarily the property of soldiers, Herodian and Roman officials, and middle-income folk of all trades and occupations. It is therefore unlikely that Pontius Pilatus, the powerful and rich prefect of Judaea, would have worn a thin, all copper-alloy sealing ring.” They do allow that it may have belonged to someone under Pilate’s command, a member of his family or one of his freed slaves. Another scholar has suggested that Pilate may have had a gold ring for official duties and a simple copper ring for his private, everyday affairs. This is only the second archaeological artifact discovered in Israel that bears the name of Pilate. The other is the famous “Pilate Stone” which was discovered in Caesarea Maritima in 1961 and refers to “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”
Read more about Pilate’s ring here:
#2 – Tomb of Jesus Uncovered for First Time in Centuries (2016/2017)
In October 2016, scholars removed the limestone slab that covered the burial bed of the purported tomb of Jesus inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the first time in almost 500 years.
The burial bed had been covered with a marble slab centuries ago to prevent pilgrims from chipping off pieces of the tomb as souvenirs. After removing the marble slab, archaeologists were surprised to find a layer of fill, and then a second marble slab with a cross carved into its surface. The researchers had been given only 60 hours to complete their work. Just hours before their time was up, the original limestone surface of the burial bed was uncovered and found intact.
When the tomb was unsealed, mortar samples from different locations in the structure were analyzed, which confirmed the construction date of the mid-4th century for the shrine, and the rebuilt crusader chapel from the middle ages. The mortar was dated using a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) that calculates the last time the quartz sediment was exposed to light. The tests were conducted independently at two separate labs. Thus, the archaeological tests confirmed the written descriptions of when the shrine was built and renovated.
While it is impossible to know conclusively that this is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth described in the Gospels, the historical evidence of the site is significant and nothing initially discovered in the recent unsealing would contradict the long-standing Christian tradition that this is the original empty tomb of Jesus.
Read more about the unsealing of the tomb of Jesus here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/11/jesus-tomb-archaeology-jerusalem-christianity-rome/
#1 – Burnt Scroll of Leviticus Digitally Unfolded (2015/2016)
In my opinion, the number one story in biblical archaeology of the past decade involves the mind-boggling technological advance that allowed scholars to digitally unfold and read the charred remains of an ancient scroll. The badly-damaged scroll, was discovered in the burnt-out remains of a synagogue at En-Gedi. Because the scroll was burned so badly – essentially only a charred lump remained – researchers had conserved the scroll until technology had advanced to the point where it might be readable. That day has arrived, as computer scientists from the University of Kentucky worked with scholars in Jerusalem to scan the scroll and use new software to virtually unroll it and translate the text, which revealed the first two chapters from the book of Leviticus.. Carbon-14 tests had dated the scroll to approximately 300 AD. Paleographic analysis of the style of writing used suggests a first-century date between 50-100 AD. The translated text of Leviticus is identical to that in the Masoretic text of the Old Testament. This makes the En-Gedi scroll the earliest copy of the Masoretic text, and bridges a gap in the history of Bible translation that had existed between the Dead Sea Scrolls and medieval copies the Old Testament.
Read more about this exciting technology here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/09/computers-decipher-ancient-hebrew-ein-gedi-scroll-bible-archaeology/
As we enter a new decade of excavations, I’m convinced that many great discoveries await. New techniques, like drone surveys and wet-sifting are revolutionizing practices in the field. New technologies, such digitally unfolding damaged scrolls and using multi-spectral to read previously unseen inscriptions, will continue improve the interpretation of important artifacts. Biblical archaeology is an important field which has affirmed numerous details in the text and helps us understand the background in which the Scriptures were written. I’m excited to see what is unearthed in the next ten years of digging in the lands of the Bible.