NOTE: Here is the video version of this blog, from Episode 120 of the TV show, Digging for Truth, by the Associates for Biblical Research (biblearchaeology.org).
One of my favorite times of the year is the end of December, when I can look back at all that has occurred in the past 12 months. 2020 has been a difficult year for many, and in the world of biblical archaeology, the pandemic led to the cancelation of many excavations in the lands of the Bible. Despite this, there were many important discoveries made which both affirmed details in Scripture and will help us understand the biblical text in greater detail. So as I look back at 2020, here were the top ten discoveries of the year.
If you’re new to my annual top ten list, here are my criteria:
- These discoveries must be directly related to people, places or events mentioned in Scripture, or to the composition of Scripture itself, 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. For example, in May 2020, it was announced that new excavations were planned at Petra in Jordan. This is an important archaeological site, and it was a big announcement, but I’m not considering it for this list. Finally I should note that my list includes not just discoveries, but also studies; often a discovery’s full importance becomes known only when it is finally published in a journal. As archaeologist, Dr. Scott Stripling, says: “The goal of archaeology is publication, not merely excavation. If we destroy the evidence and do not make the findings available to others, we have done more harm than good.”
You can also read my past top ten lists here: 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016, as well as the Top Ten Discoveries of the Decade (2010-2019), and Top Ten Discoveries of All-Time Relating to Both the Old and New Testaments.
With that said, here are the top ten discoveries in Biblical archaeology in 2020.
10. The Bulla of a Servant of King Jeroboam II Authenticated (December 2020)
Ben-Gurion University Professor, Yuval Goren, announced his authentication of a clay seal impression (bulla) of a servant of King Jeroboam II. This announcement comes ahead of the publication of his scientific study in the Eretz Yisrael journal, which will later to be published in English in the Israel Exploration Journal. The bulla’s impression is almost identical to the much larger jasper seal that was discovered at Megiddo in 1904, and subsequently lost. It bears the image of a roaring lion and a paleo-Hebrew inscription, “l’Shema eved Yerov’am” (Belonging to Shema the servant of Jeroboam). Scholars believe Shema was a servant in the courts of the Israelite king Jeroboam II, who reigned in the 8th century BC. The clay bulla was purchased in the 1980’s without provenance from a Bedouin antiquities dealer for only 10 old Israeli shekels. Given the lack of provenance, and the fact it was purchased so cheaply on the antiquities market, it was believed the seal impression was a forgery. However, Goren claims to have developed a strict set of testing protocols involving a series of overlapping tests from a variety of disciplines. One test involved removing a fragment of the clay to examine the mineral makeup and another analyzed the isotopic composition of the patina. He assembled an interdisciplinary team and studied hundreds of authentic seal impressions discovered in excavations to secure a reference point. Goren began testing the artifact five years ago on the condition that it be turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority if it proved authentic. The authentication of the seal impression of Shema, the servant of Jeroboam, if accurate and properly understood, affirms the historicity of King Jeroboam II, son of Joash (2 Kings 13:13).
9. Reliefs of Assyrian King, Sargon II, Unearthed in Iraq (January 2020)
Ten stone reliefs on the walls of an ancient canal system were discovered in northern Iraq by a team of Italian and Iraqi Kurdish archaeologists. The tops of three of the stone panels were noted in 1973, and a survey of the site began in 2012, but had to be abandoned and the reliefs hidden when ISIS took over the region. In the fall of 2019, full excavations began at the site, resulting in 10 stone carvings being unearthed. The reliefs portray a procession of the seven main ancient Assyrian gods and goddesses, who riding various animals, including dragons, lions, bulls and horses. An Assyrian king, thought to be Sargon II, is seen paying homage to the gods. The stone panels were carved during the eighth century BC, when the canal was built to irrigate the nearby farm fields, which likely provided barley, wheat, and other crops to the city of Nineveh. Sargon II is mentioned once in the Bible (Isaiah 20:1) where it describes his campaign into Canaan during which he captured the city of Ashdod. Prior to 1847, Sargon was only known from this reference in Scripture, and scholars believed his name might have been an alias for another Assyrian ruler. We now know that Sargon II was a powerful Assyrian king who built a vast palace at Khorsabad. The recently unearthed reliefs of Sargon II are the first significant Assyrian carvings to be found and studied in almost 200 years. Unfortunately, recent vandalism and the construction of a modern aqueduct threaten the site; scholars are seeking to protect the reliefs and ultimately create an archaeological park nearby.
8. Davidic-Era Geshurite Fort Discovered in the Golan Heights (November 2020)
Archaeologists discovered the remains of a 3000-year-old fort in the Golan Heights which they believe may have been part of the ancient kingdom of Geshur. The fort covers approximately 1 acre and has 1.5 meter-thick walls built of large basalt stones. It was dated to the 11th-9th centuries B.C. based on the pottery, which is similar to the Iron-Age pottery at Megiddo. A large stone engraved with two horned figures with outstretched arms was discovered inside the fort next to a stone table, which may have been an alter. The etchings are similar to the relief of a horned figure discovered at et-Tell, which many believe was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur. The similarity of the iconography at both sites have led scholars to connect the two – both politically and spiritually, as it appears they both worshiped the moon-god. Scripture records that the David married Maakah, the daughter of Talmai the king of Geshur (2 Sam. 3:3) and that it was in Geshur that their son Absalom sought refuge after killing his brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13:23-39).
7. First-Century Synagogue Discovered at Beit Shemesh; to be Dismantled and Moved (May 2020)
A first-century synagogue discovered near Tel Beit Shemesh is being dismantled and moved to make way for Highway 38. Archaeologists were called in when workers at the highway-widen project encountered artifacts from First-Temple period. The highway was rerouted, but during the excavations for the route change, they unearthed a Second-Temple era site. One of the buildings uncovered was a synagogue that dates to the first century. Archaeologists believe the structure itself dates to the Herodian period and that the village was eventually abandoned during the Bar Kochba revolt of the early second century. Authorities have decided to dismantle the synagogue and move it to another location, as they cannot reroute the highway again. Unfortunately, the relocation budget is in now question given the current economic situation from the coronavirus pandemic. Scripture says that Jesus frequently taught in synagogues (Matt. 4:23). The Beit Shemesh synagogue adds to the growing list of first-century synagogues that have been excavated, indicating that there they were fixtures in communities all around Israel, as described in the Bible.
6. First-Temple-Era Weight Discovered Near Western Wall (October 2020)
A two-shekel weight dating to the First-Temple Period was discovered in material from excavations carried out beneath Wilson’s Arch near the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. It was found in debris that was likely part of the fill used to backfill the foundations of the Temple Mount when Herod the Great expanded the Temple. While it was missed in the initial excavations, the artifact was discovered through the important secondary process of wet-sifting. The round weight-stone is inscribed with an Egyptian symbol which resembles the Greek letter gamma, which represented the shekel, as well as two parallel lines, indicating that is was a double-weight. Previous discoveries have demonstrated that the weight of a shekel was 11.5 grams, and this double shekel indeed weighs twice that amount (23 grams). Given the use of the shekel in matters related to the temple, the location of this discovery is yet more evidence that the temple was located on the Temple Mount. It also indicates that there was likely a market near the Temple where people who had come to worship purchased sacrificial animals and other items. Dr. Scott Stripling, Director of the excavations at Shiloh led by the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) commented: “I applaud the IAA for wet sifting the soil before discarding it. Had this not occurred, this weight would have been discarded. Sadly, most small finds from archaeological excavations are discarded because of archaic methodology.” ABR’s dig at Shiloh makes extensive use of wet-sifting and has demonstrated the importance of this technology in modern archaeological excavations.
5. Bronze-Age Canaanite Temple Unearthed at Lachish (February 2020)
Archaeologists excavating at Tel Lachish have discovered a structure which they have identified as a Bronze-Age Canaanite temple. Their findings were recently published in The Journal of the Council for British Research in the Levant. The structure, dubbed the “North-East Temple,” is modest in size when compared to other temples from similar eras. The front of the structure had two columns and two towers which led into a large hall. The inner sanctum had four supporting columns and several “standing stones” which the archaeologists hypothesize may have represented the temple gods. The structure differs from typical Canaanite temples in that it includes side rooms, which has led to a dispute over whether it is a temple or a ceremonial place. Numerous ritual items were found within, including bronze cauldrons, Egyptian-inspired jewelry, daggers, axe-heads, scarabs, and a gold-plated bottle inscribed with the name of Rameses II. In the inner sanctum, archaeologists also discovered two small, bronze smiting gods, likely representing the Canaanite gods Baal or Resheph. The Bible states that Joshua and the Israelites conquered Lachish when they entered the Promised Land (Jos 10:32). According to biblical chronology, this occurred in the 15th century BC. The recently discovered “temple” at Lachish dates to the 12th century BC, during the period of the judges. This would appear to affirm what is written in the book of Judges: “Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals…They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.” (Jdg 2:11,13).
4. Ancient Hebrew Inscription Unearthed at Abel Beth Maacah (January 2020)
Scholars analyzing the broken remains of a large wine jug unearthed at Abel Beth Maacah, have discovered an ancient Hebrew inscription on one of them. The inscription reads, “LeBenayau,” meaning “Belongs to Benayau.” This is a Hebrew name, with the classic Israelite “Yahwehist” ending yau (later, yahu). Archaeologists believe the wine jar was found in a storehouse that belonged to a Hebrew man named Benayau, indicating a Hebrew presence in the city in the 10th or 9th century BC, based on the dating of the jug. While minimalist archaeologists today believe the area of the town was abandoned during the 10th-9th century BC, and that it was only in the 8th century BC that it became an Israelite city, this discovery affirms the biblical description Israelites living at Abel Beth Maacah in the 10th century BC. In 2 Samuel 20:19, during the days of King David, Abel Beth Maacah is called “a city that is a mother in Israel.”
3. All DSS Fragments at the Museum of the Bible are Forgeries (March 2020)
The final report from Colette Loll of Art Fraud Insights has concluded that all of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the Museum of the Bible collection are forgeries. Loll had been hired by the Museum of the Bible to determine the authenticity of their fragments and was given complete independence, with no input from the Museum of the Bible, and was guaranteed that her report would be final and released to the public. Her team has concluded that there were numerous inconsistencies that pointed towards the fraudulent nature of the fragments, including:
– The fragments were made of the wrong material. While most of the authentic DSS fragments are tanned parchment, these were made of leather, which is thicker and and bumpier. Experts suggest that the leather itself may be ancient.
– Testing revealed that the fragments had been soaked in an amber liquid, most likely animal-skin glue, in order to mimic the waxy sheen of the real Dead Sea Scrolls
– Microscopic analysis showed that the Scripture passages were painted onto already ancient leather, with many fragments displaying ink pooling in cracks and waterfalls off of the torn edges
– The fragments appear to have been dusted with sediments from the Qumran area, where the original Dead Sea Scrolls were found
The conclusion of the team calls into question the authenticity of all of the 70+ Dead Sea Scroll fragments that surprisingly appeared on the antiquities in 2002. It does not, however, cast any suspicion on the real Dead Sea Scrolls, which are authentic and held by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
2. Iron Age Judahite Administrative Complex Unearthed in Jerusalem (July 2020)
An exceptional 2700-year old structure was unearthed between Talpiot and Ramat Rachel in the Arnona neighborhood, outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. Evidence suggests it operated as an administrative center and storage facility during the reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh in the 8th-7th centuries BC. Over 120 jar handles stamped with ancient Hebrew scripts were uncovered, including numerous handles inscribed with LMLK (“Belonging to the King”). Other handles were inscribed with the names of officials and/or wealthy individuals from the kingdom of Judah. The site’s location and the large number of seal impressions suggests that some of Judah’s administration occurred outside of the City of David during this time period. In addition, a collection of clay idols and figurines depicting women and animals was also found at the site, likely indicating idolatry, a practice that, according to Scripture, was prevalent in Judah during the Iron Age. The complex appears to have been abandoned after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, but was resettled in the Persian-era, after the exiles returned, and administrative activity resumed. The sheer number of inscribed jar handles discovered makes this one of the most important collections ever discovered in the ancient kingdom of Judah and will help scholars better understand the the period of the kings.
1. Capitals from First-Temple-Era Palatial Structure Found in Jerusalem (September 2020)
Archaeologists excavating near the Armon Hanatziv Prominade, south of Jerusalem’s Old City, discovered three decorated capitals in the remains of a palatial structure. The capitals (column heads) exhibit a design that is known from the Kingdom of Judah. The archaeologists were excited to find the first capital, and then surprised when they found a second one directly underneath it. It appears that they had been intentionally buried. A third, smaller capital, which likely decorated a window was found nearby. The residence was dated to the seventh century BC based on the pottery found. It was likely built after the siege of the Assyrians and before the destruction of the Babylonians. This discovery affirms the biblical description of Jerusalem’s survival after the Assyrian invasion and is evidence that the ruling class in Jerusalem felt confident enough to build villas and royal estates outside of the city walls. The stunning capitals and palatial structure also illustrates the wealth of Hezekiah and Judah at this time (2 Kings 21:13).
Each year I sift through over 200 news reports related to biblical archaeology. I do this both for my own blog and for the Associates for Biblical Research with whom I am a Staff Researcher and Writer. Each week I write a Breaking News update for their website. You can stay up-to-date on the latest BREAKING NEWS in biblical archaeology each week here: https://biblearchaeology.org/current-events-list
For over 150 years, archaeologists have been unearthing the lands of the Bible, and discovery-after-discovery has affirmed hundreds of historical synchronisms. Many discoveries help illuminate details in the biblical text. While there were numerous important discoveries made in 2020, one can only wonder what might have been if so many excavations had not been canceled. I’m hopeful that many of the digs that were planned for this year will proceed in 2021 and I look forward to seeing what discoveries will be made.
Cover Photo: Israel Anitquities Authority