Top Three Reports in Biblical Archaeology – January 2021

2021 began with numerous significant discoveries in biblical archaeology that spanned over 2000 years, from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine Era. They came from excavations in Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. Here were the top reports in biblical archaeology for January 2021.

3a.  Funerary Temple of Queen Nearit and New Kingdom-era Mummies Unearthed at Saqqara Necropolis in Egypt

An Egyptian coffin recently unearthed at Saqqara. Photo: The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques

Egyptian officials announced their first major discovery of the year.  Archaeologists working at Saqqara, near the step pyramid of Djoser, unearthed a the funerary temple of Queen Nearit and over 50 wooden sarcophagi dating to the New Kingdom (16th century BC to 11th century BC).  Queen Nearit was the wife of Pharaoh Teti, the first king of the Sixth Dynasty, ruling from ca. 2323–2291 BC.  In addition, numerous burial shafts were also discovered with intact, richly-decorated wooden anthropoid sarcophagi.  Other artifacts were unearthed in the burial shafts, including a limestone stelae, statues, games, wooden boats, and a 4m (13ft) long papyrus text with Chapter 17 from the Book of the Dead.  While Saqqara’s history dates back to the Old Kingdom, most of the artifacts and coffins found to-date have been from 500 BC or later. This is the first time that coffins dating to the New Kingdom have been discovered at Saqqara, confirming the area was used as a burial at that time. 


3b.  Byzantine-Era “Christ, Born of Mary” Inscription Discovered

This Greek inscription, dating to the 5th century, includes the phrase ‘Christ born of Mary.” Photo: Tzachi Lang/Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists digging at et-Taiyiba, in the northern Jezreel valley, have unearthed the remains of a Byzantine church, along with a Greek inscription with the phrase, “Christ, born of Mary.”  The inscribed stone was once part of the lintel at the entrance of the church, which dates to the 5th century; the church was discovered in preparation for the construction of a road.  The full inscription reads, “Christ born of Mary. This work of the most God-fearing and pious bishop [Theodo]sius and the miserable Th[omas] was built from the foundation – -. Whoever enters should pray for them.”  The inscription would have greeted the worshipers to bless them; the phrase “Christ, born of Mary,” may have been intended to protect people from evil.  In addition to the inscription, archaeologists discovered mosaic pavements arranged in geometric designs.  Theodosius, one of the men the inscription refers to, was a Christian bishop of nearby Bet She’an and likely the building’s founder.  The Byzantine church will add to our knowledge of the life and worship of Christians who lived in the region during the Byzantine era. 


2.  Dance Floor Where John The Baptist Was Condemned Identified

The niche at Machaerus which may be the remains of the throne of Herod Antipas. Photo: Győző Vörös

The courtyard where Salome danced and where Herod Antipas condemned John the Baptist to death was recently identified at Machaerus, the fortress of King Herod in modern-day Jordan.  The discovery was published by Gyozo Voros, director of the Machaerus excavations, in a book entitled, Holy Land Archaeology on Either Side: Archaeological Essays in Honour of Eugenio Alliata (Fondazione Terra Santa, 2020).  The excavation team discovered an apsidal-shaped niche beside a courtyard, which they believe is the remains of the throne where Herod Antipas would have sat. While the courtyard itself was discovered in 1980, it was only recently was the niche was identified as the throne of Herod, thus leading to the theory that this courtyard was where the infamous birthday party described in Matthew 14 and Mark 6 took place.  While the gospels do not specify the exact location of this event, Josephus records that John was killed at Machaerus.  Some scholars have accepted Voros’s conclusion, while others question whether the small size the niche is really the remains of Herod’s throne.


1. Davidic-Era “Royal Purple” Dye Found on Ancient Clothe

Purple textile fibers from 1,000 BC excavated in the Timna Valley. Photo: Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority
A fragment of cloth from the Timna Valley which had been dyed purple. Photo: Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority

Scholars have identified “argaman” royal purple dye on three pieces of ancient fabric discovered at Slaves Hill, an ancient copper smelting camp in the Timna Valley.  The results of their study were published in a recent article in the journal PLOS One entitled, “Early evidence of royal purple dyed textile from Timna Valley (Israel).”  The dry conditions at Timna preserved the clothe, which was dated using Carbon-14 to 1000 BC.  Researchers tested the textiles at the Bar Ilan University laboratory using High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) analysis, which identified molecules of 6-monobromoindigotin and 6,6-dibromoindigotin, unique to murex sea snails.  Dye from murex snails was used in ancient times to produce the rich color, also known as Tyrian purple, which was highly-prized among elite and royals.  This purple dye, known in the Hebrew Bible as “argaman” is mentioned in numerous passages, and is associated with the Tabernacle (Ex 26:1; 27:16) and royalty (Sg 3:10; Est 1:6).  The authors of the study suggest that this discovery will shed new light on the fashions of the elite and royalty in the early Edomite and Israelite kingdoms 3000-years ago. 


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