Top Three Reports in Biblical Archaeology – September 2022

September 2022 proved to be a banner month for discoveries in the world of biblical archaeology. This month, the top three reports featured a rare papyrus from the Iron Age, the Linear Elamite Script finally being deciphered, and the announcement of precious ivories discovered in Jerusalem. Each of these discoveries illuminate the biblical world.

3. Iron Age Papyrus Letter Returned to Israel

A papyrus letter addressed to Ishmael purported to be from the Iron Age. Photo: Shai Halev / Israel Antiquities Authority

A papyrus letter dubbed the “Ishmael Papyrus” was recently repatriated from the United States to Israel. According to press reports (see below), the papyrus fragment was either purchased or obtained as a gift by a lady who was visiting the Qumran area in 1965. Her son was recently located and brought the fragment back to Israel. The papyrus fragment is 5 cm wide by 4 cm high (1.5 in. wide by 2 in. high) and contains four lines of text, including the words “To Ishmael, send…of no help…” The papyrus itself has been carbon-dated to the late seventh or early sixth century BC. The inscription itself has also been dated to the same time period based on epigraphy. Only two other papyri from Iron Age Israel are known: one that mentions the name of Jerusalem and was confiscated from the antiquities market, and one that was discovered in Wadi Murabba’at and is a bill of sale. Some have urged caution due to the fact that forgers have, in the past, used ancient material to produce fake artifacts.


BONUS: Also read this article by an epigrapher expressing caution about the authenticity of this letter:

2. Linear Elamite Script Finally Deciphered

The Linear Elamite script on the Marv Dasht vessel dating to the 21st century BC. Photo: The National Museum of Iran

A group of epigraphers claims to have deciphered the Linear Elamite script, a system of writing used in the ancient kingdom of Elam (located in modern-day southern Iran) from 2300 to 1880 BC. François Desset, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Matthieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello, and Gianni Marchesi recently published their research in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie. Linear Elamite was first discovered in 1903 on monuments excavated at Susa. The real key to deciphering Linear Elamite was the publication in 2018 of eight silver beakers from Tal-e Malyan that bore the script. These beakers featured Elamite royal inscriptions from various kings who reigned from 2000 to 1880 BC. The authors of the study recognized that these inscriptions shared titles, formulas, and similar phraseology with later Elamite text written in cuneiform. The comparison of a single language written in two different scripts allowed these scholars to decipher Linear Elamite; they caution, however, that there is much work to do since knowledge of Elamite grammar and vocabulary is still in its infancy. This development is of interest to the field of biblical studies: the kingdom of Elam is named as one of the nations that developed its own language after the Tower of Babel (Gn 10:22, 10:31, 11:1–9), and Kedorlaomer (the Hebrew version of the Elamite name Kudur-Lagamar) is named as one of the kings involved in the Battle of Siddim (Gn 14:1–16). According to a literal, straightforward understanding of biblical chronology, both of these events would have occurred within the period in which Linear Elamite was in use.


1. Ancient Ivory Inlays Discovered in Jerusalem

Ivory pieces reassembled into a panel that likely adorned furniture in the home of Judahite elites or royalty in the Iron Age. Photo: Dafna Gazit / Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists in Jerusalem have unearthed a trove of 1,500 ivory fragments dating to the First Temple era. The artifacts were excavated at the Givati Parking Lot but only came to light when material was wet-sifted at the Emek Tzurim National Park. The ivory pieces themselves were carved with geometric shapes, lotus flowers, and rosettes and were likely inlays that decorated wooden furniture. Conservator Orna Cohen and Ilan Naor meticulously studied and reassembled hundreds of fragments and determined they were the remains of at least 12 square plaques, each measuring 5 cm by 5 cm. The ivory inlays were excavated in a monumental building, possibly the home of Jewish elites or royalty, that was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. Ivory is often associated with royalty and wealth and has been found in other ancient capital cities, such as Samaria and Nimrud. This discovery is evidence of the biblical description of the prominence of Jerusalem in the Iron Age. These ivories also illustrate what other ivory-inlaid furniture mentioned in the Bible may have looked like (i.e., Solomon’s ivory throne in 1 Kings 10:18 and the ivory-inlaid beds mentioned in Amos 6:4). Moreover, the discovery highlights the importance of wet sifting, a process that ABR has been on the forefront of implementing in their excavations.

NOTE: The date of the fall of Jerusalem is a matter of debate, with many holding to 586 BC as the date of the destruction of the city. However, ABR associate and biblical chronologist Roger Young has presented evidence suggesting that Jerusalem actually fell during the summer of 587 BC (see link below).


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