The nation of Israel is rich in archeological treasures, with some 20,000 (yes, that’s the correct number!) recognized sites protected by law. In such a small country, it’s almost impossible to excavate or construct anything new without also encountering something very old. In fact, Israel’s Antiquities Law requires every proposed construction site to be examined first and a “salvage” operation done if it is deemed necessary.
Between the surprise finds (first temple era pillar in a field near Bethlehem) and the government or university sponsored professional digs, this year has brought some significant discoveries to light. Many of them are “firsts” for the area.
Here are just a few examples:
The team members digging at Tel Hazor in the upper Galilee have unearthed many memorable artifacts since reopening the dig in 1990, including a “Hammurabi-style” law code tablet from the 18th-17th century BC. This summer they unexpectedly found the partial remains of an Egyptian sphinx, the base of which pays tribute to Prince Mycerinus who ruled around 2500 BC and who built one of the three pyramids of Giza. It’s the first sphinx to be found anywhere in the Levant (Israel, Lebanon and Syria), and the first dedicated to Mycerinus to be found anywhere in the world. Researchers are still baffled as to how it got to Hazor and what it was doing there.
In June a team excavating the Huqoq Synagogue in Galilee uncovered another breathtaking mosaic dedicated to the story of Samson―his carrying off the gates of Gaza. (Judges 16:1-3) Last year a mosaic picturing Samson and the foxes was found (Judges 15:4-5), as well as another mosaic of two women who might be angels. There is only one other representation of Samson in an excavated synagogue anywhere in Israel.
The oldest known graves to contain flowers were discovered in the Mt. Carmel area of northern Israel in July. The burials from the non-nomadic Natufian culture are thought to be between 12,000 to 14,000 years old.
In August a clay inscription from the 8th century BC City of David was unearthed that may contain the biblical name of Zechariah son of Benaiah, the father of the prophet Jahaziel. (2 Chronicles 20:14) Though some modern biblical revisionists have doubted the historical existence of David and Solomon and their royal city of Jerusalem, more and more finds are beginning to confirm their existence.
A 1,000 year old crusader hospital complex was also found in August in an area of the city called the Muristan. “Muristan” is a corruption of the Arabic word for hospital, and it is one of my favorite areas of the Old City near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The partial excavation confirms medieval accounts of the “Hospitallers,” who were lay members of the Order of St. John of the Hospital. Their ministry extended much needed hospitality and healing to early pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.
I’ve loved archeology since I was quite young, so for me a trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite sites: the Herodium, Qumran and the Ophel excavations south of the Temple Mount. And this upcoming trip in March will be special, too, because of the places (the City of David ruins and Beit Shean) that I haven’t yet explored in depth. I hope that the pilgrims traveling with us will also enjoy these glimpses into ancient history, and that by seeing the “big picture” they’ll also have a greater appreciation for the context of Jesus’ life and ministry.
The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website has ten pages of links to news about recent archeological discoveries. Check it out to get a taste of the grand sweep of Israel’s history, faith and culture.
Pictures courtesy the Israeli Ministry of Tourism (www.goisrael.com)