Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 1)


Introduction. I have been asked to give a “top ten archaeological finds” list on a few occasions. There are in fact far more major finds that I would be able to list in a single article or seminar. The list of inscriptions and other monuments mentioning biblical characters in the Old Testament is quite long given the relatively minor status of Israel in the ancient Near East. For the New Testament, the archaeology of Ceasarea, Bet-Shean, Sephoris, and Tiberias shows the Roman influence on Jewish life during the time of Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls are of monumental importance for understanding the Jewish religion in the first century. I have chosen to focus the attention of the rest of this paper on just two examples from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament which are both important as biblical history, but are also relatively recent and exciting.

The City of David in the Silwan Valley. The City of David was a Jebusite citadel captured by David in 2 Sam 5:6-9. There were a number of structures built along the ridge from the Temple Mount down to the end of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys. The City of David is best known for Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a tunnel cut through the stone to reach the Gihon Spring at the bottom of the valley. The Siloam Inscription was found in this tunnel in 1880 and has been in Istanbul since 1890. The inscription is one the most important artifacts ever found in Israel since the inscription commemorates the place where workmen joined the two tunnels, connecting the City of David to the Pool of Siloam at the bottom of the hill. Robert Coote comments that “it is the nearly unanimous view of historians that the Siloam tunnel is Hezekiah’s conduit, and that the inscription in it was written shortly before 701 B.C.E.” The tunnel is mentioned in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chron 32:30, and is alluded to in Isaiah 22:11. It is unfortunate, on the one hand, that the inscription does not mention Hezekiah. But, on the other hand, any mention of Hezekiah might have been grounds for claiming that the inscription is a fake or dates from a later time.

Recent excavations at the City of David have uncovered hundreds of bullae, or seal impressions dating to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. These impresses are seals placed on a papyri document as a legal seal. That so many of these little seals have been found is an indication that there was an administrative center which houses a large number of legal documents. It is likely that a fire destroyed the archive, burning the paper but hardening the seals. One seal bears the name “Gemaryahu ben Shafan” (Jer 36:10) and another seal discovered in 2008 appears to have the name Gedeliah, son of Pashur, an administrator in the last days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer 38:1). In summer of 2011 a small golden bell was discovered near the bottom of the valley. The bell may have been sewn into a priestly garment in the first century (Exod 28:33), although it is not certain that the bell came from a priest nor is it clear when the bell was made (it likely dates to the late Second Temple Period, much nearer the time of Jesus than Solomon!)

The excavations at the City of David are a good example of the politics of archaeology in Israel today. Since the archaeological work runs along the border of the village of Silwan. Israeli archaeologists are constantly expanding their work, crossing into a village which is historically Arab. In 1967 the neighborhood was annexed by Israel, but the residents consider this an occupation. They view the work of archaeology as a kind of cultural imperialism since the work is done by Israelis for the purpose of proving that Jerusalem is a Jewish birthright. (Whether anyone actually does archaeology for this reason is debatable, but that is the perception in Silwan!) Any further encroachment into the valley will be met with resistance, yet there is much to be learned by working in the valley. Likely there is no solution, whatever compromises are reached will be entirely political.