A new technique that harnesses the Earth’s magnetic field is helping archaeologists verify the destruction caused by the biblical wars

For centuries, academia has relied on ancient records and artifacts to study the Levantine past. Now, contemporary techniques can confirm their hypotheses about how historical events played out through hard geological data. Tel Aviv University doctoral student Yoav Vaknin has spent five years pioneering a new technique called archaeological magnetic dating to reconstruct military operations described in the Bible.

His latest research, published in the open-source journal PNAS, used information from 20 international scholars to develop a geomagnetic dataset of 21 layers of historical damage at 17 locations. The study essentially creates a geological ledger of the conquests of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah by the armies of the Arameans, Assyrians, and Babylonians.

Paleomagnetic dating is based on the magnetic field produced by a free-flowing layer of liquid iron in the planet’s outer core 1,800 miles below the surface. “Earth’s magnetic field is critical to our existence,” Ron Schall, who led the development of the geomagnetic dating method, said in the study. “It protects us from cosmic radiation and the solar wind.”

“Until recently, scientists thought it had remained fairly stable for decades, but archaeological geomagnetic studies have contradicted this assumption by revealing some extreme and unpredictable changes in antiquity,” Shaar noted. Israel is suitable for archaeological magnetism research, “due to a large number of outdated archaeological finds” underpinning the historical record.

Charred mudbrick wall from Tel Batash (Bible Timnah) with markings for the direction of the field. Photo by Yoav Vaknin.

“Archaeological materials, such as clay objects, contain ferromagnetic minerals,” Wakening told Artnet News. “At the atomic level, one can think of the magnetic signature of these minerals as a small needle on a compass.”

When these archaeological materials are burned, say, in the destruction of a city, it retains their magnetic signature at the moment of burning. If geophysicists knew the magnetic state of a region at a certain time, they could determine the historical origin of these materials with unprecedented certainty.

Wakening’s study mainly sampled sun-dried mud bricks that had been burned during the conflict. At Tel Zayit, his team sampled loom weights, and at Tel Rehov, beehives made of mud.

It turns out that around 830 BC, the army led by the Aram-Damascus king Hazel destroyed the Philistines Tel Rehov, Tel Zayit, Horvat Tevet and Gath. However, they dismissed claims that Hazael was also responsible for razing Beth-Shean.

Magnetic dating showed the dismissal was 70 to 100 years earlier than expected, linking it to the campaign of Pharaoh Shoshenq. This will verify the records in the Hebrew Bible, as well as “Inscriptions on the walls of the Temple of Amun at Karnak in Egypt, which mention Beth-Shean and Rehov [Soshenq’s] Conquer,” Wakening said.

“If they were indeed destroyed in this campaign, this is a very important finding, as no other layers of destruction can be safely attributed to this campaign,” he continued. “Researchers believe that Shoshenq did not compromise any sites.”

Burnt mud bricks. Photo: Jove Wackerning.

The magnetic results also shattered the belief that the Babylonians were solely responsible for the eventual destruction of Judah.

“While Jerusalem and the border cities of the Judean foothills no longer exist, other towns in the Negev, the South Judean Mountains and the South Judean foothills have remained virtually unaffected,” Vaknen wrote. “Decades later [Babylonians] Destroyed Jerusalem and the First Temple, the site in the Negev, survived the Battle of Babylon, was destroyed – probably by the Edomites who took advantage of the fall of Jerusalem. “

“This betrayal and involvement in the destruction of surviving cities may explain why the Hebrew Bible expresses so much hatred against the Edomites,” Professor Erez Ben Joseph said in a release.

In addition to breaking records, Vaknin added, the study produced “field strength curves over time that can be used as a scientific dating tool, similar to radiocarbon dating.”

Another paper detailing the paleomagnetic process is in the works.

Vaknin told Arnet that he is still building ledgers for earlier layers of disruption. “I hope to resolve the chronological question about 1300-900 BCE,” he said. “This period is very controversial.”

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