New technology using Earth’s magnetic fields helps archaeologists verify destruction caused by biblical battles


For centuries, scholars have relied on ancient records and artifacts to study the Levant’s past. Now, contemporary technology can confirm their assumptions about how historical events unfolded with solid geological data. Yoav Vaknin, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, has spent five years developing a new technology known as archaeomagnetic dating to reconstruct military campaigns depicted in the Bible.

His latest research, published in the open-source journal PNAS, leverages input from 20 international scholars to formulate a geomagnetic dataset of 21 layers of historical destruction at 17 sites. The study essentially creates a geological record of the conquests of the Aramaic, Assyrian, and Babylonian armies against the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

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

“Until recently, scientists thought it remained fairly stable for decades, but archaeomagnetic research has contradicted this assumption by revealing extreme and unpredictable changes in antiquity,” Shaar noted. Israel lends itself to archaeomagnetic research, “due to an abundance of well-dated archaeological finds” that anchor the historical record.

Burnt mud brick wall of Tel Batash (Biblical Timnah) with field orientation marking. Photo by Yoav Vaknin.

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

When these archaeological materials are burned, for example during the destruction of a city, they retain their magnetic signal at the time of incineration. If geophysicists know the magnetic states of a certain area at certain times, they can determine the historical origin of these materials with unprecedented certainty.

Vaknin’s study primarily sampled sun-dried mud bricks that were burned during the conflict. In Tel Zayit, his team sampled a loom weight and in Tel Rehov, a mud beehive.

The results confirm that the armies under Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus, destroyed Tel Rehov, Tel Zayit, Horvat Tevet and Gath of the Philistines around 830 BCE. However, they deny claims that Hazael was also responsible for shaving Beth-Shean.

Magnetic dating indicates that the sacking took place 70 to 100 years earlier than expected, linking it instead to a campaign by Pharaoh Shoshenq. This would verify accounts in the Hebrew Bible, as well as “an inscription on a wall of the Temple of Amun at Karnak, Egypt, which mentions Beth-Shean and Rehov as two of the [Soshenq’s] conquests,” Vaknin said.

“If they were indeed destroyed during this campaign, that is a very significant finding, as no other layer of destruction is reliably attributed to this campaign,” he continued. “The researchers suggested that Shoshenq did not destroy any sites.”

Burnt mud bricks. Photo: Yoav Vaknin.

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

“While Jerusalem and the border towns of the Judean foothills ceased to exist, other towns in the Negev, the southern Judean mountains, and the southern Judean foothills remained almost unchanged,” Vaknin wrote. “Decades after [Babylonians] had destroyed Jerusalem and the First Temple, sites in the Negev, which had survived the Babylonian campaign, were destroyed, probably by the Edomites who took advantage of the fall of Jerusalem.

“This betrayal and participation in the destruction of the surviving cities may explain why the Hebrew Bible expresses so much hatred towards the Edomites,” Professor Erez Ben Yosef said in the statement.

Beyond erasing the records, this research yielded “a curve of variation in field strength over time, which can serve as a scientific dating tool, similar to the radiocarbon dating method”, said Vaknin added.

A separate article detailing the archaeomagnetic process is in preparation.

Vaknin told Arnet that he was also establishing a registry for even older layers of destruction. “I hope to resolve chronological questions regarding the period from 1300 to 900 BCE,” he said. “This period is very controversial.”

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