This post is a continuation of our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.
An Ordinary Dig
Our #4 archaeological find takes us to the ever important city of Jerusalem. A discovery made in 1979 is still hard to comprehend. The discovery came completely unexpected. Archaeologist Gabriel Barkay, with a meager budget, and only 12 and 13 year old helpers from a local club set out on a completely ordinary dig. What was Barkay looking for? In his own words he states:
In the 1970’s I was interested in extra-mural activity, that is, activity outside the walls of the city. There would be quarrying of stones outside the city, growing fresh vegetables, military gatherings, burials, roads and military watch towers. These would have occupied a place not too far from the city, but not too close.
I put myself in the shoes of the ancients and thought to myself, where would those functions have taken place? I decided that the hill [Ketef Hinnom] where St Andrews was located was the best probability. I took a survey and collected pottery and was convinced that there were finds to be made there.
I love that Gabriel Barkay set out to try to find ancient remains of roads, vegetables, etc… He goes to the backyard of St. Andrews in Jerusalem and starts digging with his army of 12 and 13 year olds.
They started excavating right next to the church and discovered the remnant of an ancient Christian church and some burial graves. The graves were in bad condition, all had collapsed roofs. The graves, additionally, had all been looted with the exception of one little bead. Well, beads are nice. Maybe that’s all the group will discover.
Wait! A little nook was found underneath one of the burial benches. The nook would have been a place for people to leave little trinkets significant to their loved one. After a quick search nothing was found, just dirt. Dang, this nook had also been looted. Barkay needed to have the accumulated dirt in the nook cleaned out in order to take a good photograph for the official excavation reports. Out of all the 12 and 13 year olds who should be chosen for the task? A boy named Nathan.
Why was Nathan chosen to clean out the little nook? Barkay explains in his own words:
Among the thirteen-year-old diggers, there was one annoying kid named Nathan, who was always tugging at my shirt. I thought this was an ideal place to put him – he would be out of my sight. I told Nathan the repository had to be as clean as his mother’s kitchen, even if he had to lick it. It had to be clean for the photography.
To Barkay’s surprise Nathan cleans the nook out meticulously. Nathan then gets bored. He has a hammer in his hand (usually a bad combination). Nathan starts banging the hammer on the stone bottom of the nook. The truth becomes stranger than fiction, the stone bottom of the nook breaks. It wasn’t just a little harmless nook. Nathan had found the entryway to a room holding precious ancient secrets. Leave it to a 13 year old trouble maker to make one of the greatest archeological discoveries.
An Extraordinary Find
A secret room filled with ancient objects had just been discovered. Dr. Barkay explains the excitement:
In one chamber more than a thousand objects were found. They included 125 objects of silver, 40 iron arrowheads, gold, ivory, glass, bone and 150 semi-precious stones. There was 60 centimeters [two feet] of accumulation filled with objects and skeletal remains. There was a lot of dust and a lack of oxygen.
It was very hot. We had to change teams every few hours. There was a lady who was in charge of coffee and sandwiches. Everyone was sworn to secrecy – they weren’t allowed to tell parents, spouses, or friends. If word got around Jerusalem that there was such a treasure, the California gold rush would be nothing compared to what would happen here.
The contents of the tomb were able to be dated to the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries BC, the time of Jeremiah the prophet.
Judy Hadley, a girl from Toledo, Ohio, walked up to Dr. Barkay with something very small in her hand. It was purplish in color and looked a lot like a cigarette butt. It was just about an inch long. Dr. Barkay, who has spent a lifetime discovering amazing artifacts, says this little item is, “the most important find of my life.”
The little item was thought to be an amulet scroll. It was believed to be a rolled up piece of pure silver, possibly containing writing on the inside.
The discovery prompted a huge question, “Can you unroll a nearly 2,500 year old silver scroll without totally destroying it? Should it even be attempted?” There was a real possibility the scroll would never be opened. Adding even more drama a second little rolled up scroll was eventually found when the excavators sifted all the dirt removed from the burial chamber.
Can They Be Opened?
The scrolls were first sent to the University of Leeds in Britain, where some of the most experienced restorers of ancient artifacts and metal experts were available for such delicate work. The British experts felt, however, that the danger of destroying the scrolls was too great. They refused to work on the scrolls.
The scrolls were then sent to Germany. The German team similarly refused, sending the scrolls back to Israel. Technicians at the Israel Museum decided to attempt the procedure themselves. For three years the contents of the scrolls remained a secret. After many difficulties the Israeli technicians developed a special process allowing the scrolls to be unrolled without being destroyed. To everyone’s astonishment both of the scrolls contained ancient writing!
What did they say? Well, to everyone’s further astonishment both of the scrolls contained portions of the exact same writing. Both of the scrolls contained verses from the Bible!
The larger scroll contained more verses than the smaller scroll but both of them contained Numbers 6:24-26. The verse is one of the central passages of Scripture known as the “Priestly” or “Aaronic” benediction saying, “May Yahweh bless you and keep you; May Yahweh cause his face to Shine upon you and grant you Peace.”
These two little scrolls pack a powerful punch. They are significant on several different levels. First, they are the oldest copy we have of Scripture. The Dead Sea Scrolls rocked the archaeological world in 1946 by finding Scripture written around 200BC. The amulet scroll is older than the Dead Sea Scrolls by more than 400 years.
Second, many scholars have surmised the Old Testament to be a late creation. It speaks of things happening a long time ago but was written post-exilic (after the exile of 580BC) in order to create a nationalistic history for those returning from Babylon. The amulet scroll powerfully shows the Old Testament being used before, not after, the exile. The amulet scroll disproves decades of liberal biblical studies in one small discovery.
Third, the scroll is the oldest mention of the name Yahweh outside of the Bible. Yahweh is being worshiped by the owner of this amulet while the temple of Solomon stood nearby. The Bible confidently explains all these things in a particular time and place. It’s refreshing to find an item which helps to support time, places and events which so many scholars had long thought to be fictitious.
What do you think of this discovery? Please join the conversation by posting a comment below.