Researchers confirm invasions of biblical Israel using geomagnetic fields

Researchers confirmed Biblical accounts of military campaigns waged against the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Burnt mud brick wall from Tel Batash (Biblical Timnah) with markings of the field orientation. (CREDIT: Yoav Vaknin)

In a groundbreaking interdisciplinary study, a team of 20 researchers from various countries and disciplines, led by Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Hebrew University, has brought to light a remarkable tool for dating archaeological sites.

By meticulously reconstructing the Earth's magnetic field as recorded in burnt remnants at 17 sites across Israel, these scholars have not only shed new light on ancient history but have also confirmed Biblical accounts of military campaigns waged against the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

The study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), stands as a testament to the power of interdisciplinary research. Spearheaded by Yoav Vaknin, a doctoral candidate under the guidance of Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef and Prof. Oded Lipschits at TAU's Nadler Institute of Archaeology, and with the expertise of Prof. Ron Shaar from the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University, this research is poised to revolutionize the field of archaeology.

To appreciate the significance of this study, one must first understand the role of geomagnetism in archaeological research. Geophysicists have long been interested in tracking changes in the Earth's magnetic field throughout history.

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Magnetic minerals in archaeological finds, when subjected to heat or fire, record the magnetic field as it existed at the time of their heating. This magnetic record can serve as a historical marker, allowing researchers to pinpoint the dates of past events.

In a 2020 study, researchers managed to reconstruct the magnetic field as it appeared on the 9th of Av, 586 BCE, the Hebrew date associated with the destruction of the First Temple and the City of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces. However, this study takes things a step further.

Drawing from archaeological findings accumulated over decades at 17 different Israeli sites, along with insights from ancient inscriptions and Biblical accounts, the researchers reconstructed the magnetic fields recorded in 21 destruction layers. This data-driven approach has resulted in the development of a robust scientific dating tool.

Map of ancient Judaea. (CREDIT: Y Vaknin et al., PNAS, 2022)

Yoav Vaknin elucidates this process, stating, "Based on the similarity or difference in intensity and direction of the magnetic field, we can either corroborate or disprove hypotheses claiming that specific sites were burned during the same military campaign. Moreover, we have constructed a variation curve of field intensity over time which can serve as a scientific dating tool, similar to the radiocarbon dating method."

Putting Theories to the Test

One of the most intriguing findings of this research pertains to the activities of Hazael, King of Aram-Damascus. While various dating methods had previously suggested that Hazael was responsible for the destruction of Gath of the Philistines around 830 BCE, they were unable to confirm that he was also responsible for the destruction of Tel Rehov, Tel Zayit, and Horvat Tevet.

Archaeomagnetic results. (A) Field intensity results shown with LAC.v.1.0 (5) displayed as the virtual axial dipole moment (VADM). (B) The angle between the horizontal component and the geographic north (Declination). (C) The angle from the horizontal plane (Inclination). All directions are relocated to Jerusalem. Results from destruction layers are represented by colored circles. (CREDIT: PNAS)

However, this new study has managed to identify a statistically significant synchronization between the magnetic fields recorded at all four sites during the time of their destruction. This finding bolsters the argument that these sites were indeed destroyed during the same campaign led by Hazael.

On the other hand, the data challenges the prevailing theory that Hazael was responsible for the destruction of Tel Beth-Shean. The magnetic records from Beth-Shean indicate that this city, along with two other northern Israeli sites, was likely destroyed 70-100 years earlier, possibly during the military campaign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shoshenq, as corroborated by Hebrew Bible accounts and an inscription on a wall of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egypt.

This revelation highlights the complexity of ancient history and the role that interdisciplinary research can play in unraveling the mysteries of the past.

A New Perspective on Judah's Demise

Another significant revelation arising from this study concerns the Kingdom of Judah's final days. Prof. Erez Ben Yosef notes, "The last days of the Kingdom of Judah are widely debated. Some researchers, relying on archaeological evidence, argue that Judah was not completely destroyed by the Babylonians. While Jerusalem and frontier cities in the Judean foothills ceased to exist, other towns in the Negev, the southern Judean Mountains, and the southern Judean foothills remained almost unaffected. Now, the magnetic results support this hypothesis, indicating that the Babylonians were not solely responsible for Judah's ultimate demise."

Yoav Vaknin measuring at the site. (CREDIT: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Intriguingly, several decades after the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple, sites in the Negev, which had survived the Babylonian campaign, were destroyed. This second wave of destruction appears to have been orchestrated by the Edomites, who took advantage of Jerusalem's fall. Prof. Oded Lipschits speculates that this betrayal and participation in the destruction of surviving cities may explain the strong animosity expressed toward the Edomites in the Hebrew Bible.

One of the key strengths of this dating method lies in its reliance on geomagnetic data from sites with known destruction dates sourced from historical records. By integrating precise historical information with comprehensive archaeological research, the researchers have established a magnetic dating method anchored in reliable chronology.

Burnt mud stones. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Prof. Ron Shaar, who led the geophysical aspects of the study, elucidates the importance of this research, stating, "Earth's magnetic field is critical to our existence. Most people don't realize that without it, there could be no life on earth, as it shields us from cosmic radiation and the solar wind. In addition, both humans and animals use it to navigate."

"The geomagnetic field is generated by Earth's outer core, at a depth of 2,900 km, through currents of liquid iron. Due to the chaotic motion of this iron, the magnetic field changes over time. Until recently, scientists believed that it remains quite stable for decades, but archaeomagnetic research has contradicted this assumption by revealing some extreme and unpredictable changes in antiquity."

Yoav Vaknin holding a burnt mudstone. (CREDIT: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Israel's rich archaeological landscape, brimming with well-dated artifacts and sites, provides a unique setting for archaeomagnetic research. Over the past decade, the team has reconstructed magnetic fields recorded by hundreds of archaeological items. By combining this wealth of data with Yoav Vaknin's investigation of historical destruction layers, they have constructed a continuous variation curve that illustrates the rapid, sharp changes in the geomagnetic field.

This development is not only a boon for archaeologists seeking to date ancient materials but also for geophysicists delving into the complexities of Earth's core. It serves as a testament to the power of collaboration and interdisciplinary research in unraveling the mysteries of our past.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.