The archaeology of Israel is researched intensively in the universities of the region and also attracts considerable international interest on account of the region’s Biblical links.
Excavation in Israel continues at a relatively rapid pace and is conducted according to generally high standards. Excavators return each year to a number of key sites that have been selected for their potential scientific and cultural interest. Current excavated sites of importance include Ashkelon, Hazor, Megiddo, Gamla and Rehov.
Recent issues center on the veracity of such artifacts as the Tel Dan Stele, the Jehoash Inscription and the James Ossuary, as well as the validity of whole chronological schemes.
Notable findings and sites include:
Biblical Archeology of Ashkelon: Archaeological excavation in Ashkelon began in 1985, led by Lawrence Stager. The site contains 50 feet of accumulated rubble from successive Canaanite, Philistine, Phoenician, Iranian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader occupation. Major findings include shaft graves of pre-Phoenician Canaanites, a Bronze Age vault and ramparts, and a silvered bronze statuette of a bull calf, assumed to be of the Canaanite period.
Biblical Archaeology of Beit Alfa: One of the earliest digs by Israeli archaeologists, Beit Alfa is the site of an ancient Byzantine-era synagogue, constructed in the fifth century CE, with a three-paneled mosaic floor. An Aramaic inscription states that the mosaic was made at the time of Justin (apparently Justin I), who ruled from 518 to 527 CE. The mosaic is one of the most important discovered in Israel. Each of its three panels depicts a scene – the Holy Ark, the zodiac, and the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. The zodiac has the names of the twelve signs in Hebrew. In the center is Helios, the sun god, being whisked away in his chariot by four galloping horses. The four women in the corners of the mosaic represent the four seasons.
Biblical Archeology of Carmel Caves: Misliya Cave, southwest of Mt. Carmel, has been excavated by teams of anthropologists and archaeologists from the Archaeology Department of the University of Haifa and Tel Aviv University since 2001. In 2007, they unearthed artifacts indicative of what could be the earliest known prehistoric man. The teams uncovered hand-held stone tools and blades as well as animal bones, dating to 250,000 years ago, at the time of the Mousterian culture of Neanderthals in Europe. A human skeleton was not found.
Biblical Archaeology of Beth She’arim: Beth She’arim is an archeological site of a Jewish town and necropolis, near the town of Kiryat Tiv’on, 20 km east of Haifa in the southern foothills of the Lower Galilee. Beth She’arim was excavated by Benjamin Mazar and Nahman Avigad in the 1930s and 1950s. Most of the remains date from the 2nd to 4th century CE and include the remains of a large number of individuals buried in the more than twenty catacombs of the necropolis. Together with the images on walls and sarcophagi, the inscriptions show that this was a Jewish necropolis.
Biblical Archeology of Gath: Tell es-Safi/Gath is one of the largest pre-Classical sites in Israel, situated approximately halfway between Jerusalem and Ashkelon, on the border between coastal plain and the Judean foothils (Shephelah). The site was settled from Prehistoric thru Modern times, and was of particular importance during the Bronze and Iron Ages, and during the Crusader period. The site is identified as Canaanite and Philistine Gath, and during the Iron Age was one of the five main cities (the Pentapolis) of the Philistines. The site was excavated briefly in 1899 by the British archaeologists Frederick Jones Bliss and Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister , and since 1996, by a team from Bar-Ilan University directed by Aren Maeir. Among the noteworthy finds from the ongoing excavations are the impressive late 9th cent. BCE destruction level (Stratum A3), apparently evidence of the destruction of Gath by Hazael of Aram (see II Kings 12:18), a unique siege system relating to this event that surrounds the site (the earliest known siege system in the world!), and a 10th/9th cent. BCE inscription written in archaic alphabetic script, mentioning two names of Indo-European nature, somewhat reminiscent of the etymological origins of the name Goliath.
Biblical Archaeology of Gezer: Tel Gezer is a strategically located archaeological site which sits on the western flank of the Shephelah, overlooking the coastal plain of Israel, near the junction between Via Maris and the trunk road leading to Jerusalem. The tel consists of two mounds with a saddle between them, spanning roughly 30 acres. A dozen inscribed boundary stones found in the vicinity verify the identification of the mound as Gezer, making it the first positively identified Biblical city. Gezer is mentioned in several ancient sources, including the Hebrew Bible and the Amarna letters. The biblical references describe it as one of Solomon’s royal store cities. Gezer was excavated by R.A.S. Macalister in 1902 and 1907. Major findings include a soft limestone tablet, named the Gezer calendar, which describes the agricultural chores associated with each month of the year. The calendar is written in paleo-Hebrew script, and is one of the oldest known examples of Hebrew writing, dating to the 10th century BCE. Also found was a six-chambered gate similar to those found at Hazor and Megiddo, and ten monumental megaliths.
Biblical Archeology of Mamshit: Mamshit , the Nabatean city of Memphis (also known as Kurnub in Arabic), was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO on June 2005. The archaeological excavation at Mamshit uncovered the largest hoard of coins ever found in Israel : 10500 silver coins in a bronze jar, dating to the 3rd century CE. Among the Nabatean cities found in the Negev (Avdat, Haluza, Shivta) Mamshit is the smallest (10 acres), but the best preserved and restored. Entire streets have survived intact, and numerous Nabatean buildings with open rooms, courtyards, and terraces have been restored. Most of the buildings were built in the late Nabatean period, in the 2nd century CE, after the Nabatean kingdom was annexed to Rome in 106 CE.
Biblical Archaeology of Masada: A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, Masada is the site of ancient palaces and fortifications in the South District of Israel on top of an isolated rock plateau, or large mesa, on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. According to Josephus, a first-century Jewish-Roman historian, Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. Josephus also writes that in 66 CE, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War against the Roman Empire, a group of Judaic extremist rebels called the Sicarii took Masada from the Roman garrison stationed there. The site of Masada was identified in 1842 and extensively excavated between 1963 and 1965 by an expedition led by Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin. Due to the remoteness from human habitation and the arid environment, the site has remained largely untouched by humans or nature during the past two millennia. Many of the ancient buildings have been restored, as have the wall-paintings of Herod’s two main palaces, and the Roman-style bathhouses that he built. A synagogue thought to have been used by the Jewish rebels has also been identified and restored. Inside the synagogue, an ostracon bearing the inscription me’aser kohen ("tithe for the priest") was found, as were fragments of two scrolls. Also found were eleven small ostraca, each bearing a single name. One reads "ben Yair" and could be short for Eleazar ben Yair, the commander of the fortress. Excavations also uncovered the remains of 28 skeletons. Carbon dating of textiles found in the cave indicate they are contemporaneous with the period of the Revolt. The remnants of a Byzantine church dating from the 5th and 6th centuries CE, have also been excavated on the top of Masada.
Biblical Archeology of Old City of Acre: A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, Acre’s Old City has been a site of vast archeological excavations and preservations of ancient structures since the 1990s. The major find has been an underground passageway leading to a 13th century CE fortress of the Knights Templar. The excavated remains of the Crusader town, dating from 1104 to 1291 CE, are well preserved, and are on display above and below today’s street level.
Biblical Archaeology of Rehov: Rehov is an important Bronze and Iron Age archaeological site approximately five kilometers south of Beit She’an and three kilometers west of the Jordan River. The site represents one of the largest ancient city mounds in Israel, its surface area comprising 120,000 m² in size, divided into an "Upper City" (40,000 m²) and a "Lower City" (80,000 m²). Archaeological excavations have been conducted at Rehov since 1997, under the directorship of Amihai Mazar. The first eight seasons of excavations revealed successive occupational layers from the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I (12th – 11th centuries BCE). The Iron Age II levels of the site have emerged as a vitally important component in the current debate regarding the chronology of the United Monarchy of Israel. In September 2007, 30 intact beehives dated to the mid-10th century BCE to the early 9th century BCE were found. The beehives are evidence of an advanced honey-producing beekeeping (apiculture) industry 3000 years ago in the city, then thought to have a population of about 2000. The beehives, made of straw and unbaked clay, were found in orderly rows of 100 hives. Organic material (wheat found next to the beehives) was dated using carbon-14 radiocarbon dating at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Also found alongside the hives was an altar decorated with fertility figurines.
Biblical Archeology of Tel Arad: Tel Arad is located west of the Dead Sea, about ten kilometers west of modern Arad. Excavations at the site conducted by Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni in 1962 have unearthed an extensive early Bronze Age settlement that was completely deserted and destroyed by 2700 BCE. The site was then apparently deserted until a new settlement was founded on the southeastern ridge of the ancient city during the Iron Age II. The major find was a garrison-town known as ‘The Citadel’, constructed in the time of King David and Solomon. An Israelite temple, the earliest ever to be discovered in an excavation, dates back to the mid-10th century BCE. Among the artifacts unearthed at the site are ostraca dating to the mid-7th century BCE, one of which refers to the "House of Yahweh", which is thought to be the first and only direct reference to the Temple at Jerusalem in a Hebrew inscription. New excavations on the upper hill and within the temple began in 2005 by archaeologist Yehuda Goverin.
Biblical Archeology of Tel Be’er Sheva: A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005, Tel Be’er Sheva is an archaeological site in southern Israel, believed to be the remains of the biblical town of Be’er Sheva. Archaeological finds indicate that the site was inhabited from the Chalcolithic period, around 4000 BCE, to the sixteenth century CE. This was probably due to the abundance of underground water, as evidenced by the numerous wells in the area. Excavated by Yohanan Aharoni and Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, the settlement itself is dated to the early Israelite period. Probably populated in the 12th century BCE, the first fortified settlement dates to 1000 BCE. The city was likely destroyed by Sennacherib in 700 BCE, and after a habitation hiatus of three hundred years, there is evidence of remains from the Persian, Hellenistic, Roman and Early Arab periods. Major finds include an elaborate water system and a huge cistern carved out of the rock beneath the town, and a large horned altar which was reconstructed using several well-dressed stones found in secondary use in the walls of a later building. The altar attests to the existence of a temple or cult center in the city which was probably dismantled during the reforms of King Hezekiah.
Biblical Archeology of Tel Dan: Tel Dan, previously named Tell el-Qadi, is a mound where a city once stood, located at the northern tip of modern-day Israel. Finds at the site date back to the Neolithic era circa 4500 BCE, and include 0.8 meter wide walls and pottery shards. The most important find is the Tel Dan Stele, a black basalt stele, whose fragments were discovered in 1993 and 1994. The stele was erected by an Aramaean king and contains an Aramaic inscription to commemorate his victory over the ancient Hebrews. It has generated much excitement because the inscription includes the letters ‘ביתדוד’, Hebrew for "house of David". Proponents of that reading argue that it is the first time that the name "David" has been recognized at any archaeological site, lending evidence for the Bible account of David’s kingdom. Others read the Hebrew letters ‘דוד’ as "beloved," "uncle" "kettle," or "a god named Dod," (all of which are possible readings of vowel-less Hebrew), and argue this is not a reference to Biblical David.
Biblical Archaeology of Tel Hazor: A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005, Tel Hazor has been excavated repeatedly since 1955. Findings include an ancient Canaanite city, which experienced a catastrophic fire in the sometime in the 13th century BCE. The date and causes of the violent destruction of Canaanite Hazor have been an important issue ever since the first excavations of the site. One school, represented by Yigael Yadin, Yohanan Aharoni, and Amnon Ben-Tor, dates the destruction to the later half of the 13th century, tying it to biblical descriptions in Joshua which hold the Israelites as responsible for this event. The second school, represented by Olga Tufnell, Kathleen Kenyon, P. Beck and M. Kochavi, and Israel Finkelstein, tends to support an earlier date in the first half of the 13th century, in which case, there is no necessary connection between the destruction of Hazor and the process of Israelite Tribes settlement in Cannan. Other findings at the site include a distinctive six chambered gate dating to the Early Iron Age, and pottery features as well as administration buildings dating to the early 9th century BCE, during the reign of the Omrides.
Biblical Archeology of Tel Megiddo: A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005, Tel Megiddo is comprised of twenty-six stratified layers of the ruins of ancient cities in a strategic location at the head of a pass through the Carmel Ridge, which overlooks the Valley of Jezreel from the west. Megiddo has been excavated three times. The first excavations were carried out between 1903 and 1905 and a second expedition was carried out in 1925. During these excavation it was discovered that there were twenty levels of habitation, and many of the remains uncovered are preserved at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Yigael Yadin conducted a few small excavations in the 1960s. Since 1994, Megiddo been the subject of biannual excavation campaigns conducted by The Megiddo Expedition of Tel Aviv University, directed by Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin, together with a consortium of international universities. A major find from digs conducted between 1927 and 1934 were the Megiddo Stables – two tripartite structures measuring 21 meters by 11 meters, believed to have been ancient stables capable of housing nearly 500 horses.
Biblical Archaeology of Tzippori: Excavations in Tzippori, in the central Galilee region, six kilometers north-northwest of Nazareth, have uncovered a rich and diverse historical and architectural legacy that includes Assyrian, Hellenistic, Judean, Babylonian, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, Arabic and Ottoman influences. The site is especially rich in mosaics belonging to different periods. Major findings include the remains of a 6th century synagogue, evidence of an interesting fusion of Jewish and pagan beliefs. A Roman villa, considered the centerpiece of the discoveries, which dates to the year 200 CE, was destroyed in the earthquake of 363 CE. The mosaic floor was discovered in August 1987 during an expedition led by Eric and Carol Meyers, of Duke University digging with Ehud Netzer, a locally trained archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It depicts Dionysus, the god of wine, socializing with Pan and Hercules in several of the 15 panels. In its center is a life-like image of a young lady, possibly Venus, which has been named "The Mona Lisa of the Galilee." Additional finds include a Roman theater on the northern slope of the hill, and the remains of a 5th century public building, with a large and intricate mosaic floor.