Archaeologists prove invasions of biblical Israel with Earth's magnetic field

The new data verify the biblical accounts of the Egyptian, Aramean, Assyrian, and Babylonian military campaigns against the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

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

Geomagnetic fields recorded in 21 archaeological destruction layers throughout Israel reconstructed by Israeli researchers have verified accounts related in the Hebrew Bible of the Egyptian, Aramean, Assyrian and Babylonian military campaigns against the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) led the team that used the data to develop a reliable new scientific tool for archaeological dating. The tool reconstructed the direction and/or intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded in burnt remnants.

Findings indicate, for example, that the army of Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus, was responsible for the destruction of several cities – Tel Rehov, Tel Zayit and Horvat Tevet, in addition to Gath of the Philistines. Other geomagnetic findings show that sites in southern Judah were destroyed by the Edomites, who took advantage of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians.

At the same time, the study refutes the prevailing theory that Hazael was the conqueror who destroyed Tel Beit She’an.

Described as a “scientific breakthrough,” the effort involved 20 researchers from different countries and disciplines who accurately dated 21 destruction layers at 17 archaeological sites in Israel.

 Burnt mud stones. (credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY) Burnt mud stones. (credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

The interdisciplinary study was published in PNAS (Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences) and is based on the doctoral thesis of Yoav Vaknin, who was supervised by Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef and Prof. Oded Lipschits of TAU’s Institute of Archaeology and Prof. Ron Shaar of HU’s Institute of Earth Sciences.

Geophysics: Studying the Earth's magnetic field to prove the accounts of the Hebrew Bible

The researchers said geophysicists – who aim at understanding the mechanism of Earth’s magnetic field – track changes in this field that occurred throughout history. To this end, they used archaeological findings containing magnetic minerals that, when heated or burned, record the magnetic field at the time of the fire.

Thus, in a 2020 study, researchers reconstructed the magnetic field as it was on the 9th of Av, 586 BCE, which is recognized as the Hebrew date of the destruction of the First Temple and the City of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army.

“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,” Vaknin said. “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.”

One example given by the researchers is the destruction of Gath of the Philistines (identified today as Tel Tzafit in the Judean foothills) by Hazael. Various dating methods have placed this event at around 830 BCE, but they were unable to verify that Hazael was also responsible for the destruction of Tel Rehov, Tel Zayit and Horvat Tevet. The new study, identifying full statistical synchronization between the magnetic fields recorded at all of these four sites at the time of destruction, makes a very strong case for their destruction during the same campaign.

On the other hand, a destruction level at Beit She’an that recorded a totally different magnetic field refuted the prevailing hypothesis that it, too, was destroyed by Hazael. Instead, the magnetic data from Beit She’an indicate that this city, along with two other sites in the North, was probably destroyed 70 to 100 years earlier. That date could correspond with the military campaign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shoshenq, whose campaign is described in the Hebrew Bible and in an inscription on a wall of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egypt, which mentions Beit She’an as one of his conquests.

One of the most interesting findings revealed by the new dating method has to do with the end of the Kingdom of Judah.

“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.”

Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef

“The last days of the Kingdom of Judah are widely debated,” Ben-Yosef said. “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.”

Several decades after they had destroyed Jerusalem and the First Temple, Negev sites that had survived the Babylonian campaign were destroyed – probably by the Edomites who took advantage of the fall of Jerusalem, he said, adding: “This betrayal and participation in the destruction of the surviving cities may explain why the Hebrew Bible expresses so much hatred for the Edomites – for example, in the prophecy of Obadiah.”

Lipschits added that “the new dating tool is unique because it is based on geomagnetic data from sites whose exact destruction dates are known from historical sources. By combining precise historical information with advanced, comprehensive archaeological research, we were able to base the magnetic method on reliably anchored chronology.”

A separate paper presenting the scientific principles of the novel archaeomagnetic dating method is in preparation in the Journal of Geological Research. Shaar, who led the geophysical aspects of the study, as well as the development of the geomagnetic dating method, said: “Earth’s magnetic field is critical to our existence. Most people don’t realize that without it, there could be no life on Earth since it shields us from cosmic radiation and the solar wind.”

“In addition, both humans and animals use it to navigate,” he said. “The geomagnetic field is generated by Earth’s outer core, at a depth of 2,900 kilometers, by 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.”

Shaar concluded: “Our location here in Israel is uniquely conducive to archaeomagnetic research” due to “an abundance of well-dated archaeological findings. Over the past decade, we have reconstructed magnetic fields recorded by hundreds of archaeological items. By combining this dataset with the data from Yoav Vaknin’s investigation of historical destruction layers, we were able to form a continuous variation curve showing rapid, sharp changes in the geomagnetic field. This is wonderful news, both for archaeologists who can now use geomagnetic data to determine the age of ancient materials and for geophysicists studying the Earth’s core.”