Volunteers at the site of the archaeological dig at the biblical site of Megiddo
Volunteers at the site of the archaeological dig at the biblical site of Megiddo. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein is leading his sweating guests to a corner of Tel Megiddo. He points to a black stain on a rock, which on closer inspection turn out to be charred seeds. "This," he says, "is the most important find at Tel Megiddo."

Tel Megiddo, an archaeological mound overlooking the Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee, has been undergoing excavation for a century, and still only a tiny percentage has been uncovered. But that was enough to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Some of its finds are among the most exciting in the country - a huge temple, city gates thousands of years old, a water system, the magnificently carved Megiddo Ivories.

Finkelstein has been exploring the site for 18 years, enough to turn up plenty of ammunition in his battle over the historicity of the biblical text. Finkelstein sees the Bible as "written by geniuses" but intended to support a political system rather than a historical reality.

Megiddo is mentioned in important ancient Egyptian and Assyrian texts and in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. This makes the archaeological mound the right place to discuss the controversy.

Finkelstein takes his guests to a place on the mound overlooking the Jezreel Valley. Pointing to large, carved stones, he shows that they bear masons' marks - a square here, a circle there.

The stones, like other finds at Megiddo, were dated to the 10th century BCE, the period of King Solomon. But Finkelstein says such building blocks have been discovered only at the Israelite royal palace at Samaria and here at Megiddo.

In Samaria, he explains, they were dated to the 9th century, and at Megiddo to the 10th. "That was the place where I lit this whole bonfire," he says, referring to the controversy.

Finkelstein believes that the united monarchy of David and Solomon never existed; rather, there was a northern and, according to the Bible, apostate kingdom. This kingdom lost its glory because the Bible was written in Jerusalem centuries later, seeking to glorify the kings of Judah, he says.

Megiddo, Finkelstein says, was one of the most important cities in the northern kingdom - thus the identical masons' marks in Megiddo and Samaria. Megiddo was important both before and after the Israelite period; some scholars count as many as 30 cities, one atop the other. Major battles were fought here, and according to the New Testament's book of Revelation, history's last great battle, Armageddon, will take place here.

Meanwhile, dozens of students, volunteers and paid laborers are busy digging. Most of the work revolves around trying to understand ancient architecture. Because the buildings stand on top of one another, a flight of steps can take you up thousands of years. So the work is done in four dimensions as in physics - three in space and one in time.

In one of the four excavation areas on the mound, each marked by its own flag, we come back to the charred crumbs Finkelstein says were the mound's most important find. Here, under a rainbow flag, we are told they are tiny seeds that Megiddo's inhabitants collected around 3,000 years ago. They went up in flames when the city was destroyed.

They are important because of their location in relation to finds above and below them. Organic material like this is especially valuable because it can undergo carbon-14 testing, allowing the level where it was found to be dated.

Over 16 years of painstaking work, Finkelstein and his team have created a time line of Tel Megiddo and this country's biblical archaeology in general. The wall being excavated here revealed no less than 11 strata dated using carbon-14 testing (usually performed on olive pits ).

"This wall above dates to 700 BCE, to the Assyrian city. Down here is 1,200 BCE," Finkelstein explains. "Here's a red-black destruction level and there's another destruction level. That's the destruction of the Israelite kingdom by the Assyrians."

One of the black layers indicates destruction in the 10th century. Finkelstein's detractors say David destroyed this city - an idea that Finkelstein rejects because he says the carbon-14 dating rules out the possibility that the city was destroyed suddenly. It shows a gradual process.

Finkelstein now believes that the 10th century destruction came at the hands of "mountain Israelites" from the region of Samaria, which led to the rise of the northern kingdom.

At the top of the mound, under a Bob Marley flag, another group has found a sophisticated oven from the 10th century BCE, apparently one of the first workshops of its type in the Middle East marking the technological advancement from bronze to iron.

Not far away, under a Jolly Roger, a group is excavating fortifications. Here, the finds also defy an ancient text. But this time it's not the Bible, it's the Egyptian record of the conquest of Megiddo by Pharaoh Thutmoses III in the 15th century BCE, describing a seven-month siege.

But the excavators discovered that the city walls at that time were meager. Finkelstein explains the discrepancy as he does with the Bible. The Thutmoses text was written to glorify the pharaoh's vanquishing of a supposedly mighty city.

The Megiddo excavation project is an international consortium led by Tel Aviv University and George Washington University in the United States, in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. About 100 students, archaeologists and volunteers from 20 countries are at work here.

Adam Kaplan, an American student digging under the Jolly Roger, says the atmosphere is good and the work is interesting, "but there's always an hour in the day where you say: 'What am I doing here? I'm so dirty, I want to go home.'"

Under the rainbow flag we find Kenny, 64, at the bottom of a deep pit. In the summer he volunteers at digs, while the rest of the year he's a high-tech executive.

"My kids call this Dad's summer camp," he says. "The question I ask is not why I'm here, but why so few people are interested in this."