Jesus’ Crucifixion, a Cursed King and Mysterious Giant Mounds: Top Biblical Archaeology Stories of 2020

Why did the ostensibly monotheistic ancient Hebrews make statuettes of nude women? Is that the face of Yahweh? What’s the village excavating itself up to now? All this and more in Haaretz archaeology 2020

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Female figurines found in Israel from the First Temple period
Figurines from ancient Judah, some with molded heads and some with ‘pinched’ headsCredit: Chamberi

The year 2020 may have been annus horribilis for the living, but it was a banner year for archaeology. Some discoveries enlightened and enriched us and others evoked howls, such as the “face of Yahweh” figurine discovered in Khirbet Qeiyafa, nails that some theorize may be related to Jesus’ crucifixion, or where the town of Bethsaida really was. Others shed fascinating new light on our history, such as the true character of the reviled King Manasseh, and the discovery that hominins predating modern human evolution determined the outcome of the Battle of Hattin in the year 1187. Archaeologists also found an extraordinary Canaanite fort and an Assyrian siege rap at Azekah, and meanwhile, a village continued to excavate itself and unearthed a Byzantine church. And why exactly did the ancient Hebrews make figurines of naked women? Inquiring minds can find out all that and much more in the best archaeology stories of Haaretz in 2020.

Face of Yahweh’ claim sets off archaeological brouhaha

Israeli archaeologist says he found 3,000-year-old clay head depicting the biblical God of Israel. Colleagues respond the image doesn’t represent Yahweh, a deity and maybe not even a man

The figurine that some think depicts YahwehCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

And, apropos graven images:

An archaeological mystery: Why ancient Hebrews made figurines of naked women

In First Temple-period Judah, statuettes of women holding up their breasts were apparently a must-have item, but were they images of Yahweh’s wife, fertility figurines, or something else entirely?

Passover ritual may also have been something else entirely:

2,400-year-old ‘Passover letter’ shows evolution of Jewish ritual

A letter from a high official in Jerusalem to a Jewish garrison on Elephantine Island in fifth century B.C.E. Egypt is the oldest known ex-biblical account of the Pesach ritual

The remnants of the "Passover Letter" written in the fifth century B.C.E. Credit: Egyptian Museum of Berlin

Meanwhile, next door:

Canaanite temple with statues of Baal found in south Israel

Discoveries include amulet of the Egyptian goddess Hathor and the earliest known version of proto-Canaanite letter ‘samekh’

Figurines of BaalCredit: Tal Rogovski

Uncovering the lost legacy of a cursed biblical king

The Bible describes King Manasseh as the wickedest monarch to ever rule in Jerusalem, but new discoveries show his reign brought peace and prosperity to First Temple period Judah

Names reveal what’s history and what’s myth in the Bible

Study of naming traditions shows First Temple-period biblical authors knew a lot about what was going on in Judah, but were less informed on the neighboring kingdom of Israel

Mysterious giant mounds in Jerusalem baffle archaeologists

Why did the ancient Judahites pile up huge heaps of stones and soil near their capital? The recent dig at one of these mounds has only deepened the enigma surrounding these structures

One of the mysterious mounds in JerusalemCredit: Ariel David

Royal estate’ that served biblical kings found in north

The remains at Horvat Tevet shed light on the rise and fall of the powerful Omride dynasty, which ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel 2,900 years ago

Archaeologists find Assyrian siege ramp at Azekah

How did Sennacherib’s forces breach the Judahite defenses at Azekah in 701 B.C.E? It seems they repurposed the remains of a 1,000-year-old city wall, fashioning it into an attack ramp

Canaanite fort from Judges epoch found in southern Israel

Stronghold on the border between Gath and Lachish could have been erected with Egyptians left to fend off the Philistines – and maybe even the early Israelites too, archaeologists suggest

Lachish: close-up of the sceptre and a smiting god figurine in situCredit: Y. Garfinkel, Lachish expedition

Some discoveries shed light on Christian history.

How hominins predating humankind doomed the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin

Prehistoric Israel was thronged with hominins who made stone tools and left behind heaps of knapping waste. Enter the Romans and then Saladin

And some discoveries provoke an unholy row.

Are these nails from Jesus’ crucifixion?

New evidence emerges, but experts are unconvinced. Study of two 2000-year-old nails found in Jerusalem revives claim linking them to the burial of Caiaphas, the high priest involved in Jesus’ crucifixion

The nailsCredit: Israel Hershkovitz

Some finds are controversial.

Where is biblical Bethsaida, where Jesus walked on water? 

The location of the ancient town of Bethsaida has been lost in the fog of time. Prof. Rami Arav proposes a leading candidate for the place where, according to the New Testament, Jesus performed miracles

And some discoveries are purely delightful:

Now the village excavating itself found a Byzantine church

After discovering a Crusader winery beneath their homes, residents of the Galilean town of Mi’ilya have now found mosaics and ruins of a Byzantine church – whose stones the Crusaders raided centuries later to build a castle.

Stylized crosses and the aisle margin (the mosaic "rope" on the right) of a Byzantine church 'neath the Arraf home in Mi'ilyaCredit: Rabei Khamisy

Archaeologists find Jewish ritual bath From Jesus’ time at Jerusalem’s Gethsemane

This is the first archaeological evidence found of activity at the Jerusalem site during the Second Temple period, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority

Second Temple-period mikveh and Byzantine church discovered in GethsemaneCredit: ATEF SAFADI - AFP

A perfect storm: How early Christian farming in the Negev collapsed

Israeli archaeologists date the remnants of flourishing agriculture in the desert and discover exactly when, and possibly why, it came to a bitter end

Altar to Greek god Pan used as brick in Byzantine church wall in Israel

Atheneon of Antioch woz ’ere: Archaeologists make surprising new discovery at an early Christian church excavated at the Banias cultic site

Christian town destroyed by Persians 1,400 years ago found in northern Israel

Among the treasures salvaged by archeologists: a building with Christian symbols that housed a mosaic with pagan motifs, including animals and a goddess.

Altar to Pan that had been used in the wall of a Byzantine churchCredit: Ron Lavi

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