Jerusalem Discovery Unleashes Biblical Bedlam: Top Archaeology Stories of 2021

Ruth Schuster
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
An aerial shot of the first ancient synagogue found in Migdal.
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Many an excavation in Israel and the world resumed in 2021 after the serial coronavirus lockdowns of the year before. Despite the constraints, there were some startling discoveries, and it was also an opportunity to consider the deeper meaning of discoveries – or the lack thereof.

Here are some of my favorite archaeology stories of the year.

January
Pre-human Swiss Army knife
Using a chopping tool to break a bone
Using a chopping tool to break a bone at Tel Aviv UniversityCredit: Ran Barkai

Starting about 2.6 million years ago, no archaic human would leave the cave without one. What was this tool and why didn’t it evolve, while we definitely did?

February
Whispers of mysterious rites, or condiment
Stone circle now offshore is earliest pickled olive production site, archaeologists believe
Stone circle now offshore is earliest pickled olive production site, archaeologists believeCredit: Ehud Galili

Archaeologists reported on a stone circle over 6,500 years old, mostly submerged in the Mediterranean. An ancient site of mysterious Stone Age ritual? Solstice something? Or the world's first pickled olive factory?

Still February
‘Ahabbu Sirilayu’ joins the fray
King Shalmaneser III of Assyria terrified the neighbors
King Shalmaneser III of Assyria terrified the neighborsCredit: Osama SM Amin FRCP(Glasg)

The year is 853 B.C.E. and two vast armies are lined up on a plain in front of the ancient city of Qarqar, in today’s Syria. What happened next contains lessons pertinent to this day.

March
A biblical-era toilet is found. A brouhaha ensues
The seventh-century B.C.E. toilet unearthed on the Armon Hanatziv promenade in Jerusalem.
The seventh-century B.C.E. toilet unearthed on the Armon Hanatziv promenade in JerusalemCredit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Israeli researchers get potty-mouthed over whether a 2,800-year-old shrine in Lachish was really desecrated by installation of a lavatory

April
But is it art?
Rhinoceros painted in Chauvet Cave
Rhinoceros painted in Chauvet CaveCredit: Inocybe at French Wikipedia / Chauvet Cave

Yes it is and some of the best was done in the pitch-black depths of caves. Why? Israeli archaeologists crack the mystery of how... and why.

May
The last stand of the Philistines
Layer of broken pottery, ash and felled stones at Gath from the destruction of the city by the Arameans
Layer of broken pottery, ash and felled stones at Gath from the destruction of the city by the ArameansCredit: Ariel David

You are a Gittite. Your eyes sting from sweat and blood. The water is gone, the spring captured by the enemy. Gath is lost and all this picture of despair arises, archaeologists say, from exactly one enigmatic weapon.

June
New hominin discovered in Israel
Homo Nesher Ramle,: The skull parts that were discovered
Homo Nesher Ramle,: The skull parts that were discoveredCredit: Tel Aviv University

Meet Homo Nesher Ramla, the strangely archaic being found in a limestone quarry in central Israel, who upsets the paradigm of Neanderthal evolution.

Some postulate that it’s the ancestor of the Neanderthals. Some do not agree.

Still in June
When civilization collapsed but luxury imports didn't
The copper mines at Timna
The area of the copper mines at TimnaCredit: Erez Ben Yosef

We learned that the civilizations around the Mediterranean may have collapsed 3,200 years ago and ancient Egypt may have been brought to its knees – but not to its grave.

July
Gideon... is that you?
The "Jerubbaal" inscription on a pottery sherd from the Judges period, found at Khirbat el-Ra'i
The "Jerubbaal" inscription on a pottery sherd from the Judges period, found at Khirbat el-Ra'iCredit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Was a pot inscribed with the name of the scourge of the Midianites from the time of the biblical judges, really found? That very much depends who you ask

August
Meanwhile, in the hometown of Goliath
The area of Gath where the bone arrowhead was found. The round structure in the foreground is an oil press
The area of Gath where the bone arrowhead was found. The round structure in the foreground is an oil pressCredit: Ariel David

When God gives you lemons… Arguably, the archaeologists excavating the Philistine city of Gath had that saying in mind when hailing the discovery of, well, nothing, attesting to the savagery of the Aramean assailants. You read it here first. 

September
Not exactly a Christmas camel
Panel 12, showing the body, legs and base of the neck of an adult camel with a possible young equid to the left
Panel 12, showing the body, legs and base of the neck of an adult camel with a possible young equid to the leftCredit: M. Guagnin & G. Charloux

The giant camels carved into the great sandstone cliffs in northern Saudi Arabia had been assumed to be quite modern, made say in the last two thousand years. Not so. 

October
The invention of fly fishing
The site of some of the finds.
The site of some of the finds. Credit: Prof. Gonen Sharon / Tel-Hai College

Okay to be fair it's impossible to say that fly fishing was invented on the banks of the River Jordan 13,000 years ago but go ahead, find an earlier site. 

November
Deer me
Persian fallow deer being released into the Israeli north.
Persian fallow deer being released into the Israeli north.Credit: Emil Salman

Pfoo. Yuck. Do you seriously expect me to eat that deer, a slob from the hills who ate leaves as opposed to one that supped daintily on fresh green grass (viridi herba) by the river between two and four in the afternoon - what am I, an animal?

December
And then there were two
A menorah from the first ancient synagogue unearthed in Migdal, northern Israel.
A menorah from the first ancient synagogue unearthed in Migdal, northern Israel.Credit: Yael Yolovich, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

There was the Great Temple in Jerusalem, house of centralized sacrifice and ritual. And there were local small synagogues, not for worship purposes. We knew that; yet in December archaeologists were somewhat startled to discover that Magdala (Migdal), home of Mary Magdalene, had not one synagogue but two

Comments