The Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries in Israel

In a land layered with artifacts, how do you choose the most important ones? Haaretz asked 20 leading archaeologists

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Statue of the Emperor Hadrian at the Israel Museum Jerusalem.
Statue of the Emperor Hadrian at the Israel Museum Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution to partition Palestine,and Eleazar Lipa Sukenik met with an antiquities dealer from Bethlehem and bought some rolled-up parchments and two clay pots that had been brought to the merchant by Bedouins. That night, as crowds gathered to celebrate the UN resolution, the professor opened the packages and began to read the ancient writing for the first time in 2,000 years.

Lipa Sukenik is the founding father of Israeli archaeology and the story of how he opened the scroll on the 29th of November has become its creation story. His son was the general Yigal Yadin, who turned archaeology into a national hobby – some would say obsession.

In countless archaeological digs throughout Israel since its establishment in 1948, exposing human history from the dim reaches of prehistory to the Ottoman era, from narrow exploratory ditches to mega-excavations of tells and whole ancient cities, millions of ancient artifacts and remains have been found that tell the stories of the people and the place. Among this vast richness of history, it is impossible to choose the “10 most important artifacts” found in Israel since the nation’s establishment. Haaretz tried anyway, asking 20 leading archaeologists for their opinions. The answer turned out to be even more elusive than we suspected – for instance, does one count things found in the territories — the West Bank and Gaza? Well, Israeli archaeology usually doesn’t pay attention to the Green Line and the ancients were blissfully unaware of it, so our count includes artifacts found beyond it too. A second conundrum is what “excavated” means: Not a few of the most magnificent artifacts displayed in museums didn’t come from orderly digs but from robbers. However, our list is confined to items proven (almost) beyond doubt to be authentic.

Ultimately it is impossible to achieve a consensus on the 10 most important items found in Israeli archaeology, but here we go anyway.

1. Dead Sea Scrolls and Bar Kochba letters

Dating: The first century B.C.E. for the scrolls, the second century C.E. for the letters.

Where found: The Judean Desert: the Caves of Qumran and wadis

This is practically the only item on which everybody agrees: the Dead Sea Scrolls are the most important thing to be found in Israeli archaeology.

Decades after their first discovery, the collection includes no less than 1,000 texts, including the oldest known copies of all the biblical books, as well as other books, texts of law, the cultic literature of the Judean Desert cult, certificates, and more. The scrolls and texts shed light on a time in which various cults arose in Judaism, one of which would become Christianity.

The Dead Sea ScrollsCredit: AP

“There are ancient texts in China and Egypt, but no such collection that tells the story of your history, and nobody else in the world can read [his people’s] writing from 2,000 years ago,” says Pnina Shor, manager of the Scrolls division at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Any first-grader [in Israel] can read it, after a few moments of gaining familiarity. That is the wondrous thing about the Scrolls. They open a door to the entire Second Temple period, from the perspective of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity.” Not to mention biblical studies and research on how people lived back then, she says.

Collecting the scrolls was an effort that took decades. Some began to hit the black market before Israel’s establishment – the fact is that Sukenik bought some in November 1947. His son Yigal Yadin acquired more; some were found in further exploration of the Judean caves and one collection in Jordan was taken in 1967.

Recent studies of the ancient parchment using advanced techniques has revealed texts not discernable by the usual means.

As for the Bar Kochba letters, Yadin himself found them when surveying the Judean Desert caves and wadis in 1961. They were signed by Shimon Bar Kochba himself – called Bar Kusiba, at the time, from which we can conclude that this man who would lead the Hebrews to disaster was a very tough commander who concentrated the power in his own hands.

Where you can see them: Israel Museum.

2. The 6,500-year-old Chalcolithic collection

Dating: Around 6,500-6000 years

Where found: Matmon Cave

While looking for more scrolls in the Judean Desert, a delegation headed by Pesach Bar Adon found a cave by Nahal Mishmar. Inside it, wrapped in bits of cloth and covered by a stone shelf, they found a treasure of cultic artifacts made of copper. The archaeologists alerted to the spot, including Yigal Yadin, fondly thought they had found the missing treasure from the Second Temple, an impression that lasted whole seconds until, says Dr. Udi Davidovich of Tel Aviv University, they realized they’d found something much, much older, and just as precious.

In fact the cultic items they found predated the Temple by 4,000 years or more.

Israel Antiquities Authority collection

Altogether they found 426 items, most made of copper by the lost-wax method, six made of hippo teeth and seven made of stone. The collection includes wands, bowls and more.

Isotopic analysis indicates that some of the items contain material rare in the Levant but common in Turkey, attesting to a brisk trading system before recorded history. However, analysis of the tin component by Prof. Yuval Goren of TAU indicates that the artifacts were manufactured in Israel.

Archaeologists do not agree on whether the artifact were cultic as such, used in a temple near Ein Gedi; or possibly grave goods of some high-ranking person; or perhaps a stash of passing merchants. In any case they were hidden in the cave about 6,000 years ago.

Where they can be seen: The “Material and Spirit” expo at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.

3. The Tel Dan stele

Dating: 9th century B.C.E.

Where found: Tel Dan National Park

In 1992, an excavation led by archaeologist Dan Biran uncovered rooms and facilities – and a slab that nobody paid attention to. At first. The expedition architect Gila Kook decided to draw the walls in the late afternoon light because of the angle of the light and noticed writing on the stone slab. “Biran, aged 89 at the time, raced over, kneeled down and began to read,” says Dr. David Ilan of Hebrew Union College.

The slab turned out to be part of a structure erected by the king of Aram, apparently Hazael in the 9th century B.C.E. It tells about the defeat of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The key part is boasting about killing Yehoram ben Ahab, king of the northern kingdom, Israel (there is some dispute over part of the ancient, debilitated text), and Ahaziah, king of “beit David.”

The Tel Dan steleCredit: Oren Rozen

There is no dispute about the words “beit David.” This is the only known appearance of these words outside the bible. Their discovery has pretty much ended the debate about whether King David was a historic figure or a fable.

Some researchers from Sweden and Britain tried to argue that the Tel Dan stele was too good to be true, so it must be a fake. But another excavation season by Biran and Ilan unearthed more of the slab, ending that argument once and for all.

The stele matches the biblical tale of a battle between Israel, aided by Judah, against Aram, in which both the Judean and Israelite kings died. According to the Bible, they weren’t killed by the Arameans but by a rebel called Yehu ben Namshi, who would seize the throne in Israel. “I don’t see a contradiction, because in my opinion, Yehu was a vassal and King Hazael of Aram supported the rebellion,” Ilan says.

Where: Israel Museum, Jerusalem

4. Statue of Hadrian

Dating: Second century C.E.

Where found: Tel Shalem, Galilee

In 1975 a kibbutznik from Tirat Zvi was scanning Tel Shalem in the Beit She’an Valley with a metal detector and found the bronze head of Emperor Hadrian. The rest of the statue was discovered shortly afterwards and the whole was reconstructed at the Israel Museum. It is one of only three bronzes of Hadrian ever found and is definitely the best of the lot, says David Mevurach, museum curator. He suspects it was molded in Rome itself.

Statue of the Emperor Hadrian at the Israel Museum Jerusalem.Credit: David Harris

But its importance isn’t just based on its rarity or beauty, but on Hadrian’s significance to Jewish history. He was the one who crushed the Bar Kochba Revolt — an outburst of insane independence followed by the biggest mass slaughter in Jewish history up to that point, greater than the killing after the Second Temple disaster, says Mevurach. Hadrian identified Judah’s rebellious spirit and decided to put an end to it. He wiped out a thousand settlements and killed half a million people, and changed the name of the province from Judah to Syria-Palestine – which we are dealing with to this very day, he notes, adding, “There is a reason that Zionism chose Bar Kochba as anti-hero.”

Where is it: Israel Museum, but on loan to the Met in New York.

5. The “Venus” figurine

Dating: 250,000 years ago

Where found: Birkat Ram, Golan Heights

It doesn’t look like much, admits Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who led the excavation at Birkat Ram. But if this is a figurine it is by far the oldest in the world, an artifact of the Acheulian culture, which spans from about 1.7 million to 250,000 years ago. It would have been made not by a modern human being, but by a more primitive hominin, Homo erectus or other.

The “Venus” figurineCredit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Experts remain divided but many are confident that the Venus isn’t a natural pebble but shows marks of modification.

Where is it: Israel Museum

6. The Priestly Blessing amulet

Dating: 7th century B.C.E.

Where found: Hill above Gehenna valley (known in Hebrew as Ben Hinom), Jerusalem

In 1979 the archaeologist Gabriel Barkai was excavating a hill on which a heritage center has since been erected, in Jerusalem, above the valley known in Hebrew as “Ben Hinom” and known in English as “Gehenna.” He found a burial cave dating to the First Temple era, with hundreds of pottery vessels and 120 items made of silver. Among them were two small amulets, about the size of a cigarette butt. They turned out to be teeny rolled-up silver scrolls.

The Priestly Blessing amuletCredit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The archaeologists spent three years trying to figure out how to unroll the silver without destroying the artifacts, and when they achieved that, they discovered ancient Hebrew writing – text known from the Book of Numbers with slight changes. One contained the Priestly Blessing, the oldest biblical verse ever found – predating the Dead Sea scrolls by centuries, Barkai says.

“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace,” it reads.

The tiny silver scrolls would quite surely have been worn as amulets 2,700 years ago and whatever else they achieved, they have caused us to rethink the sources of biblical text.

7. The ossuary of Jesus’ brother

Dating: 1st century C.E.

Where found: The black market, may have been found in East Jerusalem

An ossuary is a vessel in to which bones from a body that previously decayed were placed for eternity, and one with the legend “Jacob son of Joseph brother of Jesus” is the most controversial item on this list. Coming from the antiquities market, its provenance is not certain, nor is its authenticity. It was bought by the antiquities collector Oded Golan in the 1970s. Later, in 2002, statistician Kamil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University said that given the size of Israel’s population in the 1st century C.E., mortality rates, and the incidence of the names Jacob, Joseph and Jesus (Yaakov, Yosef and Yeshu) – there were unlikely to have been two people in Jerusalem with those attributes. It would also be highly unusual to write the brother’s name on an ossuary unless he was supremely important.

The ossuary of Jesus’ brother.Credit: Paradiso

However, in 2004 the Israel Antiquities Authority sued Golan, claiming the artifact was a forgery. After an eight–year trial Golan was acquitted on the grounds that forgery had not been proved.

Where can it be seen: It can’t.

8. Seals and bullae from the First Temple era

Dating: 7th-8th centuries B.C.E.

Where found: City of David excavation, Jerusalem

In the 1970s the archaeologist Yigal Shilo found dozens of seals and seal impressions (bullae) from the First Temple era, south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Dozens more would be found later. Their importance lies in the names they bear, some of which we know from the Bible. They include the stamp of Gemaryahu ben Shafan, the minister Jehucal ben Shlamyahu, Gedaliah ben Pashhor and more. In 2015 archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced finding a seal of “Hezekiah King of Judah.”

Where can it be seen: Israel Museum

9. The 9,000-year-old Neolithic masks

Dating: Around 9,000 years ago

Where found: Judean desert

The Neolithic period changed humankind. This is the time when a hunting-gathering nomadic or semi-nomadic style of life was supplanted by settlement and farming. Symbolism had been known for tens of thousands of years, as attested to by figurines found in Europe. But the power of the 15 stone masks found in the Judean desert and similar ones discovered around the Levant is staggering.

Group of Masks, Provenance unknown, Judean hills or Judean foothills, Pre-Pottery Necolithic B, 9,000 years ago.Credit: Elie Posner, the Israel Museum

Provenance was an issue here too. Only one of the masks was found in an orderly excavation, and the others were bought in the black market, the finest by none other than Moshe Dayan.

They are not the oldest known: Deer skull masks found in Britain date to 11,000 years ago. But the deer skulls were not made to look human, while the stone masks sort of were.

Where is it: Israel Museum

10. All the rest

Found: All over Israel.

From when: the dawn of history.

In short, it’s impossible to create a list of the 10 most important archaeological finds in Israel. Hominins were crossing through the Levant before the species Homo sapiens even arose. A discovery in Israel, a jawbone dating to 200,000 years ago that many argue is of modern man, has changed our view of how and when humans left Africa. A drawing discovered in Kuntillat Ajrud in the northern Sinai has changed our view of how and when we worshipped Yahweh – as have findings in northern Israel, attesting to our pagan ways. And it seems the more we find, the more questions we have. Stay tuned.

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