At Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a group of archaeologists are slaving away in the Middle Eastern heat. And as the team go, they pick through thousands of years of history in a bid to find something significant. Their efforts aren’t in vain, though, as ultimately they’re rewarded with an incredible find – something that may just prove a story from the Bible actually once took place.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the archaeologists struck pay dirt, either, as in the sixth century B.C., a great city – one described in the Bible as a place rich in culture and wealth – stood at the location. And even today, Jerusalem hosts a number of historic sights that provide a window into the area’s past. But because many stories have been told about this land, it sometimes takes an expert to separate fact from fiction.
According to the Bible, Jerusalem fell when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II unleashed his wrath on the Judean king Zedekiah in around 586 B.C. And in the chaos, it’s said, much of the city was destroyed. Even the mighty King Solomon’s Temple was apparently demolished – sparking an archaeological mystery that continues today. But how much of this legend actually has its basis in fact?
Well, before answering that question, it’s worth looking at exactly where the archaeologists’ dig took place. Today, the name Mount Zion is used to refer to an area of Jerusalem known as the Western Hill. Situated in the vicinity of the Old City’s ancient walls, this mound is where many modern excavations take place. And according to some, Mount Zion is the site where the biblical King David constructed his palace.
Jerusalem itself, meanwhile, was first inhabited in around 4,500 B.C. and has seen many changes since, as a succession of invaders conquered its borders. But while history tells us the story of each population, the Bible gives a far more specific version of events. Apparently, the city was home to a community of Canaanite people in the 12th century B.C. – so, before King David arrived.
Then, according to the Bible, in around 1,000 B.C. King David laid siege to Jerusalem and established his own city in its place. There, the leader built his fabled palace, and he declared that this new settlement would be the heart of the Kingdom of Israel. Later, David’s son King Solomon is said to have constructed his own grand temple on the same site.
Nowadays, of course, Jerusalem is integral to a number of religions – not only Judaism, but also Christianity and Islam. As such, the city lies at the heart of the conflict that still rages in the Middle East. And because of this battle for sovereignty, some of the region’s history has become confused. In fact, Western Hill is among three sites that have been identified as Mount Zion over the years.
One of these locations, known as Temple Mount, has been largely off-limits to archaeologists in recent times. Both the Western and Lower Eastern Hills, by contrast, have been subjected to numerous excavations. You see, many believe that the Western Hill contains the true relics of the biblical city – despite evidence that suggests the Eastern Hill was actually once the location of David’s settlement.
Furthermore, today’s Mount Zion has been a hotbed of excavation since at least the 19th century. And in 2007 the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) launched its own Mount Zion Archaeological Project – the first scheme of its kind by an institution from outside Israel. Since then, each summer season has yielded fascinating finds that help to tell the story of this ancient city.
In 2016, for example, UNCC archaeologists unearthed an ancient coin at Mount Zion that is thought to hark back to 56 A.D. Featuring the face of Emperor Nero, the discovery seemingly proved that the Romans had been in Jerusalem some 14 years before they sacked the city. According to researchers, the coin had also likely made its way into one of the wealthy Jewish homes that once existed there. But this is far from the only significant find that the UNCC team have made at Mount Zion.
During one season, you see, the archaeologists uncovered a cup forged from stone that had been inscribed with Hebraic letters. Sensationally, the script on the item was the same as that on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Elsewhere, the group also excavated part of a gate that is said to date back to the time of the Crusades.
Then, on August 11, 2019, the project’s members had an exciting announcement: while excavating at Mount Zion, they had made a string of discoveries linked to the time of the First Crusade. Beginning in 1095, this turbulent period saw Christian armies descend on Jerusalem in an attempt to reclaim the region.
Before the First Crusade, the Holy Land had been under Islamic control since around the seventh century A.D. But after four bloody years, the Christians ultimately wrestled control of the region and took Jerusalem in 1099. And in modern-day Mount Zion, archaeologists discovered evidence that gave them a fascinating insight into how this 11th-century skirmish had played out.
Historically, one account of the siege claimed that the Crusaders were initially foiled by a low ditch around the city. When one military leader pledged gold coins to any soldier who would help block the ditch with stones, though, he had several takers. And although this story is often dismissed as fiction, archaeologists at Mount Zion discovered what they believe to be reliable proof of the tale’s veracity.
For one, the group found a filled-in ditch that seemingly matched the one in the legend. Intriguingly, an ornate piece of jewelry was also unearthed at the location, with the item believed to have belonged to one of the Fatimid Muslims who defended Jerusalem against the Crusaders. And because the trinket was found amongst Christian artifacts, archaeologists are certain that both it and the ditch are relics of the 1099 siege. Yet these were far from the most important discoveries made at Mount Zion during 2019’s summer season.
On the same day, you see, the team announced another incredible find. While excavating the Western Hill, they had uncovered another stunning piece of jewelry that may go on to shed new light on a turbulent period in the history of Jerusalem. What’s more, the artifact appears to date back to 1,700 years before the time of the first Crusade.
Crafted from gold and silver, the piece – a tassel or earring – was obviously of great beauty and value at the time. The decorative treasure features a bell-like upper section as well as a lower part modeled on a bunch of grapes. And even though the item has warped and distorted over time, it remains stunning.
Interestingly, though, the jewelry wasn’t the only thing that the dig site revealed. According to UNCC, archaeologists also discovered significant deposits of ash as well as household items such as lamps and pieces of pottery. A number of arrowheads were also uncovered in the same area.
And, together, these artifacts allowed experts to date the site to around 586 B.C. – a significant point in the story of Jerusalem. Crucially, at that time, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II laid siege to the city, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
According to the Bible, Jerusalem was wealthy during the reign of King Zedekiah, who had been previously been put into power by Nebuchadnezzar himself. However, when Zedekiah defied his patron and allied himself with Egypt, the Babylonian launched a siege against the city. And this wasn’t a fight that would be won overnight.
As the biblical story goes, in fact, the siege lasted for many months – perhaps even longer than two years. And as a result of the skirmish, Jerusalem’s citizens experienced many hardships. Then once Nebuchadnezzar finally conquered the city, much of it was razed to the ground – including Solomon’s mighty temple. Ultimately, Zedekiah was also captured and imprisoned in Babylon – but not before having his eyes cut out.
In the Bible, moreover, these events are covered in the second book of Kings. The passage reads, “So the city was besieged unto the 11th year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the [fourth] month, the famine was sore in the city so that there was no bread for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war [fled] by night by the way of the gate between the two walls.”
But how much of this tale is based on true events? Well, today, there are two different schools of thought when it comes to interpreting the history of Jerusalem. In short, minimalists want clear, independent evidence that what was recorded actually came to pass, while maximalists seek to use archaeology to support what is written in scripture.
And according to some, this latest discovery is a win for those on the maximalist side of the spectrum. It’s said, for instance, that the artifacts found at Mount Zion specifically point to a period of violence just like that depicted in the Bible. “Here we captured a moment in time, an event in an exact year, with everything that comes with destruction – ash, complete vessels, Scythian arrows,” Dr. Rafi Lewis from Israel’s Ashkelon Academic College told Haaretz in August 2019.
UNCC professor Shimon Gibson also explained the context of the ancient finds when talking to the newspaper. “For archaeologists, an ashen layer can mean a number of different things,” he said. “It could be ashy deposits removed from ovens, or it could be localized burning of garbage. However, in this case, the combination of an ashy layer full of artifacts mixed with arrowheads and a very special ornament indicates some kind of devastation and destruction. Nobody abandons gold jewelry, and nobody has arrowheads in their domestic refuse.”
Furthermore, the jewelry appears to confirm that Jerusalem was once home to affluent residents before Nebuchadnezzar’s siege – just as scripture claims. Lewis explained, “The biblical books of Kings and Daniel dwell on the wealth of Jerusalem that Nebuchadnezzar took back to Babylon and describe feasting using the gold vessels and copper vessels which came from the city.”
All in all, then, Lewis claimed, “This small artifact shows the potential of how rich Jerusalem really was.” And, significantly, this is the first occasion on which such a treasure has been uncovered at the Western Hill. In addition, while jewelry was previously recovered from the Eastern Hill back in 1979, experts believe that the site would actually have been located outside of the city in Nebuchadnezzar II’s time.
By contrast, archaeologists are sure that what is now known as Mount Zion was indeed part of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. In fact, the excavations also revealed the first evidence of an Iron Age structure on the Western Hill, and this led researchers to conclude that the city was much larger at the time of the siege than had previously been believed.
“We know where the ancient fortification line ran, so we know that we are within the city,” Gibson told the Daily Mail in August 2019. “We know that this is not some dumping area but the south-western neighborhood of the Iron Age city. During the eighth century B.C., the urban area extended from the ‘City of David’ area to the southeast and as far as the Western Hill where we are digging.”
What’s more, the evidence supports the idea that Jerusalem was a thriving metropolis in 586 B.C. rather than an isolated village. And again, this echoes the city that is described in biblical legend – lending further credence to the maximalist camp. According to Lewis, the population of Jerusalem was likely boosted by way of an influx of refugees coming from the north.
But how did such a precious find survive for all those years? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, discoveries such as this are particularly unusual. “Frankly, jewelry is a rare find at conflict sites, because this is exactly the sort of thing that attackers will loot and later melt down,” Gibson told the Daily Mail.
Researchers even believe that the artifact may once have been part of a larger object. Regardless, Lewis pointed out that the conflict that tore through Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. is evident by the condition of the piece. “It’s been through trauma itself [and] was smashed somehow,” he said to Haaretz.
Lewis added of the ornate item, “The little silver cluster of grapes is almost detached from its golden case, as if the jewel had been violently torn from somebody. You can almost sense the violence on the artifact itself.” But despite the turbulent history of the region, it’s thought that the relic lay undisturbed in the ruins of the siege for thousands of years.
Yet the artifact isn’t the only Mount Zion find to have helped shed light on Jerusalem’s past. Yes, according to UNCC researchers, the arrowheads found among the layer of ash were also of great historical significance. Forged from iron and bronze, the weapons were of a type commonly linked with the Scythian people. And as we’ll find out, this trail leads straight to the Babylonians who ransacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C.
Scythian arrowheads have reportedly been found at conflict sites dating from between the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. Crucially, though, these weapons are known to have been part of the Babylonians’ arsenal. As a result, then, their discovery is seemingly yet more evidence that the area was once attacked by the kingdom ruled by Nebuchadnezzar II.
And for the archaeologists behind the dig, the discovery of the cache of artifacts is a major result. “It is very exciting to be able to excavate the material signature of any given historical event – and even more so regarding an important historical event such as the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem,” Lewis told CNN in August 2019.
For Gibson, meanwhile, the dig is a chance to get close to the story depicted in the Bible. “I like to think that we are excavating inside one of the ‘Great Man’s houses’ mentioned in the second book of Kings 25:9,” he explained to the Daily Mail. But what will happen next at the site where legend is fast becoming reality?
Well, currently archaeologists are still sifting through the relics at Mount Zion. And while the team have yet to begin excavating the building linked to the discovered ash layer nearby, they hope to return in the summer of 2020 to learn more. With any luck, too, they may be able to flesh out the biblical story even further.
Sadly, though, Nebuchadnezzar’s siege was far from the last tragedy to plague Jerusalem. As well as the destruction brought by the Crusades, the city fell to the Romans in 70 A.D. Today, the Jewish community commemorates these incidents by marking Tisha B’Av – a day of fasting held in July or August.
But while Jerusalem’s history is marred by conflict, the Mount Zion dig has been bringing people together. And UNCC’s Diane Zablotsky has praised students’ involvement in the excavation. “Although they are from different backgrounds and study in different majors,” she said, “they shared a unique experience that left them with a deep appreciation of archaeology, the history of Jerusalem and [a] broadened worldview.”