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Armageddon Time: How Discoveries at Megiddo Retell the Story of Ancient Israel

For the first time, archaeologists have dated a complete sequence from the Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age. What they found at Megiddo changes the story of the ancient Levant

By Ariel David, Haaretz. Jan 22. In Christian tradition, Armageddon, which means “Mount Megiddo,” is where the final battle between good and evil will be fought, at the end of time. But Armageddon is in the future, supposedly. Meanwhile, there is a real-world site at biblical Megiddo, in northern Israel. It’s not actually a mountain but a tel, an artificial mound formed by dozens of cities that arose over the ages on that same spot, each built atop the one before it. Now, after a two-decade effort, archaeologists have finished radio-carbon dating the roughly two dozen layers of habitation from the Early Bronze Age, more than 5,000 years ago, to the Late Iron Age – a mere 2,700 years ago. The chronological mapping of the site was completed last year with the dating of layers from the early Middle Bronze Age, that is, from around 2000 to 1750 B.C.E., says Prof. Israel Finkelstein, the head of the Megiddo expedition and an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa. “Megiddo is now the only site anywhere in the ancient world, not just in Israel or the Levant, where you have the entire sequence of the Bronze Age and Iron Age represented, excavated and radiocarbon dated,” Finkelstein tells Haaretz. This is no mere technical achievement regarding the timing of developments at Megiddo. For researchers, the ability to date archaeological remains is key to understanding how and why certain historical events occurred or, in some cases, whether they really happened or not. For example, Megiddo has long been one of the focal points in the debate about the historicity of the Bible, and especially over whether there is any factual basis to the stories of a United Israelite Monarchy under the likes of the fabled kings David and Solomon. For decades, the Iron Age gates and palaces of Megiddo, as well as similar monumental structures uncovered at other sites in Israel, were believed to date to the 10th century B.C.E. This is roughly the time of the United Monarchy, according to biblical chronology, and archaeologists saw these magnificent structures as evidence of Solomon’s building prowess, thus confirming the historicity of this biblical kingdom. But starting in the 1990s, Finkelstein and other researchers have been arguing, first on the basis of pottery typology and then using radiocarbon dating, that those ancient structures in fact date to a century later. They were likely built by the Omride dynasty, the ninth century B.C.E. rulers of the Kingdom of Israel, which was based in the north of the country (as opposed to the Kingdom of Judah, centered on Jerusalem), the Finkelstein camp argues. Supporting their opinion, this camp stresses that no great monumental architecture from the right period has ever been bound, not in Jerusalem or in Megiddo or anywhere else in the Levant, confirming the existence of the great united monarchy described in the Bible. David and Solomon may well have existed and lived as kings of Judah, but if so, they probably ruled over a tiny, marginal realm including Jerusalem and little else, which was then aggrandized into a mighty empire by later biblical authors, Finkelstein and other skeptics argue. The debate over David and Solomon continues to rage today, but, in any case, it serves as a good example of how something as simple as shifting the date of some ruins by a few decades can fundamentally change how we think of the past. And now, with the entire archaeological sequence at Megiddo subjected to the rigors of carbon-dating more changes are on the horizon, Finkelstein said in an interview last month. You might notice that a lot of the findings have to do with destruction and reconstruction, the closing of an era and the dawn of a new one, the collapse of a civilization and the rise of its successor. That’s largely because archaeological layers that include a clear act of destruction are more easy to identify and date – but also possibly because, as our own civilization seems increasingly wobbly, the research community and general public are increasingly interested in what makes complex social systems rise and fall. The oldest “casualty” of the carbon-dating drive of Megiddo concerns the end of the Early Bronze Age. This was the period of the first large-scale urbanization in Megiddo and throughout the southern Levant, marked by the construction of massive temples that would remain unrivalled in size during later periods. It was then, starting around 3,300 B.C.E., that Megiddo first became an important city, controlling the surrounding fertile lands of the Jezreel Valley and the key international trade routes connecting the northern and southern Levant, with Syria and Mesopotamia on one end and Egypt on the other. But this early Canaanite civilization came crashing down about a millennium later, followed by a period, known as the Intermediate Bronze Age, in which urban settlements were left largely abandoned. Until recently, this collapse was thought to date to around 2,200 B.C.E. and was linked to the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, which heralded a time of instability in the Nile Valley and abroad, or possibly to the so-called “4.2-Kiloyear event,” a prolonged drought that affected multiple civilizations across the world. Both guesses were way off. Recent studies and the dating of Megiddo’s Early Bronze layers show that this era ended closer to 2,500 B.C.E., Finkelstein says. This is a huge 300 years earlier than previously thought and centuries before the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt or the 4.2-Kiloyear event (which as the name indicates occurred around 4,200 years ago, or 2200 B.C.E.). This suggests that scholars need to find other explanations for the civilizational hiccup in the Levant at the end of the Early Bronze Age. There is no evidence for a large-scale wave of destructions at this time and archaeologists still don’t have an overarching theory on the cause of this collapse, Finkelstein says. Equally mysterious is the emergence from this “dark age,” come the Middle Bronze Age, culminating in the construction of large cities, often encompassed, including at Megiddo, by massive fortifications. “The question is: why does urbanization restart? To know why, you need to know when it does,” Finkelstein says. The radio-carbon dating drive at Megiddo shows the Middle Bronze renaissance started around 2,000 B.C.E., he says. This may confirm previous theories that connect this age of renewed prosperity to increased links to Egypt, mainly through large numbers of people emigrating from Canaan to the Nile Delta. This population movement eventually led to a period, in the 17th-16th century B.C.E., during which the descendants of these Levantine migrants – the Hyksos, as they would come to be called by the locals – ruled over Lower Egypt as pharaohs. Don’t blame the Philistines The centuries passed; the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt; and Canaan itself came under Egyptian rule in the mid 15th century B.C.E. following the battle of Megiddo – not the last time this site would witness an epic, history-changing battle. As the Middle Bronze turned into the Late Bronze Age, Megiddo and other Canaanite city states continued to prosper under their Egyptian overlords, profiting from brisk international trade that seems to have stretched as far as Southeast Asia. But the pendulum of history was about to swing again, and by the early-to-mid 12th century B.C.E. many of the great civilizations that had risen in the Eastern Mediterranean seemingly disappeared in what is now called the Bronze Age Collapse. Cities across Syria and Canaan went up in flames. The Hittite Empire in Anatolia and the Mycaenean civilization of Greece collapsed. Egypt survived but it was diminished, retreating from its colonial dominions in Canaan around 1130 B.C.E. Traditionally, historians blamed the collapse on the Sea People, a loose grouping of enigmatic invaders that included the biblical Philistines. However, more recent studies by Finkelstein, David Kaniewski of the University of Toulouse and other researchers have shown that the upheavals of the 12th century B.C.E. were likely triggered by a protracted drought that led to famine, economic collapse, migrations and conflict. Whatever the cause of the collapse, the data from Megiddo is now showing that it was a slow and complex process rather than a sudden death, Finkelstein says. Based on the new dating of destruction layers at Megiddo, it now appears clear that the Bronze Age city was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times in the course of some 100 years: first around 1200 B.C.E., then again in the middle of the 12th century and then a final blow that came around 1100 B.C.E., after the withdrawal of the Egyptians from the region. “We thought that this collapse happened over a brief period, that people just blew their trumpets to announce the end of the Bronze Age and set fire to their towns,” Finkelstein quips. “We see in Megiddo that there are multiple events, and this probably happened in other places too but this is the only site where we have the chronological resolution to identify such nuances.” Israel rises, in violence After that period of upheaval, as the Iron Age dawned on the Levant, Megiddo was quickly rebuilt in the mid 11th century B.C.E., the data from the site shows. Finkelstein calls this period “New Canaan” because the pottery and other material culture is very similar to the Canaanite culture of the preceding Bronze Age. But with the Egyptians out of the picture, the Levant was a very different place in which new polities were forming, including the biblical kingdoms of Judah and Israel. And thus the renewed Canaanite settlement of Megiddo was quickly annihilated in a massive conflagration that Finkelstein calls “the mother of all destructions.” The devastation was so total and the fire so hot that archaeologists today can easily spot the layer of the “red brick city” – thus nicknamed because of the reddish color the city’s mudbricks acquired in the inferno. The question then is, whodunit? And to know that, as usual, we need to first know when it was done. New dating of the “red brick city” to be published soon in the journal Radiocarbon shows that this destruction occurred in the first half of the 10th century B.C.E., Finkelstein says. Could it then be the work of a conquering monarch? The biblical Saul or David? Unlikely, Finkelstein says. While there are multiple destruction events in the surrounding Jezreel Valley – at Bet She’an, Tel Hadar and other sites – the radiocarbon dating doesn’t match up. In other words, the fall of these Early Iron Age settlements was staggered, with years or decades between each event, Finkelstein says. “What we see in the archaeological record is not the rapid conquest of a victorious general, but probably the slow expansion and consolidation of the state that would, at some point, became known as the Kingdom of Israel,” he says. The nascent Kingdom of Israel first formed in the highlands of Samaria and later expanded to the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee, ultimately becoming a major regional power, dominating all its local rivals, including Judah. But unlike Judah, the Kingdom of Israel did not survive the arrival of a new imperial force in the region: the Assyrians. Their armies conquered Megiddo in 732 B.C.E. and the city became the capital of the local Assyrian province. Come the Late Persian Period around 400 B.C.E., the mound was abandoned and no longer inhabited – thus preserving for posterity this unique record of thousands of years of civilization. Because of the painstaking investigation and precise dating of each layer, Megiddo can now serve as a benchmark for other sites in the region and even beyond that date to similar periods, Finkelstein says. In other words, if artifacts similar to the ones found in a securely-dated layer of Megiddo are unearthed at another site, they must go back to the same period, he says. This benchmarking is also serving other scientific purposes. Researchers of paleomagnetism have long been attempting to reconstruct the fluctuations of Earth’s magnetic field in order to gain insight into its enigmatic behavior. Understanding the planet’s magnetic field better is of pivotal importance because it protects us from dangerous cosmic radiation; also, as if humanity didn’t have enough existential threats to deal with, its strength has been weakening over the last couple of centuries. Today, experts can analyze ferromagnetic particles in some ancient materials, like pottery and bricks, to determine the intensity and orientation of the magnetic field when the artifacts were last exposed to high temperatures (in a pottery kiln or a destructive fire, for example). This can give invaluable information on the changes in the magnetic field not just since two hundred years ago, when measurements first started, but since thousands of years ago. The only problem is of course that to do this the researchers need to be able to date with some precision the artifacts they study – and this is where the accuracy of Megiddo’s radiocarbon dating comes in. Using well-dated artifacts from Megiddo, a team of scientists published a study in December in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Solid Earth reconstructing the intensity of the magnetic field in the Levant for more than two millennia, from around 3000 to 730 B.C.E. While the field was more or less at today’s intensity during the Middle Bronze Age, around 1600 B.C.E. it started to strengthen very rapidly, says Prof. Ron Shaar, a geophysicist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who led the study. By around 1000 B.C.E. the field’s intensity had more than doubled, reaching the highest level ever recorded on Earth, in what is now known as the “Levantine Iron Age Anomaly .” The magnetic field fluctuated around those high levels for another four centuries before starting to drop again around the year 600 B.C.E. “We didn’t know the field could change in such amplitude in such a short time,” Shaar says. “And we now know this thanks to Megiddo’s unique and unprecedented archive of the geomagnetic field.” One might note that the rapid increase in the intensity of the field over the Middle East seems to roughly correspond with the climate changes that apparently led to the Bronze Age Collapse. But Shaar cautions that we don’t yet know whether there is a correlation between climate change and variations in the magnetic field. What the Megiddo data does is confirm previous paleomagnetic studies showing that wild and rapid fluctuations of the magnetic field, like the ones we are experiencing today, are not entirely unusual and don’t necessarily herald an apocalypse. So, somewhat surprisingly, the news from Armageddon is that the time for the end of the world has not come. Yet.

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