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The scientific study of the material remains of the past. Long before the time of the Greeks, who first coined this term, people had been digging up the past, unearthing hidden passages to burial chambers, and passing on the oral history of much earlier generations.

In the 7th century B.C.E., Assurbanipal of Assyria was proud of his ability to decipher writings on ancient clay tablets, and sent his scribes far and wide to collect copies of early records and documents for his wonderful library at Nineveh. Nabonidus, who ruled Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E., made exploratory excavations in the age-old Ziggurat, or temple tower, which loomed up at Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. He read the foundation records of its ancient builders, and carefully carried out restorations, as told in his own inscriptions. The daughter of Nabonidus shared her father’s interest and maintained a small museum in which objects of great importance were kept. Similarly, a royal commission was appointed by Rameses IX of Egypt to examine the physical condition of ancient tombs and pyramids. This interest has remained unabated through the ages.

Modern archeological research emerged a little more than 150 years ago, and has ingeniously awakened the ancient past. Buried for thousands of years in clay tablets, papyri, scrolls, and inscriptions, long forgotten tongues have now been deciphered and revived. Whole cities and settlements have been found arranged one atop the other, forming artificial mounds, or tel in Hebrew. These mounds have been carefully excavated, sliced down like a layer-cake to reveal as many as seventeen different levels of culture. Objects of all types, secular and religious, have been found in the ruins of each layer. Even shards of pottery have been picked up and carefully restored. The styles and shapes then provide clues for dating other objects found on the same level. Charts of pottery vessels of almost every age and geographical area are available and as indispensable for the archeologist as the stamp album for the stamp collector.

Archeology uses both strict scientific methods and the latest technology: electronics, aerial photography, X-rays, and radio carbon. For example, X-rays penetrate the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, locating the exact positions of jewelry and sometimes determining the cause of death. Radio-carbon is used to determine the exact age of all organic matter.

The development of archeology has been made possible through the teamwork of scholars and experts of many different nations and religious backgrounds. Each group, with its own motivation, enables us to see more vividly the world of the Bible, the text which the great prophets preached and from which sprang Judaism and Christianity. On the other hand, Israelis study the Bible and biblical archaeology to obtain new and important knowledge of the land which they are now reclaiming and on which they plan to build a great future.

Every child in modern Israel is an amateur archeologist. Knowing the Hebrew Bible almost by heart, and equipped with maps and archeological guide books, children hike the length and breadth of their historic land, identifying ancient places and ruins, and recognizing the flowers, plants, and animals natural to that region.

In 1948, the young Israeli general Yigael Yadin was able to surround an invading Egyptian army by following an old Roman road in the Negev known to him from his studies in biblical archeology. Nelson Glueck, a famous Jewish scholar conducting a series of explorations in the Negev, has proven that hundreds of towns and settlements thrived in antiquity in an area which has for many centuries been the great wasteland of southern Palestine. He likewise unearthed King Solomon‘s copper mines and refineries near Elat, the port at the northern tip of the Red Sea. There he found that the ancient Israelites had anticipated some of our most modern methods for refining metals.

Daring military archeologists have reopened the ancient fortress of Masada, high in the rocks of the wilderness of Judah. Until recently, this legendary stronghold, famed for the last stand of the Zealots in the desperate war against the Romans in 70 C.E., could be seen only by aerial photography. Now the labyrinth of underground passages has been laid bare, revealing implements and vessels of all types, with interesting inscriptions or graffiti on the walls. Masada has become one of the great national shrines of the State of Israel.

In 1965, Yigael Yadin reported the discovery of part of the Hebrew original of the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees in Masada.

At Wadi Muraba’at near the Dead Sea, several stratified grottoes were found to contain, amidst a mass of other relics, some coins and a number of dated personal documents from 2nd century C.E. Written on papyrus and crude leather in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, these documents include a letter by Bar Kokhba, the leader of the last Jewish revolt against the Romans in 132-35 C.E. In this letter bearing the signature of Simeon ben Koseba, his authentic name, the rugged Jewish general warns his chief of staff, Joshua ben Galgola: if Galgola will not follow instructions regarding the prisoners of war and the requisitioning of private property, Bar Kokhba will fetter his legs with chains, as he has previously done to another disobedient subordinate. In 1959, an Israeli archeological expedition assisted by army helicopters uncovered another Bar Koseba letter in a cave at Nahal Heber in the Judean Desert.

The archeological findings of Israel may not be as spectacular as the Pyramids of Egypt or some of the other great monuments of the past. They do, however, shed light on the greatest and most enduring spiritual monument ever created, the Hebrew Bible, and on the subsequent history of its creators.

After the Six-Day War, extensive excavations were begun in many parts of the country, especially in the vicinity of the Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem. The discoveries in Jerusalem have been breathtaking. Artifacts dating back to the First Temple were discovered. Entire streets, markets, and homes were found underground, revealing facets of life during the time of King Solomon and King Herod, as well as the Byzantine, Crusader, Mamluk and Turkish periods. One such spectacular discovery is the Cardo, the Roman and Byzantine “shopping mall,” which has been reopened and once again features real-life shops. Another find is a silver amulet with the Priestly Benediction, dating back to the 7th century B.C.E., one of the oldest Hebrew biblical texts ever found. (See also Dead Sea Scrolls.)

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