Driving north to Tel Megiddo, I am traveling back in time.
Receding behind me, the Wi-Fi cafe culture of Tel Aviv, the white city on the beach. Looming ahead, Highway 6, tracing the Via Maris, the major trade route of the ancient world. Stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), the road passed the overlook city, Megiddo, making the community atop the mound a player in the history of wars and men.
One of the most embattled sites of antiquity, Megiddo has another name: Armageddon, the place the book of Revelation says we will savage each other in the last days of Earth.
Back in Tel Aviv, sirens will soon be sounding, the Iron Dome defense system blasting missiles out of the sky. Atop Tel Megiddo, I’ll mainly hear wind and doves. The contrast is deceptive: Beneath the dusty mound, or tel, are at least 20 layered cities destroyed by war, by fire, now densely packed and superbly preserved through millennia.
Commanding an army of workers bearing chisels and brushes, the iconoclastic Israel Finkelstein, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist and director of the Megiddo Expedition, orchestrates an upheaval of his own: By opening the belly of Megiddo, he is challenging the narrative of the Bible, upending ancient Israeli history and derailing what we thought we knew about the Iron Age in this region called the Levant.
Much of the uproar concerns a long-standing fight over David and Solomon, the legendary Iron Age kings. The father and son duo likely ruled some 3,000 years ago, between 1010 and 931 B.C., but the extent of their power and kingdom has been subject to fierce dispute. Were they, as the Bible says, powerful monarchs of a united, monumental Israel, stretching from Beersheba in the south to Samaria in the north? Or were they petty chieftains commanding a ragtag band of hundreds — their capital city, Jerusalem, an outpost so hardscrabble it lacked even a blacksmith to shoe a horse?
The answers are important because the palaces and chariot cities historically considered the kings’ legacy might have been built by other leaders and groups in other times. The reallocation of credit could alter whose version of history — secular or religious, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, one school of archaeology or the other — rings most true in this turbulent land. And there is much at stake.
Science and Scripture
The week I arrive atop the tel, the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli boys are found in a West Bank field, just the latest gruesome installment of homicidal hatreds tied to contested ownership of Israel. The battle over antiquity dovetails with the war that has persisted through modern times.
To settle the debate, Finkelstein has brought a new method to biblical archaeology. For years, archaeologists investigating the time of the Bible worked with the text in one hand and a trowel in the other, hoping to confirm Scripture. “In the beginning there was the Word,” the Bible says, and archaeologists sought to prove that it was gospel.
Convinced this circular logic wasn’t providing satisfactory results, Finkelstein pioneered another way forward: using science, and science alone, to shed light on antiquity, regardless of what the Bible might say. Toward that end, he wields the revolutionary tools of microarchaeology — the reconstruction of history from elements invisible to the eye. Sophisticated carbon dating helps narrow in on the age of organic materials found in ancient ovens. Magnetic fields generated by Earth’s core leave time stamps on pottery. Ancient DNA can track the movement and overthrow of peoples.
“We can tell which wall fell first in a battle and whether it fell by fire or force,” Finkelstein says. The clarity this can bring to the dig is astonishing. Most archaeologists have deciphered history in 200-year increments, but Finkelstein now can narrow construction, destruction and other events in antiquity to within as little as three decades, helping him refine the archaeological clock.
Tales of Heroes
For families like Finkelstein’s, Palestine was all about pushing the reset button: One set of Finkelstein great-grandparents, from Belarus, helped establish the region’s first proto-Zionist agricultural settlement in 1878 in Petah Tikva, today a working-class neighbor of Tel Aviv. Another set, fleeing the Bolsheviks, came to farm the same land around 1920. Born in 1949, Finkelstein grew up in the family compound among orange growers and packers, in a “totally secular atmosphere, but very warm and sweet.”
The family resembled other Ashkenazi Jews fleeing pogroms and later the Holocaust, set on validating their roots and reclaiming their ancient, storied home. But with many Ashkenazi so blond and light-eyed — so European-looking — it was hard to stake their homeland claim on appearance alone. Instead, to create a narrative for the nation they hoped to build, the founders zoomed in on archaeology. Science would authorize their Bible, their legacy and their right to the land.
The most eloquent messenger was Hebrew University archaeologist Yigael Yadin, known for his excavation of Masada, the desert fortress described as a scene of a shameful mass murder-suicide after a failed revolt. By the time the dig ended in 1964, Yadin had transformed the events into a tale of heroic resistance. Chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces before he became an archaeologist, Yadin had used his new field to pump up the volume on Israel’s ancient roots, warrior spirit and right to exist.
For Yadin, the story went back to the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, when Moses’ general, Joshua, was said to storm the land of Canaan and take it by force. That was the Bible story that Finkelstein, still a graduate student, found himself revisiting in the 1970s on assignment in the highlands, a mountainous ridge running almost the length of Israel. There, archaeologists had dated the earliest settlements of the Hebrews — recognized by the lack of pig bones, reflecting their pork taboo — to perhaps the 13th century B.C. Had these people really been slaves in Egypt, returning as invaders as Yadin put forth? Finkelstein found otherwise. Instead of an invasion, the archaeological evidence revealed a gradual evolution from a pastoral to an agricultural society. “There was no violent event, no entry from the outside, not one suggestion of the Exodus. The Hebrews were the Canaanites, who had never left.”
A Story in Question
Finkelstein the skeptic discovered microarchaeology for himself at Shiloh, a biblical-era city in today’s West Bank. There, in the 1980s, he set out to retrace the construction of a solid ancient fort that appeared to have no apparent way for water to drain.
“Without drainage, the whole thing would have gone kaput,” notes Finkelstein. Yet 4,000 years later, here it stood. Finkelstein recruited a soil expert, who found chemically distinct, porous building material just where the water should flow. “Maybe they didn’t know to call it limestone,” Finkelstein realized, “but they knew how it would function in the wall.”
Microscopic analysis of the ancient wall opened Finkelstein’s eyes, and by 1990 he hoped to shine the same scientific light on the biggest of the big questions: the enduring mystery of the reigns of David and Solomon. Logically, the best place to search was under modern Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — also a tel, upon which much of the ancient city was built. But the site currently hosts the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, two of the most sacred places of Muslim prayer, making excavation tantamount to an act of war.
Getting around the problem, Yadin searched for the footprints of David and Solomon further afield, tapping a biblical passage from 1 Kings:
“And this is the account of the forced labor which King Solomon levied to build the house of the Lord and his own house and the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem and Hazor and Megiddo and Gezer.”
The verse describes Solomon’s grandiose building projects, including a huge stepped-stone structure called the Millo — still prominent below today’s Temple Mount in Jerusalem — and massive, nearly identical six-chambered city gates at Jerusalem, Megiddo and two other tels.
Every morning the verse greets us near the entry to Megiddo, where it adorns a plaque. Finkelstein stops to read the words with irreverent scorn. The verse was written 300 years after Solomon’s death, during the reign of his descendant, Josiah, a man with a nation-building agenda and plenty of motivation to make ancestral claims for monumental achievements and land.
“Someone sitting in Jerusalem cooked these words up at the end of the seventh century B.C., so how did they know what really happened centuries before, in the 10th century B.C.?” Finkelstein says.
A Timeline in Question
If you accept the biblical timeline on faith, you could be throwing actual history out of kilter for centuries. If the gates at Megiddo were built during Solomon’s reign between 970 and 931 B.C., then any structures found in layers directly above those gates are bound to be ninth century B.C.; structures buried directly below the gates would, de facto, be 11th century B.C., and so on. Because the accepted historical timeline hinges on just one Bible passage, our concept of what happened — and when — could be completely off.
The disarray was obvious to Finkelstein the moment he arrived atop the 15-acre expanse of Tel Megiddo in 1992. Standing above a slope at the southern part of the tel, he surveyed the handiwork left by archaeologists whose labors were well intentioned for the time but whose technologies were crude compared with modern techniques.
From 1903 to 1905, German archaeologist Gottlieb Schumacher cut a deep trench through the site, tossing anything he deemed unimportant into a pit. That’s where he unwittingly threw a slab inscribed by Pharaoh Sheshonq, known to have captured Megiddo in 925 B.C. But with the slab in a ditch, no one knew which buried city — which layer of the tel — was actually attacked.
Armageddon's Greatest Hits
Standing atop Tel Megiddo, George Washington University archaeologist and military historian Eric Cline, the dig’s former co-director, overlooks a panorama of biblical and violent lore. “Over there, to the left, is Mount Carmel, where Elijah the prophet is said to have pitted the Hebrew God, Yahweh, against the idols of the Canaanites, provoking the fall of a dynasty in the ninth century B.C.,” he says. To the right, he points out Mount Tabor, where Deborah, mentioned in the Old Testament’s book of Judges, calls on her general, Barak, to lead an Israelite army 10,000 strong in about the 12th century B.C. He then traces the strategic route taken by Pharaoh Thutmose III’s army when it marched right up to Megiddo, engaging the Canaanites in the first recorded battle in the history of the world, in the 15th century B.C.
“This area has always been a theater of war,” says Cline. The armies of the Greeks, the Romans and the Crusaders fought here. In 1799, Napoleon fought near here, calling it “the most natural battleground of the whole Earth.”
And the battles didn’t end there. In a recent excavation, Cline stumbled upon more than 200 spent cartridge cases from the most modern Megiddo battle: the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. A student of war at Armageddon, Cline offers up his list of the greatest battles, real and literary, and yet to come.
1479 B.C. Pharaoh Thutmose III successfully marches on Canaanite Megiddo, taking what was considered the most dangerous route: a narrow mountain path easily susceptible to ambush.
12th century B.C. The biblical prophet Deborah asks her general, Barak, to marshal an Israelite army of 10,000 to defeat the Canaanite forces of King Jabin. The battle, which they won, was said to be fought near Megiddo.
12th century B.C. Moses’ general, Joshua, is said to emerge from the Sinai to capture the land of Canaan. The Bible says that among his victories, he defeated the king of Megiddo — the tel would be on anyone’s list of must-haves for controlling the ancient world.
925 B.C. Egyptian Pharaoh Sheshonq attacks Megiddo, an event well-documented in extrabiblical sources, though due to sloppy archaeology, people are still confused about which layer of the tel, precisely, was attacked. A stone slab documenting his presence was found in a trench in the 20th century.
732 B.C. Assyrians attack Megiddo, driving Jewish residents of the northern kingdom south to Jerusalem, causing the city’s population to swell.
609 B.C. Josiah is killed at Megiddo by Pharaoh Neco of Egypt after the pharaoh warns him to stay away — at least according to the Bible. His death is the first step in the downfall of Israel, ending with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem.
A.D. 1099 The first Crusaders arrive in the Holy Land, hoping to recapture it for Christianity. Starting in 1113, Maudud of Mosul and other Muslims launch a series of campaigns to retake their territory. Armies of Crusaders and counter-raiders roam the land, including the area around the Jezreel Valley and Mount Tabor, near Megiddo, until 1260, when Egyptians retake the area for good.
1799 Napoleon faces the Ottomans in the Jezreel Valley, scattering them to the winds and calling the Megiddo valley the most natural battleground on Earth.
1918 The Battle of Megiddo, the final Allied offensive of the Sinai and Palestine campaign at the end of World War I. As part of the strategy there, British Gen. Edmund H.H. Allenby takes a page from history, defying orders and following Pharaoh Thutmose III’s path right down the center of the Jezreel Valley, evading detection until he reached the tel.
Armageddon The penultimate battle to rock us before the end of the world is supposed to take place on the dusty mound, Megiddo. Date unknown.
Then, from 1925 through 1939, a University of Chicago team peeled off layers of the tel, dumping entire cities into landfills, where once-valuable artifacts were now entirely out of context. That’s where Finkelstein found the remains of an ashlar palace, so-called because the stones are regular, beveled and finely cut as opposed to the more usual irregular “rubble” used to make buildings of the time. The palace was supposedly commissioned by Solomon in the mid-10th century B.C.
However, the stones held a “mason’s mark,” an engraved branding pattern, identical to those on ashlar blocks at the later ninth-century B.C. ruins of Samaria, the capital of a second Hebrew kingdom to the north. “Either you explain this find or you have to push the dates forward a century,” past the time when Solomon lived, Finkelstein says.
For years, Finkelstein discussed his concerns only with friends, but in 1996 he laid out his thoughts in the journal Levant. To help frame the question about the kings, he anchored his timeline with two Megiddo cities with precise dates already established from sources outside the Bible.
The first anchor, closer to the bottom of the tel and more distant in time, was a vast, wrecked city swept away by a regionwide collapse of society at the end of the Bronze Age, in the 12th century B.C. The second anchor, some 400 years later and today sitting on the surface of the tel, was a city built by the Assyrians after their well-documented invasion in the eighth century B.C.
Four sequential cities with indeterminate dates were sandwiched between: Right on top of the Bronze Age destruction was a cosmopolitan world that represented the last of Canaanite culture, called the “red brick city,” which burned to the ground. Above that Canaanite city was a crude slum. Higher still, Finkelstein could see a monumental city with two ashlar palaces. And directly above that (and right under the Assyrians) sat a chariot city with stables for horses. Inside these four layers, Finkelstein would seek the kings.
For boosters of David and Solomon, things did not look good. Even Yadin agreed the stables were built by the northern kingdom of Israel long after Solomon had roamed the Earth. And Harvard scientists dated an assemblage of nearby pots on the same level as the ashlar palaces to the ninth century B.C., a hundred years after the kings were said to reign, leaving the duo with the slum above the Canaanites’ red brick city, if that. Truth be told, the Bible’s great builder, the storied King Solomon, might have no earthly footprint inside the tel. That “would change the entire understanding of the history of Israel,” Finkelstein wrote inLevant.
Unearthing the Layers
Formulating a controversial hypothesis in a journal is one thing; proving it is something else. Yet that is the work of the tel, where the digging and sorting and quiet chatter form an oasis of calm amid war. A Palestinian boy has just been murdered by Israeli extremists, abducted outside his home and burned alive in retribution for the dead Israeli teens found in a ditch the week before. Now the Arab residents of Umm el Fahm, a hillside village near Tel Megiddo, are hurling rocks at cars.
Our buses take the long way, winding through back roads to the site in the early morning dark. At the tel, black protective tarps soar over a series of stepped-down grids, revealing the sandwich of cities, one by one.
It was 1998 when Eliezer Piasetzky, a nuclear physicist at Tel Aviv University, first visited these ruins. Although he professed just a passing interest in archaeology, Piasetzky was soon deeply enmeshed in the argument over the dates. Why not deploy radiocarbon dating, already used widely to date more ancient finds, he asked. The technique is based on the consistent ratio between two types of carbon molecules in all living things. When we die, one form, carbon-12, stays steady, but another form, carbon-14, slowly degrades at a known rate, allowing chemists to calculate how much time has passed since the sample died.
Finkelstein and Piasetzky refined the technique for their work at Megiddo, tapping the latest mass spectrometry equipment (to identify chemicals by their mass and charge), the top labs and samples likely to yield the most accurate results. They rejected wood samples that could be hundreds of years older than their use by humans, for instance, in favor of short-lived pits and seeds. An olive pit that happened to be cooking in a tabun (an ancient oven) at the moment of a violent destruction (such as an earthquake) was the best sample of all. Such a sample could not only be dated precisely, but could shed temporal light on everything crushed around it at the moment of the devastation.
With the new technique, the Megiddo researchers began to date buildings, pottery and olive pits to within a range of 40 years, a massive improvement over the 200-year increments archaeologists had dealt in before.
Finkelstein and Piasetzky now estimate that the red brick city of the Canaanites burned to the ground around 940 B.C. — about a decade before the end of Solomon’s reign in 930 B.C. Since you need the passage of several decades, at least, between the destruction of one city and the erection of another, this would make it impossible for Solomon to be involved in the construction of the tel’s monumental ashlar palaces — now dated by Finkelstein to the 800s (the ninth century B.C.) and linked to the reign of King Omri of the north.
Not everyone agrees. Using a competing radiocarbon dating technique, the meticulous, highly regarded Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar studied an equivalent burnt red brick city at a mound called Tel Rehov. Over the years, Mazar has moved the date of his red brick destruction from the conventional view of Yadin — right after the rise of King David — to as recently as 970 B.C.; his calculations leave Solomon’s involvement in the construction of the ashlar palaces a possibility, but just by a hair.
In the end, the only way to learn the truth is still through better technology with resolution high enough to stamp a specific decade on a given neighborhood — like Finkelstein’s Area K, a sloped grid of 5-meter squares notable for its four-room houses with central courtyards.
Through the centuries, as layer piled on layer, Area K residents served the city administrators: the bakers with their ovens, the metalworkers with their shops. As generations passed, new floors were built atop old, leaving household belongings buried in place. Scavenging K would be “like coming to someone’s house and finding Coke cans on the floor,” says Mario Martin, an archaeologist and expedition researcher directing this part of the dig.
The most revelatory part of K could be its human remains: skeletons of several individuals crushed under cedar beams in the Canaanite city of burnt red brick in the 10th century B.C.; and 22 people entombed under a single floor of a house dating to the Middle Bronze Age. Were the earlier Canaanites and the later Hebrews actually one and the same?
DNA should be able to provide some solid clues. To “track the movement and identity of residents through time and space,” paleogeneticist Meirav Meiri dons her mask and gloves and descends through the layers, preparing samples for analysis at her Tel Aviv University lab.
Other researchers bring their labs right to the tel: Ruth Shahack-Gross from the University of Haifa runs an infrared spectroscopy unit at the edge of Area Q, another residential neighborhood, to learn what destroyed the red brick city and ended the Canaanite world. To do her work, she studies the chemical makeup of the destruction layers, which sometimes include bits and pieces of the tabuns. If the city was destroyed by earthquake, she can assume that conflagration started where fire was already burning — like the inside of an active tabun. If fire was brought by human invaders shooting flaming spears, areas of ignition would be random.
Using spectroscopy, Shahack-Gross can identify a variety of infrared signals coming from the clay, each indicative of a different molecular structure and pattern of ignition. Though she will need another excavation season to put the story together, she hopes to ultimately understand how fire moved through the tel and why the Canaanite world burned to the ground — by earthquake or invasion.
The tabuns could also resolve the dispute over Solomon’s power and reach, says Amotz Agnon, a Hebrew University geophysicist reconstructing the history of Earth’s magnetic field. Because the magnetic field influences the structure of rocks (and clay pots) during their formation, knowing the field’s history allows you to tie specific objects to specific ranges of dates. The connection between the magnetic signature and the date can be more accurate than radiocarbon because local magnetic fields often spike, generating unique signatures that last as little as 10 years.
“If you find pottery inside the tabun that was fired right before a destruction, you could theoretically narrow your dates of an entire area to within a decade,” he says. The work is still experimental, but if it eventually pans out, it could date the ashlar palaces with enough specificity to end the long-running dispute.
Story Through Evidence
Memories accumulate and narratives coalesce over millennia. Those who wrote the Bible took characters from one setting, scenes from another, political needs from a third, and they wrote a story, Finkelstein says. “The job of the archaeologist is to evaluate that story through evidence found in the Earth.”
We are sitting in front of Megiddo’s Assyrian palace. Only the foundation remains, but we can envision it all: Here an entry hall, there a courtyard and there a dining room. A hundred years after the Assyrians invaded Megiddo, the Deuteronomists were writing the Bible for the last great Davidic king, Josiah. But Josiah’s world, too, crashed to a halt when the Egyptian pharaoh Neco killed him at — where else? — Megiddo. Some 25 years after Josiah’s death, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, taking its lead citizens into captivity and destroying the temple built by Solomon — the first Temple of the Jews celebrated in the Old Testament and said to rest under the Temple Mount to this day.
Josiah’s death, Finkelstein holds, explains why the concept of Armageddon, or an end times war between good and evil, centers here, at what the ancients called Har Megiddô. Some 700 years after Josiah’s murder, John of Patmos — the likeliest author of the New Testament’s book of Revelation — predicted an apocalyptic battle for Earth that will roil the ancient tel. “How did he think of that?” Finkelstein asks. “He was remembering all the past bloody battles and the death of Jesus’ ancestor, Josiah.” Megiddo made literary sense; as a metaphor, it gelled.
Many disagree. Back in Jerusalem, Eilat Mazar, an archaeology professor at Hebrew University long on the trail of the kings herself, says invoking mere metaphor sells the Bible short. Sitting in the office that once belonged to her grandfather, the pioneering biblical archaeologist Benjamin “Papa” Mazar, Eilat describes her approach: “If you pore over the Bible, you will find an astonishingly accurate historical core.”
She found one clue in the passage where David views the biblical beauty, Bathsheba, bathing on her roof. “It could only happen if he was up high and she was down low,” Mazar says. Surveying the possibilities, she quickly homed in on a rise leading to the Temple Mount. By 2005 she was reporting that “King David’s palace,” a stone building a quarter-acre large, attached to the Millo mentioned in the famous verse from 1 Kings. She dates the building to the 10th century B.C. because she has found 11th-century B.C. pottery beneath its floor. North of that, she believes she has found “Solomon’s acropolis,” a compound of three or four monumental structures she dates to his reign based on the red, burnished style of pottery atop its floor.
Finkelstein calls all this absurd. “The so-called palace could have been built any time after the 11th century B.C.,” but before the time of the kings, he says, because “you date a building by pottery sitting on top of its floor, not beneath the foundation, on bare earth.” And microarchaeology has already redated pottery of the style found at Mazar’s acropolis to the ninth century B.C., a century after Solomon’s death.
To which Mazar pulls out her grandfather’s Bible and takes me back to 1 Kings 9. Right here it lists what Solomon built, she says. “The temple, the palace, the Millo, the wall around the city, and the huge construction enterprises in Hazor, in Megiddo and Gezer.” The last three are tels. “It says Solomon built Megiddo. It says it right there.”
Whatever the truth, Megiddo was once truly alive. “These were all real cities,” says Eric Cline, an archaeologist and historian at George Washington University who is a former co-director of the Megiddo dig. “Depending on the era, between 1,000 and 10,000 people lived here. Each one had a cup of wine for dinner. People were living and dying and crying. They were heartbroken, they were in love.”
A Layering of Cities
Israel Finkelstein used micro-archaeology to find any trace of David and Solomon’s kingdoms within a slice of six partially dated cities, stacked below, atop and inside Tel Megiddo. The site, pictured below, is divided into specific areas of excavation.
[This article originally appeared in print as, "Witness to Armageddon."]