Israel is one huge archeological site! Since just about any location in the country could literally be on top of buried ancient treasure, there is a strictly enforced law. Prior to developers building anything (or before the government can add new infrastructure like widening a highway) archeologists must first excavate the site in order to see what lies beneath the ground. Additionally, because of the sheer volume of archeological sites in Israel (including several not yet discovered) it’s not unusual for major archeological finds to be made by individual hikers, and even children during family outings. Besides these finds at previously unknown locations, many sites are already known to be rich with archeology, and when funding for digs (which are very expensive) are secured, sites are dug with the expectation that major finds will be unearthed.
The year 2021 was another fruitful year for archeological discovery. Hundreds of finds were discovered, many quite revolutionary in our understanding of past biblical and historic events. While all of these findings deserve their own articles, I have narrowed down the list to what I believe were the top 10 finds:
- Two major Yavne finds:
a) First-ever First Sanhedrin-era building ever to be found in Yavne (circa 1st century CE)
Yavne is best known to Jews as the first location of the Sanhedrin (the central Rabbinical
Supreme Court) after the destruction and exile from Jerusalem. When Israel’s eternal capital
was under siege by Roman General (and future emperor) Vespasian, Rabban Yochanan ben
Zakkai (then head of the Sanhedrin) left the city to meet him. General Vespasian was so
impressed with his knowledge that he granted him three wishes, one of which was to allow the
restoration of the Sanhedrin in Yavne (which became the world’s most important Jewish
spiritual center for several decades) in addition to the guaranteed safety of its sages (circa 1st
century CE). This may have been the most important (and defining) event in Jewish history and
Torah observance in the last 2000 years! With the destruction of the Temple, there were many
Torah laws which were now unclear, which the Sages of Yavne clarified. The sages of this great
city ensured the continuation of the Jewish people in a post-Temple world!
In 2021, the first ever building found from the Yavne-Sanhedrin era was discovered by chance due to development work on the city’s expansion. Inside the building, religious vessels such as “measuring cups” were found entirely made of stone (according to Jewish law, stone vessels do not retain impurity) showing the high level of Torah observance (in ritual purity) practiced in the community. In addition, a cemetery (with elaborate tombs which were carefully spaced out at set distances, suggesting an official body responsible for burial) was discovered outside the city (as is required by Jewish law). Some believe that these tombs may even belong to some of the famous sages known to have been buried in Yavne.
b) Largest Winery in the Byzantine Empire
During excavations of Tel Yavne, a massive 1500-year-old winery was discovered, believed to be the largest from the Byzantine era. In this complex were five magnificent wine presses, (each covering an area of 225 m2) four large warehouses for aging and marketing the wine, and kilns for firing the clay amphorae. The winepresses were adorned with decorative niches (which showed the wealth of the factory owners). It is believed that this complex could produce 2 million liters of wine per year (around 2,666,667 bottles). This is even more impressive, considering that the whole process was conducted manually! This wine was considered very prestigious in the ancient world, and excavations in other countries have discovered wine jars from this winery.
2) Crusader Sword (Mediterranean Sea)
In October, Shlomi Katzrin was scuba diving near the beaches of Haifa and noticed something unusual. Upon closer look, he saw that it appeared to be an ancient sword, which he handed over to the Israeli Antiquities Authority (as is required according to Israeli law). Examination revealed that they had found a Crusader sword which had belonged to a knight. The sword, sporting a 30 cm hilt and one-meter-long iron blade, was found in perfect condition (although it was encrusted in marine life). He also discovered some ancient metal anchors and pottery.
According to experts, the area (a natural cove near the port city of Haifa) was used as a storm shelter for ancient merchant ships for centuries (leaving behind a rich array of archeological treasures). According to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) the plan is to clean the sword and then display it at a museum.
3) Well-preserved fortress connected to the Chanukah Story (Lachish Forest)
From the time of Alexander the Great (circa 332 BCE) until 167 BCE, the Hellenist Greeks occupied Israel, oppressing the Jewish inhabitants, and trying to force them to abandon the Torah. They even desecrated the holy Temple, turning it into a temple for Zeus. This led to a rebellion led by a small band of pious brothers (all priests) known as the Maccabees who miraculously retook the Temple and purified it in 164 BCE (this rededication of the Temple is celebrated annually by Jews during the 8 days of Chanukah).
After regaining the Temple, the Maccabees expelled the Greeks from the land, gaining the upper hand over the following decades. To protect the important Greek metropolis of Maresha in south central Israel (for more on this world heritage site, click here) a series of forts were built. One of them was discovered and excavated in the Lachish fortress, revealing a well-fortified building 15 x 15 meters (49×49 feet) with a massively thick exterior wall 3 meters (10 feet) wide, sloped in order to prevent scaling. Astonishingly, the ruins are still well preserved to an exceptional height of 2 meters (6.5 feet). It is believed that the original height was 5 meters. As a symbolic bonus, this find was revealed to the public mere days before Chanukah 2021. For more on this incredible find, click here.
4) 2000-year-old coin minted by the Temple Mount Plaza (Jerusalem)
One of the sites I really enjoy visiting with my tourists is the Emek Tzurim sifting project in Jerusalem. In 1999, the ancient treasures of the Temple Mount were loaded onto trucks and dumped in the Kidron Valley by the Muslim Waqf who control the site. As the dirt taken from the holiest site in Judaism was highly likely to contain important archeological finds, a sifting project open to tourists was initiated to salvage the archeology, giving children and adults alike the opportunity to find earth shattering discoveries!
In November 2021, an 11-year-old girl, Liel Krutokop, sifted through the dirt and found an (almost) 2000-year-old coin made out of pure silver. Weighing 14 grams, it is believed that the coin was minted by Kohanim (priests) using the large silver reserves of the Second Temple in the second year of the Great Jewish Revolt (circa 67-68 CE) against the Romans. This is when the Jews briefly expelled the Romans and gained independence for a very short time. Minting currency was one way to assert sovereignty. One side of the coin has an engraving of an image of a cup with the inscription “Israeli Shekel” and the Hebrew letters of “Shin” and “Bet” which is shorthand for “second year”. The other side has an engraving of the headquarters of the High Priest and the words “Holy Jerusalem”. Ultimately, the rebels were defeated by Rome and the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.
According to archeologists, this is one of the only items found which was manufactured at this Holy site. For a sample itinerary which includes the sifting project, click here.
5) One of the world’s oldest toilette bowls ever found (Jerusalem)
Archeologists excavating the ruins of a Biblical era Royal palace were stunned when they found an (extremely rare) item which illustrated the immense wealth of its ancient owner, a private bathroom. Inside, a carved limestone toilette was found with a hole in the center, positioned over a deep septic tank. Evidence was also unearthed that a luscious garden with fruit trees and other plants surrounded the toilette (although unfathomable to westerners today, toilettes were such a status of wealth, that making its surroundings beautiful made sense). This is all the more astounding when one considers that even today (according to UNICEF) 60% of the world’s population does not have access to proper toilet facilities.
6) Second Synagogue from 2nd Temple period era in Migdal (Magdala)
Over the years during excavations of ancient Jewish settlements that existed in Israel post-Second Temple (70 CE and onwards) many, many synagogues have been discovered (several a must see for tourists). Synagogues from the Second Temple period however, are extremely rare and only 7 have ever been found (including at Masada, Herodium, Etri, Gamla, Modiin, Kiryat Sefer and Migdal (Magdala)). Despite the plethora of ancient Jewish texts stating that synagogues were a fact of life even when the Temple stood, many modern-day (secular) archeologists overlooked these sources. They assumed that when the Temple stood, synagogues didn’t play a large role in daily life, being that very few synagogues from this period were found.
In 2021, during the widening of highway 90 (Israel’s longest highway) a second temple era synagogue was found in Magdala, making this the first time that two synagogues from this period were found in the same town (the first was found in 2009. I highly recommend anyone visiting Israel to explore this awesome site). The fact that they were a mere 200 meters from each other (one in a residential area, the other industrial) is now making several academics hypothesize that synagogues were indeed an important part of the social fabric at the time!
7) New Dead Sea Scrolls Unearthed (Judean Desert)
Since the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947, it can be argued that no other archeological findings have captured the public imagination quite like these ones. In fact, the Indiana Jones series was loosely based on a real-life adventurer named Vendyl Jones whose life work revolved around finding treasures mentioned in one of the scrolls. Between 1947 and 1956 many ancient scrolls were discovered, including the entire book of Isaiah, the oldest complete Biblical scroll ever found. While archeologists were exploring the caves of Qumran, local Bedouins were also hard at work finding scrolls to be sold for a fortune on the black market (often, official digs would uncover empty jars standing side by side with Bedouin pickaxes, with the scrolls long gone). After more than a half a century of digs failing to unearth any new scrolls, new discoveries were not expected to be made again.
Recently, excavations began in a cave at Nachal Hever (which is only accessible by rappelling 80 meters down a sheer cliff). Due to its inaccessibility to potential looters, it was hoped that new scrolls would be found. In 2021, it was announced that two scroll fragments were located. One was from Zechariah 8:16-17, and the other Nahum 1: 5-6. In addition, one of the world’s oldest woven baskets was found in near perfect condition. For more on these incredible finds, click here.
8) Biblical Era “Royal Purple” Dye (Timna Valley)
For the first time ever, the famous “Argaman” royal purple dye (mentioned several times in the Bible) has been found from the times of King David and Solomon. Prior to this, the earliest finds had only been from the Roman Period, approximately 1000 years later. Archeologists digging the famous “Slave Hill” in the Timna Valley (near Eilat) came across three textile scraps with the dye that only the wealthiest could afford (considerably more valuable than gold). Indeed, its Biblical references are usually used in connection with royalty and nobility (see Song of Songs 3:10, Proverbs 31:22, Esther 1:6, and Ezekiel 27:7). This dye was also used to dye curtains in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 25-27).
The purple dye is pigment from the mucus of three species of Murex snails found in the Mediterranean Sea. Archeologists believe that the discovery was made possible due to the dry desert heat in the arid Timna Valley.
9) Inscription of well-known Biblical Prophet (Judean Lowlands)
Even in Israel where archeologically significant finds are common, ancient inscriptions from the times of the biblical Judges are exceedingly rare. Recent excavations however, unearthed a name belonging to an important Biblical hero (and prophet).
On a jar more than 3 millennia old, the name “Jerubbaal” was inscribed, another name for the Biblical judge Gideon (it was common for ancient Israelites to have more than one name) who led the Israelites for 40 years and gave them quiet from their enemies (see Judges 7:1 and 8:28).
The million-dollar question is, was this “Jerubbaal” indeed Gideon? Obviously, no one can say with absolute certainty, but archeologists seem convinced that it is a very distinct possibility. Except for in the Bible, “Jerubbaal” has never been found anywhere until this discovery, suggesting that it was an uncommon name. It is also dated from around the time of Judges when Gideon led Israel. For more on this fabulous find, click here.
10) Evidence of Biblical Earthquake Discovered in Jerusalem (City of David)
For the first time ever, archeological remains of a catastrophic earthquake mentioned in the Bible were discovered in Jerusalem.
An 8th century BCE destruction layer was unearthed with a smashed building, and a row of shattered vessels. While destruction layers have been found in Jerusalem, especially in connection with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 422 BCE (some historians say 586 BCE) all of them had burn marks, which suggested destruction by fire. This one had only collapsed walls, suggesting that it was not deliberate, but rather caused by natural forces. Archeologists were stunned and decided to consult the Bible to see if such an event was mentioned. They soon found references to a massive earthquake mentioned in both Amos 1:1 and Zechariah 14:5 as having taken place during the reign of King Uzziah (indeed, the destroyed building is dated to that period). For more on this incredible discovery, click here.
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