Biblical Archeology Course 7, Lesson 2

May 14, 2023 | Biblical Archeology Course | 0 comments


Copyright, John T. Stevenson, 2000 (Used With Permission)

1. The Rosetta Stone.

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798. He was hoping to cut England’s supply line to her holdings in India. It was an ill-fated expedition for Napoleon and for France, but it also marks the beginning of modern archaeology. Napoleon had brought with him 175 scholars made up of linguists, botanists, naturalists, artists and historians. Though Napoleon left the following year in defeat, this group of scholars eventually succeeded in publishing their findings in the 36-volume study entitled, “Description of Egypt.”

In August 1799, just two months before Napoleon would abandon his army to escape back to France, a French soldier digging a trench at the fort of St Julien near Rosetta came across a black stone covered with writing.

It was a black, irregular-shaped stone

Height44 inches111 centimeters
Width32 inches81 centimeters
Thickness10 inches25 centimeters

One side was polished and inscribed with a text in three different languages:

Hieroglyphic14 linesThese were Egyptian symbols in which each symbol would represent a syllable.
Demotic32 linesA shorthand form of hieroglyphics written from right to left like Hebrew, this form of writing dated to 700 B.C. and ultimately developed into the Coptic script.
Greek54 linesThe commemoration of the coronation of King Ptolemy 5th in the year 196 B.C.

No one living in that day was able to read either the hieroglyphs or the demotic. The Greek, on the other hand, was easily readable.

As the spoils of war, the Rosetta Stone ended up in the British Museum where it resides to this day. But it was left to a young French scholar to break its secret.

Jean Francois Champollion theorized that all three inscriptions were differing translations of the same message. In 1822, he used this as the key to deciphering the mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. His first breakthrough was in determining the meaning of the symbol representing Ptolemy.

It had been assumed in the past that hieroglyphics were “picture-writings” in which each symbol represented a single word or concept. Thus a picture of a pig might mean “dirty man” or a lion’s front paws might stand for “strength.” But this proved not to be the case.

There were actually three types of hieroglyphics:

         1. Pictures.

            Some symbols did indeed represent a single word or concept. For example, a picture of a man with a stick stood for the verb, “to beat.”
         2. Related Sounds.

            Some pictures came to stand for things which they sounded like. It would be like drawing a picture of a train in order to communicate the idea of “training (teaching) a student.” An actual example is the Egyptian word wr. It is the word for a swallow (bird). The hieroglyphic is a picture of a swallow. But it is also the word for “great.”
         3. Syllable Sounds.

The symbol for “swallow” came to be used whenever the Egyptians were writing a word which had the sound wr as one of its syllables.

2. The Behistun Inscription.

In 1833 British officer Sir Henry Rawlinson traveled to Persia to organize the Shah’s army. There he came across a Persian inscription located high up a cliff wall on the Rock of Behistun in western Iran. The rock stands above a spring of water on the caravan route between Ecbatana and Babylon; it is the last peak of a long narrow range of mountains. Today the small village of Behistun lies around the spring.

In 1842, Rawlinson succeeded in climbing the wall and copying the entire inscription. The inscription is composed in three languages:

a. Old Persian.

b. Elamites

c. Akkadian.

All three languages are written with cunieform characters. An Aramaic version of the inscription was later discovered at Elephantine in Upper Egypt.

It was ultimately determined that the pictorial relief was of King Darius of Persia. The scene represents Darius receiving the submission of a group of rebels. The king’s left foot is placed on the neck of one of his enemies.

Rawlinson managed to decipher the Persian part of the inscription. This was then used to make the first translations of the other two languages. Thus the Behistun Inscription is to cuneiform was the Rosetta Stone is the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

3. Moabite Stone.

This stela was discovered by a French Anglican medical missionary by the name of F.A. Klein in 1868 in Divon, modern Jordan on the east side of the Dead Sea. The inscription parallels Biblical history as it relates the events described in 2 Kings 1 and 3, though it relates these same events from the Moabite perspective. The stone measures as follows:

Approximate Date: 830 B.C.39 Lines of Writing
Tall3 feet, 8½ inches113 centimeters
Wide2 feet, 3½ inches70 centimeters
Thick1 foot, 1¾ inches40 centimeters

Unfortunately the stone was broken into pieces by the local Bedouin before it could be acquired by the authorities. About two-thirds of the pieces were recovered and those, along with an impression made before the stela was destroyed, allowed all but the last line to be reconstructed. There are a total of 34 lines, written in Moabite, a language almost identical to Hebrew.

OriginsErected by King Mesha at Dibon
DiscoverySeen by Clermont Ganneau and Rev. F. A. Klein in 1868 in Jerusalem. They took a squeeze of the stone at that time.
Subsequent HistoryThe stone was broken into pieces by Arabs. Two large fragments and 18 smaller pieces were recovered
TodayResides in the Louvre

4. Gezer Calendar.

Discovered in 1908 at Tell el-Jazari, the site of the ancient city of Gezer about 15 miles to the northwest of Jerusalem, this small limestone rock seems to be a student’s homework. The translation reads as follows:

Two months are harvest
Two months are planting
Two months are late (planting)
One month is hoeing flax
One month is barley-harvest
One month is harvest and feasting
Two months are (vine-)pruning
One month is summer fruit.

This inscription dates back to 925 B.C. It serves as evidence that the Hebrews living in Israel at that time were a literary people capable of writing the Old Testament Scriptures.

5. Ras Shamrah – The Lost City of Ugarit.

In the spring of 1928, Mahmoud az-Zir, was ploughing land he had rented in the south of Minet el-Beida (“white harbor”), Syria. As he was working, his plough struck something hard just under the surface. That evening, he returned to the site with some companions, and they began to clear away a thin layer of top soil. They very quickly came across some man-made paving stones, and on lifting these, they discovered a chambered tomb full of pottery.

When archaeologists were sent in to investigate, they discovered a palace and an entire royal port city buried beneath the tell. Within these ruins were hundreds of cuneiform tablets. It was not until 1932 that it was determined that the name of this lost city was Ugarit.

The style of writing discovered at Ugarit is known as alphabetic cuneiform. This is a unique blending of an alphabetic script (like Hebrew) and cuneiform (like Akkadian); thus it is a unique blending of two styles of writing. Most likely it came into being as cuneiform was passing from the scene and alphabetic scripts were making their rise. Ugaritic is thus a bridge from one to the other and very important in itself for the development of both.

Ugaritic greatly helps us in correctly translating difficult Hebrew words and passages in the Old Testament. As a language develops the meaning of words changes or their meaning is lost altogether. This is also true of the Biblical text. But after the discovery of the Ugaritic texts we found information concerning archaic words in the Hebrew text.

6. Ebla.

In 1964 Italian archaeologists directed by Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome excavated a mound in northern Syria known as Tell Mardikh. In 1968, Matthiae and his team uncovered ancient Akkadian inscriptions of King Ibbit-Lim. In this text the king identified himself as the ruler of Ebla. During excavations in 1974 and 1975, public and royal archives containing over 15,000 clay tablets came to light. The Eblaite scribes recorded information on clay tablets, inscribed in cuneiform, as developed by the Sumerians, which was found in the ruins of the royal palace in 1974 A.D. The people of Ebla spoke a Semitic language that resembled ancient Hebrew. The most likely date of these archives is about 2500 B.C.

A royal library was found in 1974 consisting of 20,000 clay tablets, 80 percent of which were written in Sumerian and the rest in an unknown Semitic language akin to Hebrew that is now called Eblaite. Located halfway between modern Aleppo and Hama, at the top of the Fertile Crescent, the city was in the heart of Abraham’s ancestral home territory of Haran and flourished in 2200 B.C. Names like David, Micah, Jerusalem, Sodom, Gomorrah, Haran, and Ur appear in the texts. The city of Ebla was destroyed around 2250 B.C.

7. Tell Dan Inscription.

In 1994, a team working under Avraham Biran in Upper Galilee discovered three pieces of a single inscription on basalt. It is written in Aramaic and mentions a military victory over Bth-Dwd – “The House of David.” This is the earliest archaeological mention of King David.

8. Tell El-Amarna.

A series of letters were discovered at the ancient Egyptian city of Akhenaton, located on the east bank of the Nile midway between Giza and Thebes. The city has since become known as Tell el-Amarna by the combining of two names:

a. El-Til is the name of the modern-day village in the area.

b. El-Amarna is one of the Arab tribes which has settled in the area.

In 1887, a peasant woman digging for fertilizer found some tablets in the ruins of Tell el-Amarna. She sold them for ten piastres. The tablets were offered to European scholars, but were suspected of being forgeries and were rejected. The tablets were taken to Luxor and sold to tourists. By the time that scholars realized the tablets were genuine, a number of the tablets had been sold. Excavations began in 1891 and a total of 380 tablets were eventually uncovered.

The tablets date to the 18th dynasty of Egypt, specifically during the reign of Akhenaton. These tablets consist correspondence between the Pharaoh of Egypt at the kings of the cities of Jerusalem, Gezer, Lachish, Jarmuth and Eglon. However, they are written in Akkadian, demonstrating that this was the language of international diplomacy.

In several of these letters, there are complaints and requests for protection from invading Hapiru, a nomadic people who were overrunning the land. Some of these Hapiru had been joined by the Canaanites and some had offered their services as mercenaries (there is a possible correlation here to the Gibeonites).


Ancient cities were sometimes built on a hill. This would allow the natural formation of the landscape to assist in the fortifying of the city. Jerusalem is a good example of this phenomenon. The original Jebusite city was located on a narrow ridge so that three sides of the city were protected by steep inclines.

Other cities often found themselves in areas which were originally lowlands, but which began to elevate as each succeeding city was built over top of its predecessor.

The word tell in both Hebrew and Arabic means “mound.” What originally appeared to be mere hills in the landscape sometimes turned out to be a series of forgotten cities each built one on top of the rubble of its predecessor.

One example of this phenomenon is Tell el-Husn on the Jordan River, 14 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. This was the site of the Biblical city of Bethshan, the home of those who took the body of Saul after he had been slain in the battle of Gilboa.

This site was excavated from 1921 to 1933 by the University of Pennsylvania. Excavators dug down 70 feet through 18 distinct strata. The history of the city begins as early as 3500 B.C. and continues into the present era.


There are four basic methods of excavation which are used by modern archaeologists.

Complete Excavation of a SiteThe whole area is systematically laid bare Most expensive Ideal method Used for Megiddo, Levels 1-4.
Pit MethodLarge pits sunk into important areas Cheaper
Trench Method  Trenches cut in long rows through successive layers of strata Used in Jericho from 1953 to 1957.
Grid Method  The area to be excavated is divided into small squares with 3 feet between each square. Only 2-3 people enter each pit to excavate Lessens the damage to objects All finds are labeled and mapped according to the area


    * Monumental.

These are texts for public display. They were made on monuments and they were made to last and to withstand the elements.

    * Professional.

Texts made by trained scribes. They were often done of clay tablets or on papyrus.

    * Occasional.

These were things written in everyday business. They could be written on papyrus, parchment, goatskin, or even upon broken pieces of pottery known as “potsherds” or “ostraca” (the ancient version of “scrap paper”).

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