Archaeology'Hezekiah’s Wall' likely built during reign of King Uzziah

New carbon-dating techniques enable ‘absolute chronology’ of First Temple-era Jerusalem

Weizmann scientists say radiocarbon breakthrough provides previously unavailable means for dating urban sites; shows Jerusalem was larger, more developed than previously thought

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

From left to right: Eugenia Mintz, Dr. Johanna Regev, Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto and Dr. Lior Regev of the Weizmann Institute of Science's Elisabetta Boaretto Labs. (Courtesy)
From left to right: Eugenia Mintz, Dr. Johanna Regev, Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto and Dr. Lior Regev of the Weizmann Institute of Science's Elisabetta Boaretto Labs. (Courtesy)

An Israeli team has achieved a breakthrough in advanced radiocarbon dating techniques, enabling for the first time an “absolute chronology” of Jerusalem in the Iron Age, the time of the Kingdom of Judah and the First Temple, according to a Tuesday press release from the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The researchers studied 100 samples of securely dated and scientifically excavated organic material and concluded that ancient Jerusalem was larger and more urban than previously proven, especially during the 10th-12th centuries BCE, during what is commonly thought to be the time of King David and King Solomon.

“Jerusalem is a living city; it’s not like a tel site that’s built as a sequence of layers,” said Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, who led the Weizmann team. “This is a city that has been constantly rebuilt all this time, and the archaeological evidence is scattered. But despite these challenges, layers and layers of construction and the Hallstatt plateau, we were able to put together its absolute chronology during the Iron Age.”

The study was published on Monday in the National Academy of Sciences peer-reviewed journal PNAS. The effort was led by researchers at Boaretto’s Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory and archaeologists from the City of David site in Jerusalem from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University.

The results of the study have potential implications not just in the fields of Israeli and Biblical archaeology, but for Iron Age archaeology as a whole, as the researchers claim to have developed techniques that overcome an issue known as the “Hallstatt plateau,” in which traditional radiocarbon dating proves to be inaccurate when analyzing material from around 800-400 BCE, the late Iron Age.

The team, using techniques from the new field of “microarchaeology,” systematically found over 100 samples of organic matter from strategic locations in excavation sites in ancient Jerusalem, mostly minuscule charred seeds. These pieces were analyzed using advanced techniques developed in Weizmann’s D-REAMS laboratory, which provided “the highest level of accuracy and precision in dating,” the institute said.

An illustration of what the protective walls surrounding Jerusalem probably looked like during the First Temple era. (Leonardo Gurevitz, City of David Archive)

The results were further cross-referenced with a set of calendar-dated tree rings, which enabled “a more precise and detailed determination of the radiocarbon concentration in the atmosphere during the period of interest, which also helped create an absolute chronology.”

Such “absolute” results are different from a “relative chronology,” which is based on ceramic evidence or architectural developments that are compared to similar finds on other archaeological sites, the researchers noted.

A Jerusalem excavation site bearing signs of the 750 BCE earthquake destruction. (Johanna Regev/Courtesy)

The specific results for Jerusalem show some differences from the usually accepted sequence of events. In particular, what is known as King Hezekiah’s Wall, or the Broad Wall, a large fortification discovered in the 1970s in the Jerusalem Old City, has been thought to have been built by Hezekiah as part of new city defenses against an Assyrian invasion, as described in Chronicles.

However, the researchers’ dating techniques — which require excavated material from a scientific, securely stratified excavation — put the construction of the wall decades earlier, during the reign of King Uzziah, who is known to have rebuilt and refurbished the city after a major earthquake.

The results also provide “concrete evidence of the widespread presence of human habitation in Jerusalem as far back as the 12th century BCE,” according to the press release, indicating that the city was likely more heavily populated at that time than what is usually understood. In addition, a known westward expansion of the ancient city was precisely dated to the 9th century BCE using the new techniques.

A charred basket pattern on a jar from the time of the 586 BCE Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (Courtesy: Johanna Regev)

In total, the results are “the first major contribution” in comprehensively addressing “highly controversial and intriguing issues in the city’s early history… assembling an absolute and high-resolution chronology covering a substantial part of the Iron Age and the time of some of the most consequential events in the city’s emergence as the capital of a regional kingdom and early state society,” the authors note in their conclusion.

The study doesn’t mention the kingdoms of King David and King Solomon, proof of which has long been the “Holy Grail” of Biblical archaeology. But the researchers have shown that ancient Jerusalem was potentially a more developed urban area than was previously hypothesized, according to Tel Aviv University Prof. Yuval Gadot, one of the scholars who participated in the study.

Speaking to Haaretz on Tuesday, Gadot said, “If my pendulum has to move somewhere, it now goes more in the direction of the city than the village because of these results.”

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