An ancient stone slab found in a temple excavation outside Jerusalem may be connected to the Old Testament’s Ark of the Covenant, according to a Thursday report.
Archaeologists found the artifact while excavating a 3,100-year-old site near Beit Shemesh, west of the capital. They began excavating the temple in 2012.
Archaeologists identified the building as a temple because it had thick walls, was separated from houses in the ancient village, and had a platform likely used for religious ceremonies.
Inside the structure the researchers found animal bones, pottery shards, cups, and carved stones that could have been used as olive presses or for pouring wine, all of which could have been used in religious practice, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz told Haaretz.
In the middle of the 12th century BCE the building was razed and some of the artifacts shattered. The area was then turned into an animal pen and buried in layers of black animal dung, which the researchers first mistook for ash.
Bunimovitz said that putting animals in the space was likely “an intentional desecration” of the area, probably by the Philistines. Beit Shemesh was in a volatile border area between the Philistines and areas controlled by the ancient Israelites.
Beit Shemesh was abandoned or destroyed, and then rebuilt, several times within 200 years.
Last summer the team uncovered a huge stone, flat on top, sitting on two smaller stones, forming a kind of table. The archaeologists said it was unlikely that the tablet had fallen into the position.
The arrangement of stones sounds like the description of the stone on which the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the First Book of Samuel, and is from the same era, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Dr. Zvi Lederman, who heads the project, told Haaretz.
The text says that the ark was first left in the community of Shiloh, north of Jerusalem, after the Israelites first arrived in the area.
In a battle the Philistines then took the ark, but after God punished them with illness, they returned it to the Israelites.
When the Philistines returned the ark to Beit Shemesh, “a large stone was there,” the Book of Samuel says. The residents of the town “took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone,” the text says.
The ark was later transferred to Kiriath-Jearim, then to Jerusalem.
There are inconsistencies between the ancient account and the modern-day site, however — the text says the stone was in an open area in a valley, for instance, while the stone slab was housed in a temple above the town.
The connection between the text and the Beit Shemesh finding does not confirm the placement of the ark at the site, but suggests that there is some historicity to the ancient text.
The text was likely written several hundred years after the site was destroyed, but the writer seems to have had knowledge of the stone and the religious significance of Beit Shemesh, Bunimovitz said.
It is not even clear how the ancient residents of Beit Shemesh identified themselves at the time, the report said.
Beit Shemesh has been a community and transportation hub for some 3,000 years. Excavations have revealed human settlement on the archaeological mound since the late Bronze Age. This pre-biblical history is preserved in the town’s name, which is taken from the Canaanite sun goddess, Shamash.
Many of the great characters of the Hebrew Bible also passed through Beit Shemesh, literally the House of the Sun — until the Assyrian King Sennacherib stormed the land in 701 BCE, as recorded in the book of 2 Kings.