Jeremy Zipple / PBS / Nova
Thomas Levy, an anthropologist from the University of California at San Diego, gazes upward from an ancient copper-smelting site that may correspond with the fabled mines of King Solomon. Levy says the environment is so miserable that the workers would have to be "either slaves — or undergrads."
Did King David and Solomon actually exist? The long-running debate over the accuracy of biblical accounts is resurfacing on TV and in print.
David is one of the best-known figures in Jewish scriptures -- thanks to his stone-slinging victory over the giant Goliath, his divine selection as king of the Israelites, his purported authorship of the Book of Psalms, and of course his linkage to Christian and Muslim tradition. His son, Solomon, was described as the builder of the first Jewish Temple, famed for his wisdom and wealth but also for his failings.
The biblical stories raise a huge question for archaeologists: If these guys were so famous, why did they leave virtually no trace on the region's historical record? Some experts suggested that the real-life David and Solomon were, at best, minor figures in the ancient Middle East whose reputations grew in the centuries that followed. According to these experts, the Jerusalem of the 10th century B.C. was little more than a hill-country village, and nothing like the glittering city described in the Books of Chronicles.
This is why there's been such a buzz over a few pieces of evidence that have emerged in recent years:
- An inscription on a stone monument found at Israel's Tel Dan archaeological site has been dated to the 9th century B.C. and appears to refer to a royal "House of David," although that interpretation has been disputed.
- Another inscription, found on a pottery sherd from the 10th century B.C., represents the earliest-known example of Hebrew writing. The inscription's similarity to biblical texts suggests that at least some parts of the Bible really do go back to David's day.
- The Israeli site where that shard was found, Khirbet Qeiyafa, appears to have been a fortified city taking in about six acres of area. Archaeologists found hundreds of bones from cattle, goats, sheep and fish -- but no pig bones, which led them to claim that this was a Judean rather than a Philistine settlement.
- Researchers have also found the remains of a huge copper-mining operation in Jordan that could have gone back to the 10th century B.C. and provided Solomon with his wealth.
Such trails of evidence are the focus of "Quest for King Solomon's Mines," premiering tonight on PBS public-TV stations; as well as "Kings of Controversy," National Geographic's cover story for the December issue.
The TV show, which is a joint production for National Geographic and the "Nova" documentary unit, focuses on the copper mining operation in Jordan. That excavation, led by anthropologist Thomas Levy of the University of California at San Diego and Jordanian archaeologist Mohammad Najjar, has turned up ancient copper-smelting equipment and a huge ancient cemetery -- as well as carbon-dating samples that suggest the site was at its peak during Solomon's reign. The evidence also suggests that the operation was disrupted at the end of the 10th century, just as described in the Bible.
Skeptics say that carbon dating isn't precise enough to confirm whether the copper-smelting site was controlled by the biblical Solomon or by a later local dynasty. And in an interview, Levy acknowledged that the evidence collected so far could not conclusively link Solomon to the lucrative copper trade.
"To be honest, we can't put our finger on it yet," he told me. "We have to do more digging."
But Levy said the copper mining site holds ample evidence that local authorities rather than the Egyptians or Assyrians were in control of the operation. What's more, the scale and complexity of the work that needed to be done -- including the maintenance of a huge force of slave laborers -- would be beyond the organizational capability of hill-country villagers.
"There were state-level societies living in southern Jordan at the time," he said.
When Levy began this work, he didn't set out to prove that David and Solomon actually existed. "I'm an anthropologist," he told me. "I'm not a biblical scholar. The way that I excavate is how prehistorians work. ... I didn't really have an ax to grind in that debate."
In light of the recent discoveries, however, Levy has come around to the view that "we need to re-examine the relationship between all the historical texts," including the Bible.
"It's an important resource that we shouldn't neglect," he said.
Levy and his colleagues detail their point of view in the September issue of the journal Antiquity. "We used the biblical archaeology experience in Jordan as an example of how you could do this anywhere in the world," he said. For example, he said, Icelandic sagas could be useful for untangling Scandinavian archaeology, or the Mahabharata could shed light on the ancient history of India.
How much historical truth do you think ancient texts contain? Watch "Quest for King Solomon's Mines," read the National Geographic article, and feel free to let me know what you think in your comments below.
Check out this UCSD news release and this project website for more information about Levy's efforts, including the campaign to have Khirbat en-Nahas and the ancient mining and metallurgy district declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Levy also plays a leading role in the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology.
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