Breakthrough in paleomagnetic measurement
Good news for biblical archaeology.
Paleomagnetism involves the measurement of orientation and field strength of the Earth’s magnetic field from the past. Such information was stored in magnetic minerals, which were heated, then cooled, thus preserving such information.
Recently, a team of Israeli archaeologists and scientists made a breakthrough in measuring paleomagnetism in archaeological material.1 The material came from a very significant moment in biblical history—the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The Bible gives the date and details of the destruction, recorded in 2 Kings 25:8–10:
“In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.”
This date is corroborated in a cuneiform tablet called the Babylonian Chronicle (British Museum 21946)2 which independently records the fall of Jerusalem.3 Using this information, most scholars have settled the date of Jerusalem’s destruction at 587/586 BC. This, therefore, represents a vital anchor point in history from which other historical events can be tied, in order to establish an historical chronology.
During the destruction of Jerusalem, 2 Kings records that every great building was destroyed by fire. The Israeli team investigated the burnt remains of a large building on the western slope of the “City of David” ridge, which they recognized to be from the time of the Babylonian destruction. They measured the paleomagnetism of stony material,4 extracted from samples taken from the second floor debris of a building, which had collapsed during the fire. The orientation and intensity of the magnetic field was measured very precisely. Because the date of the destruction layer is known with such certainty, the new paleomagnetic information can be used to independently check other archaeological sites from this period.
What is most significant is that the time in history that Jerusalem was destroyed falls in the middle of a period that cannot be dated using the carbon-14 technique. This period, known as the ‘Hallstatt disaster/plateau’, covers the period 800–400 BC and appears on the calibration curve for this time as a flat area (see the article How old? When archaeology conflicts with the Bible). The new paleomagnetic information therefore provides an independent check for archaeological materials from this period in history and an opportunity to calibrate the radiocarbon curve.
The Israeli team state this in the conclusion of their method:
“ … In this period, which is in the middle of the Hallstatt Plateau, dating using radiocarbon is very limited in its precision, due to the flat nature of the calibration curve. Therefore, archaeomagnetic dating using the new results as a chronological benchmark has a great advantage as a dating tool in this period. It can be used both for archaeomagnetic dating of other destruction layers and other finds that have not been dated historically … ”1
Furthermore, if carbon-14 dating can be reliably calibrated, then other significant historical events can be re-assessed in terms of their relationship to biblical history—the most biblically important archaeological site being Jericho. Archaeology has indeed demonstrated the walls did ‘come a tumblin’ down’. However, Jericho’s fallen walls were carbon dated by archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon (in the late 1950s) as being too old for Joshua to have been involved. Secular scholars have therefore relegated the biblical account of Jericho’s destruction to Jewish myth and legend, thereby dismissing the Bible as historically trustworthy in the eyes of many Christians.
The new discovery by Vaknin et. al. may lead to further discoveries corroborating the historical accuracy of the Bible. The possibility that carbon-14 can be accurately calibrated is big news for archaeology, and particularly for biblical archaeology. One can hope that these new developments in paleomagnetism may start to turn back the tide of scepticism, which has long enveloped academia and cast doubt in the minds of Christians over the trustworthiness of God’s Word.
References and notes
- Vaknin, Y., et. al., The Earth’s magnetic field in Jerusalem during the Babylonian destruction: A unique reference for field behavior and an anchor for archaeomagnetic dating, PLoS ONE 15(8): e0237029, 2020 | doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237029. Return to text.
- See britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1896-0409-51. Return to text.
- Thomas, B., Two date range options for Noah’s Flood, J. Creation 31(1):120–127 (122), 2017. Return to text.
- As the authors of ref. 1 state, “Archaeomagnetism is typically based on materials that were heated to high temperatures and acquired thermoremanent magnetization (TRM) during their cooling. The TRM … enables indirect estimation of the direction and the intensity of the field at the time the material last cooled.” Return to text.