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Amazing Discoveries in Biblical Archaeology

Archaeological articles and media that focus upon extraordinary discoveries from the world of biblical archaeology that affirm the scriptural accounts.


promised land pomegranates TITLE
Promised Land Pomegranates

Dr. Scott Stripling

The Associates for Biblical Research (ABR), under my supervision, just completed Season Three of a multi-year expedition at Shiloh, the site of Israel's first capitol and the epicenter of the fledgling nation's cultic system. This season yielded many important finds: altar horn, possible postern gate, bullae and scarabs, large structure from the tabernacle period, etc. Friends often ask me to name the most important discovery from our first three seasons of excavation. While there are many important finds, one stands out from the rest.

In June 2018, Shiloh Square Supervisor Tim Lopez excavated a ceramic pomegranate near a large East/West wall dating to Iron Age I, a period when the tabernacle was in operation at Shiloh. We now believe that this is part of a massive building from the time of Samuel. This, of course, matters because the tabernacle, and later the temple, oriented East-West. This is the first East-West wall from Iron Age I to emerge from the three expeditions to Shiloh over the past century. Between 1922-1932, the Danish excavated four seasons and again in 1963. Bar Ilan University dug from 1981-1984 under the direction of Israel Finkelstein. Shortly after the ABR pomegranate came to light, we searched the final publications of the Danish and Israeli excavations. Our research revealed that the Danish excavation also recovered a ceramic pomegranate, but they misidentified it as a stopper, an understandable oversight since the calyx (flowered petals) of the pomegranate was missing. Tim and I partnered with Ariel University professor David Ben-Shlomo to publish these two important artifacts in Judea and Samaria Research Studies, an Israeli peer-reviewed journal, in June 2019. This rekindled the media interest that was generated by ABR's original press release in October 2018. Christianity Today included the Shiloh pomegranate(s) on their list of the Top 10 Biblical Archaeology finds of 2018.

The grapes of Eschol often epitomize the fruitfulness of the Promised Land, but the pomegranate more clearly symbolizes Israel's new Eden. The Bible mentions pomegranates 15 times. The first mention reveals the sacred status of this fruit: “Make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them” (Ex 28:33). This verse describes the garment of the high priest. The bells were utilitarian, signaling the entrance of the high priest into the Holy Place “so that he will not die” (Ex 28:35). Clearly, unannounced mediaries risked death. The significance of the pomegranate lies in its rich symbolism. It represents fecundity (potential for fertility) and God's abundant provision. With effort one could count the number of seeds in a pomegranate, but it is impossible to count the number of pomegranates in a seed.

Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses described the land’s horticultural potential: “a land of wheat and barley, vines, and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey” (Deut 8:8). The vines likely refer to grape vines, and the honey probably refers to date honey, a thick sap derived from crushing dates. Assuming that this is correct, Moses' list of products includes five fruits: grapes, figs, olives, dates, and pomegranates. Of these fruits or their by-products, only the pomegranate qualified as a revered fruit which transcended secular and sacred boundaries and represented God’s nature to his people. But, why did God find such pleasure in the pomegranate and instruct that it should be in his presence? Numerous sources claim that all pomegranates have 613 seeds, but others dispute this assertion. If the claim is true, perhaps these seeds represent the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible. A more certain explanation would be the fecundity symbolism. All ancient religions were fertility based, including the Israelite's monotheistic worship of Yahweh. The five pomegranate mentions in the sensual love poetry of the Song of Solomon (e.g. 8:1-2) support this idea. The sensual connotations of Song of Solomon 8:1-2 are clear:

If only you were to me like a brother,
who was nursed at my mother's breasts!
Then, if I found you outside,
I would kiss you,
and no one would despise me.
I would lead you
and bring you to my mother's house—
she who has taught me.
I would give you spiced wine to drink,
the nectar of my pomegranates.

From the wilderness to Shiloh to Gibeon, the tabernacle functions for almost five centuries until Solomon builds the first temple (1 Ki 6:1). Although the tabernacle eventually ceased operation, the pomegranate continued to represent God to his people as evidenced by the one-hundred pomegranate shaped ornaments that adorned the pillars in Solomon's temple (2 Chron 3:16). God created roughly 2,000 different fruits, from apple to yuzu. Biblical writers connect no fruit, besides the pomegranate, with God's presence. This raises questions in my mind. Was the pomegranate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, or even the fruit of the Tree of Life? Was pomegranate wine the sacred nectar for occasions such as Passover, or was it the more traditional grape byproduct?

Interestingly, the Israelites were not unique in their veneration of the pomegranate. Many Ancient Near Eastern cultures also invested a special significance in the pomegranate. Perhaps the best-known parallel is the Greek myth of Persephone, Demeter's daughter. Hades sequesters the young and beautiful Persephone in the underworld, without her permission. At Demeter's request, Zeus sends Hermes (messenger of the gods) to investigate the circumstances surrounding Persephone's abduction. After interviewing Hades and Persephone, Hermes informs Zeus that the young lady (Zeus' niece) finds the powerful Hades attractive, but she is not yet ready to live apart from her mother. Hermes also notes that she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. Based on this, Zeus forges a compromise solution for the siblings, Demeter and Hades. Half the year Persephone would live in the underworld as Hades’ (her uncle) wife, but the other half of the year she would live with Demeter and the rest of the pantheon on Mt. Olympus. As goddess of the Harvest, Demeter refuses to let trees bud or flowers bloom in the spring until Hades releases Persephone.

At least a dozen other cultures generated myths that involved the sacred nature of the pomegranate. For, example, the image of a pomegranate adorns the Karnak temple in Luxor, Egypt. Assuming Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch in the fifteenth century B.C. it is possible that his writings influenced the other Mediterranean cultures. Likewise, pomegranate veneration may have predated Moses.

The next time that you see a pomegranate in your grocery aisle, don't be so fast to pass on it. The pomegranate is the ultimate antioxidant, and it can also teach us much about God's promises and provision. A copy of my peer-reviewed article can be downloaded at my page.


Are the stories of the Bible history, or mythology? The science of archaeology can help to provide the answer. On January 30, 2016, Kevin Conover of the Educate for Life radio program interviewed Dr. Scott Stripling and Dr. Bryant Wood of ABR.

Announcements of archaeological discoveries and research of Biblical significance, mainly from Israel, have been made throughout 2013. In this article I would like to update readers on six of these recent findings.

Gerzeh, Egypt, 3200 BC*

Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron (Gen. 4:22).

Modern Bible students have been puzzled by Genesis 4:22 and other early references to iron in the Bible since archaeological findings indicate that iron was not in common use until ca. 1200 BC. While it is true that 1200 BC marks the beginning of the Iron Age when the use of iron for tools and weapons became widespread throughout Bible lands, there are many examples of iron objects that are much earlier than 1200 BC. Prior to 1200 BC iron was rare and considered a precious metal. The earliest known iron objects are nine tubular iron beads excavated in 1911 in a cemetery in Gerzeh, Egypt, 45 miles south of Cairo, dated to 3200 BC. Seven were found in one tomb, three from the waist of the deceased and four from a necklace along with lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate and gold beads. The other two came from a very rich tomb containing, among other things, the largest number of beads found in a burial in the cemetery, consisting of lapis lazuli, obsidian, gold, carnelian, calcite, chalcedony, steatite, faience, garnet and serpentine. The nature and origin of the iron beads has been a matter of uncertainty and dispute, until modern scientific tests were conducted on them, published in August in the online Journal of Archaeological Science. The 15 authors concluded the beads were made from meteoritic iron and 'that already in the fourth millennium BC metalworkers had mastered the smithing of meteoritic iron.' They went on to say that when the production of iron metal from ore started in the mid-second millennium BC, the Gerzan cemetery beads 'demonstrates that metalworkers had already nearly two millennia of experience to hot-work meteoritic iron when iron smelting was introduced.'

Three of the nine iron beads from a cemetery in Gerzeh, Egypt, that date to 3200 BC (© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, photo by Gianluca Miniaci).

* ABR Editorial note: Dating from this time period is usually dependent on Carbon-14 dating, and should be considered tentative. The date of the Flood is critical to our understanding of this era. ABR is conducting research in this area in order to more precisely ascertain the date of the Flood and then correlate archaeological dates accordingly. More will be announced in the future.

Shiloh, Israel, mid-11th century BC

He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent he had set up among men (Psalm 78:60).

'Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel' (Jer. 7:12)…'Then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth' (Jer. 26:6).

The instrument of God's judgment against Shiloh is not named in the above verses, but the Philistines are a prime candidate since Israel was at war with them at that time. On July 1st the Israeli online newspaper Arutz Sheva headlined 'Shiloh Find May Show It was Sacked by Philistines.' The article went on to describe a broken jar and remains of ash from a fire which they say were indicative of large scale destruction. Finding ash at Shiloh is nothing new. Both the Danish excavations of 1929 and the Israeli excavations of 1981-1984 at Shiloh found evidence of a massive destruction by fire in the mid-11th century BC:

These buildings were destroyed in a fierce conflagration. Burnt floors were found all over. Collapsed burnt bricks accumulated on these floors to a height of more than three feet. Some of the bricks had been baked by the blaze that had raged here. Roof collapse was discernible in many places. All this dramatic evidence of fire must be associated with the destruction of Shiloh by the Philistines after they defeated the Israelites near Ebenezer in the mid-11th century B.C. Jeremiah knew what he was talking about when he later threatened the people with destruction like Shiloh's (Finkelstein 1986:39).

Evidence of a mid-11th century BC destruction at Shiloh, most likely carried out by the Philistines (Bryant G. Wood).

Hazor Sphinx Fragment

Hazor had been the head of all these kingdoms (Josh 11:10).

The culmination of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan was the annihilation of a coalition of northern city-states led by Jabin king of Hazor in 1400 BC (Josh. 11:1-15). The coalition consisted of the kings of the Galilee region, from Mount Hermon in the north, as far south as the Jezreel Valley south of the Sea of Galilee, west to the Mediterranean and east to the Hulah and Jordan Valleys (Josh. 11:1). It was an enormous force: 'They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots-a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore' (Josh 11:4). After recording the Israelite victory in just three verses (7-10), the author added the historically significant footnote quoted above. Excavations at Hazor have verified the truth of this statement. The city was found to occupy an area of over 200 acres, making it the largest city-state in all of Canaan. A fragment of a sphinx excavated at Hazor in 2012, but only announced on July 9, 2013, is yet further confirmation of the Bible's description of Hazor as the most important city-state in the region (see Murray Hiebert's first-hand account of the discovery in the Summer 2013 issue of Bible and Spade).

The fragment is the front part of the base, including the front paws and a hieroglyphic inscription between the paws. The inscription bears the name of King Menkaure, ruler of Egypt from about 2551 to 2523 BC, some 400 years before Abraham. He was the builder of the so-called 'third pyramid,' the smallest of the three great pyramids at Giza. This is the only known sphinx of this king and the only portion of a royal sphinx to be found in the eastern Mediterranean. It was unearthed in the entrance of a 13th-century royal palace, buried in the debris of a destruction which was undoubtedly caused by the Israelites under Deborah and Barak (Judges 4:24). The intriguing question is, 'How did the sphinx come to be in a palace in Hazor nearly 1400 years after the rule of Menkaure?' Canaan came under the dominion of Egypt following the campaign of Tuthmosis III in the 22nd year of his rule in ca. 1485 BC. It is most likely that the sphinx came to Hazor sometime after 1485 BC, perhaps as a gift to the king of Hazor, but more likely to be set up in a prominent palace as a symbol of Egypt's dominance over even the mightiest kingdom in Canaan. In any case, this rare sphinx provides tangible evidence of the significance of Hazor at the time of the Conquest as recorded in Joshua 11:10.

Sphinx fragment excavated at Hazor during the 2013 season. Along with the king's name, the inscription reads 'Beloved by the divine manifestation…that gave him eternal life' (Prof. Amnon Ben-Tor and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman via Bloomberg).

The Ophel Inscription

Now Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar logs and carpenters and stonemasons, and they built a palace for David (2 Sam. 5:11).

On July 10 the Hebrew University issued a press release announcing the publication of a 10th-century BC alphabetic inscription incised on the rim of a large storage jar excavated in Jerusalem. Found in what is believed to be the palace of David, it is referred to as the Ophel Inscription. The Ophel, meaning 'hill,' was the area south of the Temple Mount, today referred to as the City of David. The inscription is older by some 250 years than the previous oldest alphabetic (Hebrew) inscription found in Jerusalem. ABR research associate Doug Petrovich was quick to enter the scholarly fray on the interpretation of the seven surviving letters. You can read Doug's detailed analysis here on the ABR website. Doug was interviewed by Fox News about this important find. The excavators and other scholars suppose that the writing is Canaanite, but Doug believes it to be Hebrew. The new inscription has far-reaching implications. Doug said in his concluding statement: 'the relationship between the Hebrew and Egyptian languages goes back even further into the 2nd millennium BC.' This is truly an exciting find and ABR will be providing more details in the future.


Jar fragment bearing an inscription that was unearthed in a monumental structure south of Jerusalem's Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar (Eilat Mazar/Noga Cohen-Aloro).

Timna Copper Mines (11th-9th centuries BC)

And David became famous after he returned from striking down eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt. He put garrisons throughout Edom, and all the Edomites became subject to David (1 Sam. 8:13-14).

In February a team led by archaeologists from Tel Aviv University explored the ancient copper mining industry at Timna in the Arabah Valley 15 miles north of the port of Elat at the northern end of the Gulf of Elat. Carbon-14 tests of 10 date seeds and one olive pit determined that the mines were being operated in the 10th century BC, when David (1010-970 BC and Solomon (970-930 BC) were ruling the United Kingdom of Israel. This agrees with the results of a 2009 Tel Aviv University excavation that determined the mines were in operation from the 11th to the 9th centuries BC, with the main period of copper smelting being the 10th century BC (Ben-Yosef, Shaar, Tauxe and Ron 2012). Archaeological evidence indicates that the mines at Timna were operated by Edomites and were an offshoot of a much larger operation in the Wadi Faynan 70 miles north-northeast of Timna.

The Bible records that Edom had been subjugated by David and that Solomon carried on trade from the port of Ezion Geber near Elat (1 Kings 9:26-28). It is quite possible that Israel controlled the copper mining and smelting industries at both Wadi Faynan and Timna. Erez Ben-Yosef, who directs the excavations at Timna, said, 'the findings at the Slaves' Hill undermine criticisms of the Bible's historicity based on a lack of archaeological evidence. It's entirely possible that David and Solomon existed and even that they exerted some control over the mines in the Timna Valley' ( The online newspaper Israel Hayom further quoted Ben-Yosef as saying, 'The events of the bible are consistent with the findings at Slave Hill, which suggest the local population present at the site was most likely an ancient group from the Edomite Kingdom that had been placed under Jerusalem's control in the wake of David's conquests. I believe Jerusalem had a garrison stationed there whose job it was to defend the area and collect taxes from the Edomites, as well as to oversee its operation.'

Tel Aviv University excavation in February 2013 at 'Slaves' Hill,' a large debris deposit from copper smelting operations in Timna, Israel (AFTAU).

City of David 8th-7th-Century BC Inscription

Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly. He said: 'Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the Lord says to you: 'Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God's…'' (2 Chr. 20:14-15).

The prophet Jahaziel went on to deliver a stirring message to the king and the people of Judah, followed by a worship and praise service, on the day before they entered into battle against the Ammonites, Moabites and men of Seir (2 Chr. 20:16-19). As they marched off the next morning the warriors continued to sing and praise the Lord (2 Chr. 20:20-21). With God's miraculous intervention, the Judahites returned triumphant (2 Chr. 20:22-30). Recent excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the area of the Gihon Spring in the City of David have uncovered a layer of rich finds, including thousands of pottery sherds, clay lamps and figurines. One of those sherds, that of a bowl, was inscribed on the inside, just below the rim, with a personal name. The name had been inscribed prior to firing indicating that the name was intended to be permanently inscribed on the bowl and not merely a name written on a broken piece of pottery. The excavators suggest that the bowl was for an offering given by the individual whose name was inscribed on the bowl. Unfortunately, the name is incomplete, but what remains is intriguing. It reads […]ryhu bn bnh, or […]ariah [the] son [of] Benaiah. The best match for this name is the father of the prophet Jahaziel, Zechariah son of Benaiah mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20:14. There is no way to be certain, of course, but it is a possibility.

Benaiah was a relatively common name in ancient Israel, so our […]ariah could have been a son of one of the other Benaiahs mentioned in Scripture. It is clear, however, that both names are good Hebrew names as they both end in the theophoric element yahu, a shortened form of Yahweh, the unique name of the God of Israel, translated as Lord in our English Old Testaments. Hebrew names had meanings and in the case of Benaiah, it means 'Yahweh has built up.' If Zechariah is the correct reconstruction of […]ariah, the meaning would be 'Yahweh remembers.' Many Old Testament names end with the theophoric element indicating that the parents of the individuals were followers of Yahweh. Many such inscriptions with Biblical names ending in yahu have been found in archaeological excavations, verifying the historical accuracy of the names recorded in the Bible. These inscriptions also validate the Bible's portrayal of ordinary people as being followers of Yahweh, not just the religious elite, as some critics have claimed.

Seventh-century BC pottery sherd from a bowl excavated near the Gihon Spring in the City of David with the inscription […]ryhu bn bnh, […]ariah [the] son [of] Benaiah (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority).


Ben-Yosef, Erez; Shaar, Ron; Tauxe, Lisa and Ron, Hagai

2012 A New Chronological Framework for Iron Age Copper Production at Timna (Israel). Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 367: 1-41.

Finkelstein, Israel

1986 Shiloh Yields Some, But Not All, of Its Secrets. Biblical Archaeology Review 12.1: 22-41.


The headline of the Science Section of the New York Times for Tuesday, September 28, 2004, read, 'Solving a Riddle Written in Silver.' I recognized the picture underneath the headline right away. It was a portion of a silver amulet that was one of two discovered in Jerusalem in 1979. The article described the scholarly debate concerning the date assigned to the amulets by the excavator and his team in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. They claim that these two objects contain the two oldest Biblical texts ever discovered to date. Unfortunately the BASOR is very technical. It discusses the style of the letters and how this is used to date the amulets. This is important to answer the critics who have suggested the amulets were not as old as the excavator claimed they were. The present article will not deal with the technical aspects of the debate, as important as they are, but rather I would like to take you behind the scenes and share some of the human interest stories relating to the discovery, unrolling, announcement and publication of these two amulets...

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most important discoveries in biblical archaeology. She was aroused from her 2,400-year sleep in the ruins of Babylon in 1879 by Hormuzd Rassam. Rassam, an evangelical Christian, was a native Iraqi born in 1826 in Mosul, across the Tigris River from the remains of ancient Nineveh. He met the famous British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in 1841. Layard recognized Rassam’s potential and became his patron. Under Layard’s tutelage, Rassam developed into a competent archaeologist, becoming a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Society of Biblical Archaeology and the Victoria Institute. In 1876, with the help of Layard, who was now the British ambassador to Turkey, he obtained a permit from the Turkish government to conduct archaeological investigations in Assyria and Babylonia on behalf of the British Museum. From 1876 to 1882 Rassam made an astonishing number of important discoveries not only at Babylon but at other sites such as Balawat, Nimrud, Nineveh and Sippar. According to the BM, he recovered some 134,000 clay tablets and fragments, including the royal library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (Tamras 1997; British Museum 2010c).

image611Hormuzd Rassam, discoverer of the Cyrus Cylinder

The Significance

Although broken and incomplete, there were some 36 lines of text still preserved on the Old Lady. She proved to be a foundation text commemorating Cyrus the Great’s capture of Babylon and his subsequent restoration of the city. The date of writing is sometime after the capture of Babylon in 539 BC and Cyrus’ death in ca. 531 BC. And what a story she had to tell! The most important section of her text, from a biblical perspective, is lines 28–35:

At his {Marduk’s} exalted command, all kings who sit on thrones, from every quarter, from the Upper Sea {Mediterranean} to the Lower Sea {Persian Gulf}, those who inhabit [remote distric]ts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru {Syria-Palestine} who live in tents, all of them, brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna {Babylon} and kissed my feet. From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Guti {mountainous area to the north and east}—the sanctuaries across the river Tigris—whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their peoples and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer {southeast Mesopotamia} and Akkad {central Mesopotamia} which Nabonidus {Babylonian king defeated by Cyrus}—to the fury of the lord of the gods—had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord. I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds (Finkel 2010).

When Cyrus took Babylon, there were many Jewish captives there from Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests of Judah in 605, 597 and 587 BC. According to Isaiah’s prophecy, Cyrus was to be God’s instrument to judge the Babylonians, free the Jews, and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple:

[I am the Lord] who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.’...I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free” (Is 44:28; 45:13).

The Cyrus Cylinder establishes beyond doubt that it was Cyrus’ policy to return “them [exiles] to their settlements,” and make “permanent sanctuaries” for the gods of the exiled peoples. Moreover, he returned captured idols “unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy.” In the case of the Jews, however, since they had no idols, the gold and silver articles taken from the Temple were returned. The specific proclamation pertaining to the Jews is documented in Ezra 6:3–5 (cf. I Chronicles 36:22–23 [= Ezra 1:1–3]):

In the first year of King Cyrus [538 BC], the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundation be laid. It is to be ninety feet high and ninety feet wide, with three courses of large stones and one of timbers. The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem [in 587 BC] and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God.

image612Tomb of Cyrus the Great, king of Persia 559–ca. 531 BC, at his capital of Pasargadae in south-central Iran. (Photo courtesy of Edwin M. Yamauchi)

In the spring of 1879 Rassam brought the Queen of Texts to London. The Cylinder, written in Akkadian cuneiform, was duly translated and put on display in the BM. End of story, right? Wrong! The Cyrus Cylinder has made the headlines on a number of occasions over the years, right up to the present day. No other ancient artifact has engendered such strong political and emotional passions as the Cyrus Cylinder. At times, she has stirred up international disputes and been something of a “political football”!

The Grande Dame in the News

A Trip to Tehran

Cyrus and the Cyrus Cylinder are regarded with intense national pride in Iran. The Cylinder is part of the country’s cultural and national identity. In 1968, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi opened the first United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Tehran by saying that the Cyrus Cylinder was the precursor to the modern Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1971 Iran adopted her as the symbol for a commemoration held October 12–19 to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. For the first time the BM allowed the Old Lady to leave the hallowed halls of the museum to travel to the homeland of her namesake, but not without resistance. The Shah had expressed his desire to borrow the precious artifact through the British ambassador, but the suggestion was rejected by the Foreign Office. The ambassador even went so far as to suggest the artifact be given to Iran to gain diplomatic and military cooperation from the Shah’s government. The museum declined the gift idea, but went ahead with the loan, infuriating British officials (Jury 2004).

image613Cyrus Cylinder depicted on an Iranian postage stamp issued October 12, 1971, to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. (Source:

The Belle of Babylon was on display in Tehran throughout the week, giving Iranians a rare opportunity to view this important relic of their heritage in their native land. On October 12 a stamp was issued featuring a picture of her and on October 14 the Shah’s sister Princess Ashraf Pahlavi presented the UN with a replica of the Cylinder. Secretary General U Thant accepted the gift, linking it with the efforts of the UN General Assembly to address “the question of Respect for Human Rights in Armed Conflict.” The replica of the Old Girl is on display at the UN with a translation in all six official UN languages (Wikipedia 2010). Her message of human rights is once again being heard around the world.

A Chip Off the Old Block

In 1920 Rev. J.B. Nies, a clergyman from Brooklyn, purchased a clay cuneiform fragment measuring 3.4 in (5.6 cm) by 2.2 in (5.6 cm) from an antiquities dealer. Upon Nies’ death in 1922 it was bequeathed, along with many other tablets and antiquities he had collected, to the Yale University Babylonian Collection. In 1970 Paul-Richard Berger of the University of Münster recognized that the fragment was part of the Cyrus Cylinder. The piece was joined with the main inscription in 1972, after the Diva of Digs returned from her adventures in Iran (Wikipedia 2010).

image614Cyrus Cylinder on display at the United Nations. (Source:

Things were quiet for the Grande Dame for the next 30 or so years, but then she began hearing rumblings of another trip to Iran. Could it be possible? Maybe, but this time she would be embroiled in the biggest controversy of her long and usually quiet life. The BM was making plans for the exhibition “Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia,” from September 9, 2005, to January 8, 2006, and needed some antiquities from Iran. So a deal was struck. If Iran would loan the BM 50 artifacts for the exhibition, the BM would loan the Cyrus Cylinder to the National Museum of Tehran following the exhibition (Jury 2010).

Another Copy?

The loan was held off until a suitable exhibition area could be prepared in the Iran museum. Finally, arrangements were in place for the Cylinder to go on display in September 2009. But it was not to be. First came the unrest following the June 2009 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prompting the BM to postpone the loan, citing security concerns. The loan was rescheduled for January 16–May 16, 2010. Then, on December 31, Wilfred Lambert, a retired professor from Birmingham University, was going through some tablets at the BM when he came upon a fragment he realized had a portion of the Cyrus Cylinder on it. This was quickly followed by the discovery of a second fragment from the same tablet on January 5 by BM curator Irving Finkel, who had begun his own search among the 200,000 unpublished tablets in the museum’s collections. As with the Cyrus Cylinder, the fragments had been excavated by Hormuzd Rassam, but in this case not at Babylon but at Dailem south of Babylon. Finding fragments of a tablet with the text of the Cyrus Cylinder was an extremely important development, causing the BM to once again postpone the loan of the Cylinder.

image615The Cyrus Cylinder on display in the Ancient Iran room of the British Museum. (

One of the newly discovered fragments clarifies a passage in the Cylinder’s message, while the other provides a portion of a previously missing text. Did the Lady spawn offspring, or was she the daughter of an earlier proclamation? Scholars had previously carped that the Cyrus Cylinder was not an edict as such, but a dedicatory text, probably a foundation deposit laid to commemorate Cyrus’ restoration of the temple of Marduk. The Bible specifically states that Cyrus issued a qôl, proclamation (2 Chr 36:23; Ezr 1:1), or ṭaϲam, decree (Ezr 6:3). Is the Bible wrong? Certainly not! This new evidence indicates that Cyrus issued an edict which went beyond Babylon. Later, when the text of the Cyrus Cylinder was drawn up, the proclamation was incorporated.

An official statement made by the BM reads:

Remarkably, the new pieces assist with the reading of passages in the Cylinder that are either missing or are obscure, and therefore help improve our understanding of this iconic document. In addition, they show that the ‘declaration’ on the Cylinder is much more than a standard Babylonian building inscription. It was probably an imperial decree that was distributed around the Persian empire, and it may have been pronouncements of this sort that the author of the Biblical book of Ezra was able to draw upon when writing about Cyrus (British Museum 2010a).

In January the BM scheduled a workshop for June 23–24 to discuss the discovery with other scholars and access the significance of the newly-discovered fragments. On February 2 the trustees of the BM notified Iran that they would lend both the Cyrus Cylinder and the new tablet fragments to Tehran in late July (British Museum 2010a). This did not sit well with Iranian officials. In protest, Iran cut ties with the BM on February 7, including the curtailment of further visits by British archaeologists to Iran (Pouladi 2010). This was followed on April 19 by a demand that the British Museum pay Iran $300,000 for expenses associated with preparations to display the Cylinder (Dahl 2010).

image616The Cyrus Cylinder, discovered in 1879 in Babylon by Hormuzd Rassam. It is 9 in (22.5 cm) in length and 4 in (10 cm) in diameter, with 45 lines of preserved text. Some of the lines are incomplete and there are a number of missing lines. (Photo by ABR photographer Michael Luddeni)

Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones

Amid all this political turmoil, there has been yet another development related to our Belle of Babylon. In a June 24 BM press release notifying the public of a lecture following the June workshop, it was announced,

two Chinese ‘cuneiform bones’ which have usually been seen as forgeries are ancient copies of an otherwise unknown duplicate of the Cyrus inscription (British Museum 2010b).

The “cuneiform bones” referred to in the announcement are two fossilized horse bones found in China with cuneiform letters inscribed on them. Strangely, the texts have less than one in every 20 of the Cyrus text’s cuneiform signs transcribed, although they are in the correct order. The bones were acquired by Xue Shenwei, a Chinese traditional doctor. He said he had learned about the pair of inscriptions in 1928. He bought the first bone in 1935 and the second in 1940, and named the sellers. Xue bought them because he thought they were written in an unknown ancient script, presumably from China. In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, he buried the bones for protection, digging them up later. Chinese scholars who have pursued the story believe that Xue’s account is credible.

In 1983 Xue brought the bones to the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, which collects inscriptions. It was then that specialists told him they were written in cuneiform. In 1985 he donated the bones to the Museum, then died shortly thereafter. Specialist Wu Yuhong at the Museum was the first to understand that the text of the first bone came from a proclamation identical to that of the Cyrus Cylinder.

Following the discovery of the two tablet fragments, Finkel turned his attention to the Chinese bones. It had been thought that they were forgeries, but he wondered if they might be authentic. He determined that the text on the second bone was also from the Cyrus proclamation and requested more information from Beijing. Chinese Assyriologist Yushu Gong went to the Palace Museum storerooms to examine the bones, and also arranged for a new rubbing of the inscriptions (done with black wax on paper), which would provide a much better image of the text than existing photographs. Yushu took the rubbings to London for the June workshop.

image617Irving Finkel and the rubbing of the fossilized Chinese horse bones with cuneiform writing (The Art Newspaper).

The obvious question is whether the inscriptions are forgeries—although they would be bizarre objects to fake. Why would a faker use fossilized horse bone, a material never used before for this purpose? If the bones had indeed been acquired by Xue by 1940, it would not have been easy for a Chinese forger to have gained access to the Cyrus text, which only became widely known later in the 20th century. Why would a faker have carved only one in 20 of the characters, which meant that it took years before the Cyrus text was identified? And why would a faker have sold the bones in China, where there has been virtually no market for non-Chinese antiquities?

The clinching factor for Finkel is that the partial text on the bones differs slightly from that on the Cyrus Cylinder, although it is correct in linguistic terms. Cuneiform changed over the centuries, and the signs on the bones are in a less evolved form than that of the Cylinder. The individual wedge-like strokes of the signs are also different and have a slightly v-shaped top, a form that was not used in Babylon, but was used by scribes in Persia.

“The text used by the copier on the bones was not the Cyrus Cylinder, but another version, probably originally written in Persia, rather than Babylon,” said Finkel. It could have been a version carved on stone, written with ink on leather, or inscribed on a clay tablet. Most likely the original object was sent during the reign of Cyrus to the far east of his empire, in the west of present-day China.

Scholars at the workshop had little time to digest the new evidence, and inevitably there was some skepticism. But Finkel concludes that the evidence is “completely compelling.” He is convinced the bones were copied from an authentic version of the Cyrus proclamation, although it is unclear at what point in the past 2,500 years the copying was done (Bailey 2010).

Human Rights Legislation

The Cyrus Cylinder is touted as the world’s first proclamation of human rights. Certainly it is unique among ancient texts, but what about the Bible? God gave Moses comprehensive human rights legislation addressing the rights and needs of the poor and underprivileged at Mount Sinai some 900 years before the Cyrus Cylinder. It provides a legal system to dispense justice (Ex 23:1–8; Dt 16:18–20; 17:8–13; 25:1–3) and establishes rights for the poor (Ex 22:25–27; 23:6; Dt 15:1–11; 24:14–15); women (Ex 22:16–17; Dt 21:10–15; 22:13–30); widows and orphans (Ex 22:22–24; Dt 24:17–22); slaves, both male and female (Ex 21:2–11; Dt 15:12–18; 23:15–16), and aliens (Ex 22:21; 23:9; Dt 24:17–22). In contrast, other ancient near eastern law codes dealt with property rather than people.

From these new discoveries it seems clear that Cyrus issued a general edict freeing the captives in Babylon and restoring their religious institutions, which was disseminated throughout the empire. The edict was later included in the Cyrus Cylinder foundation text. What will be the next discovery relating to the Cyrus Cylinder? Only God knows. In the meantime the Grande Dame of ancient inscriptions will continue to hold court in the Ancient Iran room of the BM where millions of visitors come to see her each year.


Bailey, Martin

2010 Extracts of Cyrus Cylinder found in China. (accessed August 8, 2010).

British Museum

2010a Cyrus Cylinder. (accessed August 12, 2010).

2010b Findings of the Cyrus Cylinder workshop. (accessed August 12, 2010).

2010c History of the collection: Middle East. (accessed August 11, 2010).

Dahl, Fredrik

2010 Iran wants $300,000 in British Museum antiquity row. (accessed August 10, 2010).

Finkel, Irving

2010 Translation of the text of the Cyrus Cylinder. (accessed August 12, 2010).

Jury, Louise

2004 2,500-year-old charter of rights to revisit Iran. http// (accessed August 10, 2010).

Pouladi, Farhad

2010 Iran cuts ties with British Museum over ancient treasure. (accessed August 10, 2010).


2010 Iran wants $300,000 in British Museum antiquity row. (accessed August 10, 2010).

Tamras, Esha E.

1997 Hormuzd Rassam Assyrian Archaeologist 1826–1910. (accessed August 11, 2010).


2010 Cyrus Cylinder. (accessed August 13, 2010).

Wilson, John

2010 British Museum in battle with Iran over ancient 'charter of rights.' (accessed August 8, 2010).


Excavations in Jerusalem in 1979


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