Details of 586 BC Babylonian Destruction of Jerusalem Revealed in Fire Analysis
A team of Israeli archaeologists recently completed a study of a large building that was apparently obliterated by fire during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 BC. This research was unique, in that it sought to reveal details of that catastrophic event by scientifically analyzing the charred remains of that building which was burned down during the destruction of Jerusalem and which were recovered from the deep excavation layer where the ruins of the structure designated as Building 100 can be found.
“Analysis of microscopic remains of fire has developed exceedingly in recent years, enabling archaeologists to examine new questions relating to the intensity of destruction events and to the circumstances of the creation of destruction layers,” the archaeologists wrote, in an article about their research into the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
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By applying the latest and most advanced methods of fire debris analysis, the archaeologists were able to reconstruct the destruction of this building in a step-by-step manner. In the process they were able to discover fascinating details about how the huge fire that engulfed the building progressed, and even about how it likely started.
Representational image of fire raging during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. (Public domain)
Science Shows Destruction of Jerusalem Occurred in an Intense Inferno
Given its later impact on the political and religious history of the Southern Levant, the Babylonian invasion that destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem easily ranks as one of the most monumental events of ancient history. Everything associated with this terrifying military venture—the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple, the annihilation and dissolution of the Kingdom of Judah, the captivity or forced exile of the ancient Judeans to Babylon—played a central role in the unfolding narrative of the Old Testament, and ultimately in the creation of the modern Jewish and Christian religions.
In the search for a more accurate and detailed timeline of the destruction of Jerusalem, in which the Babylonians “set fire to […] all the houses of Jerusalem,” according to the Bible, the Israeli researchers turned to the rapidly developing science of ancient fire analysis.
Because its burned ruins had already been found and were convenient to study, the team of archaeologists focused their study on a sixth century BC structure in Jerusalem that has been identified as Building 100. This large, two-story edifice was an elite residence occupied by wealthy and influential residents of Jerusalem up to the day of its destruction, which came about as a result of fire.
It is not possible to say definitively that Building 100 met its demise during the 586 BC Siege of Jerusalem. There is always the possibility that it was burned in an earlier fire. But the odds are high that the structure was destroyed during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, since the destruction of the building was thorough despite its extraordinary size.
Representational image of the burning of the Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem. (2ragon / Adobe Stock)
Ruins Provide Much-Needed Clues About Destruction of Jerusalem
Building 100 was discovered and excavated at an inconspicuous location: underneath a parking lot on the western slope of a hill in the southeastern part of ancient Jerusalem. While the spot is ordinary-looking today, it is near the site where the First Temple was believed to have been constructed.
From the moment it was originally discovered, it was obvious how the structure had been destroyed. “Evidence in the debris of the building left no doubt regarding the presence of fire,” the archaeologists wrote, before noting that “there was no visible indication as to whether it was intentional or accidental, and if intentional, where the fire started and how it spread.”
To answer these questions, the Israeli archaeologists used sophisticated procedures known as FTIR spectrometry and archaeomagnetic analysis to study Building 100’s preserved charred debris layer.
“The goal is to identify the intensity, direction and origin of the fire that destroyed Building 100 in order to reconstruct the destruction process in detail, to determine whether the fire was intentional as part of the events of the Babylonian destruction and to learn about the measures taken by the agents of this destruction in their treatment of this elite building,” wrote the researchers who researched the possible link between the charred ruins and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.
Searching for ignition points, which would allow them to retrace the fire’s pathways, they measured the magnetic signatures of pottery shards and broken floor panels unearthed inside the structure. Intensely hot fire can alter these magnetic fingerprints, and that is what happened here since many of these artifacts demonstrated magnetic characteristics consistent with exposure to a massive inferno.
Based on the prevalence of artifacts with magnetic distortions, it was determined that the fire was most intense on the top floor. On the bottom floor two of three rooms studied had not burned much at all, while another had been subject to a very intense but short-lived combustion-related event. This likely means that the destruction was so vast on the upper floor that it collapsed and smothered the fire on the first floor before it could spread from one end of the residence to another.
Arson and the Siege of Babylon
Revealingly, the signs of localized fire destruction were broadly distributed throughout the remains of the building. “The widespread presence of charred remains suggests a deliberate destruction by fire, which was ignited at several locations in the top and bottom floors, with heat rising to burn the ceiling of the bottom floor,” the researchers explained. “The spread of the fire and the rapid collapse of the building indicate that the destroyers invested great efforts to completely demolish the building and take it out of use.”
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This is a meaningful discovery, because it suggests this aristocratic residence was purposely targeted. This is what would be expected if invaders were attempting to punish ruling elites for their disobedience—which is exactly what the 30-month Siege of Jerusalem was all about. Following the Kingdom of Judah’s revolt against Babylonian authority in the late seventh century BC, the king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar II, ordered the invasion and complete destruction of Jerusalem as a form of retribution for the Judean transgressions.
This study of one burned building doesn’t reveal many details about what happened throughout the city as a whole. But it does strongly suggest the invaders wanted to make the destruction of Jerusalem as thorough as possible. This supports the Biblical story of how the siege unfolded, which was in a most brutal and merciless fashion.
Top image: Representational image of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Source: Ryan / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde