The extraordinary discovery of a magnificent and untouched 3,600-year-old burial chamber in the ancient Canaanite city-state of Megiddo has stunned archaeologists, not only for the array of wealth found in the tomb, but also for the potential insight it may provide into the royal dynasty that ruled this powerful center before its conquest by Egypt in the early 15th century B.C.
Located 19 miles south of Haifa, in what is today northern Israel, the ancient site of Megiddo dominated a strategic pass on major international military and trade routes for nearly five millennia, from 3000 B.C. to 1918. Overlooking the Jezreel Valley, the site has witnessed numerous decisive battles that have altered the course of history, earning it the figurative name of Armageddon (from Har-Megiddo, or ‘Hill of Megiddo’) first coined in the Book of Revelation.
In the earliest recorded battle in the history of the Ancient Near East, at Megiddo, the forces of Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III besieged the fortified city in the first half of the 15th century B.C. After a seven-month long siege, the city surrendered and yielded to the pharaoh, who incorporated Canaan as a province into his empire.
A Surprise Find
Megiddo (modern Tell el-Mutesellim) has been the site of scientific investigation for 115 years, and the most recent international expedition, under the direction of Israel Finkelstein and Mario Martin of Tel Aviv University and Matthew Adams of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeology, has been conducting archaeological excavations there since 1994.
Over the course of the excavation seasons, an unprecedented number of monuments, including palaces, temples, and city walls from the Bronze and Iron Ages (ca. 3300-586 B.C) have been discovered at the World Heritage site. But nothing prepared archaeologists for the unexpected discovery of the untouched tomb dating to the later phase of the Middle Bronze Age, around 1700-1600 B.C., when the power of Canaanite Megiddo was at its peak and before the ruling dynasty collapsed under the might of Thutmose’s army.
The surprise find began as something of a mystery, when archaeologists began to notice cracks in the surface of an excavation area adjacent to the Bronze Age palaces which were discovered in the 1930s. Dirt appeared to be falling away into some unseen cavity or structure below, Adams recalls. Then, in 2016, they happened upon the culprit: a subterranean corridor leading to a burial chamber.
The chamber contained the undisturbed remains of three individuals—a child between the ages of eight and 10, a woman in her mid 30s and a man aged between 40-60—adorned with gold and silver jewelry including rings, brooches, bracelets, and pins. The male body was discovered wearing a gold necklace and had been crowned with a gold diadem, and all of the objects demonstrate a high level of skill and artistry.
Apart from the rich, undisturbed burials, the archaeologists were also intrigued by the tomb’s location adjacent to the late Middle Bronze Age royal palace of Megiddo.
“We are speaking of an elite family burial because of the monumentality of the structure, the rich finds and because of the fact that the burial is located in close proximity to the royal palace,” Finkelstein explains.
The grave goods point to the cosmopolitan nature of Megiddo at the time and the treasures it reaped from its location on the major trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. Along with jewelry, the tomb contained ceramic vessels from Cyprus and stone jars that may have been imported from Egypt.
Tomb of the Monarchs?
The rich adornment of the tomb’s inhabitants appears to indicate a complex and highly stratified society, in which an exceptionally wealthy and powerful elite had been elevated above most of Megiddo’s society.
Apart from the collection of valuable artifacts from far-flung corners of the ancient Near East, the researchers also hope to gain important new knowledge from the physical remains of the individuals themselves.
While excavating the burial tomb, archaeologists realized that in addition to the three individual burials, other human remains had been interred at an earlier point.
Melissa Cradic, an excavation team member and expert on ancient funerary rites in the region, explains that two phases of ritual activity had occurred in the tomb. The first phase involved the burial of at least six individuals over a short span of time. During the second phase, these remains were pushed to the back of the tomb in a jumble of bones. At the same time, the three newly deceased individuals were placed in the front of the chamber.
Cradic notes that some types of jewelry found on the three intact individuals, such as bronze bead anklets and metal pins, are identical to the artifacts found in the pile of remains in the back of the tomb chamber, suggesting a close social relationship between these two groups of people who were laid to rest together.
“However, the final three were probably of special importance based on the high quantity and exceptional richness of their grave goods,” Cradic points out, “as well as the fact that their bodies were not disturbed after burial.”
Furthermore, physical evidence for a possible genetic bone or blood disorder in the remains of several of the individuals from both phases of the tomb suggests that they may be related, according to bioarchaeologist Rachel Kalisher, who is analyzing the bones.
A Genetic Treasure Trove
Currently a broad DNA study is being carried out on many individuals unearthed at Megiddo—those from the “royal” tomb as well as those from less elaborate burials from other domestic areas of the site.
The ancient DNA results could for the first time reveal whether the “common” inhabitants of the Canaanite city-state were of the same background as the elite, Finkelstein notes.
Researchers are particularly intrigued about the origin of Megiddo’s ruling class since diplomatic correspondence with Egypt in the 14th century B.C.—following the conquest by Thutmosis III—reveals that king of Megiddo at that time did not have a Semitic (traditionally Canaanite) name, but rather a Hurrian name: Birydia.
Scholars have long held the belief that Hurrians were a roving mountain people who emerged in the region sometime between the fourth and third millennium B.C., and eventually settled down and adopted cuneiform as a script. New excavations of Hurrian cities, however, have revealed an advanced culture with a distinctive language and belief system that may have played a key role in shaping the first cities and states of the Near East. The forthcoming DNA results from Megiddo may for the first time reveal the Hurrian role in running Canaanite city states, as well as change our perception of the population of Canaan.
“These studies have the potential to revolutionize what we know about the population of Canaan,” says Finkelstein, “before the rise of the world of the Bible.”