A few days ago we talked about a mysterious religious icon (crafted from valuable materials) being discovered inside Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem – Jesus Christ’s birthplace. But this time around, an incredible archaeological scope at Bethlehem predates Jesus by almost 2,000 years. We are talking about a full-fledged 4,000-year old necropolis that contained over 100 tombs; and the entire network was found near the ancient town in West Bank. Originally identified in 2013, the full assessment of the burial ground was only completed in 2015 (by a collaborative effort between Italian and Palestinian researchers). And their results showed that the necropolis covered an area of more than 3 hectares (7 acres), and was used in the extensive time period between 2200 BC to 650 BC.
Presently, the necropolis is located on the side of a hill, and is a part of an archaeological site called the Khalet al-Jam’a. Now given the substantially extensive period of the burial ground’s utilization (for over a millennium), the researchers are conjecturing that the necropolis was connected to a fairly big settlement. In fact, considering the sheer size of this burial complex, the settlement was probably wealthy and strategically connected to proximate trade routes. To that end, it should be noted that the first historical reference to ‘Bethlehem’ is found in the Amarna correspondence (the town was called Bit-Lahmi, circa 1400 BC), which is well within the time period of the existence (and functioning) of this necropolis in question. But of course, this was all before the advent of Biblical affairs, and as such the town was probably of Canaanite origin.
As for the extant artifacts inside this massive necropolis, the archaeologists have already come across variant types of jars, bowls, lamps and bronze-made daggers and arrowheads. These assortment of objects was discovered inside different tombs, with the oldest tomb being more than 4,000 years old. And as is often the case in many ancient tomb complexes, the researchers also came across special artifacts that allude to overlapping of contemporary cultures. In that regard, one of the tombs contained two ‘scarab’ amulets that hint at ancient Egypt, specifically corresponding to the 13th Egyptian dynasty (1802 BC to 1640 BC).
One of these amulets appears to incorporate hieroglyphic writing. And even more intriguingly, two of the hieroglyphic symbols are carved within an oval circle known as a cartouche. This can have special significance since the Egyptians had the propensity to write royal names inside cartouches (which have been found in other sites along the eastern Mediterranean). It should also be noted that ancient Egypt maintained strong relations with the settlements in Levant, sometimes via trading and sometimes through military conquests. In any case, the scarab amulets could have been made locally, though their ‘lineage’ possibly pertains to Egypt.
Lastly as we mentioned before, the necropolis was used till the year 650 BC, by which time the Biblical rulers had already arrived in the region. Coincidentally, after the necropolis ceased to be used, the name ‘Bethlehem’ also stopped appearing in literary sources, until the advent of Jesus Christ. All of these hint at some crisis faced by the proximate settlement during 7th century BC. Now in historical terms, the region was indeed invaded and plundered by the conquering Assyrians (during the corresponding period), and these factors might have played their role in beating Bethlehem into centuries-long oblivion.