for National Geographic News
Researchers using sophisticated radio-dating techniques have concluded that a tunnel running under ancient Jerusalem was indeed constructed around 700 B.C., during the reign of King Hezekiah, just as it is described in the Bible.
The tunnel, which is about 500 meters (550 yards) long, brings water from the Gihon Springs, located some 300 meters (330 yards) outside the walls of old Jerusalem, to the Siloan Pool inside the ancient city. It was built to protect the city's water supply during an Assyrian siege.
Structures described in the Bible are notoriously difficult to date. While some are poorly preserved or hard to identify, others are off limits to scientists because of political reasons. The age of the Jerusalem tunnel had been in dispute, with dissident scientists arguing it is not as old as the Bible suggests.
The new research should put those doubts to rest. The biblical text appears to present an accurate historical record of the tunnel's construction. It is one of the longest ancient water tunnels without intermediate shafts.
"The tunnel was a major technological achievement," said Amos Frumkin of the geography department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who led the research. "It's one of the most ancient structures that's still in use."
Scientifically linking the tunnel to the time of King Hezekiah, who ruled the Jewish kingdom from 727 B.C. to 697 B.C., was difficult because researchers had little archaeological evidence to work with.
An inscription written in ancient Hebrew, which was found at the lower entrance to the tunnel, describes how two groups of men dug the tunnel from different directions. Unlike other ancient inscriptions, however, this epitaph did not mention the king who commissioned the tunnel's construction.
Frumkin and his colleagues ignored the archaeological evidence altogether. Instead, they analyzed pieces of plants embedded in the floor of the tunnel. Since radiocarbon, which is found in all plants, disintegrates at a known rate, Frumkin was able to measure exactly when the plants died.
Using a similar radio-dating method to obtain a minimum age for the tunnel, the researchers also dated stalactites, which had formed inside it.
"We can constrain the age of the tunnel by analyzing things that grew before it was constructed and things that grew after it was built," said Frumkin. "We found that the tunnel is 2,700 years old, which corresponds with the Bible."
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