There is no story that inspires an interest in archaeology quite like the search for the lost ark of the covenant. For many of us, the story began with Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones found the ark in Egypt from where it eventually made its way to the vault of an American museum in crate 9906753. The weaving together of biblical history, archaeology and pure fantasy in this way is obviously highly entertaining, but ultimately it’s misleading. As we embark on a virtual expedition in search of the truth about the ark, let’s leave the world of fiction behind. In doing so, you might be surprised to learn just how much the science of archeology alone can reveal about its final resting place.
Before setting out, we need to agree on what we’re looking for. The ark (aron in Hebrew) was a box, chest or coffin. First made at Mt Sinai as a repository for the tablets the Ten Commandments were written on, it would travel with the Israelites during the wilderness years and represent God’s presence among them. As a storage chest an ark was not an unusual item – we have other examples of such boxes from the ancient world. The Hebrew scholar and archeologist Alan Millard has noted the similarity of the ark described in the Bible with a storage chest, complete with rings and poles, from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The ark was a storage chest for the Ten Commandments, along with other objects at the time of the Exodus. However, it was a dangerous artefact, used in battle by the Israelites, and not to be handled lightly. It played a prominent role in the period of the conquest, particularly in the destruction of Jericho. Once they settled in the land, the ark moved from place to place including Bethel, Shiloh and, after a brief and uncomfortable time in the hands of the Philistines, Kiriath Jearim.
In 1 Kings we’re told David took the ark to Jerusalem and his son Solomon placed it in the temple that he had built there. This is where the trail runs cold. After this, the ark disappears from the biblical record. We know that the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, but there is no mention of the ark in the extensive list of treasures they looted (see 2 Kings 25). Had the ark already gone missing? Had it been hidden? These unanswered questions provide the opportunity for great speculation on its whereabouts!
Jewish traditions do hint at the possibility that the ark was hidden by the priests to prevent its theft by their enemies. Where might it have been hidden? The Middle East is a large place and that’s why it is a happy hunting ground for would-be archaeologists.
Jerusalem seems a good place to start, but no evidence of the ark has ever been found there. Claims by Ron Wyatt (1933-99) circulate online but have no credibility. Wyatt was an American nurse with an enthusiasm for the Bible, who used his holidays to search for evidence of biblical stories. Despite not having any training in archaeology, he claimed to have discovered Egyptian chariot wheels from the time of the Exodus, the location of Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah’s ark and even some of the blood of Christ, which he had DNA tested to demonstrate the virgin birth. Along the way, he also found the ark of the covenant hidden in a cave near the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. The only evidence for this latter claim were photographs, which were blurry when developed. No archaeologist recognises the authenticity of Wyatt’s extraordinary claims and they do nothing for the reputation of Christian witness. They are also a good reminder to keep your camera lens clean.
Another Jewish tradition, found in the apocryphal book 2 Maccabees, suggests that the ark may have been hidden on Mt Nebo, near the Dead Sea, at the time of Jeremiah. However, this book was written long after the events it describes and finds no confirmation from the book of Jeremiah. If the priests had hidden the ark then there have been many opportunities for it to be recovered for use in the later temple. This did not happen.
However, these observations have certainly not stopped people from looking. In 1983 The Biblical Archaeology Review investigated the story of an American enthusiast who had claimed to have found a hidden tunnel leading to a box fitting the description of the ark in the Nebo mountain range. The ark was exposed as another scam – its manufacture was modern. Despite that, this particular story still circulates.
Others suggest the ark was taken much further afield. Raiders of the Lost Ark speculated that Pharaoh Shishak took it to Egypt in the tenth Century BC after he had sacked Jerusalem. Indiana Jones makes the assumption that the ark was among the temple treasures, though the Bible does not actually mention the ark itself (1 Kings 14:25-28). However, somewhere in Africa remains an intriguing possibility for the location of the hidden ark.
Graham Hancock published a wildly successful book, The Sign and the Seal (Arrow), which claimed the ark had been removed from Jerusalem at the time of King Manasseh in 650BC and made its way, via Egypt, to eventually arrive in Ethiopia where it came to its present resting place in Axum at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Hancock’s book has never been regarded as more than fringe theory, but the claims regarding the church in Axum have much stronger historical credentials.
Various documentaries and books have drawn attention to the story of the Ethiopian church; that the ark was brought there by Menelik, a legendary son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Axum church guards its contents carefully and no archaeologist has been allowed to test their claim to be the custodians of the original ark of the covenant. Tudor Parfitt, a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has given some scholarly attention to their claim and the story is certainly intriguing. But only one scholar has ever managed to look at their hidden ark. During the Second World War, Edward Ullendorf was stationed with the British Army in Ethiopia. Using his military authority, he gained access to the chapel and was able to see the ark. Sadly, what he saw was no Old Testament relic. He considered it a mediaeval replica, of which it is only one of many in the churches of Ethiopia. However, Parfitt gives good reason to think that, even though they probably never had the actual ark itself, there is some significance in the fact that the Lemba people of Africa have preserved such an old replica of it.
Have we exhausted all the supposed locations for the ark? Not at all. There are claims that it is to be found in Ireland, near a tube station in London and buried on a Canadian island. One thing that this overview proves is that to tell a story about the ark’s secret location is a good way to sell a lot of books! But is it good scholarship?
The search for the ark of the covenant does not always fit well with the nature of archaeology as a discipline. Over the past 200 years, archaeology has emerged from a world of antiquarians and treasure hunters to become a rigorous science based on tried and tested techniques. In particular, archaeologists are generally not out to ‘prove’ or ‘find’ something.
The quest for the ark gets archaeology the wrong way round. It starts with a conclusion and then looks for anything that might be taken as evidence for it. Archaeologists are concerned to interpret whatever debris of the ancient world is unearthed in order to understand the past. A broken pot might turn out to be more valuable than a silver necklace in shedding light on the ancient world. In an opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones triggers all manner of traps in order to steal a golden statuette. A real archaeologist would have been at least as interested in the traps themselves!
An astounding observation
Taken on its own terms, archaeology can reveal an awful lot about the ark of the covenant, and some of these discoveries have been unearthed in very recent times. The Jewish temple once stood on the area now known as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Under Islamic control, archaeology is forbidden there but archaeologists have been able to investigate around its outer walls and even debris discarded from construction work on the site itself.
A few years ago, construction work on the Temple Mount saw tons of debris excavated without any archaeological investigation and dumped in the nearby Kidron Valley. Since that time, archaeologist Gabi Barkay (pictured with me on page 52) has been leading a project to recover what can be found among the debris and piece together the history of the site. This ‘Temple Mount Sifting Project’ is a good example of what archaeology can be – as well as its limitations. Archaeology recovers the rubbish and wreckage of the ancient world. From what was discarded, lost, buried and broken archaeologists can piece together an interpretation of human history. From time to time an object directly connected to a person or event known from the historical record is unearthed. But these occurrences are rare.
We can now be confident that the Dome of the Rock, the structure holy to Muslims that now sits atop the Temple Mount, marks the location of where the Holy of Holies was. Inside is a rocky outcrop that is a reminder that this enormous structure was once a mountain. Why was this rocky outcrop left exposed? The most plausible explanation is that it was the area associated with the binding of Isaac and a suitable location for the Holy of Holies within the temple of Solomon.
Leen Ritmeyer, an archaeologist and trained architect, has conducted the most meticulous and detailed survey of the Temple Mount structure. A few years ago, he made an astounding observation regarding this rocky outcrop. In what can be identified as the centre of the rocky mass, as it would have been inside the Holy of Holies, there is a rectangular depression in the stone. It is clearly a man-made cut-away section that creates a smooth platform in an otherwise irregular rock. The dimensions of the depression would provide a comfortable fit for the ark to have stood, complete with its carrying poles. Archaeology is able to point to a possible footprint of the place where the ark had once been placed.
The biblical answer
We can go back further still. Prior to its placement in the temple, the ark once resided at Kiriath Jearim. Recently, archaeologists excavating there have located good evidence for Israelite settlement and a large stone platform that had likely been used for religious worship. In fact, this structure is not unlike the much larger Temple Mount built many years later in Jerusalem. Despite being sceptical of the historicity of the Bible account, excavator Israel Finkelstein believes it is best interpreted as a shrine connected to the ark of the covenant.
Archaeology has been able to provide us with clear examples of arks not dissimilar to what we read of in Exodus. It has identified locations and structures that fit with what we read of in later biblical stories. Archaeology also helps us to recognise and dismiss hoaxes that mislead the faithful. But why has no trace of the ark been found since the time of Solomon? Perhaps Jeremiah 3:16 contains the answer: “‘In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘people will no longer say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.’”
The ark of the covenant remains an intriguing archaeological artefact; who knows what archaeological excavations may yet unearth? But, as it stands, the archaeological record only fits with what we read in the Bible: that with the passage of time the ark would fade in significance and be forgotten.