Bible-Era Grain Sows Seeds of Contention

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Joshua ordered a trumpet blast, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, ending the Israelites' 40-year sojourn in the desert, the Bible says. Some archaeologists, however, hold that ancient Egyptian armies were responsible for sacking Jericho sometime between 1550 and 1300 B.C.

A pair of Dutch researchers now claims that cereal grains from Tell es-Sultan, the site of ancient Jericho, can provide an accurate date for the siege. The handful of blackened grains comes from a layer at the site scorched by fire, marking the destruction of Jericho. Radiocarbon testing indicates that the seeds are 3,311 years old-give or take 13 years-report Hendrik J. Bruins of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and Johannes van der Plicht of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in the July 18 Nature. Although scientists cannot convert age in radiocarbon years directly to a calendar date, the researchers estimate that the Jericho layer containing the grains dates to around 1580 B.C.

They note the closeness of the grains' age to a radiocarbon age of 3,356 years for a huge volcanic eruption on the Aegean island of Thera. Scientists have linked that blast, which devastated Crete and blanketed the southeast Mediterranean with ash, to a plague described in the Bible as "darkness that can be felt" and to Egyptian accounts of dark skies at the same time. …