Ancient ruins found in the Israeli wilderness could solve the biblical mystery of the Exodus, archaeologists claim.
According to the Bible, Moses liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness of Sinai, before they crossed the River Jordan into the promised land of Canaan.
Yet no historical basis for the legend exists, and experts generally agree the Israelites were in fact native to Canaan – an ancient region covering modern day Israel.
However, scientists are now analysing whether ruins near the River Jordan are proof of a nomadic Israelite people crossing into the ancient land thousands of years ago.
They suggest the small settlement was used by the Israelites during their journey from Egypt, which biblical researchers believe occurred in the 13th Century BC.
If correct, the find would constitute the first scientific evidence of the biblical account.
But some scepticism remains around the legitimacy of the research.
The site has yet to be dated, meaning it could have been built thousands of years after the proposed crossing.
Thousands of nomadic groups have built settlements across Israel over the past 2,000 years, making it extremely unlikely the newly found site was built by a crowd linked to Moses.
Archaeologists behind the find admit it does not prove the Israelites made the crossing, adding that further research was needed in order to draw this conclusion.
‘We have not proved that these camps are from the period of the early Israelites, but it is possible,’ said David Ben-Shlomo, an archaeologist with Ariel University.
‘If they are, this might fit the biblical story of the Israelites coming from east of the Jordan River, then crossing the Jordan and entering into the hill country of Israel later.’
Archaeologists are now analysing whether the ruins, named Khirbet el Mastarah, are consistent with a newly-arrived nomadic people.
Researchers believe that pottery shard are from the early Iron Age, around the time traditionally associated with the Israelite arrival, though they claim they were unable to date them scientifically.
While the ruins themselves, a number of low walls, are believed to be rudimentary stone fencing for animals – consistent with known nomadic practices.
According to Dr Ben-Shlomo and his American dig partner, Ralph Hawkins of Averett University, this could explain why pottery shards at the site were found outside – not inside – the stone walls.
‘The floors of the structures were virtually empty of finds, and thus, we could not date them by conventional archaeological methods,’ they said.
‘In Bedouin settlements, people live in tents made of perishables which are relocated every season, thus artefacts would not be associated with stone architecture.
‘So the structures might have housed animals, rather than people, who lived in tents around them.’
The site, five miles north of Jericho, also makes more sense as a nomadic settlement than a permanent one.
Temperatures there can easily reach a searing 45C and annual rainfall is as little as 1cm.
‘The landscape is arid most of the time and even in modern times most of the population here are Bedouins,’ said Dr Ben-Shlomo.
Furthermore, the site is isolated and is shielded from view by the surrounding hills – perhaps implying a new population in fear of a hostile reception.
Now the archaeologists are working to confirm whether site is as old as they suspect.
Dr Ben-Shlomo said: ‘Sites like Khirbet el Mastarah and other similar ones in the Jordan Valley seem – at least from survey material – to appear suddenly during the Iron Age.
‘Since this area is not densely populated in many periods, this might indicate a new phenomenon like nomads suddenly creating settlements, or a new population.’
Soil samples from Khirbet el Mastarah have now been sent for analysis.
Samples from beneath the walls will be tested for a build-up of electrons, which get trapped over the years and are only released by light radiation, so they could reveal the age of the structure.
While samples from between the walls will be tested for elevated levels of phosphorus, which would be consistent with animal dung accruing in them.
Results are expected in a few months.
The archaeologists are also planning to excavate nearby Uja el-Foqa to determine whether it might be linked to Israelite settlement of the region.
However the work is not without its challenges – archaeologists must look for cultural clues that the site was indeed Israelite.
‘It is difficult since many aspects of the material culture of different groups (say those from east or west of the Jordan River) may be too similar or not indicative enough,’ said Dr Ben-Shlomo.
The Exodus story is spread over the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
It begins with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, before the Pharaoh – coerced by 10 terrible plagues – agrees to release them and Moses leads them across the miraculously-parted Red Sea.
Once they reached the Sinai Peninsula, scripture says they travelled to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the 10 commandments.
They then headed to the southern border of Canaan, but being too scared to enter, were condemned to 38 years in the wilderness by god.
After passing the years at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea, the Israelites then travelled to the eastern border of Canaan, where Moses died and was buried on Mount Nebo.
In the subsequent Book of Joshua, Joshua takes over leadership of the Israelites, leading them into the promised land across the River Jordan and conquering Jericho.