How Magnetic Tech Could Help Date the Past and Revolutionize Archaeology

Uncovering biblical events

  • Scientists in Israel are using new techniques involving magnetism to research biblical events. 
  • Archaeologists are also increasingly using LiDAR to target an object with a laser, which helps them discover lost buildings. 
  • Even the humble iPad is being used to preserve findings at Pompeii.
A scientist using an iPad to take a 3D scan of an archeological finding.


Archaeologists are beginning to uncover the secrets of ancient civilizations thanks to high-tech magnetic techniques. 

Researchers are using a method known as archaeomagnetic dating to reconstruct military campaigns described in the Bible, according to a new paper. It's part of a growing number of technological ways to find and date buried objects. 

"The current research demonstrates clearly that archaeomagnetic applications can have a substantial impact on an entire discipline—biblical archaeology and archaeological research, in general, will benefit greatly from adopting this method in future research," Oded Lipschits, one of the study's authors, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Better Dating

The researchers used archaeological findings containing magnetic minerals, which, when heated or burned, record the magnetic field at the time of the fire. In a 2020 study, researchers reconstructed the magnetic field as it was on the 9th of the month of Av, 586 BCE, the Hebrew date of the destruction of the First Temple and the City of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. 

Using archaeological findings unearthed over several decades at 17 sites throughout Israel, alongside historical information from ancient inscriptions and Biblical accounts, the researchers could reconstruct the magnetic fields recorded in 21 destruction layers. They used the data to develop a new tool for archaeological dating.

The new study "opens the way for a rethinking of several layers of destruction in central sites, and the association of these destruction layers with historical events for which there is historical information," said Lipschits who is a professor in the department of Archaeology and Ancient Near East Studies at Tel Aviv University. "It also makes it possible to rethink the extent of the destruction of military campaigns for which there is historical information and to try to locate the sites that were destroyed at the same time during the same military campaign."

Erez Ben-Yosef, another paper co-author, said in an email to Lifewire that the research is the culmination of decades of efforts invested in building a  high-resolution archaeomagnetic database for the Levant. The results, he said, enable better dating of archaeological contexts and a better understanding of military campaigns described in the Hebrew Bible. 

"The research also demonstrates the potential of this novel method to help resolve chronological issues, highlighting its advantages over other dating techniques, including radiocarbon," he added. "In the period under investigation, radiocarbon is inefficient because of a plateau in the calibration curve, and archaeomagnetic dating provides tighter age constraints. Moreover, even for periods in which radiocarbon works well, the magnetic method can provide chronological insights that cannot be achieved otherwise, like contemporaneity of destruction events and more."

New Tech for Old Digs

The magnetic dating technique is an example of the wide range of tech transforming archaeology. Archaeologists are using even the commonplace iPad in new ways to preserve the ancient ruins of Pompei in Italy, a Roman town destroyed by a volcano thousands of years ago. 

Researchers excavating Pompei recently created a paperless workflow using an iPad Pro with Apple Pencil. The iPad is used to contain sketches and measurements of the ruins. 

Someone dusting ancient pottery with a paint brush at an archaeological site.

Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

"I understood the site better than I ever have at the end of an excavation," Tulane University professor Allison Emmerson said in a news release. "This is the cleanest and clearest archaeology I have ever done, and iPad Pro is such a huge part of that." 

Archaeologists are also increasingly using LiDAR to target an object with a laser to discover lost buildings buried for hundreds or thousands of years. Using LiDAR, researchers in Mexico recently found nearly 500 new Mesoamerican sites built by the Maya and the Olmec in Mexico. 

"The study foreshadows the future for archaeology as LiDAR reveals ancient architecture at an unprecedented scale that will reach into remote and heavily vegetated regions the world over," Robert Rosenswig, an archaeologist at the University of Albany-SUNY, wrote in an accompanying article for the journal Nature, calling LiDAR "revolutionary for archaeology."

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