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Scientists Studying Ice Samples at Mount Kilimanjaro Discover Ancient Biblical Truths

By: Isabel Sociedade | Published: Nov 12, 2021

For many of us, ice is just a way to cool down a drink. For scientists, however, ice is like a time machine. If read correctly, it can tell us what the world was like many thousands of years ago. Using ice samples from Mount Kilimanjaro, scientists have been able to study large-scale changes in climate.

Their scientific findings have also shown how an ancient biblical story ended up being true. Similarly, modern-day archeologists working at a site in Jerusalem were able to provide material evidence for certain ancient stories. In this post, we’re going to look at how some of these biblical stories gained further credibility due to the work of scientists.

The Importance of Ice

Although ice might not seem that amazing, scientists can learn quite a lot from those bits of frozen water. That’s why they go through physical hardships (and bureaucratic annoyances) to travel the world and drill into glaciers and ice sheets!

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Sometimes the drilling is done by hand, but other times it’s more specialized and requires tools. Ice samples can range from a few hundred to a few thousand years old. Some of the oldest were collected two miles below the surface and thought to be 800,000 years old.

Learning from the Ice

Glaciers and ice fields form over centuries and during that slow process, each new layer creates a record of changes in the climate. This provides scientists with lots of valuable information. For example, from air bubbles locked in the ice, scientists can learn about levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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The information embedded in ice cores not only helps scientists understand climate change better but also helps them understand human history better. One way it does this is by providing evidence to back up ancient stories or records.

Mount Kilimanjaro Facts

Many people view the stories in the Bible as just that – stories. However, the ice cores taken from Mount Kilimanjaro show that at least some of the stories were based on fact. To better understand this, we need to look into Mount Kilimanjaro itself. 

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Mount Kilimanjaro exists within the Kilimanjaro National Park, which is part of the East African country of Tanzania, officially known as the Republic of Tanzania. The entire park covers a staggering area that spans 652 square miles. 

Active Volcanoes

Mount Kilimanjaro is made up of three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. The first two, Shira and Mawenzi, are 13,140 feet and 16,893 feet high, respectively. Both of them are extinct volcanoes. The last one, Kira, is upwards of 19,354 feet and is not extinct – it could erupt sometime in the future!

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Kibo’s last eruption is believed to be between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, based on evidence from gases seeping out of the rock surface. Keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen anytime soon. 

The Chaga

The Chaga are an indigenous Bantu-speaking people who live near Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s believed that they migrated there in the 11th century and have stayed ever since. They typically live on the south and eastern sides of the mountain.

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They grow a wide variety of crops there, including beans, wheat, sunflowers, bananas, and maize. Higher up, around 3,000 to 6,000 feet up, they also harvest coffee beans – mostly as a cash crop that gets exported all over the world. 

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Mount Kilimanjaro’s Animals

The environment surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro is full of life. The 1,000 square miles of land encircling the mountain is forested, including cloud forests to the southeast. Lots of animals – like the elephants below – can be spotted roaming around the area.

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One of the most curious of animals is the tree hyrax, a nocturnal mammal that is distantly related to the elephant. Inside the Kilimanjaro National Park, there are Cape buffaloes, blue monkeys, western black and white colobuses, and plenty more animals. 

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Climbing and Mountaineering

In 1954, the mountaineer Gustav Reusch climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro for the 25th time! To celebrate this feat, the government of the time named Reusch Crater – one of three craters in Kibo’s cone – after him. 

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This was over 100 years after Europeans first laid eyes on Mount Kilimanjaro. Although there were some accounts from antiquity, they were hard to verify. The first well-documented accounts came in the 1840s by way of two German missionaries: Johann Krapf and Johannes Rebmann.

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Johannes Rebmann’s First Sighting

In a May 11, 1848 diary entry, Rebmann documented what he and Krapf had seen. He wrote, “This morning, at 10 o’clock, we obtained a clearer view of the mountains of Jagga [Mount Kilimanjaro]– the summit of one of which was covered by what looked like a beautiful white cloud.” 

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As Rebmann continued staring at the “white cloud”, it became apparent to him that it was something more. His guide said it was simply “cold”, but upon deeper reflection, he realized that that meant snow.

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Europeans Reach the Summit

Once word spread, Europeans came in small groups to try and climb the mountain. There were quite a few unsuccessful attempts to climb to Kibo’s peak. Finally, however, Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller made it to Kibo’s summit in 1889 – nearly 40 years after the initial sighting.

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It wasn’t easy. Meyer and his Austrian mountaineering buddy failed two times before reaching the summit. On their third attempt, however, they created a system of well-supplied base camps which helped lead toward success. 

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The Second Summit and Modern Day Hikers

In 1912, after a gap of 25 years, another pair of European climbers summited the mountain. Also from Germany, their names were Fritz Klute and Eduard Oehler. Their trail took them to the summit of Mawenzi – a more technical climb than Kibo. 

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Now, over 100 years later, many thousands of people attempt to summit the mountain each year. Mount Kilimanjaro is not only Africa’s tallest peak (over 19,000 feet), it’s also the highest free-standing mountain in the world. 

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Cold Temperatures and Retreating Glaciers

Mount Kilimanjaro is (as you might imagine) cold. Nighttime temperatures can fall as low as -20°F. Yet despite the frosty temperature, the glaciers and snow cover have been steadily shrinking ever since records began in the early 20th century.

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Some think the ice and snow will be entirely gone by 2060. Most scientists see it as an unfortunate effect of climate change – glacial retreat is happening all over the world. That being said, there are also local environmental factors, like deforestation, that play a role.

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Drilling to the Core

In 2000, Ohio State University geologist Lonnie Thompson led a group of researchers to Kilimanjaro to collect ice cores. They camped for a few weeks at 19,300 feet to drill for six cores. This was meant to determine why the frozen water was disappearing.

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There were other difficulties beyond staying at 19,300 feet for a few weeks. Thompson’s team had to get 25 or so different permissions from agencies in Tanzania, and then hire around 92 porters to help lug up the equipment and provisions.

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Thompson’s Findings

The holes they dug ranged from 30 to almost 170 feet in length. After extracting the ice cores and transporting them back, the team spent two years analyzing them. The results were published in “Kilimanjaro Ice Core Records: Evidence of Holocene Climate Change in Tropical Africa.”

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As the title suggests, Thompson’s team endured all the challenges they did to further understand how the climate has changed. Although that was their main purpose, their research inadvertently provided evidence for a story from the Book of Genesis.

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Kilimanjaro Evidence for a Drought

Knowledge of how to date ice cores came from work on nuclear bombs in the 1950s. It was found that a certain isotope decayed at a predictable rate, and this allowed scientists to date things over long periods. Thompson’s team used this knowledge to understand what was happening in the ice cores.

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What they found was evidence for a 500-year drought that started around 8,300 years ago. In a press release, Thompson said, “We believe that this represents a time when the lakes of Africa were drying up.”

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Droughts in the Bible

That was the first of three droughts, and the third one is where things get interesting. It happened around 4,000 to 3,700 years ago, a time that coincides with the story of Joseph as told in the Book of Genesis.

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For those unfamiliar with the text, Joseph’s life events are described in chapters 37 to 50 of Genesis. Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob and his second wife Rachel. Of all Jacob’s many sons, Joseph was the favorite. 

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Jacob’s Coat

To show his affection and favoritism, Jacob gave Joseph “a coat of many colors.” This gift, however, made Joseph’s brothers intensely jealous. Their jealousy grew upon learning of Joseph’s ability to interpret his mystical dreams.

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One day the brothers grabbed Joseph in a fit of anger. Although some wanted to murder him right away, they eventually settled on selling him to a band of traders on their way to Egypt. Then, the brothers smeared goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat and said that he died. 

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Joseph and Dreams

Joseph became a house slave to a rich Egyptian named Potiphar. His wife Zuleika grew a little too fond of Joseph. Although Joseph turned down her advances, he was still thrown into prison because she gave false rape charges.

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While in jail, Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams grew. Other prisoners asked for Joseph to interpret their dreams. For one, his dream meant that he was to be executed. For another, he was to regain his social position. Both came true.

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Dream Interpreter

A few years later, the pharaoh had a strange dream that no one could interpret accurately. However, the pharaoh’s cup-bearer, who just regained his position, remembered Joseph’s abilities and told the pharaoh.

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Joseph was to interpret the pharaoh’s dream of seeing seven emaciated cattle eating seven well-fed cows, and seven wilted ears of corn eating seven healthy ears of grain. Joseph told him it meant Egypt would have seven years of feasting followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was impressed and made Joseph a senior adviser and official.

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Joseph and the Grain

With this vision of the future, Joseph set about mitigating the bad effects. During the seven years of good harvest, Joseph ordered a huge quantity of grain to be stored away. When the seven years of drought and famine finally came, the people lived off the stored grain.

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Scholars claim that this period of drought occurred around 3,600 to 3,700 years ago. This lines up perfectly with the data that Thompson’s team found in the ice cores of Kilimanjaro!

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Further Evidence

The scientific evidence alongside biblical accounts and other ancient Egyptian records point toward a huge drought- one so severe that it put the authority of the pharaohs at risk.

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This odd mix of biblical storytelling and modern science work together to support the tale of Joseph and drought. Although the Old Testament is rarely taken as literal history, the Kilimanjaro ice cores show that it’s not a work of fiction either – verifiable facts made it into the stories as well.

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Jerusalem Sights

A decade after Thompson’s ice core discovery, another biblical story was starting to get backed up by scientific evidence. At Mount Zion, archeologists were combing through thousands of years of history. 

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The archeologists were excavating the ruins of a great city that dated back to the 6th century BCE. That city, as you might have guessed, was Jerusalem. In the Bible, Jerusalem was described as a place of culture and wealth. Was that true? That was something the experts were trying to figure out. 

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Jerusalem Gets Destroyed

In 586 BCE, Jerusalem fell to Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. His armies destroyed Judean King Zedekiah alongside most of the city – including King Solomon’s Temple! This has sparked archaeological interest ever since. How much is a legend and how much is fact?

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Israel Truths

Nowadays, Mount Zion refers to an area of Jerusalem just outside the ancient walls of the Old City. This mound is a popular area for modern archeological digs. According to legend, though, Mount Zion is also where the biblical King David made his palace.

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King David

Jerusalem was first inhabited around 4,500 BCE. Things were relatively stable for a while. Around the 12th century, the Canaanite people came to the area. A few centuries later, the invasions came. 

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Around 1000 BCE, King David came to Jerusalem and destroyed the city in order to establish his own. A fabulous palace was built and the city became the heart of the Kingdom of Israel. Later on, when David’s son Solomon became king, he built his own temple. 

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Excavating Jerusalem

Jerusalem is hugely important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For this reason and others, amateurs and experts have been trying to excavate the area since at least the late 19th century.

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In 2007, the Mount Zion Archaeological Project was launched by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). This represented the first time that large-scale work had been supported by an institution outside of Israel. During each summer season, new finds cropped up to reveal more about this ancient city.

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Exploring Mount Zion

One find, for example, came in the form of an ancient coin. The UNCC archeologists and students found it at Mount Zion and dated it back to 56 CE. The coin showed Emperor Nero’s face on it. This unique insignia gave evidence that the Romans were in Jerusalem at least 14 years before they sacked it.

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The coin was probably owned by a wealthy Jewish family living in the area. It was a significant find – and far from the only significant find they had!

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An Important Discovery

The archaeologists also unearthed a stone cup inscribed with Hebrew letters. These letters were the same as the letters found on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Digging elsewhere, the archeologists also came across a gate that dated back to the First Crusades.

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As history buffs will tell you, that’s about 1095 CE. The First Crusade was part of a larger religious war that involved armies of Christian soldiers violently reclaiming the city of Jerusalem. This gate, alongside other evidence, filled in some of the details of what happened.

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The First Crusades

From the 7th century CE until the First Crusades, Jerusalem was under Islamic control. In 1099, after four years of warfare, Jerusalem came under Christian control. Flash-forward to modern times – archeologists on Mount Zion unearthed evidence that seemed to show how this 11th-century battle went down. 

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One historical account said that Crusaders were held up by a low ditch surrounding the city. Some soldiers were offered gold coins to fill it up with stones to allow the army to pass. Many see it as fiction, but it might be true.

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Artifacts from the First Crusades

When excavating the old city, archeologists found a filled-in ditch. Not only that, but nearby they unearthed a piece of beautifully designed jewelry. This was thought to have belonged to a Muslim person defending the city against Crusader attacks.

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Since the piece of jewelry was found so close to other Christian artifacts, archeologists argued that the filled-in ditch and the ornate jewelry were from the same time – the 1099 siege of Jerusalem. This was quite the groundbreaking find for the archeologist’s 2019 summer season! 

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An Old Find

While archeologists were working on their excavations at the Western Hill, they unearthed another piece of jewelry. This one, however, was found to be far older than the First Crusades – at least 1,700 years older!

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This gold and silver piece must have been greatly adored during its time. The lower part, as you can see from the picture above, resembles a bunch of grapes. The upper part is shaped like a bell. Despite the ravages of time, this piece is still enthralling. 

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How Old Is the Site?

Jewelry wasn’t the only thing found at the dig site. Archaeologists also discovered a lot of ash, some household items (lamps, pottery), and a few arrowheads. 

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Through analyzing these artifacts, experts were able to date this particular site to around 586 BCE. This is quite an important year in the history of Jerusalem. As you’ll recall from earlier, 586 BCE was the year when Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II launched a full-scale attack on the city of Jerusalem, leading to its destruction. 

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Nebuchadnezzar’s Reign

King Nebuchadnezzar II had put Zedekiah in charge of Jerusalem, and during Zedekiah’s reign, Jerusalem became a wealthy city. However, Zedekiah defied the man who put him in charge by allying with the Egyptians. This caused an angered Nebuchadnezzar to attack the city.

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Accounts differ, but supposedly the attack lasted anywhere from a few months to a few years! It was a massive hardship for the citizens, and soon after the city fell to Nebuchadnezzar, it was completely destroyed. King Zedekiah was caught, blinded, and imprisoned in Babylon.

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True or Not?

It’s hard to know how much is true. The minimalist school of thought seeks independent evidence to show what happened. The maximalist school uses archaeology to support scripture.

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The latest findings from Mount Zion tend to boost the maximalist side because it provides evidence for a period of violence – just as the Bible says. “Here we captured a moment in time, an event in an exact year, with everything that comes with destruction – ash, complete vessels, Scythian arrows,” said Dr. Rafi in August 2019.

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Context of Ancient Discovery

Shimon Gibson, a professor from UNCC, explained the context of their archeological finds to the Haaretz newspaper. “For archaeologists, an ashen layer can mean a number of different things,” he said. This can range from oven remnants to the burning of garbage.

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“However,” Gibson continued, “in this case, the combination of an ashy layer full of artifacts mixed with arrowheads and a very special ornament indicates some kind of devastation and destruction.” That’s because people don’t abandon fine jewelry or throw out arrowheads with their food waste. 

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Jewelry Meaning

The biblical scriptures claim that Jerusalem was quite a wealthy place before Nebuchadnezzar II came along and destroyed it. Supposedly, Nebuchadnezzar and his army were seen taking gold and copper vessels from the sacked city. Recent archeological finds seem to support that claim.

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However, oddly enough, these recent discoveries were the first time that great treasures were uncovered there. Although jewelry was indeed uncovered in Eastern Hill in 1979, experts say that site was outside of the city boundaries in Nebuchadnezzar II’s time.

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Jerusalem Was Huge

Archaeologists are now fairly certain that the location of present-day  Mount Zion was part of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Further excavations at the site found structures on the Western Hill that were centuries older than that. This led to the conclusion that the city of 586 BCE was larger than previously thought.

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Not only was it larger, but it was also more prosperous – a bustling city rather than a small village. This is exactly the image of it as told in biblical accounts. 

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How Did It Survive?

Discoveries like this aren’t made all the time. “Frankly, jewelry is a rare find at conflict sites,” Gibson told the Daily Mail, “because this is exactly the sort of thing that attackers will loot and later melt down.” 

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The condition that the jewelry was found in speaks to the conflicts in 6th century Jerusalem. It feels like it was ripped from someone’s body and then dropped. For some unknown reason, call it luck, the jewelry then managed to lay undisturbed for thousands of years.

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Happiness at Finding the Artifact

As mentioned above, arrowheads were also found nearby the jewelry. These iron and bronze weapons were historically significant because they were tied to the Scythian people, which in turn, links the story back to the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE. 

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That’s because Scythian arrowheads have been found at sites that date between the 6th and 7th centuries BCE. It seems they were part of the Babylonian’s weapons arsenal. This provides further evidence that this particular area was attacked by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II.

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Archeological Excitement

The recent archeological finds have left many researchers excited because it allows them to better understand historical events like the fall of Jerusalem. Shimon Gibson in particular is excited at how these finds relate to stories in Kings 25:9.

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Since archeology is slow work, it will take a while for them to look through the relics at Mount Zion. Their next big project is to start excavating a building associated with the ash layer described above. Through this, they hope to uncover more evidence for biblical stories. 

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The Future

As far as history goes, Nebuchadnezzar’s brutal battle against Jerusalem was far from the last battle that Jerusalem underwent. In 70 CE, the Romans attacked it, and the Crusades saw it destroyed multiple times. Modern-day Jews honor this tragic history by fasting on Tisha B’Av. 

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On a more upbeat note, the archeological digs at Mount Zion have been bringing people together, rather than tearing them apart. A lot of students have taken part in the dig and this has deepened their appreciation for history, archeology, and the human story. 

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