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Ancient dolphin statue near Gaza

Archaeologists find mysterious ancient dolphin statue near Gaza


An archaeological team discovered a rare dolphin statuette at a site near Kibbutz Magen, 12 miles (20km) inland from the Mediterranean Sea, on the border of the Gaza Strip amid the ruins of a settlement dating from the late Byzantine and early Islamic periods. It depicts a dolphin carrying a fish in its jaws and is carved out of marble, standing about 16 inches (40 cm) high. It may have been part of a larger sculpture, perhaps that of a god or goddess.

The announcement of the carvings discovery was made by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority around the same time in 2015 that Hamas claimed to have captured and Isreali spy dolphin off the Gaza coast. Coincidence? Definitely.

Talking of the statue, head archaeologist Alexander Fraiberg told The Times of Israel, “It’s interesting because the statuette was lying face down, so it was impossible to see its appearance”  Mr Fraiberg believes the sculpture could be Roman, but it may have been incorporated into the later, Byzantine-era, building.

“The mystery is where the statue came from, who destroyed it, when, and under what circumstances, and who brought the piece with the dolphin to the site” Fraiburg said.

Talking of the spy dolphin in a separate article, The Times of Israel said an Army Radio report had made clear that Hamas was referring to a mammal and not one of the Israeli Navy’s Dolphin class submarines.

The marble dolphin found near Gaza.

The marble dolphin found near Gaza. (Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Dr. Rina Avner, an IAA archaeologist who specializes in the Roman and Byzantine periods, added that the carved item may represent Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. According to myth, Aphrodite was born from sea foam and she is often depicted alongside a cetacean in order to symbolize her birth from the sea. An example of such a work is the statue of Aphrodite Pudica with Eros astride a dolphin which is preserved at Dayton Art Institute.

According to legend, Aphrodite wore a magical girdle that caused everyone she encountered to desire her. She was the daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Dione, a goddess worshipped at the Oracle of Dodona in Greece. Another account of her birth says that she appeared from the sea riding on a giant scallop, following the castration of Uranus by Cronus. She then walked to Cyprus.

A third version of the legend says she was born near Cythera, which caused some to call her ‘Cytherea’.

Aphrodite pictured standing in a sea shell and with two dolphins at her feet. ‘The Birth of Venus’ by William Adolphe Bouguereau

Aphrodite pictured standing in a sea shell and with two dolphins at her feet. ‘The Birth of Venus’ by William Adolphe Bouguereau (Wikimedia Commons)

Aphrodite was also venerated by the Romans who called her Venus, the name by which she is more popularly known today. In some depictions of her, she is accompanied by the god of love, Eros. Items and animals associated with her include the dove, an apple, the scallop shell and a mirror. In both classical sculpture and in fresco she regularly appears nude. During the Trojan war she supported Paris and Aeneas against the Greeks. She also killed Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, for scorning her.

Another possibility is that it may have depicted Poseidon, the god of the sea, who was also often depicted alongside dolphins. Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades. He was the protector of all marine animals and plants and was regularly venerated by sailors. His most distinguishing feature was his trident which he could use to cause earthquakes.

A statue of Poseidon with a dolphin

A statue of Poseidon with a dolphin (Wikimedia Commons)

Both deities appear on contemporary coins discovered at the ancient port city of Ashkelon. However, dolphins have long been regarded as magical beings in mythology. The first representation of them in a mythical context appears in the culture of the Minoan civilisation of Crete. The Minoans painted images of the animal on the walls of their palaces. In later years, Byzantine and Arab sailors and Chinese and European explorers told stories of dolphins rescuing seafarers who had been shipwrecked or in trouble at sea.

One of the earliest dolphin stories is that of Homers Hymn to Apollo which explains how the god Apollo founded the temple at Delphi. In Roman myth, the dolphin carries the souls of the dying to the ‘Islands of the Blest’. The dolphin is also associated with Dionysus, or Bacchus, who was a god of death and rebirth.

Featured image: Newly-discovered dolphin carving found in Israel. Credit: Clara Amit / Israel Antiquities Authority.

By Robin Whitlock

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Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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