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Clay plate discovered in Tell Jemmeh, Israel. Source: Emil Elgem / IAA.

Clay Plate Shows Brutality of War in Ancient Near East

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In Israel, a six year-old boy has made an amazing discovery in the desert. He found a 3,500 year-old clay plate, that shows the brutal aftermath of a conflict in the region during the Bronze Age. This find is revealing more about the ancient Canaanites who inhabited this area before the Hebrews, and their conflicts.

The amazing find was made by six year-old Imri Elya, as he was walking Tell Jemmeh, a mound in the Negev Desert. He lives in a nearby kibbutz with his family. The location was inhabited from the Bronze Age until the Hellenistic period.

Tell Jemmeh where the clay plate was discovered. (Matanya / Public Domain)

Tell Jemmeh where the clay plate was discovered. (Matanya / Public Domain)

Imri spied the object among the many shards of pottery that are found at the mound. The boy’s parents informed the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) about the find and they were astonished by his discovery.

Clay Plate – Depiction of Victor and Prisoner

The child had found a small clay plate that measures 7 inches by 7 inches (17.8 centimeters by 17.8 centimeters). Displayed on the object are two figures who are represented very differently. One is wearing a kilt or skirt and the other is a completely naked and a thin figure with his hands tied behind his back “for maximal humiliation value” reports Haaretz.

Clay plate late of captive and captive. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Clay plate late of captive and captive. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The scene portrayed was probably from a victory parade. The naked man with his hands tied behind his back was probably a prisoner, most likely a war captive. IAA researchers are quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying that “the object should be considered as a depiction of the ruler’s power over his enemies”.

Experts believe that this was not a stand-alone engraving. Saar Ganor, an expert with the IAA, told Haaretz that “he imprinted the clay using a stamp, which in ancient times were made of stone”. The artist probably used the stamp many times to make similar clay plates.

However, this is the first of its kind that has ever been found from this era. It is possible that the object is similar to one found by the famous archaeologist Sir William Petrie in the 19 th century but it has been lost.

Warfare in the Ancient Negev

The context of the find can reveal much about the seal with its image of a victor and a humiliated captive. Tell Jemmeh was a very important Canaanite town in the Late Bronze Age. Ganor told Haaretz that “it is identified with the city of Yerza, which is mentioned in the Amarna Letters – an archive found in Egypt”.

Archaeological ruins in the Negev. (Leifern / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Archaeological ruins in the Negev. (Leifern / CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was a settlement which once had a population of some 5,000 people and it was built out of mud brick. Because of the building materials used it has all but disappeared.

The history of Yerza has given researchers clues as to the scene portrayed on the scene. It was for 400 years part of the Egyptian Empire. There are similarities between the triumphant scene on the seal and models from Pharaonic Egypt.

IAA experts are quoted by The Jerusalem Post as stating that “the technique used to tie the prisoner’s hands often appears on objects found in Egypt”. It appears that the artists were definitely influenced by similar representations common in the Levant.

Who Were the Victor and the Captive Shown on the Clay Plate?

The creator of the seal was careful to distinguish between the two men. The armed man has curly hair and this would indicate that he was no Egyptian. It seems likely that the man with the prisoner was a Canaanite. This seal, according to IAA experts, “opened a visual window into understanding the struggles for power” in the region over 3,000 years ago, reports The Jerusalem Post.

There are several possibilities as to what conflict the scene represents. The object may represent a Canaanite warrior with an Egyptian prisoner, who was taken in the wars before the pharaoh completely subjugated the region.

This is unlikely because the artist depicts them in a manner that is reminiscent of the Semitic people on Egyptian objects. The scene probably does not represent Egyptians but more likely local Canaanites who were Semites.

Is the Clay Plate Representing Victory Over Nomads?

Then there is the possibility that the figures represent the King of Yerza victory over a rival city-state. The Canaanites were a collection of rival tribes and city-states and they regularly fought each other.

Ganor told Haaretz that “they were not a single state with a central government, and there may have been clear ethnic differences between the tribes”. This may explain the different appearance between the two men, the artist was indicating that they were two different types of Canaanites.

Life in the Negev Desert was probably very harsh and there was a constant struggle for resources. The inhabitants of Yerza were sedentary people and they were possibly often in conflict with nomads.

The clay plate depicts the conflict of warring tribes in the region. (Fæ / Public Domain)

The clay plate depicts the conflict of warring tribes in the region. (Fæ / Public Domain)

These nomads may have been “with the Habiru nomads, who predated the Nabateans in plying the desert sands” Ganor told Haaretz. The artifact may show the King of Yerza victory over some wandering raiders. Some scholars believe that the Habiru were the original Hebrews.

The clay plate, which may originally have been part of a larger object can help us to better understand the history of the Negev. It is allowing us to understand that it was an area constantly at war. The victory scene shows us that there was no mercy in these conflicts and that the era was probably very brutal.

Top image: Clay plate discovered in Tell Jemmeh, Israel. Source: Emil Elgem / IAA.

By Ed Whelan



Ninja’d, was just going to comment the same thing =)

And I wouldn’t call it a plate, placque perhaps, or seal impressionn. 

But it is in amazing condition =)

That plate is more like 17.8 mm, just under ¾ inch.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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