First Temple Period Ivory Plaques, From Bible, Found in Jerusalem
During joint excavations in the City of David (ancient Jerusalem), archaeologists from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) unearthed the remains of rare and valuable artifacts from the First Temple period (970 to 586 BC). These were a collection of small pieces of ivory that were once assembled into finely decorated ivory plaques, which the archaeologists believe were made as inlays for wooden furnishings used by government officials or priests.
The remains of the ivory plaques were found inside the ruins of a palatial structure dating to the seventh and eighth centuries BC. At this time the city of Jerusalem was at the height of its wealth and influence, and the highly valuable ivory inlays, which were clearly luxury items, represented an opulent exhibit of that impressive prosperity.
“To date, we only knew of decorated ivories from the capitals of the great kingdoms in the First Temple period, such as Nimrud, the capital of Assyria, or Samaria, the capital of the Israelite Kingdom,” explained the excavation co-directors, archaeologists Yuval Gadot from Tel Aviv University and Yiftah Shalev from the IAA, in an Israeli government press release .
“We were already aware of Jerusalem’s importance and centrality in the region in the First Temple period, but the new finds illustrate how important it was and places it in the same league as the capitals of Assyria and Israel. The discovery of the ivories is a step forward in understanding the political and economic status of the city as part of global administration and economy.”
While the site of this discovery is historically significant, the remains of the building and the ivory plaques were unearthed in a rather unlikely location: beneath a parking lot. But the most astonishing archaeological finds are often discovered in unexpected places, highlighting how important it is for archaeologists to be diligent and thorough when plotting excavations.
Apparently inlaid in a couch throne placed in a palatial structure, the ivory discovery sheds new light on the power and importance of Jerusalem at the time of the Judahite Kingdom. ( Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority )
An Elite Culture of Ivory
The grand building that contained the ivory plaques was likely some type of government center, which explains the fact that it was apparently burned to the ground during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem that ended the First Temple period in 586 BC. The ivory plaques were smashed into tiny pieces during the attack on the building, and the archaeologists working on the City of David excavations recovered more than 1,500 ivory fragments while sifting through the structure’s wreckage.
Remarkably, conservators Orna Cohen and Ilan Naor from the IAA were able to put the pieces together to restore the plaques to something very near their original condition.
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“At the end of the process of joining and ‘fusing’ hundreds of the fragments, we were able to understand that the assemblage includes remnants of at least 12 small square plaques—about 5 cm x 5 cm [2 x 2 inches], at most 0.5 cm [0.2 inches] thick – which were originally inlaid in wooden furnishings,” Cohen and Naor said.
In addition to the ivory, other artifacts that would have been owned or collected by wealthy or powerful individuals were also found in the ruins of the palatial structure. These included a seal made of agate, vanilla-spiced wine jars, decorated stone objects, and another seal stamped with the name “Natan-Melech, servant of the king [no specific name given].”
None of these items are as valuable as the ivory plaques, which testing showed were made from elephant tusks.
“The prestige of ivory is also associated with the great skill required to work with it and create decorations,” Prof. Gadot and Dr. Shalev said. “The assemblage of ivory discovered in the City of David was probably imported, and originally made by artisans from Assyria. The ivories may have come to Jerusalem as a gift from Assyria to Jerusalem’s nobility.”
Based on a comparison with artifacts found at the palace of an Assyrian king known as Sennacherib, who ruled Assyria from 705 to 681 BC, the archaeologists concluded that the Jerusalem plaques were originally inlaid in a couch throne, a type of furniture used by ancient aristocrats.
There was one reference to this type of luxury furniture in the Bible, in the Book of Amos. In a single quote, the Prophet Amos spoke derisively of Israelite nobles who “lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches.” (Amos 6:4)
The designs of the ivory inlays were of two types. Most included frames featuring rosettes with a stylized tree in the center, while others were decorated with lotus flowers and an abstract geometrical pattern. These same designs have been found on stone items adorning buildings unearthed at various Kingdom of Judah sites, and they have also been found stamped on seals used by servants of the kingdom’s royal administration.
The plaques from First Temple period Jerusalem have similar designs to ivory objects discovered during excavations of ancient Samarian and Assyrian ruins, with all dating to the same general time period. This is unsurprising, since Samaria ( the Kingdom of Israel ) shared a border with Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem, while Judah was a vassal of the Assyrian Empire beginning in the late eighth century BC.
Whatever rivalries might have existed between these three political entities, elites from each society lived very similarly to each other for the most part, adopting the same cultural practices and demonstrating the same aesthetic preferences.
There were some differences, however. While many ivory items found in Samaria and Nimrud (the ancient Assyrian capital) were decorated with animal and mythological figures, the ivory unearthed in Jerusalem does not feature this type of imagery.
“It’s possible that what we have here is evidence of a cultural choice by the Jerusalem elite as to which global symbols to adopt and which to reject,” said Tel Aviv University archaeologists Ido Koch and Reli Avisar, who participated in the City of David excavations.
The decorations on most of the ivories were the same, consisting of frames incised with rosettes in the center of a stylized tree. (Gil Mezuman / City of David )
Another Treasure from the City of David Excavations
The director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Eskozido, is delighted with the latest discovery from a most productive and celebrated archaeological site.
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“The excavations in the City of David never stop surprising us,” he exclaimed. “These discoveries breathe life into the ancient stones. The realization that the material culture of the social elites in Jerusalem in the First Temple period did not fall short of—and perhaps even exceeded—that of the other ruling centers in the Ancient Near East, demonstrates the status and importance of Jerusalem at that time.”
The spectacular reassembled ivory plaques will soon be made available for viewing by members of the greater academic community. The artifacts will be on display on Tuesday, September 13th, at the 23rd Conference of the City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem, and again in October at the Jerusalem Conference sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and Hebrew University.
Top image: These reconstructed ivory panels from Jerusalem’s prosperous First Temple period, recently unearthed in the City of David, were once part of an elite couch throne. Source: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Nathan Falde