Photo Credit: Davida Dagan, Israel Antiquities Authority
The broken ivory vessel was hidden in large basalt bowls.

An ivory vessel made of elephant tusk, dated to the Chalcolithic period, was uncovered in an Israel Antiquities Authority excavation near Beer Sheva.

The vessel, known as Amphoriskos (Greek for oil jar), attests to commercial relations between today’s Land of Israel and Egypt six thousand years ago. This is the first time a Chalcolithic-era ivory vessel has been found in our region.

IAA archaeologists transfer the ivory vessel inside its protective bowls. / Davida Dagan, Israel Antiquities Authority

The excavation at Horbat Raqiq, near Beer Sheva, conducted by the IAA, uncovered an ancient settlement with subterranean spaces dug into the loess soil (soil created by windblown dust and silt). Toward the end of the excavation, archaeologist Emil Aladjem identified the edge of a basalt vessel. The excavation was expanded as a result, revealing three large vessels, with two vessels placed one inside the other, and a third covering them both. When the upper plate was removed, the lower plate was discovered to be full of earth, with shattered pieces of ivory, which was a rare and precious material.

The broken ivory vessel was placed in large basalt bowls. / Davida Dagan, Israel Antiquities Authority

The vessel was shattered to pieces when it was found in 2020. The IAA labs restored it in a complicated conservation process, and it will be presented to the public for the first time in Jerusalem this Thursday, during the annual Israel Prehistoric Society conference, at the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein National Archaeology Campus. Other new finds from recent years of prehistoric period excavations will also be presented.

IAA preserver Olga Nganvitsky with the vessel. / Davida Dagan, Israel Antiquities Authority

“Judging by the way the bowls were arranged, the ivory vessel, which was already broken, was interred in a deliberate fashion—which may attest to its importance”, explained Dr. Ianir Milevski, former head of the IAA’s prehistoric department, which is also associated with the National Research Council of Argentina. Dr. Milevski believes the vessels were intentionally set this way, as part of a cultic ceremony.

“The vessel is 20 centimeters across. It is gorgeous and exceptional in its design,” adds Dr. Milevski. “The small side handles are symmetrically arranged, with two handles set into the vessel’s neck and two additional handles vertically below them at its base. “

The 6000-year-old ivory vessel. / Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority

After the initial discovery, IAA excavation directors Avishai Levi-Hevroni and Martin Pasternak brought the vessels and their contents to the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein National Archaeology Campus. They were studied in cooperation with Dr. Ianir Milevski and Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The conservation and restoration were led by Olga Negnevitsky, an expert in ivory conservation. The process was extremely complex and required great patience.

The goal was to reconstruct the vessel out of its pieces in its original form while safeguarding its authenticity and historical value.

“This find deepens our understanding of the Chalcolithic period and the cultural exchanges in our region with both neighboring and distant cultures,” say the researchers.

The vessel fragments as they were brought to the IAA lab. / Davida Dagan, Israel Antiquities Authority

“One of the most interesting questions regarding this vessel is whether the vessel was brought here fully designed, or whether the ivory tusk was brought here as raw material and then sculpted by a local craftsperson. The vessel is well-made and makes maximum use of the original tusk – which was a most precious material. If it was manufactured here, it reveals the high standard of craftspeople who dwelt here, who knew how to treat ivory, and also knew elephant anatomy,” Levi-Hevroni and Milevski explained.

Further biomolecular analyses, which will be carried out by Dr. Harel Shochat of the University of Haifa and Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will establish where the ivory originated, based on the elephant’s diet.


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