An extraordinary treasure was unearthed in Jerusalem: ivory plaques from the First Temple period, the first of their kind to be found in Jerusalem. They were discovered in the excavations of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University at the Givati Parking Lot in the City of David at the Jerusalem Walls National Park, funded by the City of David Foundation.
The ivories, considered one of the costliest raw materials in the ancient world––even more than gold––were found among the ruins of a palatial building that was in use when Jerusalem was at the height of its power, in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Scholars believe that the decorated ivories were inlaid in wooden furnishings that were used by the residents of the building, who were likely people of means, influence, and power, possibly high government officials or priests.
The ivories will be on display next Tuesday, September 13, at the 23rd Conference of the City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem. They will also be displayed in October at the Jerusalem Conference of the IAA, Tel Aviv University, and the Hebrew University.
According to excavation directors Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures, and Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the IAA, “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. Now, for the first time, Jerusalem joins these capitals. We were already aware of Jerusalem’s importance and centrality in the region during 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.”
Ivory is mentioned a few times in the Bible, always in connection with royalty or great wealth – the description of the throne of King Solomon (I Kings 10:18); an ivory palace built by King Ahab in Samaria (1 Kings 22:39); and the prophet Amos’ castigation of Israelite nobility: “They lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches” (Amos 6:4).
The striking building in which the ivories were unearthed was devastated in a great fire, probably during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the ivories were discovered smashed into tiny pieces and burnt. During the excavation, as part of the wet-sieving project in Emek Tsurim National Park, no fewer than 1,500 ivory fragments were found. It was only after a unique restoration project, led by conservator Orna Cohen, together with Ilan Naor from the IAA, that the plaques were restored, and the richness of the collection was revealed.
“At the end of the process of joining and ‘fusing’ hundreds of the fragments, we were able to conclude that the assemblage includes remnants of at least 12 small square plaques – about 5 cm x 5 cm, at most 0.5 cm thick – which were originally inlaid in wooden furnishings,” Cohen and Naor said.
The ivories that were discovered were not the only significant items found at the site. A seal made of agate (a semi-precious stone) was also unearthed, as well as a seal impression carrying the name “Natan-Melech servant of the king,” jars that used to hold vanilla-spiced wine, decorated stone items, and wooden objects that were part of other large wooden furnishings.
Decorated ivories are the rarest and most outstanding finds in archaeological collections. Microscopic testing by Harel Shohat of the University of Haifa revealed that the City of David ivories 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 explained. “The ivory discovered in the City of David was probably imported, and originally made by artisans in Assyria. The ivories may have come to Jerusalem as a gift from Assyria to Jerusalem’s nobility. Following a comparison with complete objects that appear on wall plaques from the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib at Nineveh, we propose that the ivory plaques from Jerusalem were originally inlaid in a couch-throne, and we imagine that it was located on the second floor of the opulent structure.”
The decorations on most of the ivories were the same, consisting of frames incised with rosettes, at the center of which was a stylized tree. Other plaques were adorned with lotus flowers and a geometric pattern. According to Dr. Ido Koch and Reli Avisar of Tel Aviv University who studied the objects, the rosette and the tree were popular symbols in the Mesopotamian visual repertoire. Ivory objects with similar decorations were discovered in the assemblage of ivories from Samaria, and in more distant palaces, such as Nimrud and Khorsabad in the heart of the Assyrian Empire. The Judean elite adopted these symbols during the time that Judea was under the rule of the Assyrian Empire (beginning in the second half of the eighth century BCE).
Interestingly, these three symbols appeared at that time in Judea as symbols of the kingdom on stone items that adorned opulent buildings in Jerusalem, as well as seals used by the royal administration. Even more interesting is the fact that the animal and human mythological figures that appear on ivory items that were discovered in Samaria, Nimrud, and other centers, do not exist in the Jerusalem collection. “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,” the scholars say.
IAA Director Eli Eskozido said: “The excavations in the City of David never stop surprising us. This time, with the help of the delicate and inspiring work of conservators and researchers, we have been given a glimpse into the daily life of the people who lived here thousands of years ago. 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, is evidence of the status of Jerusalem at that time.”