Rare plaques show ancient Jerusalem’s wealth
For the first time, a collection of ivory plaques has been discovered in Jerusalem dating to the First Temple period. The beautifully crafted ivory pieces likely decorated a seat or couch in the home of a wealthy and influential Jerusalemite. Found only in the capitals of powerful kingdoms, these ivories demonstrate the immense wealth of Jerusalem as well as its political connections to the Assyrian empire.
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A rare and expensive material, decorated ivory had previously only been discovered in the capitals of powerful Iron Age kingdoms (c. 1200–586 B.C.E.). Similar ivories were found at the Assyrian capitals of Nimrud and Dur-Sharrukin, as well as Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Now, Jerusalem has joined this impressive list. Uncovered in the City of David Archaeological Park, the ivories were recovered from a large palatial residence that belonged to a member of the city’s elite. The building, initially built in the eighth century B.C.E., was likely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.
According to Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), “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.”
Eli Eskosido, Director-General of the IAA, echoed the sentiment: “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.”
Ivory is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible in connection to wealth and royalty. King Solomon was said to have made for himself “a large throne of ivory” overlaid with “refined gold” (1 Kings 10:18), and the prophet Amos famously denounced the Israelite nobility who “lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches” (Amos 6:4).
Several other discoveries in the City of David have also shown the wealth of Jerusalem’s elite during the time of the First Temple. Other finds include storage jars that held vanilla-spiced wine, as well as a personal seal made from a semi-precious stone that bore the inscription “Natan-Melech, servant of the king.”
More than 1,500 ivory fragments were discovered during wet sifting at the Givati Parking Lot site adjacent to the City of David. Following extensive restoration, the team was able to reassemble the skillfully crafted plaques. Each plaque measures roughly 2 by 2 inches and is about a quarter of an inch thick. Analysis of the ivories revealed they were made from elephant tusk. Although elephants did roam Israel in prehistoric times, these ivories were certainly not produced locally. Instead, they were probably crafted by Assyrian artisans and then brought to Judah, possibly as a gift from an Assyrian king.
Indeed, the Jerusalem ivories show many similarities with other ivories produced in Assyria. The plaques are decorated with incised rosettes that frame a stylized tree in the center. Others are adorned with lotus flowers and geometric patterns, all of which were popular symbols within Mesopotamia and are found among the ivories discovered in Samaria and Assyria.
Trade and political connections between Judea and Assyria were especially strong from the late eighth through seventh centuries B.C.E., when Judah was a vassal kingdom of the Assyrian empire. During this time, the kings of Judah adopted many Assyrian symbols, which decorated administrative and palatial buildings and adorned both official and personal seals. However, whereas Assyrian and Samarian ivories feature images of animals and mythological figures, the Jerusalem ivories do not. As suggested by Ido Koch and Reli Avisar of Tel Aviv University, “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.”
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