The Samaria Ivories—Phoenician or Israelite?

From Strata in Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2017

From the moment they were discovered, the Samaria ivories created fanfare. In excellent condition, the ivories depict scenes of exotic wildlife and flora, mythological creatures, foreign deities and much more. Dated to the ninth or eighth century B.C.E. (the Iron Age), they were uncovered from the site of Samaria—the Biblical capital of the northern kingdom of Israel—during the 1920s and 1930s. Some of these ivories are on permanent display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and at museums throughout the world.


A stag from the Samaria ivories. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

When the Samaria ivories were first excavated, they were immediately explained as Phoenician products and, therefore, considered foreign to their discovery site, Samaria. However, there is currently no archaeological evidence to indicate that the Samaria ivories were, in fact, Phoenician. Recently some scholars have challenged the long-accepted assumption about the ivories’ origins. Liat Naeh, the winner of the 2017 Dever Prize, offers a new perspective in her paper “In Search of Identity: The Contribution of Recent Finds to Our Understanding of Iron Age Ivory Objects in the Material Culture of the Southern Levant.”1

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Liat Naeh

Naeh reviews recent wood, bone and ivory finds from the sites of Jerusalem, Rehov and Hazor in Israel to shed light on the Samaria ivories. These discoveries suggest that there was a local tradition of wood, bone and ivory carving of inlays (decorative materials inserted in something else), featuring recurring themes, during both the Bronze and Iron Ages in the southern Levant. The early interpretation of categorizing the Samaria ivories as Phoenician has impacted the subsequent discovery of other southern Levantine ivory artifacts. The bias to associate any such ivory find with the Phoenicians has caused the region’s local ivory tradition to be overlooked. Naeh suggests that it is necessary to change our view of the Samaria ivories—and ivories found throughout the southern Levant—as being made by the hands of foreigners.2

Liat Naeh is a Ph.D. student at the Archaeology Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her dissertation, supervised by Professor Tallay Ornan, explores the function and meaning of ritual artifacts made of bone and ivory from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages in the Levant, especially inlaid boxes and thrones. Her fields of interest include the art and religion of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Levant, the affinity between text and image, and the history of archaeology in the Levant.
The Sean W. Dever Prize was established in 2001 by Norma Dever and Professor William G. Dever in memory of their son Sean. The judges of the Sean W. Dever Prize are Carol Meyers, Beth Alpert Nakhai, Walter Aufrecht, Peter Machinist, Sharon Herbert, Matthew J. Adams and Norma Dever.

From Strata: “The Samaria Ivories—Phoenician or Israelite?” in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.



1. Liat Naeh, “In Search of Identity: The Contribution of Recent Finds to Our Understanding of Iron Age Ivory Objects in the Material Culture of the Southern Levant,” Altorientalische Forschungen 42.1 (2015), pp. 80–96. The article was the product of a workshop led by Dr. Claudia E. Suter of Basel University held during the 61st Annual Assyriological Conference in 2015.

2. Stay tuned: Liat Naeh intends to summarize her argument in BAR.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Who Were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenician Alphabet in Archaeology by Josephine Quinn

The Palace of the Kings of Israel—in the Bible and Archaeology

Ancient Samaria and Jerusalem
Jill Katz on urban anthropology in the capitals of Israel and Judah


3 Responses

  1. David says:

    Unfortunately, there was a lot of violating of what would be considered laws back then. I don’t know when they became expressly prohibited, but that seems to have been the codification of common practice.
    From this time period, you will find in homes, shrines, altars and even actual idols. There doesn’t seem to have been one universally practiced Law until much later.

  2. Frank C. Kehoe says:

    Exactly how do these representations of animals mesh with the Jewish law against creating such art? Are we to take the law as a later restriction or did the Northern Kingdom not observe such a law?

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