You would think that 12 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea is the last place to find a dolphin clutching a fish between its jaws.
Hewn from marble, the 2,000-or-so-year-old statuette surfaced during archaeological excavations near Kibbutz Magen, bordering the Gaza Strip, in March of this year.
The discovery of the dolphin statue amid the ruins of a late Byzantine and early Islamic site in the northern Negev was only announced this week by Israel’s Antiquities Authority.
Alexander Fraiberg, head archaeologist with the IAA team, said he believes the sculpture dates to the Roman era, but was incorporated into a later, Byzantine-era paved floor alongside other spolia.
“It’s interesting because the statuette was lying face down, so it was impossible to see its appearance,” he said.
Standing about 16 inches high, experts believe the dolphin may have been part of a larger sculpture, possibly a life-size statue of a god or goddess.
“It’s possible that the [full] statue was of the [Greek] goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, who was born from seafoam,” Dr. Rina Avner, an IAA archaeologist specializing in the Roman and Byzantine periods, said.
Statues of Aphrodite, such as the Aphrodite Pudica with Eros Astride a Dolphin at the Dayton Art Institute, depict her alongside a cetacean, symbolizing her origins.
“It’s also possible that the statue was of Poseidon, god of the sea,” who was typically depicted along with dolphins in Classical iconography, Avner added.
Both Aphrodite and Poseidon appear on contemporary coins from the nearby ancient port city of Ashkelon, which was also home to a major temple to the goddess of love.
“The mystery,” said Fraiberg, “is where the statue came from, who destroyed it, when, and under what circumstances, and who brought the piece with the dolphin to the site.”