Scarabs bearing the signet of the pharaoh, clear signs of ancient Egypt’s erstwhile hegemony over Bronze Age Canaan, emerged from a cave in southern Israel after Israel Antiquities Authority agents thwarted would-be thieves.
Artifacts found at the site in September were shown to the press for the first time Wednesday ahead of the Passover holiday, which celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage. During the period from which the scarabs date, the 15th and 14th centuries BCE, however, Canaan, in the territory of present-day Israel, was firmly under the hegemony of the kings of Egypt.
The cave near Tel Halif, an ancient city roughly 10 miles northeast of Beersheba, yielded over 300 artifacts from the Chalcolithic, Late Bronze Age, Iron Age and Second Temple period. The highlights, however, were a dozen scarab seals, including a couple bearing the name of Thutmose III and another of Amenhotep III, plus two signet rings.
The scarab was venerated by the ancient Egyptians as the manifestation of the rising sun, Khepri, and was often used for official seals. The faience scarab seals found in the cave were likely manufactured in Egypt and used as funerary amulets for a local official. Some may have been family heirlooms.
“Scarabs were used and reused all the time because they had magical value,” Dr. Daphna Ben-Tor, curator of Egyptian archaeology at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, explained over the phone.
Archaeologists also found four small amulets, one in the shape of the god of craftsmen, Ptah.
The presence of such a wealth of Egyptian artifacts is indicative not only of the military and political sway Egypt had over ancient Canaan during this period, but of its cultural control as well.
King Thutmose III, considered one of the “great conquerors” of ancient Egypt, according to Egyptologist Donald Redford, marched his army into Canaan in 1482 BCE, crushed a Syro-Canaanite coalition at Megiddo. He subjugated much of the Levant, bringing it under Egyptian suzerainty, and thus it would remain for nearly 300 years.
Some of the artifacts bear distinctly local styles blended with those typical of Egypt. A crimson signet ring made of carnelian has a warrior etched on its back in a Canaanite fashion. A couple of vases, which may have once held cosmetics or precious unguents, are made of a faux alabaster, a knockoff of a prized luxury item.
The collection as a whole shows that during the Late Bronze Age “along with the local [Canaanite] culture, there were many elements of Egyptian culture, and the locals… adopted Egyptian culture,” said Dr. Amir Golani, an archaeologist with the IAA. “There’s a certain amount of assimilation.”
Their owners were likely individuals of social importance “who took the symbols of their stature with them” to the afterlife, Golani posited.
“You don’t [typically] find such a collection in one place” and with such excellent preservation, he said.
The IAA’s antiquities theft busters noticed signs of illegal digging near the cave during a routine inspection of the site and, before the robbers could return, excavated the archaeological site, Amir Ganor, director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery said.
He said the two suspected plunderers who were spotted weren’t arrested, but were likely part of a Mafia-like ring of antiquities thieves operating in southern Israel. The finds rescued by the IAA were of significant worth, he said, estimating that the scarab seals alone might have fetched several thousand dollars on the black market.
“As archaeologists, we care less about the monetary value and more about the historical value,” Ganor said. “The seals we found tell a historical story.”