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Archaeology

Alabaster for Herod the Great’s lavish bathtubs traced to quarry in Israel

Daughter-father scientific study rules out Egyptian quarries and shows ancient Holy Land industry was potentially much more developed than previously thought

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Herod’s calcite-alabaster bathtub found in Kypros fortress (Prof. Amos Frumkin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
    Herod’s calcite-alabaster bathtub found in Kypros fortress (Prof. Amos Frumkin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
  • Ayala Amir in Israel's Te'omim Cave beside the wall of the quarry. Signs of quarrying-scars and cessation of quarrying are visible on the quarry’s walls and floor (Prof. Boaz Zissu, Bar-Ilan University)
    Ayala Amir in Israel's Te'omim Cave beside the wall of the quarry. Signs of quarrying-scars and cessation of quarrying are visible on the quarry’s walls and floor (Prof. Boaz Zissu, Bar-Ilan University)
  • Israel's Te’omim Cave and the quarry on the right  (Ayala Amir, Bar-Ilan University)
    Israel's Te’omim Cave and the quarry on the right (Ayala Amir, Bar-Ilan University)
  • Tel Aviv University doctoral student Ayala Amir. (screenshot)
    Tel Aviv University doctoral student Ayala Amir. (screenshot)

Herod the Great was a builder known for his colossal projects and discriminating taste. And while he filled his palaces two thousand years ago with only the finest the ancient world could offer, he was also a pragmatic man, as shown in a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

In the past several decades, a pair of luxurious alabaster bathtubs were excavated from Herodian palaces in Israel — the Kypros fortress near Jericho and the palace of Herodium, south of Jerusalem. Weighing in at an estimated 1.5 metric tons each, the tubs were until now thought to have originated in Egypt, widely considered the finest source for calcite-alabaster in the ancient world.

However, research led by PhD student Ayala Amir for her master’s thesis shows that Herod had a quarry fit for a king within his own kingdom — at Israel’s Te’omim cave.

In the study, “Sourcing Herod the Great’s calcite‑alabaster bathtubs by a multi‑analytic approach,” Amir analyzed the chemical breakdown of the stone there and from ancient Egyptian quarries, and compared them to the Herodian bathtubs.

The Te’omim cave, located on the western slopes of the Jerusalem hills near modern-day Beit Shemesh, was recently identified as a calcite-alabaster quarry with activity dating back to prior to 1500 BCE.

Investigations have documented signs of quarrying on the quarry’s walls and floor: “Evidence includes ‘negatives’ left after the removal of calcite-alabaster blocks, blocks of calcite-alabaster that were left in place, due to fissures or defects in the bedrock, and cleaving channels—shallow channels left in the calcite-alabaster after a block was separated,” write the authors.

Ayala Amir in Israel’s Te’omim Cave beside the wall of the quarry. Signs of quarrying-scars and cessation of quarrying are visible on the quarry’s walls and floor (Prof. Boaz Zissu, Bar-Ilan University)

Amir, who is currently completing her PhD at Tel Aviv University, wrote her master’s thesis at the Bar-Ilan University Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology, supervised by Prof. Boaz Zissu and Prof. Aren M. Maeir, as well as Prof. Amos Frumkin of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Earth sciences department.

However, Amir realized that among her illustrious mentors, there was no chemist who could help her complete the series of analytical tests she had in mind. She quickly drafted her father, Prof. Amnon Albeck, of the Department of Chemistry at Bar-Ilan University, and deployed his experience — and laboratory — to complete her study.

Amir told The Times of Israel that her father, like her, is fascinated by history and archaeology and was happy to see if they could find the Holy Land roots for these artifacts. (The apples are sticking close to their ancestral trees — Albeck’s father was also a chemistry professor, and his grandfather was a pioneering Talmud professor.)

This picture taken on November 24, 2020 shows an aerial view of the Herodium fortress, with the King Herod’s tomb site and the theatre built by Herod the Great between 23-15 BCE in the Judaean desert, southeast of Bethlehem (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The study involves four novel analytic method to determine the stone fragment’s provenance: inductively coupled plasma (ICP) analysis, routine infra-red (IR) spectroscopy, 1H- and 31P- solid state NMR (ssNMR) experiments; and C and O stable isotope ratio analysis to determine their composition and their crystalline structure. “All four analytical methods applied in this study gave consistent results, clearly distinguishing the Israeli from the Egyptian calcite-alabaster,” write the authors.

“We received two samples from Herod’s bathtubs and they came out in all ways ‘Israeli,'” Amir said.

Previously, archaeologists had held that the main source for fine alabaster was in Egypt, although there were other known quarries in Algeria and Turkey, said Amir.

“We know that artifacts made in Egypt were imported to Israel and it was thought that the main source for calcite alabaster in Israel was from Egypt… In our research study we wanted to check for the first time if these artifacts [the two bathtubs] were actually from Egypt,” she said.

Asked if the weight of the bathtubs — 1.5 metric tons each  — could also have pointed to local manufacture, she said possibly, but “we know that heavy things were imported to Israel.” For Herod, the quality of the stone would likely have been paramount.

Herod (Wikimedia Commons)
Herod (Wikimedia Commons)

So is the “Israeli” stone the best of the best?

“I think it’s of good quality,” laughed Amir. “We haven’t checked too many other vessels, but it seems like high quality, and if Herod the Great used it and it was good enough for him with his luxurious palace then it must have been almost or equally good as the Egyptian alabaster.”

Next steps include analyzing other archaeological artifacts from calcite “to get a bigger and broader picture of the local industry in the ancient times,” she said. “The idea of this research is to expand it to other archaeological artifacts in the future.”

Said Amir, “The multidisciplinary approach adopted in this study provides information concerning both the composition and crystalline structure of calcite-alabaster and is significant for understanding and interpreting archaeological findings.”

The conclusion that there was such a high-level quarrying industry in Herod’s kingdom is already changing commonly held beliefs among veteran researchers.

“The fact that both bathtubs were unequivocally quarried in Israel and not in Egypt, as we would have expected due to the high quality of the stone, was a particular surprise because that means that Herod the Great used local produce, and that the calcite-alabaster industry in Judea in the second half of the first century BC was sufficiently developed and of high enough quality to serve the luxurious standards of Herod, one of the finest builders among the kings of that period,” said Maeir.

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