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ArchaeologyIn the Bible, ivory connotes extreme opulence

Were First Temple Jerusalemites living in lap of luxury? Rare ivory finds offer clue

Considered one of the most precious materials in antiquity, 1,500 ivory fragments discovered in ongoing City of David excavations open debate about a more globalized Holy City

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

  • Reli Avisar from Tel Aviv University with a 8th-7th century BCE ivory plaque adorned with a lotus flower from the City of David. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Reli Avisar from Tel Aviv University with a 8th-7th century BCE ivory plaque adorned with a lotus flower from the City of David. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Illustration: The inlay of the ivories in the couch-thrones. (Shalom Kweller, City of David)
    Illustration: The inlay of the ivories in the couch-thrones. (Shalom Kweller, City of David)
  • Frame incised with rosettes with a stylized tree in the center. (City of David)
    Frame incised with rosettes with a stylized tree in the center. (City of David)
  • Some of the 8th-7th century BCE ivories discovered in the assemblage City of David, which contains no fewer than 1,500 fragments.(Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
    Some of the 8th-7th century BCE ivories discovered in the assemblage City of David, which contains no fewer than 1,500 fragments.(Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
  • Ivory plaque decorated with a lotus flower. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
    Ivory plaque decorated with a lotus flower. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
  • Right to left: Reli Avisar, Prof. Yuval Gadot and Dr. Yiftah Shalev with the rare 8th-7th century BCE find at the City of David. (Gil Mezuman, City of David)
    Right to left: Reli Avisar, Prof. Yuval Gadot and Dr. Yiftah Shalev with the rare 8th-7th century BCE find at the City of David. (Gil Mezuman, City of David)
  • Assembling the ivories into a recognizable shape in the Israel Antiquities Authority laboratory. (Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Assembling the ivories into a recognizable shape in the Israel Antiquities Authority laboratory. (Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Recently uncovered in Jerusalem’s City of David, a trove of ivory fragments — one of the most prestigious and luxurious materials of the ancient world — has scholars rethinking Jerusalem’s ranking among Near Eastern capitals.

These First Temple-period ivory artifacts are the first discovered in Jerusalem, the capital of the Kingdom of Judah, and are rarely found in antiquity.

Some 1,500 ivory fragments were excavated from the City of David’s Givati Parking Lot, but only discovered during wet sifting in the nearby Emek Tsurim National Park.

The ivory pieces, which would have made up decorative inlays for furniture or a door, were discovered in a monumental building that was in use when Jerusalem was at the height of its power (the 8th and 7th centuries BCE) and was likely razed during the Babylonian Conquest of 586 BCE.

Ivory appears in the Bible in numerous locations, referring to extreme opulence, such as King Solomon’s “large ivory throne” (I Kings 10:18), King Ahab’s palace adorned with ivory (1 Kings 22:39) and firebrand warnings from the prophet Amos to stop lolling on ivory-inlayed beds and couches (Amos 6:4).

Other ancient capitals that are known for their decorative ivory finds include Nimrud, the capital of Assyria, and Samaria, the capital of the Israelite Kingdom, according to the excavation directors, Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures and Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The capitals of Nimrud and, to a lesser extent, Samaria, are known for their wealth and opulence. But First Temple Jerusalem? Many scholars argue that the Holy City only came into its own around the end of the 8th century BCE — exactly when these ivory finds are dated to.

Some of the 8th-7th century BCE ivories discovered in the assemblage City of David, which contains no fewer than 1,500 fragments.(Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)

“Now, for the first time, Jerusalem joins these capitals. 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.”

In a painstaking collaborative process, the fragments were reassembled in the IAA laboratories by conservator Orna Cohen, together with Ilan Naor.

“At the end of the process of joining and ‘fusing’ hundreds of the fragments, we were able to understand that the assemblage includes remnants of at least 12 small square plaques – about 5 cm x 5 cm, at most 0.5 cm thick – which were originally inlaid in wooden furnishings,” Cohen and Naor said.

The 8th-7th century BCE ivories discovered in the City of David were inlaid in a furnishing – possibly a couch-throne in a palatial structure. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)

But how exactly the ivory artifacts came to arrive in the impressive Jerusalemite building — thought to be a priestly headquarters or the home of royalty — has opened a debate among scholars over Judah’s role in the Assyrian Empire: Was Judah a good little vassal state deserving of a rich gift from the Assyrian emperor, or was it an independent player in international trade that could command rare goods from afar?

Reli Avisar, an archaeology PhD student whose focus is luxury items in the late Iron Age in Judah, analyzed the ivories alongside Dr. Ido Koch of the Tel Aviv University.

Reli Avisar from Tel Aviv University with a 8th-7th century BCE ivory plaque adorned with a lotus flower from the City of David. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to Avisar, the ivory — shenhav in biblical Hebrew, literally the tooth of the elephant (hav in Egyptian) — is most likely from the tusk of an African elephant that was imported to Syria to be formed by master craftsmen. Microscopic testing by Harel Shohat of the University of Haifa confirmed that they were made from elephant tusk.

Avisar explained that in the ancient Near East, beyond being an expensive material to purchase, ivory signified power. She noted textual documentation that kings would import elephants from Africa to Syria to be able to conquer and kill them.

Frame incised with rosettes with a stylized tree in the center. (Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“Ivory had a symbolic meaning: it comes from a big, big animal, the elephant. Part of the meaning and prestige is to show power and control over chaos,” said Avisar.

The style of the decorative motifs points to a clear Levantine influence, she said, and was popular throughout Mesopotamia. They were likely forged in Syria and then imported to Jerusalem, either as furniture or a door, or as inlays ready to be affixed.

“When we did a reconstruction, we imagined something between a couch or a chair, upon which a person would recline,” she said. Due to other luxurious goods that were also uncovered in the monumental building — vanilla-flavored wine, special serving dishes and a rare agate seal, she said the team of researchers envisioned a rich, opulent feast. “You can imagine these couch/chairs as a place where they sat at the banquet,” she said.

Illustration: The inlay of the ivories in the couch-thrones. (Shalom Kweller, City of David)

The decorations themselves — rosettes encircling a stylized tree, lotus flowers and a few geometric shapes — were “surprising” in that they appear to illustrate a process of selection on the part of the Jerusalemites to fit with their needs and sensibilities, said Avisar.

“There are only three motifs, all vegetative, and they’re very known on ivories in general in ancient Near East art, especially at this time,” she said. What was more interesting is what symbols were left out, she said, including, for example, a sphinx or other animal and human depictions.

Ivory plaque decorated with a lotus flower. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)

“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,” said Koch and Avisar in an IAA press release.

What also surprised Avisar is how well the chosen motifs “fit in with the visual discourse of Judah as a whole,” she said. In the City of David excavations and elsewhere in Judah, the rosette is found on stamped handles of jars or on clay sealings as a symbol of the royal court administration. Across the Near East, she said, it was connected to the divine and power, and was once a symbol associated with the goddess Ishtar.

Piece of ivory that was burned in the destruction of the First Temple.(Gil Mezuman, City of David)

The stylized tree likewise appears on early proto-capitals that have been found in Judah, she said, at Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv, Ramat Rachel and Nahal Rephaim. In other parts of the Near East, it was connected to the sacred Ashera trees and a symbol of fertility.

“All these symbols had meaning and endowed blessings, apart from being clearly for royalty. They are symbols that a millennia before came from gods, but still have divine power, and protective power,” she said. “They imbued a visual language of the elite while giving blessings and protections.”

The question is whether these luxurious and “powerful” ivory items were given as a gift or acquired through the vast ancient trade routes.

Taken alongside the other rich goods found in the building, suggested Avisar, there are indications “that the elite in Jerusalem had connections and were part of long-distance trade.”

If indeed these Jerusalemites mail-ordered their ivory furniture from afar, it is interesting to Avisar that the choice of symbols indicates that “they maintained their own identity and adopted the motifs for their local needs.”

“It’s a tension between globalization and localization,” she said.

The items will be displayed at the 23rd Conference of the City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem on September 13. They will also be displayed in October at the Jerusalem Conference of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University.

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